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Making 'No Child' Work

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Veteran Educator Margaret Hill: “Moving forward means stepping boldly beyond the status quo”

By Chris Levister –

San Bernardino County Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Margaret Hill is no stranger to the rough and tumble world of educating America’s school children. Her professional career spans 39 years in public schooling including a stent at the helm of one of the state’s and perhaps one of the country’s most challenging campuses: San Bernardino High.

So it was not news that a study published last month by UC Riverside researchers which surveyed 740 board certified teachers on the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Education Act found that 84 percent reported overall unfavorable attitudes about the law.

While many of those surveyed credit the act with creating higher expectations for student performance, the report noted most of these highly accomplished teachers were skeptical of the law’s intent and potential and in some cases angry over perceived barriers to individualized student learning, declining creativity in the classroom and weakened relationships between teachers and students.

“I would agree with many who believe the law needs to be revised, perhaps several times, before it reaches maximum effectiveness but we can ill afford to allow fear of failure by some to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

For all its flaws Hill said the law has helped bring to light the achievement gap that exists between various ethnic and economic groups in the country; and it has emphasized accountability for student outcomes and effective teaching as never before.

The Obama administration has made clear that it wants changes in the law which could be reauthorized this year. The administration and Congress have authorized more than $100 billion to be spent on education as part of the $767 billion economic stimulus package.

Hill says the action sends a clear signal about the importance of an effective teacher for every student.

“We’ve got a lot of people weighing in on what’s wrong with NCLB. I see a glass half full. It is no less important to protect what is good in the law and resist pressure from powerful forces teachers’ unions, state governments and other groups that may seek to weaken rather than strengthen it.”

Hill says while the law needs more effective mechanisms for intervening in failing school and ways to reward students and schools that make measurable improvements, developing effective teachers is crucial for all students, but particularly for those in schools with large concentrations of low income and minority students.

“There should be a greater sampling of educators and other voices at the reform table. The problem with NCLB is we’ve become gridlocked over what’s bad about the law. Sometimes I think the wrong people are looking for reasons not to move forward.”

For starters she urges Obama and education officials to celebrate and build upon what’s good about our schools. “There’s a lot of good learning going on that you don’t hear about in the news. Let’s bring to the table a cross section of teachers and other voices laboring in the trenches of our lowest performing schools not just those who are certified by a national teaching board.”

“I think if you listen to people who are entrenched in academics and exclude those who are entrenched in compassion we’re missing the boat. If you hear out people who feel every child should master a foreign language and exclude those who feel every child should have job skills you’re missing the boat.”

Those at the table should also include kids, says Hill. “No one is asking the kids. The way we measure how kids are learning and how they feel teachers are performing is to test them. The challenge is to create new measurable criteria using every available resource including kids views.”

“We miss the boat when we tell students to silence cellphones in the classroom. A huge mistake, because it’s not going to happen.

Virtually every kid has a phone or personal data device for texting or social networking. So why not embrace those Internet ready gadgets to do research on the history of Russia or the tribes of Afghanistan. Set up small groups and encourage healthy discussion about what they find.”

Hill says going forward the administration must insist less on standardized testing and more on developing effective teachers who teach and reach students in new and creative ways.

Defining what it means to be an effective teacher remains a major hurdle for the Obama administration, which wants states to help teachers improve their skills, get rid of ineffective teachers and identify and train effective teachers.

Education industry experts paint a bleak picture of states’ efforts to measure teachers’ achievements, which has been a hot button issue for decades.

“We’re working with a rudimentary system of stones, knives, and bearskin,” says Dan Weisberg, vice president for policy at the New Teach Project, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. “Many states haven’t yet defined what it means to be “effect ive”, a major hurdle, because teachers, administrators, unions and lawmakers are gridlocked over the criteria.”

Hill believes local not fede ral officials will ultimately assume the task of creating more effective mechanisms for intervening in failing schools.

“Under the current design, there is a big barrel. We’re effectively trying to put everybody in that barrel with the expectation that every student will rise to the top. An African American child in California for example may not test as effective as an African American child in Florida. Does that mean the kid in California is ineffective? It’s going to come down to compassionate, consistent persistence at the local level. Success is never final and failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

Hill adds getting serious about the shortage of effective teachers in high poverty schools will take resources. She said fortunately, one time funds stemming from the stimulus can support planning and initial investments in these strategies.

However reforming NCLB will necessitate long term federal, state and local financial commitments and the adoption of bold new criteria rather focusing on protecting the status quo said Hill. “In my 39 years of educating I’ve seen a lot of changes many of them scare the heck out of me.”

Still says Hill, “moving forward we must have the courage to step out of our comfort zones into the daylight of sometimes harsh new realities.

It’s easy to be brave from a safe distance. The strongest, most generous and proudest of all virtues is courage.”

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