The brutal heat of the last month broke this week in impressive fashion. Amid streaks of lightening and claps of thunder, the rain poured down and dropped the temperatures overnight from the zone of, “Oh, it’s 102 degrees; there must be a cool front” to “Fall might just come after all since my car thermometer reads in the double digits.”
As I type this from my porch, I feel like a refugee just returned home. I spent lots of enjoyable hours outside prior to the record-setting heatwave, reading or writing from the back porch, sitting by the pool. But instant sweat-inducing humidity coupled with pool temperatures reaching 95 degrees made the great outdoors pretty inhospitable for most of the summer.
But it’s not just the weather that made this summer one I likely won’t look back on too fondly. Professionally, the last year is one I hope to forget over the course of a long career. I can’t recall a more antagonistic climate for public education during my twenty years in the field. The combination of a takeover of our state legislature by the conservative faction, the loss of federal stimulus funding, and the reduced allocations for public schools from other sources meant not only struggling to reduce expenditures while maintaining educational standards but aiming to do so while under pressure to meet the unrealistic goals set by No Child Left Behind.
Unlike some in public education, I fully support the move toward making schools accountable for the learning of all students–even those who bring with them the challenges inherent in an impoverished upbringing. What I can never support is the labeling of schools as “failing” if students of poverty, students who have special needs, and students who are learning the English language do not meet the same standards as those without these challenges in exactly the same amount of time.
Some relevant examples from my recent experience analyzing my district’s test scores illustrate the point well. One of our elementary schools will join the dreaded “Needs Improvement List,” complete with the requirements to create a school-wide improvement plan and offer the opportunity for students to transfer to another site in order to escape this “failing” school. Why? Because this school is both large enough to have 30 students in the “subgroup” of English Language Learners, making it “reportable,” and it was unsuccessful in bringing these students up to grade-level in reading after between one and two years here in the United States. Just imagine moving to another country speaking little or none of the native language and taking a test a little over a year later–the same test that is given to students who have lived in your new country their entire lives. You fail? Well, your school must not be doing a good job. And, not only must you have the opportunity to go to a school that might do a better job, but all of the other students must be allowed to do so as well. This requirement exists even though the school has overall test scores that rank it in the top 10 percent in the state and the scores of the English Language Learners are actually higher than the state average as well.
We also have schools in jeopardy of joining the school described above if they do not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” this school year. Why? This time, it’s due to another “subgroup,” students with special needs. The twist here, however, isn’t quite the same. A complex flowchart allows IEP teams to determine whether a student should take the same state-mandated test as students not on an IEP or a “modified” version that better reflects modifications received during instruction. Schools and IEP teams receive instructions to use modified tests for all students who qualify using this process. This sounds good. Students are tested fairly and judged based on their individual needs. Schools receive feedback on how well their special education programs work. What could go wrong?
Bureaucracy, that’s what. To stave off schools over-qualifying students for modifications, only 2 percent of the student population may have their modified tests count “as is.” For the rest, any “satisfactory” scores above the 2 percent cap move back to “limited knowledge,” a nicer word for “failing.” The problem? Our district has approximately 16 percent of our students identified as having special needs. Many more than 2 percent of these students receive modified instruction or assessment. Why should the schools be penalized for allowing these students modifications? And, how do we explain to the public that our students passed their tests, but then they didn’t because of a loophole and some obscure method of calculating school performance.
Is it any wonder that the Secretary of Education gave up this week and declared he wouldn’t wait any longer for a Congressional fix to this mess? Is it any wonder I don’t hold out a huge amount of hope that what comes next will be better?
But wonder is exactly what I want. I want kids to wonder about how things work. I want kids to wonder what they might do if faced with the same situation as their favorite literary character. I want kids to wonder how it felt to live in a time when people crossed oceans and continents without benefit of airplanes, GPS, and instant Internet access.
It’s that kind of wonder that not only increases learning but creates the kind of people who lead lives future generations will wonder at. I’ve never known wondering which bubble to fill in to do the same.