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The Mounting Collateral Damage of No Child Left Behind

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Those who are trying to stoke the presidential candidates' interest in education as an election issue aren't having much luck. Referring to No Child Left Behind, Hillary has said "scrap it" at least three times. Obama's website mentions "shortcomings in the design of the law." McCain favors vouchers and accountability and Lisa Keegan who, as an Arizona state legislator wrote laws both for vouchers and charters, has signed on as an advisor. Other than that, they haven't said much.

Not that the public would be paying attention. We dumb, recalcitrant Americans insist that the single most important issue in the upcoming election is the economy (40%), Iraq (23%) and health care (8%), "other" 18%, according to today's (May 13) Washington Post. Only three percent pick education, same as pick oil prices.

In a way, that's too bad, because like the body count in Iraq, it continues to mount from NCLB as well. I think, though, that the dead and wounded are seen only by others inside schools, not by the general public. Bush keeps the body bags out of sight; school folk put on brave faces.

An article in the September, 2007 issue of the American Education Research Journal showed the mounting casualties. Researchers watched for four years as one district's schools changed under the pressures of NCLB. The researchers put the changes in teacher roles in five categories:

1. Curriculum pacing. Before NCLB, teachers had considerable control over the speed at which they presented the curriculum. After a new curriculum was adopted though, they had to move at a one-pace-fits-all because district tests had to be given at a certain time.

2. Curriculum alignment. Teachers aligned what they taught with what they thought would likely pop up on the state's test. Administrators talked about alignment at staff meetings and had teachers match textbook content with state learning expectations and bought test prep materials from commercial publishers.

3. Teachers spent more and more time looking at data, something they weren't particularly trained for (and which I doubt provided much useful information). They objected to the time spent analyzing statistics because it took away time for interacting with the kids which they thought was at least as good as source of information as the formal data.

4. ESOL instruction. Before NCLB, regular teachers left most of the instruction of English to non-native speakers to designated ESOL teachers. But NCLB made them the teachers of record for all kids in their class so they felt obligated to work more with English language learners.

5. Tutoring. Always an informal part of the program, tutoring now became institutionalized and burdensome. Said one teacher "I tutor in the mornings, I tutor after school. I tutor at lunchtime. Whatever it takes."

Whatever it took, it took a lot out of teachers and administrators alike. High-poverty schools had the toughest time making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). At one high-poverty school, the principal lamented that she had not been able to hire a tenured teacher in 5 years and when her staff attained tenure, they left for lower poverty schools, leaving her with a chronically inexperienced faculty.

"The stress was so palpable that one of us felt compelled to step out of her researcher role to reassure a first-year teacher who, leaving a planning meeting in tears, said she did not know if she could keep doing this for another year." Given that these stresses were not observed by the researchers initially, it means that they came from workplace conditions, from trying to cope with the utterly unrealistic demands of NCLB.

Sharon Nichols and David Berliner wrote a book about the impact of high-stakes testing in general. They called it Collateral Damage. The above exemplifies some of it.

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