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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2011

COMMENTARY

No Child was well-intended but better left behind

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

The shortsighted, simplistic cure-all for improving public education in America, known as the No Child Left Behind Act, has been the bane of educators in Ohio and other states. It has made tests more important than teaching.

Good teachers can't teach the way they want and students can't learn the way they should. But fixing the flawed federal approach to academic assessment isn't going to happen anytime soon in Washington's polarized political world.

In a move that some people call overreaching and many others applaud as overdue, the Obama Administration recently gave states an out on key provisions of the George W. Bush-era school accountability law. Ohio is interested.

Along with many other states, Ohio faces proficiency requirements in the law that are impossible to fulfill. President Obama declared he would waive a central requirement for states -- that all children be proficient in math and reading by 2014 -- provided that the states adopt their own rigorous testing and accountability programs to improve their education systems.

Ohio Department of Education officials are eager to learn more about how the waivers would work. A statement from state Superintendent Stan Heffner acknowledged that "our schools need a new set of accountability tools to measure their progress."

He said efforts are under way to study "what waiver options may be available and how they could enhance Ohio's efforts for transition to more rigorous standards for learning."

This is a sane first step to give states and education professionals more say in developing their own standards for real academic achievement, as well as a structured teacher evaluation process. Rather than use one narrow set of instruments -- the infernal standardized tests -- imperfectly to gauge school accountability and make sweeping decisions about education policy, the White House wants to give states more autonomy in to design their own success stories.

Long-frustrated players in the education community, including teachers and administrators, must be pinching themselves. They are aware that the administration's proposal is not an easy way out for schools that are averse to accounting for student growth, or lack thereof.

The proposed approach to education reform is welcome. It introduces flexibility to the enterprise and finally recognizes the complexities and limitations of equitably educating students in widely varying school districts.

It is a different tactic that takes a longer view of academic improvement, rather than settling for oversimplified conclusions attached to passing or failing test scores.

The change could pay off. More reliable, regular assessments of how effective teachers are in the classroom, and how they're recruited, evaluated, and supported, relates directly to student progress and quality of education. Under No Child's heavyhanded and punitive provisions, there is no wiggle room for variables that affect overall achievement.

Schools that don't measure up quantitatively are judged failures or even closed, when factors such as lack of classroom stability or special education mandates may misrepresent the big picture.

Placing the onus on states to turn around low-performing schools, without the federal government micromanaging the mission or putting good teachers on the defensive, holds promise on several levels.

It keeps quality control of schools local, where it should be. And multiple approaches to improve classroom learning, which account for socio-economic diversity, have the advantage of a custom-fit strategy instead of one-size-fits-all programs with preordained outcomes.

Pressuring schools to become "academically proficient" by 2014 ignores education complexities in a rush to quantify teaching capacity by test results. No Child Left Behind was destined to disappoint from the beginning.

It was a well-meaning effort at academic reform. But it skipped over essential foundational work in public education and went straight to proficiency goals.

The unfortunate consequence was that rote teaching to proficiency tests replaced innovative teaching to help students understand and find applications for what they learned. Teachers dared not deviate from curriculum schedules designed to pack as much information as possible into young test-takers.

Students learn just what they need to know and nothing more. By the third grade, they're burned out on the drill.

Most tragically, the opportunity to kindle any lifelong passion for learning is squandered early and often on regimentation and regurgitation. Test-weary kids increasingly lose interest in exploring or expanding their knowledge just for the fun of it.

Through no fault of their own, children have already been left behind their counterparts around the globe, who benefit from educational systems that are not similarly tethered to tests -- and who routinely excel compared to American students.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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