Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Parent On NCLB

With this year's election hype focused on the economy and health
care, it seems the impact of No Child Left Behind on working-class
families has been overshadowed by other issues. Not for me.

Reauthorization of NCLB was expected to go to a congressional vote
but has been postponed until after the presidential election. As the
mother of three children in public schools, I would like to see this
bungled attempt at education reform left behind.

Somehow our public education system has interpreted this law to mean
that today's young children will write like accomplished authors,
conduct experiments according to strict scientific methodology and
zip through algebra and geometry without learning basic math. All at
the same tender age when their not-so-distant forebears were trapping
bugs in jars, writing fanciful stories, and savoring the aroma of
teacher-prepared mimeograph practice sheets for plain old ordinary

In the 1980s, a national report on U.S. education sounded the alarm
that "Johnny can't read," echoing a report from three decades
earlier. I was as appalled as anyone.

But make no mistake. NCLB goes far beyond requiring the schools to
teach reading (which they still don't do very well). My youngest
child was required to read "fluently" — with no pauses to decipher
unfamiliar words — in his first nine weeks of first grade. His
reading material included discussions of the political and social
structure of a Hawaiian township, complete with multisyllabic words
and Hawaiian names. His teacher recommended retention. I fought it,
and he got summer school instead (along with hordes of other
disillusioned young scholars).

The irony of NCLB is that those kids who can't keep up — whose
parents can't afford expensive tutors or give up their jobs to
provide oodles of one-on-one assistance — are in more danger than
ever of getting left behind as educators insist they must do away
with so-called "social promotion."

Since that disastrous first-grade year, I have been called to at
least one conference annually letting me know that my child is
failing to be more than he can be. Educators deliver this news with
straight faces, despite the fact that they have failed to teach
phonics, addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, or
cursive writing. (Such lessons may seem simple, but they help develop
essential concentration and memory skills.)

My youngest studies as instructed, makes steady progress and rarely
misses class. Yet he scores poorly in the never-ending stream of
assessments. The school system's answer? A notation of "below grade
level" on the report card and the threat of retention. My son would
be entitled to a government-subsidized tutor, I was told, only after
he fails a grade.

I can trace the madness to my oldest child's fourth-grade year, 2000-
01, when NCLB was on the road to approval. Requirements for promotion
included her ability to fill out a job application. She was 9.
Ridiculous, yes, but relatively harmless.

My second child entered kindergarten that year. Homework consisted of
cut-and-paste exercises and measuring household items. Using scissors
would help my child develop fine motor skills for writing, I was
told, and measuring things would foster an appreciation for real-life
math applications. My pleas for the child to bring home writing
practice and simple math worksheets fell on deaf ears. To this day,
her handwriting is illegible, and she doesn't like math any better
because she knows how to measure a doorknob.

Since then, it has been one fad or alleged silver bullet after
another, as educators experiment with shortcuts and ways to get
parents "involved," which is code for making them pseudo-teachers.
Never mind that parents work long hours and have no spare time to do
the government's job.

In Hillsborough County, since 2003-04, parents of children as young
as 8 have been coerced into coaching strictly structured science
experiments that belong in the higher grades. At my child's
elementary school, participation is mandatory by third grade. Weary
parents joke wryly about staying up until midnight working on display
boards and graphs, trying to wrestle their offspring's childish
curiosity into something that resembles an MIT-caliber experiment.

The government's Web site www.ed.gov/nclb claims the act holds
schools accountable. All I see is the pressure that has fallen on
children and their parents. Without the recognition that there are no
one-size-fits-all teaching methods and the funding for a true
education fix, NCLB is detrimental to my family. It undermines
childhood pleasures and threatens to destroy my son's self-esteem. I
want it to go away.

Susan Green lives in Hillsborough County.

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