Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NEA President on NCLB

This op-ed piece, by NEA President Reg Weaver, appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Students, teachers owed smarter law.
On the first day of school, a sixth-grader at a California middle school raised his hand and asked the teacher, "Is there anything we will be learning this year that we need to remember for longer than the test?"

That child's question tells us all we need to know about the flaws in the No Child Left Behind Act and its obsessive focus on high-stakes testing. Unfortunately, a proposal released by a special commission on NCLB would raise the stakes on standardized tests even higher, pit teachers against one another and make it harder to attract good teachers to the schools and subject areas where they are needed the most.

No Child Left Behind expires this year, and everyone agrees it must be improved before Congress extends it. The National Education Association has proposed positive changes in the law, including testing that better tracks student progress; smaller classes; a qualified teacher in every classroom; strong parental and community support of schools; and extra help for children who need it.

The Aspen Institute's NCLB commission report had some good ideas as well, especially about the need to focus on early childhood education and reducing school dropouts. But its proposal to automatically brand one out of four teachers as ineffective based on students' test scores would be a disaster for teachers and students alike.

The proposal to define and rank teachers in every state manages to be arbitrary and convoluted at the same time. It assumes that the 75 percent of teachers whose classes show the greatest gain in test scores are all "effective," and the other 25 percent are not. This ignores many factors beyond a teacher's control that affect test scores, including class size and resources that vary from school to school.

Under this proposal, a teacher who urged a troubled student not to drop out of school would actually be penalized if that student scored poorly on standardized tests. Since the ratings would only apply to math, reading and science teachers, they would make it harder to attract good teachers to these critical subjects. They would also discourage good teachers from working in schools with high numbers of struggling students.

One test on one day does not measure student learning, and it certainly should not be used to measure a teacher's effectiveness. Rather than trying to make teachers the scapegoats for the challenges in public education, it would be more useful to address all the factors that affect learning.

The co-chairman of the NCLB commission was former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. During his administration, Georgia invested $1 billion to create smaller class sizes, because Barnes knew that smaller classes affect student achievement. The No Child Left Behind Act promised federal help for smaller classes, but the resources to achieve that goal have not been provided. The same goes for preschool programs, tutoring, teacher professional development and support for parents.

If we want to talk about "accountability" in education, let's start by asking why those promises of the No Child Left Behind Act have not been kept. If we truly want to improve the quality of teachers in the classroom, let's give them more opportunities to improve their skills, provide better working conditions and offer salaries competitive with other professions that require a college degree — all measures that have actually worked in the real world, including a case study that was cited by the NCLB commission.

The 3.2 million teachers, administrators and other educators of the NEA have committed our lives to education, and we fervently believe that every child has a right to attend a great public school. We look forward to working together with Congress and President Bush to achieve that goal.

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