Resist No Child Left Behind, don’t embrace it

3:32 pm

Note: this is a response to e-mail sent by Carole Smith regarding Oregon schools’ performance as measured against federal benchmarks. See below for the text of Smith’s e-mail. –Ed.

Portland Public School Superintendent Carole Smith’s unconditional support of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) sickens me. “Say what you will about the federal law…” That’s quite an invitation Carole.

Let me start by saying that the roots of NCLB are George W. Bush’s friends in the corrupt Houston School Board who were dishonest from the beginning about the real statistics around their NCLB, lying when it was convenient to cover up their real drop out rates. And then there are those friends of Bush in the text book companies and the “educational consultants” who made so much money off of NCLB “aligned” curriculum while our students and teachers suffered with increased class sizes and less resources. We are sick of corporate style public education system that rations resources; that strips art, music, PE, critical thinking, and most history and geography from our curriculum and replaces it with highly scripted, dumbed-down curriculum for all but the most privileged students. We are tired of the massive influence that real estate developers and anti-tax corporate honchos have on educational decisions.

And in case you think this is just a tirade against Bush, let me add that Obama and Arne Duncan don’t impress me either. Just because they renamed NCLB and call it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act does not mean they have cut the ties to corporate America. Our public education system is still being run by corporations, still suffers in comparison to most other industrialized countries, still is stratified by race and class.

And then Supt. Smith, you have the audacity to blame the students and teachers for these problems? Shame on you. Get rid of the consultants, stand up and reject NCLB, and listen to the teachers who still go to work and try to get some joy and meaning out of the shell of a curriculum you hand them.

This letter from Superintendent Smith makes it clear that this situation will only change when students, parents, teachers and other educational workers unite to fight for a public system that is truly public, that provides a quality education for every student no matter what neighborhood they live in.

Text of e-mail sent from Carole Smith:

Today, the state released reports for every Oregon school and district under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly known as No Child Left Behind). Once again, Portland Public Schools had a higher share of schools meeting all the complicated benchmarks set under that federal law than statewide.

I want to particularly congratulate POWER, one of our small high schools on North Portland’s Roosevelt Campus, and Lane Middle School, in outer Southeast Portland — both of which met all the federal standards.

Most Oregon middle schools and high schools fail to meet the federal standards, but those two schools have charted great gains in student achievement, thanks to the dedication and skill of teachers and staff. (Read more about PPS and the federal ratings in today’s news release.)

Along with these success stories, we still have too many schools falling short because too many students aren’t keeping up or aren’t staying engaged. Say what you will about the federal law, I believe we need to reach for high standards. That’s why we’re measuring our progress in preparing all kids for success in life, using defined Milestones — a set of key indicators at early, middle and secondary grades.

For the coming school year, our senior leadership has set goals to increase student performance by 5 percentage points on three of these highly predictive indicators: third-grade reading, seventh-grade writing and credits earned before 10th grade.

We’ve also set goals to close the achievement gap between white students and the lowest performing ethnic subgroup by 5 percentage points on each of those measures.

These indicators will tell us how well our school district is doing as a whole, and how well we are doing for each student by name. They won’t replace the federal ratings and requirements, but they will give us a clearer picture of how well we are preparing our students for success at the next stage of their education — and for success in college or a career.

This is so important that I’m asking the school board to evaluate my performance based on our success in raising student performance in these areas. I’ve told my senior leaders that I will evaluate them based on these targets, too.

It won’t be easy to reach these targets, but keeping more students on track will pay big dividends for the rest of their lives. That’s a goal worth reaching for.

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Portland parent activist Anne Trudeau helped found the Neighborhood Schools Alliance.

filed under: Curriculum, Demographics, Equity, National, No Child Left Behind, Race, Tax policy

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10 Responses

  1. Comment from Ken:

    A couple important notes:
    NCLB is not exactly a Bush-era law. Take it right from Andrew J. Rotherham, former Progressive Policy Institute’s education wonk and former Clinton education advisor, who wrote an essay titled, “How Bush Stole Education” (from March 2002):
    “Aside from vouchers, Mr. Bush’s education agenda is largely a New Democratic one. His reading initiative is almost indistinguishable from President Clinton’s. The new education bill, which is regarded widely as “Bush’s education initiative,” was largely written by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.), along with other New Democrats. The president has even appointed several authors of a special education book produced by the New Democrat Progressive Policy Institute to his special education reform commission. This strategy of cribbing ideas has worked well for Mr. Bush both in Washington and in Texas, where he largely continued policies inherited from his Democratic predecessors.”

    By “New Democrats,” Rotherham is referring to a new batch of so-called Democrats born during the mid-to-late ’80 with a pro-business/conservative agenda (centrist Democrats). They’re hardly left-leaning, and often times agree with the Republicans on significant issues.

    NCLB was the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); Duncan would like to rename the act (and now refers to the bill with the former name), but all indicators are that he – and Obama – fully support the vast majority of the law’s provisions. Obama made this quite clear during his campaign. According to Duncan, the name of the law is toxic, not the law itself.

    (Portland has a Houston connection through former COO Cathy Mincberg, who recently left the district to work for KC Distance Learning – which is owned by junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken’s Knowledge Univese. Mincberg was both a board member and administrator in Houston and helped groom Rod Paige, Bush’s first Education Secretary.)

    Carole’s refusal to take a stand on NCLB is saddening. Part of me wonders if she’d privately acknowledge the horror known as NCLB. The law’s transfer policies for Title 1 schools would wreak havoc on the current redesign process that promises strong neighborhood schools, and – based an e-mail correspondence with Carole and from watching board meetings on public access – the district may try to redirect Title 1 funding away from the high schools to avoid this problem.

    I do wish she’d speak up about the problems she is experiencing with the law. If our goal for Portland is strong neighborhood schools, NCLB is clearly a roadblock Carole should openly acknowledge and critique.

  2. Comment from doug:

    Yes, the business roundtable agenda…not just a Bush puppy. Anyone in leadership in our country is just a puppet of the corporations, so don’t expect any change…from Obama or Carole, for that matter. Bow down to the corporations…

  3. Comment from Terry:

    “Write” on, Anne! With Bush gone, you’d expect NCLB might be gone too by now.

    Sadly, it isn’t going to happen without people like you reminding us why No Child is such lousy legislation.

  4. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Now let me get this straight: If the black/white achievement gap is not cut by 5% points then the school board should fire the superintendent and the superintendent will fire those administrators in positions of authority over those schools where the achievement gap is relevant. Or have I missed something here?

    When that happens maybe we should bring in administrators who will instead declare goals to bring equality, solid education, and a real willingness to help those specific children who can’t read, write, or do math well in a targeted way, while spending time broadening the horizons and education of those students who are near grade level or above, i.e. serious education in a thoughtful, common sense way.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Carole Smith, but geez, when are we as a district going to figure out the testing is only one part of a decent education, not the whole deal? We will evaluate people based on the test scores exclusively? That will sure help to educationally balance our schools. I hesitate to use the word “stupid”, but …

    I knew Obama doesn’t understand education well when I voted for him — but it was a trade off – a decent human being to re-establish our respect in the world and show some concern for the less fortunate among us versus more stupid education policy. After all, Hillary got it; she wanted to dump NCLB.

  5. Comment from Anne Trudeau:

    “I don’t think there is such a thing as being ‘apolitical’ about NCLB. Enforcing it, not speaking out, adopting the language around it are all ways of supporting it.”

    —Anne Trudeau, Portland parent

  6. Comment from Steve Buel:

    One of the falacies of NCLB is the misuse of the word achievement, when in actuality what is meant is test scores. Carole Smith does it in her email. In today’s paper the Reynold’s superintendent is reported as saying it is more important to use Reynold’s windfall money from the state on proven strategies for increasing “achievement” instead of replacing the up to 140 teachers which were cut even though class sizes in many grades will be 35 or more.

    The absudity in such an attitude is incredible. And we have NCLB to thank for it.

  7. Comment from OhMe:

    In case people don’t know, low performing schools are OBSESSED by “scores” that measure achievement. With obsessed comes STRESSED. The stress is felt by admin, passed to teachers, and most surely felt by children. Most of the regressive policies adopted by schools and discussed on this website (such a no recess and scripted reading programs) are a direct result of NCLB. “Say what you want about NCLB…” I will. As mentioned by Steve B., the only thing test scores tell us is the SES of a school. I have had a staff member who went from a low SES school to a high SES school state that “it is so nice to be in a building where we aren’t always stressed out about the testing.” When that focus changes, learning changes. Who falls behind when teaching is driven by a test?

    I have very high standards for the students in my room, but if it is not changed soon, the madness of NCLB will catch up with us. Our federal government has declared that 100% of students will be at grade level (according to standardized tests) by 2014. However, we know that when you are using a norm-referenced, standardized test, all test-takers cannot pass, or else the test (based on a bell shaped curve) will be invalid. Not to mention that we have a district with many newcomer non-native English speakers (at least 5% each year) who only get one year of school before they are required to take achievement tests at grade level. In English. A district with high levels of students with special learning needs (10%). Right there is 15% of students that are highly unlikely to pass standardized tests at grade level.
    We need a way to track growth as achievement. Meeting the students where they are and expecting growth. If this means a third grader goes from no English in September to reading at a first grade level in June. That’s achievement. Or a TAG student who is two years above grade level ending the year three years above grade level…achievement!
    With her history of working at an alternative high school, I had hoped Carol Smith would have understood that achievement can mean so many different things to different kids. I find her recent comments disappointing, to say the least. And stating that upper admin will base their pay off of student scores is frightening…because we all know that poo rolls downhill…and this will right into the laps of the teachers who are already working hard with the students who have the greatest needs. Obsessed and stressed..not a great way to start the school year.

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Obsessed, stressed, and depressed over the tess mess.

  9. Comment from Emelia:

    You guys are missing one key point: my accepting NCLB dollars, you get millions of dollars to use for core education. That is the money that is allowing for schools to have full day Kindergarten in low income schools. It pays for schools to have parent meetings. It provides supplemental education for many struggling students. It provides training for educational assistants and teachers.

    I don’t believe that NCLB is the greatest, but it would be a lot for Smith to say goodbye to millions of dollars on principle.

  10. Comment from Steve Buel:

    You can accept the money and the NCLB system you have to live with without actually embracing the testing as the end all and be all of your school system. There are lots of things PPS and other districts could do to mitigate the damage. By embracing the idea (by their actions, not necessarily their words) it makes sure that the focus of children’s education in Portland, or whatever district, is centered around a narrow swath of tests which are only a part of what should constitute a quality education. And the real tragegy is that the worst effects are felt by the children who need the most help, since middle class and upper middle class neighborhood schools don’t have to worry nearly as much about their kids passing the tests and therefore don’t get bludgeoned with all the ill effects.

    Instead of relating who passed the tests tell me what your school’s dropout rate is at the end of the line — when your kids are supposed to graduate.

    Oh, 50%. Well, we must be doing a good job to only lose half.