Let me start by noting that I am no fan of No Child Left Behind, and have opposed it since before it became law in 2002. I am actively involved in lobbying for major changes in the current efforts to reauthorize the law. As a high school social studies teacher I am not directly impacted by the law, because social studies does not count for Adequate Yearly Progress. I do have to prepare students for tests required for graduation, and I see the impact of NCLB in the lack of preparation in many of the students arriving at our high school. While I can write about my observations and describe what the literature is saying about the effects of NCLB, that probably does not give the full negative impact of the law, which is felt most fully in elementary and middle schools full of lower-income and minority students.
Linda Perlstein has written a book that gives as good a portrayal as I have seen of those negative impacts. In Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, Perlstein follows one elementary school in Annapolis for a full year as a means of showing us how school life and learning are changed by the need to meet AYP.
Perlstein is a former Washington Post education reporter, whose previous book, Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers enabled readers to understand the perceptions and experiences of middle school students. In that work she closely followed 5 students at Wilde Lake Middle School in Howard County Md. For the current work she was given full access to Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis. She was able to sit in on classes, talk with students, teachers, and administrators, observe faculty meetings and conferences. All of the school and district staff agreed to allow the use of their names, while pseudonyms are used for the students and their families.
The school was an interesting choice. Tyler Heights is the kind of school testing advocates and supporters of NCLB like to cite. The principal, Ernestine (Tina) McKnight had arrived in 2000 to a school in which only 17 per cent of the student performed satisfactorily on the state tests. By 2004-2005, the year before Perlstein spent in the school, the percentage of students scoring at least "proficient" (the euphemism for passing) was up to 85.7 in reading and 79.6 in math. On the surface, this was the kind of school that would seem to demonstrate the effectiveness of a high stakes approach. After all, it was not exactly full of white, middle class kids from stable families:
When Tina arrived at Tyler Heights, three in five of its students were under the poverty level or not far above it - a number that would increase within five years to 70 percent. - p. 34Nearly one-fifth were children of immigrants, with the Hispanic population having grown from 85 to one-third, with many of these either not speaking English at home or before arriving at Tyler Heights at all. The overwhelming percentage of students were black, but of the classroom teachers one was half black and the ESOL teacher was Hispanic, while the rest were white. There were other blacks on staff, including McKnight.
Maryland has changed its testing program since I first began teaching in a middle school in 1995-96. In those days there was a program called MSPAP, for Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The testing, which was in selected elementary and middle school grades, did not give individual student scores, and required integration of the four core subjects of English, Math, Science and Social Studies. NCLB required testing in Reading and Math only, but in all grades, 3-8 (and once in high school, for which the High School Assessments in English and Algebra required for graduation also serve as the tests to measure AYP). Schools in which students arrive at school with strong language skills, from upper middle class backgrounds, do not have to worry so much about their scores. In fact, unless they are designated as a Title I school (with a significant number of economically poor students) they have little to fear from the sanctions of failing to make AYP. Title I schools like Tyler Heights face significant sanctions should their students not continue on the eventually impossible task towards all student proficient by 2014. Yet describing the nature of the problem in general does not have the same impact as telling the story of one school and its students and staff: perhaps this is an ironic illustration of Stalin's famous statement that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of millions is just a statistic. And in the context of Tyler Heights, by the standards of NCLB the school is a success. What Perlstein is able to show us is that below the surface and behind the test scores, the cost of achieving that "success" is at least disturbing if not horrific.
The school system required the use of certain packaged curricula, Saxon Math and Open Court Reading. The latter has highly scripted lessons that the teachers are supposed to follow. Perlstein succinctly addresses this at the beginning of a chapter entitled "A Bank Teller Could Pick Up the Lesson"
Think about your favorite teachers from your youth: the ones who changed your life. The ones who taught you lessons you carry with you years later. Chances are, these were the teachers with a gift for improvisation, artists of the classroom who brought a spark of life to the most mundane subjects. Chances are, they didn't teach from a script. - p. 50)This is illustrative of how Perlstein presents the reality of what she saw. She will weave in observations, extracts from research, and combine these with the detailed recording of the experience of those in the school, the staff and students. In the process she brings life to the issue in a way missing in many of the debates over educational policy. Thus in a discussion about how companies are profiting from No Child Left Behind, Perlstein recounts McKnight's experience at attending a presentation at a principals' conference of a vendor who had been brought into her school during the 2005-2006 year using the success of Tyler Heights in its promotion. She was furious because they were implying they were responsible for the success in 2004-2005:
Like these guys had anything to do with third-grade math proficiency jumping 24 points? Fourth-grade reading jumping 49? p. 195She was too polite to make a public scene, even when the vendors pointed her out to the audience. This anecdote is presented at the end of a section where Perlstein has explored the costs of NCLB in transfers of funds to the private sector, starting with the gross costs in the billions, tracing through the connections of individuals like Neil Bush and people who had helped promote in implement NCLB in the government like Sandy Kress and Gene Hickok to the individual consultants and firms McKnight had had to hire under pressure from the school system. Thus the elements of distortion and possible corruption are placed in a context beyond that of the mere numbers of dollars.
Perlstein is a gifted writer. She also does a solid job of weaving the relevant professional literature into her story. My copy of the book is heavily annotated. Often we find examples of one sentence placing everything in context, and I can offer two examples from one page, 68. After a discussion of a guidance counselor attempting to help a child deal with his stress, Perlstein writes
But it's expecting heroics to ask a child who feels he doesn't matter - who leaks hope even at age seven - to derive enough solace from a tightly gripped tennis ball to change his worldPerlstein immediately follows this by beginning to analyze why some expectations of the reformers who insist on "no excuses" are unrealistic. Before getting to the specifics of the situation at Tyler Heights she notes
To deny what happens outside of school affects what happens inside is to deny realityThe reality is that the students at Tyler Heights do not come from middle class families, with all the support associated with such a setting. Parents may themselves lack literacy and organizing skills. They may not speak or read English, and thus be unable to assist with school work, or to check a school website for assignments. They may have a history of conflict with authority, or be unable to get to school because of work or lack of transportation to meet with teaches. And they may also lack parenting skills, so that their children arrive at school not only without sharpened pencils, but also without control of emotions and impulses, thereby severely complicating the the process of educating them and the other students in the classrooms they disrupt.
When you read this book, you cannot help but begin to grasp how narrow the education has become for the children at Tyler Heights. Until the MSAs are completed in March, their education has been restricted to little more than test prep. When reading instruction (including preparation to write the formulaic brief constructed responses required for the MSA) is expanded to 3+ hours of each school day, all McKnight (herself a former social studies teacher) can do is suggest that some of the reading passages be on science or social studies, since those subjects basically disappear from the school day - after all, they are not part of the testing for AYP. And the approach required in the mandated curriculum makes it even worse. Students learn key phrases and "hundred dollar words" that they are supposed to remember to include in their BCRS (brief constructed responses - about a paragraph). Perlstein is focused on the 3rd graders, the youngest children tested on NCLB. One teacher has them write 5 times "I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, rhythm and stanzas" but only write 3 poems. Again Perlstein is able to place all in the proper context (p. 128):
Even if the students were going to write a paragraph instead of a poem, why couldn't they have been given anything interesting to write, to stretch their minds. One week the Open Court reading passage told the story of a hallucinating cat who burst into verse upon sleeping in catnip and took a strange medicine from a witch - the tale was so kooky Miss Johnson could barely keep a straight face - and all the BCR asked was, "How do you know this is a poem?"
The Open Court Unit was Imagination.
I received the book unsolicited in the mail, accompanied by a note from the director of marketing. When I checked, I was informed although I have never met nor corresponded with Perlstein, she had placed my name on a list of people to whom she wanted the book sent in the hopes that I might write about it. The book is officially published this week. Tyler Heights would be considered a success by proponents of the high stakes testing approach of No Child Left Behind. Certainly under the leadership of Tina McKnight the school has produced test scores that are notable. What Perlstein is able to do is provide the reader with the reality of the cost of those scores. Most parents would probably recoil from having their students in such a restricted learning environment. And for many students they are able to succeed on the tests because of intense focus on test preparation without necessarily learning the underlying skills those tests are supposedly assessing. Given the pressures placed on educators this should not be surprising.
I have been involved with the issues around NCLB since before it became law, having even at the beginning of my career had to deal with earlier testing mandates. I found the time spent reading the book worthwhile, which is why I decided to write about it, although there was no obligation for me to do so. Because the book is new this may be your first encounter with it, and you may question how much reliance you wish to place upon my analysis and judgment. Perhaps the best way I can assure of the effectiveness and utility of the book is to quote the only blurb on the dustcover. It is written by someone with whose writings on educational matters I often have strong disagreements, E. D. Hirsch: that the two of us find ourselves concurring on something should by itself be worthy of note. So let me end by quoting his words:
If you want to know what is going on in our schools in the age of No Child Left Behind, this is the book o read. To the heroism of our overly-blamed teachers and to the cluelessness of our administrators and policymakers, especially those who have imposed unwise test regimens in response to the new law, Linda Perlstein's gripping story is an indispensable guide.