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Virginia Journal of Education

It Doesn't Cut It

by Clare Fugate

Did you ever read Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron"? It's a compelling piece set in the not-so-distant future where each member of society is finally the same. No more worries about competition, no more worries about what others think of you, no more worries about worries. Choices and free will have been eliminated. Laws and amendments have been passed ensuring that everyone is the same.

The HG (Handicapper-General) has complete control. Those who are beautiful must wear masks to disguise their stunning features. Graceful members of society drag heavy bags of bird shot tied to their ankles and endure plates of scrap metal bound to their bodies. Those with pleasing voices are required to squawk and cackle. The strong are lashed with ankle shackles and heavy burdens around their necks. The intelligent have radio transmitters placed in their ears that routinely blast unbearable noises of shattering glass, sirens, jackhammers and other intolerable sounds designed to destroy creative thought.

Utopia had finally been reached. Vonnegut writes: "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else."

Any of this science fiction sound familiar? Currently, No Child Left Behind legislation decrees that by the school year 2013-14, all students must be proficient in reading and math on their grade level. Who among us thinks that this is a reasonable, logical expectation? Who among us believes that each student has the same intellectual capabilities? Who among us believes that a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter test actually measures an individual student's academic achievement? Is it rational to think that every child in America will score 100 percent on the same reading and math assessment?

While it is absolutely suitable and morally crucial to hold schools, teachers and students accountable for continued achievement, it is absurd to require every student, no matter their intellectual capabilities, to take the same high-stakes barrier test. Let's look at this realistically. Student A has an IQ of 135, and Student B has a measured IQ of 85. As NCLB is outlined at this time, both of these students must take the very same barrier tests in order to earn a standard high school diploma. For Student A, this will be the easiest test he has ever taken; for Student B, this will just be one more painful reminder from the school system that he is a failure. Has the test accurately measured what Student A has learned or has he just been tested on minimal information? Is the test actually on Student B's grade level if he has below average cognitive abilities? What have we taught each student? Student A has learned that he accountable for only a predetermined set of information. Student B has learned, once again, that he doesn't have a chance of success.

We are told the spirit of NCLB is to level the playing field. However, NCLB is tremendously under-funded. According to The New York Times, NCLB funding remained at $23.5 billion for 2004 and 2005 and was actually cut for 2006 by $1 billion. Schools who serve students of poverty lack the resources needed to provide not only for day-to-day instruction and enrichment but also lack funding for preschool intervention and family and community outreach.

Instead of allotting sufficient funds to failing schools for interventions, these struggling schools have been hit with demoralizing high-stakes consequences and sanctions. Rather than focusing on the bigger picture of providing critical community and family intervention, NCLB places the burden of success or failure entirely on the school.

It is imperative that schools are held accountable for high standards, well-trained teachers, and a safe environment. I agree with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings that "every child in America deserves a good education, regardless of race, income or zip code." However, we are fooling ourselves and damaging our children when we try to convince ourselves that "proficiency" is the same for every student.

The intent of NCLB is to ensure continued improvement and high standards for schools. But there are serious flaws in evaluating school performance. Currently, schools who haven't met adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two consecutive school years are identified as "in need of improvement." Continued failure to meet AYP after three consecutive years requires schools to provide "supplemental educational services" with after-school programs, tutoring, summer school and other remedial interventions. After four consecutive years of not meeting AYP goals, staff members will potentially be replaced and upon the fifth year of not reaching AYP the failing school will be "reconstituted" and restructured.

Tell me-isn't this punitive response levied on the schools in reaction to lack of school achievement in direct conflict to everything we as educators believe? There is something inherently wrong with an initiative that inflicts punishment rather than support for struggling schools.

Teachers embrace individual student learning styles and connect individually with students. Master teachers instinctively have figured out that some students learn best by talking, discussing and working cooperatively. Other students thrive in a traditional classroom and are eager to discover facts. Others hate working in groups and flourish when working independently. These exceptional teachers orchestrate instruction that meets the needs of each individual student in their classroom. What an irony that students who are encouraged to be individuals, whose differences and learning styles have been acknowledged are, in the end, required to be the same and are measured on identical criteria based on results of a one-size-fits-all test.

Another unfortunate result of these high-stakes assessments is that schools have begun to over-emphasize testing. Remember when "teaching to the test" was a horrible thing? Teachers are now encouraged to get their students "ready" for the tests. They teach "test verbs," rehearse practice tests, plan their lessons according to the test blueprint, practice using a "bubble sheet," and take previously released tests online. Arguably, it seems to be best practice to require every teacher to align his or her teaching with state curriculum standards. All students in a district should be presented the same information. However, have we, under the guise of "high expectations," in fact stifled teacher creativity and student learning and might we be just providing a minimal education for many of our students? Are we teaching to the "middle" rather than differentiating instruction for students with high cognitive ability and students whose needs would be best met with a life skills oriented curriculum?

Because of the ever-looming threat of slipping behind in reading and math, many schools have given up some extracurricular subjects. Noticeably absent from many elementary and middle schools are foreign languages. PE, health, art, music, family/career studies or technical education are frequently sacrificed for yet another reading or math enrichment class. Field trips, community projects, assemblies, school plays and guest speakers have all taken a back seat to the all-important test objectives. In many schools the period of time traditionally designated for "homeroom," which included vital advisor/advisee groups or "character counts" discussion groups have now become a period for silent reading or "enrichment" time.

Quick-shut your eyes and remember one event from your elementary school years that made a lasting impact on you. Are you remembering the process of the water cycle? Are you sequencing events from the pre-Columbian era to 1877? Or are you remembering something a little more enjoyable? I remember in fourth grade, our class presented a play and I sang "This Old House." I also remember playing Red Rover at recess and still have the scars on my knees to prove it. What I don't remember is a list of Spanish explorers or how to read a periodic table. Schools should not completely give up all of the "fun" things throughout the school year that make lasting meaningful learning experiences for our students.

Ten years ago I taught a transition class for at-risk ninth-graders. Most struggled with reading, many lacked appropriate social skills, and all of them had experienced failure in our traditional school setting. One day a week these students worked with a class of first-graders. The day before my students went to the first grade classroom, each chose a library book appropriate for his or her group. They practiced reading the book and made lesson plans and activities for their 30-minute activity. What a wonderful experience this was for everyone. My students not only had an opportunity to practice reading and creating interesting lessons, but also they learned responsibility, confidence and social interaction skills. The first-graders not only adored these "big kids," but also received one-on-one attention from a caring teenager. The ninth-graders felt validated by the school system because they were experiencing tremendous success.

Would it be possible to create a class like this today? It's possible the program would be sanctioned if the transition class could align its goals to the ninth grade test objectives. From time to time I run into some of the students who were in this class and each of them always says something like, "You know Ms. Fugate, the best part about being in ninth grade was reading to those little first-graders."

Look around at the schools in your district who, according to their AYP, are failing. These schools are not failing because the teachers are inferior or not "highly qualified." The difficulty is not because the administration lacks innovative leadership style; nor is the problem a result of an ineffective curriculum. The problem typically lies within students' academic preparation when they begin school in kindergarten, and with parent and community involvement and support. Teachers know that all students do not come to school each morning ready to learn. Every day, heroic school personnel nurture the unloved, feed the hungry ones, and tend to those who are wounded in both body and soul.

Can our legislators really believe that all children come to school each day well rested, well nourished, and well nurtured? Do they actually believe that all students have a safe place to sleep, have a caring adult who reads to them and helps with their homework? Do they really believe that one test can possibly measure individual student achievement? And ultimately, is it reasonable to believe that penalizing a school for not meeting ever increasing standards will in the end improve student achievement?

NCLB seems to completely overlook the critical needs of the communities of these "failing" schools. It is vital to look past the school doors into the school community. We proclaim that "it takes a village" to raise a child, but our impoverished communities must have more interventions.

We cannot overlook their urgent needs. Community and family influences clearly have an effect on individual student's day-to-day success or failure at school. It is imperative that we look at these influencing factors. What is the unemployment rate among adults in these "failing" communities? What is the percentage of incarcerated parents? Do the students come home after school to caring adults or are they left on their own? Are the students' parents involved in the drug culture? Are the students subjected to the horrors of neglect and abuse? How unrealistic it is for federal law to mandate identical academic requirements for every school without acknowledging the unique needs of individual schools and communities.

Through grant opportunities and business alliances, many schools have the financial means to reach out to their communities during after-school hours. Schools provide not only customary enrichment opportunities for students but also offer outreach opportunities for parent and community education. Adults learn side-by-side with their children not only through traditional adult basic academic programs, but also through enrichment opportunities in technology, job training, child care, nutrition, health care and numerous other programs designed with the hope of improving the school community as a whole. Through proactive, outreach programs we can hope that our strides toward bridging the achievement gap for individual students will indeed be successful.

Paradoxically, some districts use the state barrier tests to determine promotion or retention of students. We are in fact leaving many children behind if they are retained because of their inability to meet the standards of one specific test. It is illogical to mandate that each student achieve on grade level if his reading or math skills, because of his cognitive ability, are actually below grade level expectation.

There are logical, common sense improvements that would make NCLB more effective. The "growth model" as presented in the reauthorization of NCLB measures a school's success by evaluating students' improvement over a period of time rather than the "snapshot" approach of measuring student achievement currently in place. Students who come to school below grade level will get credit for the progress they make. To cultivate continued student progress, schools and legislators need to realize that we must add additional funds to our schools and opportunities to our traditional school day.

In the 1950s and 60s, when many of our lawmakers were in elementary and high school, not every child remained in school until graduation. Many students dropped out to work, to join the service, or to get married. Most of the students who remained in school were those who were college bound or had vocational interests. Clearly, the face of our schools has changed dramatically over the past decades. No longer are we educating just those who plan to pursue further education.

Isn't it interesting that in society's efforts to obtain equality, we seem to choose the lowest level for everyone. It seems that if we continue to mandate 100 percent success for all students, the achievement tests will have to be "dumbed down" so that everyone can pass on his or her grade level by 2014. Even now, whenever attempts are made to remove this ugly mask and question this ludicrous idea of mediocrity and sameness, a loud racket explodes in our ears, sent to us by educational theorists rather than realists.

It is imperative that we understand that one size does not fit all. One high-stakes barrier test does not accurately measure individual achievement. And unlike those folks in Vonnegut's Utopia, every student is not the same. We must realize that student achievement is individual and then go on to create appropriate benchmarks that measure students' progress over a period of time. Until then, America's students will continue to drag their own burdens provided by their schools.

Fugate, a former member of the Pulaski County Education Association, currently teaches in South Carolina. She will be returning to Virginia this fall.


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