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UCR Study: No Child Left Behind Discourages Teachers

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State’s top teachers say law de-professionalizes teaching and stifles classroom creativity

By Chris Levister –

At its 2002 signing President George W. Bush memorably hailed the No Child Left Behind Act as a knock out blow for the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

The landmark legislation had strong bipartisan support and was generally viewed as a necessary step to close the achievement gap between rich, poor, Black and White, and bring all students to grade level proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

Eight years later California’s best teachers say the law is not making the grade, saying it deprofessional izes teaching and stifles classroom creativity.

The study “Does the No Child Left Behind Act Help or Hinder K- 12 Education,” released Tuesday, was conducted by UCR researchers Steven G. Brint, sociology professor and associate dean at UC Riverside and Patrick Guggino who earned his Ph.D in education from UCR in 2008. The researchers surveyed 740 national board certified teachers in California. National Board Certified Teachers are highly accomplished educators who meet high and rigorous standards.

They found that 84 percent of those polled see NCLB in an unfavorable light as too inflexible, too arbitrary and too punitive.

“That unfavorable view stems primarily from their perception that the legislation is not helping them reach students as individuals,” said Brint.

He said the study indicates that teachers believe the act sets unrealistic goals, fails to use the skills and experiences of teachers and is not helping them teach creatively in ways that engage students.

Survey respondents reported that instruction time in their schools had been reduced in subjects such as science, music or art time for reading and mathematics – the two core subjects tested for No Child Left Behind.

Ironically, the law requires teachers to adhere to strict standards of professionalism, but teachers say that following a script mandated by the govern- ment actually makes them feel less like professionals. NCLB proponents and critics alike agree that the law’s greatest accomplishment has been shining an unforgiving spotlight on substandard schools and demanding that they do better. Brint said that teachers favored the greater focus on accountability.

“But they want accountability that has real results. Who can argue with achievement goals, not tolerating failing schools or unmasking low achievement of minorities and special education students, the rub centers around how the law seeks to achieve these goals.

Under the law’s most visible stipulation, states must test public school students in reading and math every year from third through eighth grade, plus once in high school, and reveal the results for each school or face a loss of federal funds.

Brint said there is a perception of fear and retaliation for failure among some teachers in low performing schools. “They’re under a lot of pressure.

Their jobs could be in jeopardy.

They talk about the crushing effects of finding their schools labeled failures,” said Brint.

No one likes to talk about the fate of failing schools that continue to flounder. Under NCLB, such schools face escalating interventions.

If they miss performance goals two years in a row, they must offer students a chance to transfer out. After three years, they must provide tutoring services. After five years of failure, the law says the school must be restructured, which means replacing the staff, converting to a charter school, having the state or a private company take the reins or some other intervention.

California has some of the toughest K-12 curriculum standards in the nation teachers and many administrators despair of hitting the 2014 goal. “Today we don’t have any of our schools with 100% student proficiency, and I will predict that we won’t by 2014,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction.

“You have to question the accountability system when 100% of your schools are going to be failing by definition.” President Barack Obama himself denounced NCLB during the 2008 campaign, charging that it had caused schools to "teach to the test" and to abandon a well-rounded curriculum that includes physical education, art, and music. The law, Obama charged, was designed to punish schools, not to improve them.

Once ardent NCLB supporter Victorville teacher Charisse Mitchell has seen her fourth grade class size grow, while watching teacher and student morale plummet.

“NCLB is like a Russian novel: pastoral, at times uninspiring,, inflexible, complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed.”

She believes there are three parts to the education equation: improving the quality of instruction, engaging students in an interactive learning environment and encouraging talented young people to pursue education as a career.

“Undermining school morale by imposing unrealistic and unfairly implemented standards will make it difficult to achieve the imperative that we get public education right in this country.”

Still Mitchell says ask almost any teacher, school administrator, education policy maker or thinktank wonk about NCLB, and you’re guaranteed to get at least one sunny metaphor about how the law opened a window, raised a curtain or otherwise illuminated the plight of the nation’s underserved kids. This is NCLB’s biggest achievement and the best reason for making it work.

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