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Teachers Must Be On Board for Education Plan to Succeed

April 05, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow
In announcing his recent education overhaul, President Obama is making an attempt to whack away at No Child Left Behind's kudzu-like strangulation of America's education system. In Minnesota alone, half of all schools have been found deficient under NCLB and face sanctions of various severity.

Since its inception under President Bush, NCLB shook up every part of America's K-12 education system with its emphasis on once-per-year tests and achievement standards that will be ultimately impossible to meet. Schools that didn't meet these standards faced increasingly draconian punishment. In 2002, educators were wary of the program but were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Today, teachers say NCLB has drastically lowered the quality of education they provide to students.

No Child Left Behind is a failure. Its' only positive attribute is that it has shown the value of disaggregating assessment data. It also set the bar for success so low that almost any program rolled out by the Obama administration will be seen as a vast improvement.

The acid test for any educational program's success is student achievement. What defines "achievement" is always up for discussion, and the best way to reach that achievement is the topic of endless debate among educators. But one thing we know is that if teachers don't believe their efforts will succeed with students, then any educational program is doomed.

Such was the case with NCLB. In 2009, Macalester College's Political Science Department teamed with Minnesota 2020 and Education Minnesota to survey Minnesota's teachers about their views of No Child Left Behind and how it affected teacher morale. Not surprisingly, the survey found that NCLB ruined teacher morale, which in turn affected the quality of education teachers believe they impart to their students.

Teachers, drawn from the scientific survey sample, were first asked if there was a change in staff morale as a result of NCLB. Sixty-eight percent said there was a change for the worse, while 25.2 percent said there was no change and only 6.4 percent said morale changed for the better.

The results get worse from there:

  •  80.6 percent disagreed with this statement: NCLB "supports my personal approach to teaching and learning,"
  •  80.1 percent disagreed with this statement: NCLB "has been beneficial for students at my school,"

The study also examined NCLB test results for 2008 and 2009 against teachers who responded to the statement "Teacher morale is high." The majority of participants, regardless of whether their schools made adequate yearly progress (AYP) or not, said NCLB lowered teacher morale. At schools that did not make AYP in 2009, most teachers either strongly disagreed (32.8 percent) or disagreed (44.1 percent) with the statement that teacher morale was high. At schools that met AYP, 25 percent of teachers  strongly disagreed and more than 43 percent disagreed with that statement.

Into this fray enters the Obama administration. At first glance, their plan seems to carry many worthy ideas. The administration wants to look not only at test scores, but also at each student's academic growth no matter the performance level at which they start. This is a vast improvement over NCLB's requirement that schools be judged only on one test per year.

Obama wants schools to address the achievement gap. Previous efforts to close the achievement gap have come to naught in Minnesota; a vigorous focus is welcome.

Standards for federal Title I funds for poor students would change. Instead of the vague notion that schools must provide "challenging academic standards," Obama wants schools to offer "college- and career-ready standards." This change provides a focus on results rather than simply the process of education.

Instead of targeting only failing schools, Obama's plan would divide the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools into about 15 percent of high-performing schools that could receive rewards or recognition; 10 percent failing or struggling schools requiring varying degrees of state intervention; about 5 percent that would be required to narrow unacceptably wide achievement gaps; and about 70 percent of schools in the middle that would largely be left alone.

Obama promised America he would change Washington, and getting rid of most of the odious parts of NCLB is change we absolutely need. But like NCLB, the true test will be when the teachers take that federal policy and implement it at the front of the classroom. If it doesn't work, or the teacher's don't support it, then Obama's plan will join NCLB in the trash heap of educational history.

Minnesota teachers and students have suffered under NCLB's unfair measures long enough. During the same period that NCLB was adding unnecessary tests to our education system, the state cut funding for education by more than 14 percent. If Minnesota is serious about providing a quality education for our children and creating an effective workforce for the 21st century, then our teachers need a federal policy they can support. Anything less fails our teachers and our kids.

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