Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
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Jan 09 2009

Now I Know

“If you want to change your target students, now is the time. We only want to focus on the students who will be able to move from basic to proficient. The below basic students should not be targeted.”

It bothered me when I heard it. I jotted down a sarcastic note on my scratch paper - ignore the kids who need the most help. At an administrative grade team meeting this week, our CEO/Principal met with teachers to discuss the list of ‘target students’ we had chosen from our homeroom. The list of 3 names had been due the week before, but she was giving us an opportunity to change our names in the hopes we would only target the students at the basic level, thereby increasing our chances of bringing them to the proficient testing level, and therefore increasing the likelihood that our school would reach the federally mandated AYP (adequate yearly progress) we had missed the year before. The entire meeting fit well within our school-wide theme this year – found in the heading of every memo and newsletter – “Success – Our Only Option.” Although I teach at a high need school, we have an abundance of resources and a qualified staff.We should be able to reach these goals, but there are no guarentees or hints of flexibility in such a high-stakes testing environment. Every instructional day and every dollar needs to be tracked and scheduled to ensure the maximum academic performance outcomes. I would be lieing if I said I’m assured of our success this year.

NCLB (NickleB in techer lingo, a.k.a the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) has been in full force for almost 7 years now. The language of the legislation requires that every child, at every school in every state, will be proficient (80% mastery-ish) in Math and Reading by 2014. It was an ambitious goal. I support ambitious goals, but this was ridiculous. In even an ideal world, in which all educators were fully supportive of the law and the government fully funded its mandates, the idea that every child could reach proficiency within 13 years is laughable and regretgful at the same time. I was a high school student for only 2 years under NCLB, so I never felt the full effect of the law. Now I know. As a teacher and college graduate, I’m in a position to not only analyze NCLB, but I think I can confidently criticize it.

It sucks.

Ok, maybe the idea of NCLB is not so bad. A shift to a rigorous, data driven approach to education had been swelling since the early 1990′s and education reform was a top priority for the new President. NCLB was born with bipartisan support and optimism. Perhaps they knew every child wouldn’t reach proficiency by 2014 – they probably just wanted to believe it was possible. At least it looked good on paper. But what I think they didn’t realize at the time was how destructive a federally mandated education program could be to the neediest and stripped down schools in the hardest to reach and most upside down cities and districts in the country. Accountability is one thing – unrealistic demands without enough money, time or flexibility is quite another matter. Granted – I don’t have the statistics down or the facts completely straight. And I’m not trying to be an aspiring policy expert. I’m speaking from the scant encounters I’ve had with the law, and my daily exercises in the classroom – all of which are dictated by a law I previously knew little about. I routienly joined the chorus of teachers and educators I knew who disliked the law, but I had not truly grasped the extent of their frustrations and disappointments with NCLB. I do now, and I’m not happy about  it.

The meeting ended abruptly without much explanation or discussion about the decisions that had been made, or about how to implement the next steps of our target student plan. It was reflective of the no-time-to-waste, high-pressure atmosphere the administration and teachers feel this time of year. I don’t necessarily blame them for any of this. It’s what they feel they need to do to survive. If schools fail to meet their AYP goals for several years in a row, they are eventually shut down or re-staffed. In two months, my students will come to school and take a series of standardized tests called the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). How they perform on that test will determine what happens to my school, my paycheck, and ultimately, my student’s futures. Some highly selective Philadelphia high schools require proficiency on the PSSA and most students are explicitly tracked into classes based on these scores.

I’m 23 years old. I’m a first year teacher. I don’t have a teaching certification or degree. Is it fair that I get to choose and focus on the three students in my class that I think might make it? Is it right that I can’t choose the ones who need me the most?

The answer is a resounding no.

- Jeff

3 Responses

  1. Amelia


    Although my role at Willard is much, much different from that of yours at your school, I too have learned more about NCLB over the past several months than I would like. Today I helped staff interview the staggeringly long list of kids earning below a 2.0 GPA and it was disheartening to say the least. We were given a questionnaire for each kid: How is school going for you?; How are things at home?; If you could have any three wishes granted, what would they be?; etc. For that last one, I had a kid tell me he wishes he could be smarter. Another girl wished for a bigger house because there are 9 people living in their apartment. I know Willard has failed to meet standards for two consecutive years, so I imagine their predicament is much the same. It’s heartbreaking to think what will happen to these kids if they’re not offered the support they desperately need. It’s one thing for us to interview them and identify their needs, it’s quite another to adequately fulfill them.

    Anyway…on a lighter note, thank goodness I took a moment to rediscover your blog tonight! I hadn’t read anything since your mom’s visit (where did the last 4 months of my life go??) and I have literally been glued to it all evening.

    Goodnight, I miss you!

  2. Ralph

    What’s so ironic about Americans electing (and reelecting!) the most Christian president in the nation’s history is that he is the least Christ-like “leader” we have ever had. Bush and his advisers learned nothing from their supposed daily Bible readings. From his economic policy, to his education policy, to his foreign policy — you name it — not one reflected anything remotely resembling what Christ taught (as recorded in the New Testament).

    The Bush administration has always been about helping those who already “have.” It has never embraced the idea that, “Inasmuch as you have done this for the least of these, my brethern, you have also done it unto me.”

    Jeff, your students are very lucky to have you as their teacher. Ignore neither the best nor the least among them.

  3. Cambi

    I had no idea NCLB was not working because I am no longer anywhere close to a classroom. It really saddens me that children do get “left behind” but I think it’s because of systems implemented that don’t work. Plus, not everyone gets to come home to a household where making sure you do your homework is the first thing on your parent’s mind. So maybe your principal made you pick 3 students, but everyone reading this blog knows you are reaching out to all of them! Keep teaching and keep making a difference!

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a Teach For America teacher’s blog

Greater Philadelphia
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