America’s schools have fallen into a giant trap. This trap is epic in its dimensions, because the people capable of leading us out of it have been silenced, and the initiative that could help us is being systematically squashed.Policymakers and the public have been seduced by a simple formulation. No Child Left Behind posits that we have troubled schools because they have not been accountable. If we make teachers and schools pay a price for the failure of their students, they will bring those students up to speed.
But schools are NOT the only factor determining student success. Urban neighborhoods are plagued by poverty and violence and recent reports in The Chronicle show that as many as 30 percent of the children in these neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Fully 40 percent of our students are English learners, but these students must take the same tests as native English speakers. Moreover, a recent study provides strong evidence that family-based factors such as the quality of day care, the home vocabulary and the amount of time spent reading and watching television at home account for two-thirds of the difference in academic success for students. Nonetheless, NCLB holds only the schools accountable.
Teachers are realizing that this is a raw deal. We can’t single-handedly solve these problems, and we can’t bring 100 percent of our students to proficiency in the next six years, no matter how “accountable” the law makes us, and no matter the punishments it metes out. But if we speak up to point out the injustice and unreasonableness of the demands on our schools, we are shouted down, accused of making excuses for ourselves and not having high expectations for our students. Thus, teachers have been silenced, our expertise squandered.
The fatal flaw of NCLB was that it assumed that teachers were obstacles to change; that we had to be coerced to set higher standards for ourselves and our students. As a result we have state-mandated standards, standardized tests - even scripted curriculum to tell us what to say in class. All of this has demoralized teachers by making us into the problem, rather than a big part of the solution.
But educators have not been completely immobilized. We have been learning in spite of the hostile conditions, and have discovered that:
– Although student success is heavily influenced by other factors, an effective teacher can make a huge difference.
– Teachers who are able to skillfully assess student learning on a daily basis can promote rapid growth by giving timely feedback and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs.
– Teachers who collaborate together to develop common assessments and share techniques can build powerful learning communities that allow them to push their students to make great gains.
– Teachers are capable of developing assessments that reflect the values and skills desired by their local communities - and this yields a much higher level of student and teacher engagement, as can be seen in Nebraska ( www.nde.state.ne.us/focusstars/ index.htm).
– Teachers must be deeply involved in educational policy decisions - without our insights and support, policies on paper will not translate into real-world solutions.
While the recent proposed revisions of NCLB contained some improvements, the law remains fundamentally flawed, and does not deserve to be reauthorized. We need to step back and create a new vision of accountability - from the classroom up. Teachers are willing to be accountable for making a difference - that is why we entered this profession. But we must have reasonable goals that reflect the realities we face. We need to be given a much bigger role in designing the measures by which our students and schools are judged, and we must have the conditions and resources in our schools that allow for the high quality collaboration we need to succeed.
When we are asked to lead, we will be ready to help show the way. We are still teachers, after all.
Anthony Cody, a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, is a National Board certified teacher who works as a science coach with the Oakland Unified School District.
This article originally appeared in the January 6, 2008 issue of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE