Category: Standardized Testing

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.


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