Chicago mom Terrie Donaldson believes today’s schools treat students like robots.
"The curriculum is so focused on test scores and testing that we have forgotten that school should be fun," she says, citing as evidence fewer field trips and less time spent learning about subjects not on mandated lists of standards each student must meet. "It is about testing, testing, testing."
That testing is high stakes for schools under the sometimes-controversial education law, No Child Left Behind. Schools get judged on how students perform on standardized tests and risk sanctions and corrective action if they fail to meet improvement goals.
Signed into law in 2002, NCLB pushes for stronger accountability in schools and an emphasis on teaching methods that statistically work, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet, many educators and parents question if the law does more harm than good.
President Bush wants NCLB reauthorized this year. Among the changes proposed are:
n Strengthening efforts to close the achievement gap through accountability and more options for parents.
n Giving states flexibility to better measure individual student progress, targeting resources to students most in need and improving assessments for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
n Providing greater resources for teachers, intensive aid for struggling students and rewards for progress in challenging environments.
n Offering more tools to help local educators improve underperforming schools and empower parents.
Dagmar Porcelli, a Naperville mom, understands the arguments for and against NCLB.
"I think that in theory it is a good concept because no child should be left behind," she says. "But it is a difficult thing to take care of."
Active in her children’s Home & School Association, she searched for information about the education law so she could answer other parents’ questions.
"People don’t think (NCLB) affects them. A lot of people seem to think it has a lot more to do with problem schools and inner city schools as opposed to schools already at the top. What they don’t realize is everyone is affected."
Ginger Reynolds, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning services for all children at the Illinois State Board of Education, sees both sides of the argument. NCLB does a good job encouraging educators to focus on data and then use the data to create teaching plans, she says. But at the same time, Reynolds says, it puts too much focus on a single test, with many repercussions based on that one test.
It also potentially sets up some students for failure, several educators say.
NCLB creates the same goals for every student and forces them to improve at a similar rate, but fails to acknowledge that not all students start at the same point or with the same level of achievement, says James Rosenbaum, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University.
The law calls for all students to attain a particular level of proficiency by 2013-2014. It requires annual testing of all students against state standards in reading and math in grades three through eight, and at least once during grades 10 through 12. Plus, beginning this year, states must measure students’ progress in science at least once in each of the three grade spans (third-fifth, sixth-ninth and 10-12).
Some students, such as those with limited English proficiency and those in special education, can have trouble passing the tests, fueling a blame game to justify the schools’ scores.
Xavier Botana, head of elementary curriculum and assessment at Chicago Public Schools, says NCLB focuses so much on sanctions that it creates negativity and takes away from the good work performed by teachers and students. While CPS believes in both the principles of NCLB and in constant improvement, the ultimate goal of 100 percent of students meeting standards is unrealistic, Botana says.
Botana says the law essentially tells schools, ‘If you don’t meet standards, everything at the school must be bad.’ But he says that’s simply not true.
Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, professor and director of the master of science in education program at Northwestern University, also worries NCLB encourages some schools to adopt scripted instruction where teachers "teach to the test" or present information according to a particular format.
That limit on creativity could hurt teacher retention, especially in underperforming schools that need good teachers, she says.
"We all hope that students are going to do better. There is no question," Haroutunian-Gordon says. "The question is how to get them there."
A push for parents
You want your kids to do well academically and you want them to know you care about what they’re up to at school.
Your gut, the experts and the government all agree: you have to get involved. But how?
With No Child Left Behind up for re-authorization, one provision would require schools to create new opportunities for parents to get involved. What it doesn’t do is give schools any direction on exactly how they should improve parental involvement or give parents any guidance on where they should start.
"Schools really have to understand it’s in their best interest to welcome parents, we hope through a partnership," says Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.
Chicago Appleseed, a social justice research and advocacy organization, proposes that parents, educators and community leaders work together to make parental involvement a priority statewide.
Proviso Township has already had some success in involving parents. After identifying attendance issues, financial concerns and communication problems between parents and teachers, the district started an incentive program this summer. By encouraging their kids to attend summer school every day and work hard to pass, parents will be reimbursed for 50 percent of the registration fees. The district will offer the same money-back incentive during the school year for parents who attend at least one school event, such as report card day or volunteering at a basketball game.
Nancy Brown, educational consultant and parent representative of Project CHOICES, hopes to try parent cafes at the schools that work with her organization. With parent cafes, parents, teachers, principals and other community members gather over cookies and coffee to chat and generate ideas to help students. Brown has already used this approach with early childhood groups.
"It really works at building relationships," she says.
Olivia Clarke is a Chicago writer who specializes in education and legal issues.