No Child Left Behind leaving kids behind
By Lee Takagi
I teach at a poor, mostly immigrant middle school. It has a rich diversity of cultures, with many students from the South Pacific and Asia.
I have learned so much from my students and have tried my best to teach them English in the context of the many subjects I have taught. It has been a very challenging yet rewarding job and a place I have chosen to stay these past 16 years.
Yet many forces are coming together to slowly kill our school. I am in mourning.
No Child Left Behind is an unrealistic federal burden that has the entire public school system cowed, with schools like ours in a desperate, panic mode. If we don't raise an increasingly higher percentage of our students to a proficiency level in math and English, we face stiffer and stiffer consequences. We have not made adequate yearly progress for quite a few years and are now being taken over by Edison Schools.
Our students who are near proficiency were strongly encouraged to drop their elective course — band, orchestra, computer and so on early in the year — to take a double period of math and/or English. This year and maybe for years to come, all students are tested monthly at grade level in math and English. Many of our students are still learning English and read at grade levels a few years below their current grade.
For too many, the test is not an accurate measure of what they know, but simply a random guessing game. The Department of Education pushes us harder and harder, saying its hands are tied as we certainly want the federal dollars for our schools. This is not the kind of assessment our students need — it doesn't assess real learning.
The Hawai'i State Assessment measures attainment of high standards in math and the language arts, and now, science. Again, students may only take this test at their grade level, not their reading level.
My most recent immigrant students in past years have had a chance to show their increasing proficiency in English by testing at a level commensurate with their learning. Until recently, fifth-graders recently arrived in the U.S. could take the third-grade standardized test and show they understood quite a bit of content in English. No longer. Instead of feeling increasingly proficient in this new language, our limited English speakers feel mounting frustration and hopelessness.
Many are dropping out even before getting to high school, sure they will never be able to progress adequately. We are leaving many behind in our increasingly unrealistic expectations.
Students acquiring proficiency in English, the language which they must utilize for learning in all subjects, need many hands-on experiences, many chances to use this new language in oral exercises, in a safe and low-risk environment with a teacher who cares.
Instead, the focus is on reading frustration-level textbooks, on testing and endless pressure throughout the day to perform on a level comparable to their native-English counterparts. Progress reports, mid-quarter reports on a child's progress in each subject, crush our students by the burden school has become, and they become increasingly unable to perform.
We became a middle school many years ago. Smaller teams meant fewer teachers to get to know. Advisory periods were added to counsel students, teach character education, develop interdisciplinary-themed units, plan team celebrations — all these components worked to give our students a sense of belonging, a chance to be successful as they were closely guided through the year.
Almost all of this is gone.
Teachers are departmentalized again, much like the "junior high schools" we tried to eliminate. One period a week is devoted to department meetings, not for holistic planning with the team. The meeting focus is not on best ways to teach an increasingly challenging curriculum, but on how to support the increased testing and assessments.
Advisory periods are often test prep periods. Class size has increased as monies were lost from Title I monies to pay Edison. Instead of small teams, each student has up to seven teachers to deal with as the entire grade level is "the team."
Often, advisers, the direct link to the parents, do not even teach their subject to half their advisory class, so they hardly know the academic abilities of their advisees. There is little time for team celebrations, nor do many feel much like celebrating these days.
Parents rarely complain. They came to our country seeking a better life and a quality American education for their children. They assume the school knows best. Many are very hard-working people often working multiple low-pay jobs over long hours that often keep them away from home in the afternoons, evenings and nights.
These parents want their child to succeed, yet they can't offer them much time or homework assistance as they are extremely limited in English or education themselves. When their child is failing, they accept this sad fate. They apologize to the schools, blame themselves or their children.
They rarely blame us. I mourn with them.
I will remain at my school, although many have left. I will continue to speak up for what I feel is right for my students. I will strive to bring a balance again to the lives of children at our school. This balance acknowledged the need for vigorous physical activity, learning a new skill, singing or playing an instrument, or being a needed member of a team to enhance the academic requirements. These activities strengthened a child's spirit, not just their vocabulary knowledge.
I will work to regain the pride we used to feel before we were labeled failing. That is, if our school is allowed to live.
Lee Takagi is a public school teacher living in Honolulu. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.