Posts Tagged ‘No Child Left Behind’

As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.

The follow article originally appeared in the Washington Post. In this piece  Amy Rothschild,  a prekindergarten teacher in a public school in New England, tells why she decided to join with other teachers, parents, researchers and activists  in the “Occupy Ed Department” in Washington DC this past weekend (April 4th through the 7th), an event sponsored by United Opt Out, “an organization dedicated to the elimination of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.” Although Amy describes herself as a “new teacher” she has the passion, conviction and wisdom of someone who has spent years in the classroom and who knows what education is really all about. Reading her article gives me hope that with people like her, teachers can reclaim a voice and presence in this essential debate.

Why renowned educators — and new teachers — are ‘occupying’ Ed Dept

From Thursday through Sunday, education activists, including Diane Ravitch, will “occupy” the Department of Education.

Ravitch, of course, has occupied the Department of Education before, but in a different sense: From 1991 to 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. She is standing outside the building gates as part of “Occupy 2.0, a Battle for the Public Schools.”

In 1991, her years of scholarship on school reform made her an attractive choice for the role of Assistant Secretary for Education Research and Improvement. Fast-forward two decades. She is leading the fight against corporate-based reform after the evidence persuaded her that it didn’t work. And now, the person serving in an analogous role at the department has experience not in the classroom or in public school leadership or in scholarship on school transformation, but, rather, from McKinsey & Company, and as founder of a for-profit school management company.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on who is attending the Occupy DOE 2.0 event. Where Occupy Wall Street was considered leaderless, Occupy 2.0 features leading scholars and teachers, who have decades of classroom, school, and university leadership guiding them. They are demonstrating in front of the Education Department because the people working inside have ignored their message.

In education today, voicelessness is widely and generously shared.  It is shared among students marched through scripted curriculum, among parents whose neighborhood schools are closing, among educators told we do not know how to assess our students, among education professors once tasked with crafting policy.

I am traveling from New England, where I teach prekindergarten in a public school.  It is not lost on me that the event’s tagline—“Battle for the Public Schools”— is a war cry, that the posters are hand-drawn, that the website features poor formatting. I will feel uncomfortable and maybe even embarrassed to participate in group chants—they’re not really my thing. But I will chant anyway because the drive for data has made it so that faculty meetings and the teachers’ lounge no longer exist as a space for having the conversation about big issues in regular tones. I will go, as much as anything, to hear my role models speak, individuals who have created networks of public schools, who have thoughtfully analyzed a century of school reform, who have corresponded with thousands of teachers and students and compiled their voices into terrific books.

“Reform” has become a kind of code word, referring to a specific agenda of high-stakes testing, weakened collective bargaining, and school closings that have generated massive instability for American children, particularly low-income people of color.

Now, Duncan, who was never an educator, is education secretary. His deputy, Anthony Wilder Miller, worked at Silver Lake Equity and LRN Corporation, a compliance software and eLearning company.  We are supposed to believe that these leaders have the skill and insight to guide a generation of children and families—yet they have never guided a classroom. These individuals have never shared their lives with young people in our schools.

It is hard to picture another field where individuals as qualified as Ravitch and Meier feel that they must “occupy.” Meier is a MacArthur Fellow, writer, educator and school reformer with 45 years of experience making classrooms and schools more democratic.

Educators today are being punished for decades of growing income inequality, an eroding social welfare system, and an economy brought to its knees by lack of regulation—factors which make work in building supportive, democratic schools and classrooms that much more important.

As an early childhood educator deeply committed to leading an equitable classroom, I see the road ahead as a long one. Witnessing my role models standing out in the cold this spring will serve as a stark reminder of that distance.



Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at

As the academic year moves along, there is a lot of discussion about the demands and impact of Common Core (the Obama Administration’s effort to establish a nationwide curriculum for all grade levels) on schools, students and teachers. To many teachers and parents, Common Core misses the mark as to what real education is all about. As one Chicago teacher lamented in the journal, American Teacher, “I find it demoralizing. This is damaging to teaching and to learning.” Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England and a former contributor to this series, shares that same lament and concern about a national standardized curriculum and its over-testing of young children. In her piece, Common Core, Common Sense: What Should Kindergarten be About?, Louisa writes about the conflicting demands of the Common Core curriculum  with the more common sense needs of the very young children she teaches. As you read her essay, her moral dilemma as well as her understated anger and frustration at what this country is doing to its students becomes clear. She articulates the struggle that most teachers experience every day as they try to balance student needs with the demands of an unresponsive state-mandated educational system.

It’s assessment time in Kindergarten. What that means is that I sit down with one child at a time and check on their progress in (mostly) literacy skills. Of course this means that I have less time for actual teaching, and I have to admit that a tension builds up for me, like the feeling that I have something cooking on the stove but can’t quite get to the kitchen.

There is a sense of pressure too about keeping up with the pacing guides for Math, Literacy, Social Studies and Science. Are my children (“students”) meeting the Common Core standards? Will they meet the benchmarks: Will they read by the end of Kindergarten? Will they be able to add 7 to 10? Will they be able to read ‘“Where is my hat? It is not here,” Ben said. Ben looked in the closet. He looked behind the chair.’” by May?

Another question: Will I be able to demonstrate to my principal that my lessons are based on  Common Core standards and best practices? Will I be able to stay out of hot water?

What makes it all the more complicated (and more stressful) is that while my children are coming along alright in Reading, several still don’t have bladder control. This makes classroom life challenging as when a child has an accident during a Math lesson and needs help finding clothes and changing. Of course we have many such interruptions.  A child has a meltdown because her muffin has crumbled in her book bag and loudly and angrily mourns for half an hour, so that we are all under siege from her disappointment. Quarrels, secrets and longings fill the room all day, and each one needs to be addressed.

These complications are actually a blessing. They bring me back to my senses.  I remember that my children have only been on this earth for five years. They are just learning how to handle their bodies. Friendships are exciting and sometimes hazardous. Being part of a group is also a fairly new experience. I remember that learning is joyful when it doesn’t require too much sitting and listening. Anything involving music and the senses is mesmerizing. Play is paramount. To me this is the real curriculum. I encourage a small group to build a city in the blocks, complete with signs in invented spelling. We sing and dance together, and I feel a deep gladness at the smiles and laughter, along with the natural cooperation and self-control that emerges.

Of course, this doesn’t really resolve the tension. I am still asking children to write when many of them haven’t yet gained the fine motor control to hold the pencil well. I am still pushing them to read and meet standards that are clearly inappropriate in other academic areas as well. I obey the dictates of those so much more prosperous and powerful than I, making education policy in the far reaches of the educational bureaucracy and the government. What I see is that pressure is put on the very youngest children to accomplish tasks they are not ready for.  It is hard to accept and admit that I am complicit in an institution that seems so detrimental to many children.

Maybe it’s just time for more of us to speak up.

Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.

But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.

Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” It’s all a part of the “name/shame/blame game.

But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration.  But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.

By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.

But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.

One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.

Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. Tyler was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.

But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”

You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.

If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let students like Tyler down in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

No matter how tough politicians and education pundits talk the obstacles remain. Massachusetts is a good example. The Boston Globe reports that among 3rd graders last year, minority and low income students were twice as likely as white students to score lowest in the state’s standardized tests. These are discouraging numbers for everyone, and they are pretty much replicated nationally. They raise the question: Why after all these years of No Child Left Behind are we still struggling to achieve parity between rich and poor students, between white and minority children?

Nobody is satisfied with our schools, and there’s blame all round as experts scramble for solutions: We label schools as failing. We fire whole teachings staffs. We tweak curricula. We script teachers’ every move. We increase the school day and student seat time at the expense of art, music and recreation. Still things don’t improve.

Maybe we’re not listening to the right people. Somebody like Dick Gregory, for example. Yeah, Dick Gregory. You may remember him (if you’re old enough)—African American comedian, civil rights activist, 1968 presidential candidate, author, and nutrition guru? His list of accomplishments doesn’t include education specialist, but he knew quite a lot about why schools fail and about the “achievement gap.” He went to one of those failing schools and was trapped in that gap.

Most of my students—kids serving time in an adult county jail where I taught high school—didn’t know who Dick Gregory was when I announced that we were going to read a short chapter entitled “Shame” from his autobiography. At first they weren’t interested. They assumed (like so many teenagers) that the reading, any reading would be boring. Then when I mentioned that he was black, and had marched with Dr. King there was a spark of curiosity. It was enough to get us into the chapter. After that they were hooked.

In a page and a half, Gregory tells the reader (and America if we would only listen) why poor kids of color fail in school. In heartbreaking detail he writes about being in the third grade filled with shame—the shame of poverty, of being a “welfare kid,” of being abandoned by his father, of living in the projects, of wearing dirty clothes because once again there wasn’t any hot water, of having little food, and of living with rats and bugs.

When my locked-up students read that he was a “troublemaker” in school, the little kid who spent more time in the corner facing the wall than he did at his desk, none of them was surprised. And when Gregory wonders out loud why the teacher didn’t understand that maybe he caused trouble not because he was bad or stupid but because he was poor and hungry and too tired to concentrate you could hear the whispered, “Ya got that right,” followed by, “bitch” when she berates him in front of the class, talking about “you and your kind.”

The reading may seem dated to those of us comfortable with the gifts of life; after all that was back in the late 30s. But my students had no problem with what Gregory described. Most of them lived similar lives, although I would venture to say, much harsher and more embattled ones. They grew up in neighborhoods overrun with drugs, guns and random violence, in households fractured by unemployment, disease and substance abuse. My students went to schools that never had enough books or supplies or staff to go around, in falling down buildings in neighborhoods unsafe to walk. A friend of mine works in a school where it’s not unusual that kids can’t play outside at recess because of drive-by-shootings.

If it wasn’t good in Dick Gregory’s day, it’s far from good for minority students today. The 2010 Census confirms this: Black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children. Forty percent of black children are born into poor families compared with 8% of white children. An even more alarming statistic is that an African American boy born in the past decade has a 1-in-3 chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime.

There’s a poignant moment in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools when he goes into an East St. Louis grade school classroom that is dirty, dilapidated, and overcrowded. At one point Kozol reports that as he came into a classroom a young boy looked up at him with an expression that asked, “What did I do to deserve this?” The “achievement gap”—which is just that young boy’s unspoken question in a different form—will never be closed until our policymakers, educational and otherwise, aggressively address the underlying issues of poverty and racism that cripple every aspect of poor and minority children’s lives.  Maybe those policymakers need to stop talking and listen for a change to people who know a lot more than they do about failing schools, and about failing lives.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside


Statewide test day and Damian was psyched. He didn’t sleep much the night before from worrying. Still, he was there on time, ready to go. Now he sat hunched over his desk, head down, lips moving as he read, his pen carefully inching across the paper.

He was like any other kid in his grade taking the mandated English exam. The only difference was that he was locked up in an adult county jail in Westchester, NY where I taught high school for ten years, and he was reading—and barely writing—on a 4th grade level, which was up from the 2nd grade level he came in with.

Damian was a tall, thin 17 year old with a bushed-out Afro who had been in and out of juvenile placements since childhood—foster care; group homes; detention centers; jails. As a result, he had as many gaps in his education as he had in his mouth from missing teeth, most prominently his front two. The list of his educational diagnoses was almost as long as his rap sheet. Mentally Retarded. Learning disabled. Behavioral disorder. ADD/HD. Oppositional personality. Yet as badly as he’d done in school, a part of him always valued education.

Over the months I had him in class, something clicked for Damian. He never missed a day. He worked hard, asked for homework—and did it. His progress was daily. Soon, his reading rose from that humiliating 2nd grade level to 3rd to 4th grade. The kid was on the move. But something else was happening. When Damian first came to class, he never looked anyone in the face and hid what he called his “baby work.” Now he was more self-confident. He was proud of his improvement and suddenly saw himself as a learner.

Then the mandated end-of-year state tests came round.

When I was told that Damian had to take the English exam I was as uncomprehending as he must have felt sometimes trying to decipher a page of print.

“It’s got to be a mistake,” I said to our on-site test administrator. “The kid’s reading on a 4th grade level. Maybe on paper he’s an 11th grader, but he doesn’t have the credits or the skills for the 11th grade.”

“It’s not a mistake,” she explained. “He’s enrolled in high school. Technically, he’s 11th grade; so he has to take the test.”

Then she tried to soften the regulation by explaining the reasoning behind it: a student was required to take the test and fail it in order to be eligible for remediation classes. I didn’t bother to interpret back to her what I heard: Damian had to fail a test we all knew he would fail in order to prove that he would fail it so he could get “remediation.” Kids, especially kids like Damian, don’t think like educational pundits. It was easy to imagine the damage this latest failure would do to his burgeoning self-confidence as a learner.

Unfortunately, he’d already been told that he was scheduled to take the exam before I talked to him. When I suggested that he might not feel ready to take the test, that it was okay if he didn’t show up, he could take it another time, he looked at me as though I was every white teacher he’d ever had who’d told him that he’d never succeed so why bother. After that I knew he’d be there on test day.

The Comprehensive English exam is two days, a total of 6 hours. Damian was there both days, for every minute of those 6 hours, doing the best he could. It was painful to watch.

I wish Damian was the only example of such mandated failure. But there are lots of Damians in classrooms across the country in places as diverse as jails, psych hospitals, rehabs, juvenile detention centers, special ed classes who find themselves in similar situations. Now that Obama’s educational reforms are continuing where Bush’s left off with their reliance on standardized test results as the prime measure of educational success, I’m afraid that there will be many more kids, and teachers, facing similar struggles.

I am not recommending social promotion. Nor am I suggesting “feel good” education. I wouldn’t insult kids like Damian. Students should be held to rigorous academic standards. However, teachers—and there are many of who are fiercely dedicated to this hard-to-reach population—should be allowed some flexibility to evaluate their students’ readiness and plan accordingly. That local flexibility can’t happen under the present reform blueprint. And given all that is at stake—money, autonomy, prestige, reputations—superintendents, principals, and supervisors will adhere, perhaps reluctantly, to these lock-step standards rather than advocate for the needs of these vulnerable kids and their teachers in their districts.

Certainly gains have been made nationwide. But all of us—teachers, parents and school administrators—should share, on a local and national level, the concern many civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition have recently expressed: that the very students these reforms were meant to keep in school—poor, disaffected, disenfranchised, minority kids—will continue to be left out and left behind.

Originally posted on Huffington Post