About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Democratic Education, the Election, and No Child Left Behind

I am taken by Deb’s post about influencing the political discourse in this terribly important election year. Her call resonates with other recent posts (for example, Jessica’s). There are people in education who have been talking to key political players–often concerning NCLB–but many more of us need to e-mail our politicians, write letters to the editor, write first-person opinion pieces for our local newspapers, and so on.

As I wrote in my previous two posts, a huge problem that faces us is that the national conversation about education has become so narrow–and has been that way for so long–that it’s hard to find the space to talk about issues other than test scores and economic competitiveness. NCLB, for example, is not only the 800-pound beast in the classroom, but in the media as well. I think of something a seasoned education reporter told me: he could not recall another topic in all his experience that so dominated news about schools.

It’s clear that NCLB is going to continue to hit tough political waters, and in a recent article in The American Prospect, Richard Rothstein predicts its demise. My guess is that NCLB will be maintained in some revised form, but even if it isn’t, the emphasis on high-stakes accountability mechanisms will continue to dominate political discourse on education, along with talk of economic competitiveness. Our challenge in this election year is to insist on holding schools accountable and to affirm the goal of preparing young people to make their way economically, but to do this in a way that opens up the discussion of what schooling is for in a democracy.

If readers are interested, I wrote a short essay on NCLB for Education Week (11/7/07) that is pertinent to this discussion. There is a link to it under the “News” section of my web page.

I excerpt a few paragraphs below:

A score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests. (And there are also concerns about how schools and districts can manipulate them.) “In most cases,” writes measurement specialist Robert Linn, “the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands placed on them by high-stakes accountability.” No wonder, then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student’s or a schools’ achievement?...
A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher’s district has issued a page-long checklist on each student to be used in each class the student takes. Every teacher is to mark every time he or she assists a child, asks if the child understands, notes a behavior problem, and so on. This requirement applies to all students, every class–though principals, in an attempt to keep instruction from collapsing under the regulation, tell teachers to pay special attention to their students who are most at-risk. The intention here is a good one, but the means by which it is accomplished is so formulaic and cumbersome that it devastates teaching. Care becomes codified, legalistic, lost in reductive compliance. This kind of thing is not unusual today. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response to good legislation, but the pressure to comply is great and when there are no funds available to mount professional development or changes in the size and organization of schools, or other means to foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then districts–in the context of a high-stakes, under-resourced environment–will resort to all sorts of draconian and, ultimately, counterproductive solutions....
I think that one indication of the value of a piece of social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the issues it gets us to ponder. Civil Rights legislation, for example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a self-examination of our history and first principles. NCLB does raise important questions about equity and expectation. But unless the testing program is part of a larger effort that includes other student compensatory and professional development efforts and social programs aimed at vulnerable populations, we get, instead, a focus on scores, rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration and compliance. More sustained consideration of equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public schooling, of the nature of learning in a democracy–this all gets lost in the machinery of testing....


  1. I would like to read the rest of the article and cannot find the News section. By the way, I'm in graduate school and am studying composition rhetoric and literacy and last spring semester, I took a teaching composition class and your book was one of the books we read. I loved it and so could relate to it.

  2. Zelda,
    Check mikerosebooks.com and go to "news" to find the link to the education week article.

  3. Estimados Bloggers,

    Thanks for the info on the blog subscription pedo. I was wondering why I never received an update, but had begun receiving monthly bills. (Puro pedo homiez.)

    A ver, I'll have to think about all this for a minute. The whole bloga/net thing is cool, but it is too tempting to spout off about any topic. And since this is the honorable Mike Rose's blog, since he invited me to the party, I need to act right.

    But I am skeptical--pos what you think? I'm a Chicano anthropologist of education. The skepticism comes with the degree as well as a pair of glasses--about this noble idea of influencing or shaping the discourse in an election year. My initial tempered response to this is: For reals?

    But what if (and this is a big, what if), what if...some youth simply do not matter as much as others and influencing the discourse is like stirring the waters in the bathtub? (Here I go again con la pinche negatividad--but I am nothing if not negative, that is, if I don't negate something. ¿Me entiendes? If you all was steeped in pessimism, I would feel the need to theorize about hope. Which I'll get around to at some point, it takes me a while though cuz I'm on public transportation.)

    Some Chicanas/os--vernacular cosmopolitans as Homi Bhabha might call us--have for quite some time been trying to come to grips with the following: the schooling careers of Mexican-origin children attending school in the US do not matter much to society-at-large. Dig that homiez. Check the historical record. Therein lies the source of my skepticism.

    I'll hit the bloga up a bit laterz with a historical take on the humanist response of Chicana/o communities in the face of this grim realization.

    But as always, disregard what I say if it don't make sense, o if simplemente tu crees that it don't matter. That, too, is blogging: freedom to scroll past or hit delete.

    AKA: Mr. Cajeta
    AKA Mil Mascaras
    AKA: Raza Cosmica #13
    AKA: Ooh, pues don't take yourself so pinche serious!

  4. A late response to Meno. I some how missed this post of 3/25 – not a big surprise given my 19th Century blogging skills. I, too, will have more to say about the topics you raise, Meno, for you are, of course, right about the historical record. But, again like you, I cherish what I’ve seen of the “humanist response of Chicana/o communities” to this mess. In the meantime, though, and in the spirit of my new post (“Why Go to School”) let me toss this one to you: in your own education – in or out of school – what or who mattered? Who sparked your fine spark?

  5. Many educators have seemed to openly formulate their own personal opinions about the enormous potential and limitations that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is establishing in our school systems across the country. As educators, we tend to complain about educational policy, but never act on writing letters or emails to the people who can help reform these policies. I myself am guilty of this too. No Child Left Behind is a prime example of a policy that many educators have a problem with. It seems as though no one knows exactly what to do about it to ensure that a change is made.

    NCLB has good intentions. I think that it needs to be re-evaluated and reformed to make sure that those good intentions are actually implemented. I would like to see President Obama talk to real classroom teachers who are currently dealing with the limitations. I would like for him to get educators honest opinions on the type of reform that they would like to see made to NCLB. I think that many of the “big wigs” who seem to think they know what is going on in today’s schools would realize that they are some what out of touch. I would hope that President Obama would talk to teachers who teach in lower-income and well as higher-income areas across all states to see what their primary concerns are. I am sure that many things regardless of socio-economic levels would prove to be the same.

    From the top of the totem pole to the bottom, NCLB seems to be failing students, teachers, parents, and school districts by adding more and more unnecessary pressure on them. Everyone is afraid of the repercussions that they will face if test scores are not high enough. I have yet to meet a child who wants to fail a standardized test. I have not met the teacher who wants to be judged by their colleagues because his or her class had low test scores. Parents do not seem too happy when they have to tell a friend that their child failed a standardized test and has to repeat a grade because of it. And most of all, no district wants to look bad amongst the rest. It is failing us in the fact that everyone seems anxious and at times it takes the fun out of learning for our students. However, with all the negative aside, NCLB has made us (educators) all stay on top of our game. Sometimes pressure does do us a little good. We know that you do not have time slack off and that no matter what; you have to get it, whatever it may be, done.

    Programs that are identified in this legislation, such as Reading First, identify themselves as “scientifically based” reading programs. Using this reading program is just one example as there are many more, but for time sake let us just use Reading First as an example. Reading First is a wonderful program, but I am pretty sure that there is more than just one reading program out there. To me, it seems as though districts forget that there is more than one type of “scientifically based “reading program available. Districts seem to jump on the bandwagon and forget about everything else that is currently being implemented the minute some new “scientifically based” program comes out. No solitary program, regardless of how much “hype” surrounds it, is going to fix our children’s reading problems overnight and instantly boost test scores. Surely textbook and reading program makers are not just coming up with random information to fill the pages of their books. So wouldn’t that mean that a majority of it is all “scientifically based”?

    I completely understand the point of NCLB and all the good that comes along with it. But unless more resources, professional development opportunities, and a better understanding of NCLB are available to teachers, then eventually it will fail us all. Some of the focus on test scores needs to diminish and we need to begin to focus more on making sure our children are equipped with the tools to succeed in today’s world. Being able to pass a test is good, but children need to have all the necessary skills that will make them successful for the future. As many of us know test scores are only good for so long. There really only seems to be one big test that matters, and since 1901 the SAT Reasoning Test still holds its claim to fame. So why then are all of these other tests, especially in elementary schools, so crucial to telling us how well are students are performing? If you ask me, I think we could do away with some of them and no one would cry themselves to sleep at night over it.

  6. We have seen with No Child Left Behind positive and negative outcomes. Although people like to focus on the negative, there have been some positive results. What I mean is, we have taken a step back to critically analyze how we as educators are doing our jobs. Accountability is not necessarily a fun thing, but it is necessary. NCLB has led us to consider how we as educators can be held accountable. In my state of Georgia, we have adopted a new curriculum which is much more rigorous and performance based, because we took the time to analyze where we were performing as a state, and where we needed to improve. We are also now analyzing how NCLB works and how it too needs to be changed and held accountable for its flaws. I agree that professional development is a must when asking teachers to adjust how they are teaching in their classrooms. We have been so excited in Georgia, as stated above, that we have a new standards based curriculum to teach. We hear a lot from our school board about standards based classroom, and differentiated instruction, but our professional developments in these areas are redeliveries of redeliveries. The state will train trainers, who will train people at the district, who will train school representatives, who will train the teachers. By the time it gets to the people who need the information, the information taught is so watered down it wasn’t worth the effort. Basically teachers are treated to an hour long meeting after school of the telephone game. If we want to see the type of improvement in reading instruction that is needed we need to invest more time and money in teaching teachers how to meet the high demands stated in NCLB.
    Teachers are found in their classrooms across the country trying as hard as they can to make sure that the students are getting they type of instruction they need, and it all rests on a number in the spring. I teach a third grade inclusion class, with3 students reading on a kindergarten level, who are required to take the same test as the rest of the third grades. All school year we have worked hard and these students have made tremendous progress. One student went from reading 3 words at the beginning of the year to 46 words in the spring. These are milestones that we have overcome, that will look like nothing when we get our test scores back. Then we hear that based on test scores teachers will receive bonuses for the classes with high test scores. This baffles me because I have had to work twice as hard to catch my students up as much as possible, yet I look like the worst teacher in the school because my scores were in the 700 rather than 800. I agree with you, that the pressure to score that 800, no matter what the circumstance is not reality. There are plenty of cases where legislation gives schools “programs,” that are mandatory, yet there is proof they don’t work. It is really easy to feel like this is a lose, lose situation. However, we can work together as educators to stand up for how we feel. The high stakes testing may not go away, but we need to give the teachers the right tools and trainings to do the best they can. People need to consider what happens in a real classroom, and what real students look like. Just like adults they come with different strengths and weaknesses and those should be accepted. I will be interested to see with the new administration in the White House what will come of NCLB and if our voices will be heard.
    Melissa Webb

  7. I agree with the point made about test scores and economic competiveness being the main topics of focus in our school systems. As a kindergarten teacher, I feel like my teaching consists of preparing children to take a test. I am required to use the DIBELS test three times a year and I have to constantly test and enter data in the GKIDS database. This is very time consuming and takes away from valuable teaching time. Every year, I have to train my students on how to behave during the dreaded CRCT week. My students and I dread this week because it is boring. We have to refrain from using our morning music and chants during calendar math. We are not allowed to go to morning recess and our teaching cannot be too loud because we might disrupt the first grade students. I think this is ridiculous. My students do not benefit from my teaching during this week because of the CRCT. I have also noticed the amount of students who become ill during CRCT week. Many students seem to suffer from test anxiety. I am deeply saddened when I see children becoming anxiety ridden because of a standardized test. When I was in college, working on my bachelor’s degree in education, I thought teaching was a very fulfilling and rewarding job. I could not think of a better job to choose for my career. My first year of teaching was wonderful. I taught my students to the best of my ability, without the use of teaching manuals. It wasn’t until January that I noticed teachers becoming more stressed over their jobs. I also noticed that teaching in other grades consisted of a little teaching and then taking a practice CRCT test. I was horrified that this was considered teaching. The teachers were not enjoying being teachers and the students did not enjoy school. I do not think they were learning anything. Now, I know what all teachers dread, the count down to CRCT week. I do not believe in high-stakes testing. I think there are many problems with paper and pencil based tests. I am constantly told to include hands-on activities in my lesson plans. I am not against this but I feel that it is not appropriate to expect children to pass a paper-pencil based test when my teaching consists of using manipulatives and hands-on activities. I think many standardized tests are not appropriate for English Language Learners. Students, with different cultural backgrounds, are often left out when taking standardized tests. I feel that the biggest reason I am against standardized testing is because it takes real teaching out of our schools. Teachers are broken down and forced to basically, teach the test. Students do not learn from a test, but they do learn from soulful teaching. I think more teachers, including myself, need to be involved in writing letters and contacting people who can bring change to our educational system. I often feel like my voice does not matter when it comes to changing the education system. If enough voices are heard, I can only hope that change will come. I think NCLB has left many teachers feeling worthless. Teachers do not have the respect they deserve. It often seems that teachers are blamed for the failure of students. I think NCLB is failing our students. I think the focus placed upon NCLB is keeping everyone from seeing the real struggles our students are facing. We need to focus on how to improve our students reading abilities and stop focusing on CRCT week. We need to bring real teaching back into our schools.