Category: No Child Left Behind

Secretary of Ed. Joel Klein?

Word is that President-elect Obama is considering notorious union-busting, test-obsessed, NCLB-defending, school-privatizer Joel I. Klein (New York City’s public school boss) for Secretary of Education.

While Obama’s election may provide a new attitude and sense of comity, his actual administration may do just the opposite if it includes divisive figures like Klein.

I’ve been concerned that Obama would tap our old friend Vicki Phillips, but Chicago school reform activist Michael Klonsky (no fan of Phillips) thinks Klein would be the worst possible choice for Secretary of Education.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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No Child Left Behind: Truths and Consequences

This video explains, in very nice detail, most of the things that are wrong with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It’s 9 minutes and 25 seconds long.

And here’s another video from North Carolina teacher Doug Ward, explaining why he refused to administer the state test to students with disabilities. In response to his courageous stand, Doug was fired.

Maybe there’s a reason why so many educators are afraid to speak out against NCLB? Time for the elected leaders to speak on their behalf. And take action.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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Assessment OF Learning vs. Assessment FOR Learning

I’ve never understood why PPS does not have a closer alliance with the Portland-based Assessment Training Institute (ATI). Its founder, assessment expert/guru Rick Stiggins, is one of my heroes.

Stiggins and his colleagues at ATI frame the question of assessment by distinguishing between assessment FOR leaning vs. assessment OF learning. In the former, assessment informs and improves learning; in the latter, assessment determines learning, i.e. creates the conditions for the curriculum becoming test prep.

Assessment OF learning is about proving that you have learned something that can be measured. Assessment FOR learning is about using information produced by rich forms of assessment to enhance instruction and improve learning.

As you might guess, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) promotes assessment OF learning. And some would say that its obsession with quantitative measures makes any kind of assessment FOR learning difficult.

But even in using more valuable kinds of assessment, e.g., classroom-based formative assessment, there’s a tension between assessment for learning and assessment of learning for documentation and accountability purposes. In other words, it’s hard to care about students when you’re so busy writing down observable performance data about them that ties into State Standards CA42.A1, SS16.B12, and M27.J4. Learning vs. proving you have learned are two different objectives. In the former, both the student and the teacher may actually care about the outcome. And they may care less whether it can be quantified and recorded. It’s hard to empirically validate an “a-ha” moment, yet good teachers in caring relationships with their students have them all the time.

Proving I have learned, i.e., showing I’m a good student, and proving I have taught, i.e., showing I’m a good teacher, are euphemistic covers for “please don’t fail me” and “please don’t fire me” respectively. Under NCLB, even really good assessment practices, when operating under the weight of “accountability,” can become about covering one’s derriere. Inevitably, and quite logically, students may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they know and that they are good at. Teachers may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they can teach with predictable, positive outcomes. Neither can afford to show process or ambiguity, and certainly neither wants to show a lack of knowledge or competence or even – heaven forbid – that they are wrong about something.

So what effect might this have on quality, substantive, in-depth teaching and learning? It’s not hard to imagine.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


A challenge for Martín González

As the newest member of the Portland Public Schools board of education, I would like to extend a cordial welcome to Martín González in the form of a challenge on a number of critical issues, in no particular order.

  • High schools: advocate for comprehensive high schools in every neighborhood, with the schools offering the best variety of courses and the most qualified teachers sited in the poorest neighborhoods. This policy, the inverse of the current high school system, would rebuild enrollment and public investment where it is most needed. “Small schools,” as currently implemented, may be offered as a special focus, but should never be substituted for comprehensive schools.
  • Facilities: advocate for building new facilities based on where students live, not where they’ve transferred, a policy of investing in proportion to local student population and encouraging families to stay in (or return to) their neighborhood schools.
  • K8 transition: advocate for a comprehensive middle school option in every neighborhood. K8 schools may be the best option for some students, but they offer dramatically less educational opportunity and are more segregated than middle schools. (Before this transition, every middle school student in PPS had access to a staffed library. Now many do not.) PPS middle grade students assigned to K8 schools are significantly more likely to be non-white and poor than those assigned to middle schools. If any student has a middle school option in their neighborhood, all students should.
  • No Child Left Behind: bring a resolution to the board calling for the repeal of the punitive aspects of this law that unfairly target poor and minority students, and introduce policy directing district administration to de-emphasize assessment in favor of a more rounded, whole-child educational focus.
  • Student transfer and school funding policies: advocate for a school funding policy that would reinvest in schools that have been gutted by out-transfers as a way to bring enrollment back. Introduce policy that would shift our public investment back to where families live, and guarantee a minimum core curriculum (including the arts) in every neighborhood school. If you really want to be bold, propose policy that would limit neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers to those that would not adversely impact socio-economic segregation. That is, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch could basically transfer anywhere, but other students could only transfer into Title I schools, much like the transfer policy in place during the 1980 desegregation plan (but keying on income instead of race).
  • Charter schools: come out strongly for neighborhood schools. Learn from charter school applications what’s missing in our neighborhood schools, and advocate for policy to provide these things in neighborhood schools. The most recent PPS charter school proposal suggests nothing we shouldn’t already be doing in every neighborhood school.

González has a unique opportunity to “audition” for the seat that he will have to win by popular vote in May. How he performs on each of the above issues will signal where he stands with those of us who want school system based on equity of opportunity, where the wealth of a neighborhood does not correspond to the wealth of offerings in its schools.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Carole Smith’s Plan: What’s Wrong (and Right)

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith’s vision, articulated in her Friday address to the City Club (57KB PDF), focuses on academic skills in early elementary, then continues to focus on academic achievement vis a vis test scores as a measure of whether kids are likely to graduate. Two examples from her speech:

Are [students] ready to read by the time they enter first grade?

As they leave third grade, are they reading fluently enough to understand the
information and ideas presented — do they have strong foundation for the rest of their schooling?

But what’s missing from these recommendations are the voices of the students who chose to drop out of school. If they had had a mentor who monitored their academic progress, would they have stayed in school? Smith thinks so, and cites the examples of two students — six-year-old Charles at Rosa Parks and 9th-grader Eric at Cleveland High. While these stories are moving and powerful, they are — of course — success stories, stories about the ones that made it.

But what about the ones that didn’t make it?

We don’t know. But it would probably be a good idea if we found out. After all, in the day and age of high-quality customer service, it might make sense to ask the customer why they no longer patronize your business.

Here’s what I see:

  • the new OR exit exam will increase drop-outs, as is the case in most states that have adopted high-stakes exit exams
  • an intense emphasis on “how am I doing?” undermines “what am I learning?’ and, more importantly, “what do I care about?”

Smith calls for partnerships with local businesses and organizations to give students real-world learning opportunities similar to what The Met School does for its students. That’s great. But let’s not kid ourselves: focusing on academic achievement alone is not going to save kids from dropping out. But making schools exciting, relevant, fun places to be will.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Time for PPS to Take a Stand on NCLB

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson issued an extremely sharp criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday.

It’s time for the Portland Public Schools board and senior administrators to do the same thing.

Bergeson wants to replace AYP, reduce state testing to only 3 grades, and focus more on improvement — all good steps. She would also stop funding after-school tutoring under NCLB (called “supplemental educational services”) and transfers out of Title I dollars and equalize the per-student funding sent to each state (which now varies widely with, in general, poorer states getting less).

Monty Neill, Deputy Director for FairTest, offered this analysis:

The steps she proposes — mostly consistent with the Joint Statement on NCLB — would greatly reduce the damage while opening up space for real improvement. Regretfully, she fails to call for development of better assessment (she’s been a staunch defender of the state’s WASL test, including its graduation requirements) though she talks about “screening and diagnostic testing” (not sure what that really means). Her improvement proposals are pretty thin in many ways (see Forum on Educational Accountability documents for far better, stronger ideas). And her suggestions for English Language Learners and students with disabilities may raise concerns and are too slim to be sure what she means – lots of details to figure out there.

See this 3-page memo (32KB PDF) from Bergeson for more details.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Equity and School Choice

I think it can be safely said that the goal of PPS Equity is to ensure that all public school students in Portland, regardless of skin color or family background, have access to decent schools in (or near) their own neighborhoods. They shouldn’t have to travel halfway across the city to find schools with a competent principal, good teachers, a library, and programs that include music, art, foreign languages and physical education. (Note: PPS Equity actually has a mission statement now, which pretty well matches this description. –Ed.)

Unfortunately that goal will never be realized as long as the district keeps judging (and demonizing) schools by the relative wealth of their students (that’s essentially what standardized test scores reveal); and if it refuses to shut down the conveyor belt that empties poor neighborhoods of students and money.

The conveyor belt is the district’s transfer policy, a policy that both enables and encourages school choice. Portland Public Schools leadership, including the school board, seems disinclined to address the crisis of school inequity caused in large part by the transfer policy. And I fear that won’t change with the probable appointment of new board member Martin Gonzales. From what I know of Martin, he’s pro-school choice.

I’ve been the recipient lately of some troubling comments that choice and transfer benefit poor and minority students, and that to deny them the right to choose is to “trap” them in “failing” schools. That’s precisely the stance of the pro-privatization and pro-school choice Cascade Policy Institute and it’s co-conspirator, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

School choice, in short, has become a civil right.

The reality in Portland reveals how wrong-headed that belief is. Choice leaves behind — or traps, if you will — the poorest and darkest skinned students in schools that struggle to provide barely adequate educational programs.

The Flynn-Blackmer audit (232 KB PDF), Steve Rawley’s research (261 KB PDF), and PPS staff’s graphic presentation to a school board subcommittee last fall all show how choice and transfer further segregate Portland’s students by race and by class.

For a public school district to tolerate, and even encourage, policies that create such race and class-based disparities is intolerable.

So what can be done?

First the school board has to acknowledge that many, perhaps half, of Portland’s lower income schools are in crisis. Confronting that crisis requires bold funding measures to restore programs to low income schools comparable to those found in wealthier schools.

Secondly, (and this is my personal opinion), the board must short circuit the school transfer conveyor belt. We already are witnessing limitations on transfers for the simple reason that students who want out of their “failing” schools have no place to go. In time, the transfer system will grind to a halt on its own, choked to death by congestion. How many Lincolns or Ainsworths, after all, are left to accept desperate students?

Lastly, the district and the board should stop using No Child Left Behind as an excuse for inaction. I’ve suggested that the district thumb its nose at the new federal Title I* mandates. It should take a stand, a dramatic stand, hoping that a new Congress will either refuse to reauthorize NCLB or revamp it to help, not punish, struggling low income schools.

School choice (again, my personal opinion, not the official position of PPS Equity) is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It’s a self-defeating approach to school improvement, one that will ultimately lead to the total privatization of our once proud public educational system. It already has gone a long way toward undermining neighborhood schools. Choice is at the heart of No Child Left Behind, a law that pushes charter schools and punishes low income schools with mandated transfer options.

It’s time to end them both.

* (I figure that opting out of Title I would cost the district 8% of it total budget.)

Terry Olson passed away in October, 2009. He was a retired teacher and a neighborhood schools activist. His blog, OlsonOnline, was a seminal space for the discussion of educational equity in Portland.


What keeps a kid in school?

In 2005, at a critical reading conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Margaret Finders from Washington University presented research on the reason why students do not drop out of school, i.e., why they stay in. The number one reason students stay in school: they have the sense that teachers care about them.

So the questions I asked myself were:

  • How do you show students that you care about them?
  • How do you care for students that are most likely to drop out and may not care about themselves or about school?
  • How do certain curricula prevent demonstration of care?
  • What is the relationship between the draconian nature of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its emphasis on punishment and the establishment of a caring environment in the classroom?

If we take all these questions together, you might show students you care by responding to their specific needs and interests, tailoring certain aspects of the curriculum to what motivates them, and providing support and encouragement in areas that might not be related directly to academic performance, e.g., their interest in art, music, sports, etc. This is especially relevant for students who are on the edge of staying in or dropping out of school.

Yet with each new Edison school, with each new implementation of Open Court, with each new implementation of data-driven assessment systems, and with each successive school added to the list of NCLB Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) failures, we see the rise of a curriculum designed to do one thing: improve test scores.

If a student is already struggling to find a way to care about school, emphasis on test preparation and test performance will do nothing to help. Obviously, it will do just the opposite. Students who find no interest in traditional academic subjects and who find self-esteem and purpose in art or music will have nowhere to go for solace. And so will likely drop out.

Teachers, especially high school teachers who have 100 to 150 students, already struggled before NCLB with the task of finding the time to reach each student on a personal, caring level. NCLB and the rise of the test prep curriculum make it less and less possible to care about students.

In fact, NCLB and these test prep curricula do just the opposite: instead of seeing students as people in need of care, students are seen as statistics. Each student, especially the students on the edge of passing the state test (“the bubble kids”), can potentially make or break the school’s progress towards AYP.

And if the student does drop out? Well, that’s one less to worry about affecting your test scores.

This is the poisonous environment that NCLB has created in our schools and why it will only make the drop-out rate worse.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Open letter to Sarah Carlin Ames

Note: Peter Campbell was a featured guest on today’s OPB news talk show Think Out Loud, along with Portland Public Schools PR person Sara Carlin Ames and a US Department of Education spokesman. With his air time severly limited (OPB host Dave Miller gave disproportionate time to Ames and the DOE flack), Campbell was still able to make excellent points. The show will be rebroadcast this evening at 9pm, or can be heard via podcast. –Ed.

Hi, Sarah. It was good to finally meet you in person today.

I wanted to follow up and challenge you a bit on your claim that what is being done at schools like Rigler and Clark is “working.”

Here’s a comment from the blog for today’s show from a Title 1 teacher:

Regarding schools improving and stepping up to the standards: I teach in an elementary Title 1 school and we have made many changes to our school math and reading curriculum and to our schedule in order to meet the state benchmarks. The way we have done it is by having students spend a big part of their school day preparing for the state tests. Students spend at least four months of the year being drilled on how to take and retake the online tests. They are pulled out of class to go and spend one on one time with an adult who listen to them read the test out loud or who will read the non-reading tests aloud to them. With all this help, students who are struggling in the classroom are able to pass the state test and make our school scores look good.

Drilling for the test means that there is now very little time for students to participate in art classes, science projects, or book projects. Our school scores are improving because as teachers we are getting much better at teaching to the tests and finding out ways to make the students pass them.. Please give me the old educational system back. This is the one where students questioned, researched, explored, created, worked on projects, . . .

The teachers that I talk to in PPS tell me similar things.

One of the major reasons my wife and I elected to pull our daughter out of PPS is for precisely these reasons — a test-centric curriculum that leaves little time for things that we consider essential to a well-rounded, developmentally-appropriate, engaging learning experience.

I don’t necessarily blame PPS for this problem. I think you and I clearly agree that NCLB is largely to blame. But I urge you and your colleagues to take leadership positions on this issue and inform the public about what’s really going on in our schools and how we can work together to change federal policy. I urge you to take public positions on the real source of the inequity that exists in our schools — poverty — and encourage the public to lobby local, state, and federal officials to take action. Together, we can make positive change for all our kids.

But if the public keeps hearing that things are peachy from you and your colleagues, then NCLB is never going to go away. And that would be a terrible, terrible thing for our kids.



P.S. – have you read Linda Perlstein’s book called Tested? If not, I highly recommend it. Perlstein is the former education reporter from the Washington Post. She chronicles the year-long experience of a school outside Baltimore in its efforts to make and maintain AYP. Although the school is “successful” and makes AYP, what happens to the students and the curriculum is heart-breaking. So much for these approaches “working” . . .

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


The continuing history of racism in Portland Public Schools

Sixty-one years after Mendez v. Westminster, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 51 years after the Little Rock 9, 48 years after Ruby Bridges, 45 years after George Wallace caved to the national guard at the University of Alabama, 28 years after Ron Herndon stood on the school board desk and demanded equal opportunity for Portland’s black school children, and two years after city and county auditors demanded justification for effectively segregationist enrollment policies, Portland Public Schools have become more segregated than the neighborhoods they serve.

The school board refuses to answer the auditors, and shows no intention of changing the policies that have created the situation.

The segregation (or “racial isolation,” as the district calls it) would not be so objectionable, if it weren’t for the fact that schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have dramatically better offerings than the rest of Portland.

The desegregation plan hatched by Herndon’s Black United Front and pushed through by then-school board members Steve Buel, Herb Cawthorne and Wally Priestley in 1980 did away with forced busing of black children out of their neighborhoods, added staff to predominantly black schools, and created middle schools out of K-8 schools to better integrate students within their neighborhoods.

For several years, things clearly got better for non-white, non-middle class students in PPS. Then the nation-wide gang crisis hit Portland in 1986, with white supremacist, Asian and black gangs wreaking havoc and contributing to a wave of white flight from Portland’s black neighborhoods and schools. This was followed by the draconian budget cuts of Oregon’s Measure 5 in 1990, which ended the extra staffing brought by the 1980 plan.

Under inconsistent funding and unstable central leadership throughout the 1990s, central control over curricular offerings devolved to the schools, and the gravity of a self-reinforcing pattern of out-transfers and program cuts became virtually insurmountable.

The devolution of curriculum was formalized under the leadership of Vicki Phillips in the early 2000s. Her administration pushed market-based reforms and “school choice” as a salve for the “achievement gap,” and used corporate grants to extend reconfiguration of high schools in poor neighborhoods into “small schools” which severely limited educational opportunities available to Portland’s poorest high school students.

(Small school conversions were tentatively under way at Marshall and Roosevelt when Phillips took office, but didn’t become the de facto model for non-white, non-middle class schools until Phillips pushed it through at Jefferson, against community wishes, and finally at Madison, casting aside the designs of veteran educators who had initiated the concept.)

A bond measure whose revenue was intended to restore music education to the core curriculum was instead frittered away in the form of discretionary grants to schools. Principals in poorer neighborhoods continued to put teaching resources into literacy and numeracy at the expense of art and music, while schools in white, middle class neighborhoods continued to offer a broad range of educational opportunity.

The Phillips administration also began to dismantle middle schools in poor neighborhoods, including, notably, Harriet Tubman Middle School, which was created under the 1980 desegregation plan. This move back to the K-8 model added significantly to the resegregation of middle school students.

It also turns out that middle schoolers in K-8 schools, who are disproportionately non-white and poor, get fewer educational opportunities at greater cost to the district. Predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have, by and large, been allowed to stick with the comprehensive middle school model, which allows them to offer a much broader range of electives, arts and core curriculum at no additional cost.

So in 28 years, we have moved from a reasonable semblance of equal opportunity, with schools’ demographics reflecting their neighborhoods’, to a demonstrably “separate and unequal” system, with schools more segregated than their neighborhoods.

Current policy makers like to blame Measure 5 and the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the wildly distorted educational opportunities in the district, and they generally refuse to examine district policy in the context of the advances in equity that were realized 28 years ago.

PPS has managed to maintain pretty good schools in white, middle class neighborhoods through years of stark budget cuts, but they have left poor and minority children fighting over crumbs in the rest of Portland. Even as the steady march of gentrification makes our neighborhoods more integrated, our schools are more segregated than they were in the early 1980s.

When today’s school board speaks of “school choice,” the “achievement gap” or “equity,” they appear to speak in a historical vacuum. I hope to remind everybody of the context of PPS’s policies, and the continuum of institutional racism they are a part of. These policies are indeed racist in effect, no matter how they are rationalized or how they were originally intended.

And no matter how much they complain that their hands are tied, or how much they claim to be making progress by “baby steps,” the school board has total control over district policy. They could start rectifying this immediately if they wanted to. Yes, it’s hard — ask Steve Buel or Herb Cawthorne about their late-night sessions trying to push the 1980 desegregation plan through — but it can be done.

I know there are school board members who care deeply about equal opportunity. They may even be in the majority, depending on who is appointed to replace Dan Ryan.

But nobody on today’s school board has demonstrated the political courage or vision necessary to stand up for all children in Portland Public Schools.

With baby steps, we will never get where we need to go. Bold, visionary action is required.

Edited January, 2016: For more background on Ron Herndon and the Black United Front, watch OPB’s Oregon Experience Episode “Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev’ry Voice.”

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


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