Dr. Wes: Several people have asked us to comment on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but until recently I figured it was just one more political jingle that would have little real impact. I was wrong. A thousand words in this column can't explain NCLB, but every parent should take a good look at the program and how it's impacting students.
I'm concerned that NCLB is not having a very positive impact on our kids, their teachers or our schools. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) figures are intended to hold schools accountable for student performance, based on yearly assessments. If a school falls below a certain cutoff, they go on the "needing improvement" list, regardless of external student or community variables. This year, several more schools in Kansas fell below that threshold. Many more will do so in the next few years, including some in and around Lawrence. This is because the standards go up every year, even though budgets, schools and children do not change. And once a school falls below the threshold, it not only has to make up that difference, but also has to meet the rising standards from the present year.
It's kind of like trying to catch a moving bus by running faster and faster. And there isn't another stop on this route.
We're just now getting to the point where schools are falling off the bus and trying to get back on. Educators are becoming very anxious and starting to push students and teachers to drive up scores every year to meet the increasing standards. Larger junior high schools are starting to track kids in math and reading, so that a seventh-grade student may get "promoted" to eighth-grade math based on a test score. I'd advise parents to look VERY HARD at this decision before allowing their child to be so placed. Many schools are treating AYP kind of like a sporting event - with pep rallies and prizes designed to get kids and teachers excited about testing.
Except AYP isn't really in the spirit of fun or healthy athletic competition. It's ultimately about a school's survival. Some kids have been told that if they get X score, the school will throw a huge party. Others let all the kids who score above average go to a movie, the rest will have to stay in school. I've even heard of administrators telling teachers that if the scores don't come up by X points, they'll start firing teachers - assuming apparently that the teachers are the problem, and there are hundreds of "better" teachers just waiting to run out on the field and win the game. Other schools report that teachers are essentially teaching to the test - whether that really creates a good learning process or not. I've even heard of one set of teachers alleging that another set is helping students cheat.
I thought all of this intrigue was lost on most kids and parents, but of late I hear otherwise. Like many things, anxiety tends to roll downhill and some kids and families are getting stressed about AYP. I suggest parents remind kids that the scores on these tests have nothing to do with one's self-worth, progress toward college or ability to learn. These are not ACT or SAT tests. They aren't college essays. They may not even be a good measure of real individual learning. As long as parents are vigilant and protect their child's interests in educational decisions based on these tests, the only reason to get excited is good old SCHOOL SPIRIT. This may seem like rooting for the school's intramural yawning team, but it's better to encourage each student to do his or her best and take pride in the team's accomplishment.
Finally, if you find that you don't like NCLB's impact on your child's education, then advocate enthusiastically - but please don't blame your local schools. Like our kids, they are stuck with an unfunded, statistically improbable mandate.
Julia: As a student from a private school, the NCLB act does not directly affect me. However, the means that the government has taken to ensure that no child is left behind are interesting. It seems that the NCLB act is more intended to improve a score on a grade card than to take the time necessary to sufficiently improve learning. The school system always has room for evaluation and improvement, but the NCLB act seems to leave no stone unturned, undertaking too many issues at once, doing too much too fast without accomplishing anything. It looks at the issue of a child's education from the right perspective, but handles it the wrong way. To judge a school's performance based on a number is like a college judging a potential student based solely on an SAT score; there is a story behind the number that is being neglected. Some students don't test well; some just don't understand a specific subject. Some have learning disabilities. At this point, the act is still overly ambitious. Literally leaving no child behind and getting them to exceed a level of academic excellence would require catering to every child's needs.
There are still some very good ideas to improve learning in the classroom, including smaller class sizes and the use of highly qualified teachers. I've had experience with this seminar-style seating at my school and think that it would be a highly effective and easily established idea. I think that NCLB is seeking to get every child the quality of education you can receive in private or home schooling without requiring a switch to that type of school. At least that would be an ideal outcome, for every future leader of the nation to have received the education they deserve. But the reality of the situation is that the changes within the school system will take time to implement and maybe a few generations of experimentation to accomplish. If the government slows down all the changes that are taking place, the NCLB act might be a worthwhile idea. Otherwise it is going to do little to nothing for children's current education.
Next week: Quite apart from NCLB, a student asks what she can do to get reinvested in her school day.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.