A Lesson for the Next President

A Lesson for the Next President

Will our next president have the courage to scrap No Child Left Behind?


This essay originally was published on TruthDig.

The last question in the final presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama had to do with what moderator Bob Schieffer suggested might be the most important issue of all: education. Both candidates expressed a deep need to reform education, and both conceded–as did their vice presidential candidates in their own debate–that the federally mandated program No Child Left Behind, embraced by many Democrats and Republicans, was underfunded. While this may be the consensus of legislators, I could not help but be left with feelings of distrust and discouragement.

Rather than approach the challenge and reward of education with the promise of cooperation, the presidential contenders offered a recipe calling for charter schools and school vouchers and an incentive for parents to move their students out of “failing schools,” a decidedly competitive approach to education. This divisive strategy can only lead to a greater divide between the haves and the have-nots. This is not what Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had in mind when he successfully argued in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case fifty-four years ago that “separate but equal” can never truly exist in education–or in society.

Amid perhaps the most important presidential election since 1932, the statements about education by our presidential and vice presidential candidates, even in the face of our current economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stuck with me more strongly than any other utterance in the debates. There is no secret why: I am a high school teacher. The night of the final debate, I was exhausted. My feet were aching–a consequence of standing on the job for the better part of ten hours every day as a teacher of United States history. I wanted to relax, but my mind was racing; there is a lot to think about these days.

We have seen a “bailout” of corporate and Wall Street swindlers, with the working class being forced to pick up the tab. The administration has continued to escalate defense spending while cutting taxes, never seeming to consider the dire social, international and economic consequences. With all the burdens being loaded upon Americans today, we deserve a break. Struggling homeowners deserve a break, not the devastation of foreclosure. Hard-working families deserve a break, not the shock of unemployment. And public educators deserve a break, not the damaging mandates of program improvement and the threats of state takeover that have fallen on my high school and countless others like it due to the draconian quotas of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sadly, NCLB doesn’t care about strong relationships in the classroom; NCLB cannot measure smiles, teamwork, camaraderie or the overcoming of adversity. It doesn’t allow for creative and authentic assessments and engaging activities in the classroom. And, tragically, it has demanded that we educators check our hearts and souls at the classroom door.

I teach in Desert Hot Springs, a little-known California town of about 25,000 inhabitants. We are overshadowed by the neighboring desert community of Palm Springs, with its glamorous history, and the far wealthier towns to the southeast, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta, with their exclusive golf courses, country clubs and gated communities. Additionally, Desert Hot Springs High School is a Title I school, with approximately 84 percent of the student population using the program of free and reduced-cost lunches and an even higher percentage of students qualifying for the program.

Desert Hot Springs has the highest poverty rate, the highest dropout rate, the highest crime rate and the lowest per capita income of any city in the Coachella Valley and therefore the Palm Springs Unified School District. Moreover, the city and its high school are met with the challenges of increasing documented and undocumented immigrant populations, mostly from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, and transient populations, both struggling to assimilate into the community and the school system. I did not know any of this when I decided to become a teacher nine years ago and No Child Left Behind did not exist.

I was one of identical triplets born in August 1975 in Anchorage, Alaska; I later was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I spent much of my youth unsure as to what career I might pursue. That is, until I walked into an educational foundations course at Northern Arizona University in the fall of 1999. I expected a mundane environment as I entered the auditorium filled with students, but then I heard Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” bellowing from the loudspeakers. I thought I had mistakenly entered a dance class as I glanced toward the auditorium’s stage, where I saw a middle-aged woman dancing wildly to the music. Though she lacked rhythm she had me and nearly a hundred other students awestruck by her enthusiasm. Holding a mirror high and repeating the song’s chorus of “Make that change!” her charisma lit up the room. Before I knew it, I and nearly all the other students were repeating, “Make that change!” The dancing woman’s message was that, as future teachers, we would change ourselves, change the lives of our students and by doing so change the world. She was Dr. Rhonda Beaman. On that day, I was first inspired to change the world as a teacher. I have continued to strive to do that ever since.

My experience at Desert Hot Springs High School has been a series of ups and downs. I am fortunate to work among the most dedicated and collaborative professionals in the entire school district. I have always been treated fairly and with the utmost respect by everyone in the school and throughout the community. I have been honored as “Teacher of the Year” for the Palm Springs Unified School District (2006-07) and a Golden Apple Award recipient, and I have been listed in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers several times. Most rewarding of all, I have had the opportunity to touch the lives of thousands of teenagers and their family members throughout the community in my eight years as a teacher, and they have touched mine.

Sadly, however, the goal of changing the world as an educator has become increasingly unattainable as the metal vise of the NCLB machine and its iron-fisted standardized testing approach has begun to squeeze the life out of educators and the students we teach. Though I still do my best to smile in the classroom and bring students out of their adolescent shells, public education is being cruelly poisoned by NCLB. The only thing that seems to matter, from the state superintendent down to the district office and the school administration, are California Standardized Testing and Reporting data.

As a result of the federal government’s industrial approach to education, my school must improve test scores in every major core class–math, history, science, English–and at increasingly high rates. Additionally, every student subgroup–including white, Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian, socially/economically disadvantaged, English-language learners, special education students–must meet these yearly growth targets regardless of the inherent obstacles. The tests must be taken by 95 percent or more of the students in each subgroup. If just one subgroup fails to meet the performance or test attendance standards of NCLB, the school is put into “program improvement.” Moreover, these growth targets must be met or exceeded for two consecutive years. Though my school, amazingly, met its growth targets last year, we are in program improvement for the fourth year. In fact, the entire district is in program improvement.

NCLB is not only impacting certain minority populations; unattainable goals of NCLB are cutting across distinctions in class and race as more and more schools are being labeled as “failing schools.” Finally, as many educators are aware, in just five years all students in all schools in every state in the nation must pass their standardized tests at a “proficient level.” That’s right; 100 percent of all students must be proficient by 2014. No Child Left Behind has not been adjusted in any way to fit the reality of education. I guess I should not only check my heart and soul at the classroom door but my sanity as well.

I am not suggesting we disregard the need for testing accountability, content standards and standards for the teaching profession. As in all professions and workplace environments, standards must be in place in the schools. I see nothing wrong with the California High School Exit Exam as a requirement for high school graduation. Students at the high school level (or perhaps even at the primary or middle school levels as well) should have to prove they are proficient in major subject areas to earn a diploma. However, expecting 100 percent of students to be “proficient” is much like setting a high-jump bar at four feet and mandating that every single student clear the bar. Not only would many students not clear the bar, they would not have been given coaches (teachers) who had the resources to adequately train them for the jump.

You can imagine how a disabled teacher like me sees the impossibility indicated by this high-jump metaphor. Now imagine what the learning-disabled or English-language learner faces when taking standardized tests. If we continue down this business-approach road, treating students as products and teachers as robots, we will see the tragic collapse of it all. Education will fall flat in humiliating defeat. It is my wish that our next president, be it Barack Obama or John McCain, as well as our federal legislators–whether Republican or Democrat–heed my call and that of many of my peers to end No Child Left Behind. For once, let us put partisanship aside so we can address an issue as important as our economy and our entanglements overseas: education.

At the local level, we can do something even more important. Educators, administrators and parents can breathe life back into education. We can–and must–re-emphasize the joy of learning, the rewards of teamwork, the unique qualities of performance, animation, humor, role-playing, individual and group-based projects, and the overall life skills, relationships and memories that students and teachers are exposed to every day in a truly high-quality classroom within a school that cares. After all, students are still kids. They must have fun and they must want to learn in order to compete, collaborate and achieve beyond secondary and post-secondary education.

In my years as a professional educator, I have never been inspired by the numbers of standardized tests or NCLB. And I have never met a fellow teacher or former student who truly has been either. Teachers are remembered by students because of how we make them feel. We educators must be the teachers we always wanted to have. We must not let the media’s overemphasis on the “failure” of public education discourage us. I could not disagree with the media more. My school has not failed me. My community has not failed me. My students, most of all, have not failed me. Rather, No Child Left Behind has failed us all.

No matter, I still love teaching and I will never leave my inspiration behind. At the end of the day, students leave my class smiling because of a joke I have told. Or they are left sobered by the real-life experiences shared by other students in the classroom. Or they are changed by the indelible emotional experience of taking part in a three-day dramatic play on the Holocaust. This is proof to me that my students have been inspired and have grown stronger intellectually and emotionally because of that inspiration.

At year’s end when students are promoted beyond my class and visit me with the sentiment, “I miss your class, Mr. Sinor,” I realize that a relationship has been built that won’t soon fade. Further, as those students graduate, go on to college, get married and share stories of classroom inspiration with their own children, I realize that my dream is no longer just that; it is real, a certainty that I have made a difference in students that will last a lifetime.

I never want this dream to end.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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