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Vermont Society For The Study Of Education Conference Analyzes Damaging Effects Of No Child Left Behind Act

Tuesday November 21, 2006

By Ed Barna

    Yiz wan zic ful mik zum nuf pum poz.

    Is it nonsense? Yes, and no, and yes, according to the Vermont Society for the Study of Education. The “words” are nonsense, they are part of a plan to improve children’s literacy, and that plan doesn’t make much sense, say its Senior Fellows.

    That leading sentence comes directly from a chart used in DIBELS, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, which is part of Reading First, which is part of what the No Child Left Behind Act’s federal administrators have increasingly specified for schools that don’t show good enough test results.

    There will be more in a little while about how DIBELS can make a child repeat a grade despite loving reading and thinking about books. But first, since NCLB’s high-stakes testing is so much about numbers, here are some results of a survey of Vermont teachers released last April.

    Dana Rapp, a Readsboro, Vermont resident who is Associate Professor of Educational Studies at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the co-author of the 2003 book “Ethics and the Foundations of Education,” found that:
--99 percent of those surveyed believed that NCLB encouraged them to teach to the test (if a school doesn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress in all of 37 possible groups of students, their federal aid is cut, and prolonged “failure” gives students the right to go to private schools, which are not tested).
--97 percent believed NCLB created more stress for students; 51 percent said “much more.”
--96 percent said enriching activities were less possible.
--93 said students’ love of learning had decreased.
92 percent said NCLB encouraged them to have fewer class discussions.
90 percent said the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s statement that NCLB would not harm Vermont schools was in accurate; 48 percent said “completely inaccurate.”
89 percent said Vermont’s classrooms are worse places because of numerical accountability and related testing; 40 percent said “much worse.”

    Numbers like that helped spur the Vermont Society for the Study of Education and the American Association of University Women to cosponsor  a conference on the “Growing Destructive Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Public Education” in Middlebury on Nov. 11. That was Armistice Day, as it’s still called in Europe, but at the Kirk Alumni Center there were some serious shots fired in the direction of Washington, D.C.

    “NCLB--Why I Left Teaching” was the title of Larry Carbonetti’s impassioned presentation. The 30-year classroom veteran, whose last post was at Springfield High School in Vermont, said the presence of Middlebury College students who wanted to become teachers had made a difference in what he planned to say.

    “My Dad was a teacher,” he said. At dinner, “he talked about it quite a bit.”

    His philosophy was that every day, every student needed to be encouraged “to do more than they believed they can do.” Carbonetti contrasted that with a newspaper report of recent school testing that talked about “an incremental change in the classroom environment.” He said, “I couldn’t be part of that.”

    The obsession with test results has reduced classroom instructional time, reduced the scope of the curriculum, lessened the incentive for creative teaching, and lowered student trust, Carbonetti said. Asked afterward if NCLB is driving good teachers out of the profession, he said he travels all over the country now, and hears again and again, in the most surprising places, that someone “used to be a teacher.”

    Susan Ohanian, a Charlotte resident, has become well known as a critic of NCLB through books like “One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards,” and “The Great Word Catalogue,” which offers innovative ways of teaching language fundamentals. But the book she chose to lead into is titled “Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?,” co-authored with Kathy Emery--a work education author Jonathan Kozol said will have “steam...coming out of your ears.”

    Ohanian approached the subject of her investigative journalism by talking about DIBELS, a method of assessing reading skills by giving one-minute tests to measure students’ facility with initial sounds, letter naming, phoneme segregation (s-eh-guh-rr-eh-guh-ay-sh-uh-nn), reading nonsense words (which obey English rules for word formation without being recognizable words), oral reading, retelling (how many words from what you just read can you repeat?), and word use.

    The assumption is that such “skill elements” will add up to reading ability, Ohanian said. But she is getting letters like one from a Kentucky mother whose daughter ended first grade excited about reading and capable of helping slower students, but now in second grade has been pulled out of class for drills to up her DIBELS scores and is falling behind. And there are teachers who complain about being required to read “scripted communications” word for word as the ideal way of instructing students.

    Ohanian said she and Emery are making their book available for the cost of printing it as “a clarion call for people to TAKE BACK EDUCATION!”

    She was backed by another Senior Fellow of the VSSE, Alis Headlam of Rutland, an educational consultant and teacher at several area colleges. Headlam said that in September, the federal Education Department’s Inspector General had come out with a report on the Reading First program that showed a clear bias toward phonics teaching and against “whole language” approaches that emphasized the meaning of what was read. DIBELS and related methods had been recommended by a panel of experts the department brought together, but half of those experts were from the university that created DIBELS, she said.

    The way certain interests had used NCLB to gain millions of dollars in federal spending, through remediating schools, was “scary,” Headlam said. “”We’re no longer trusting our teachers to be teachers.”

    Two Addison County teachers who attended the conference said their personal experience with DIBELS had been favorable. But as one of them put it, for their schools the DIBELS indicators were “tools, not endpoints.”

    The conference was at a Middlebury College location partly because one speaker, Gregg Humphrey, had started there as a student and is now a professor of teacher education. There is a better way of organizing education than NCLB, he said, and it was why he decided to become a teacher: the Vermont Design for Education.

    Presented in May of 1968, the VDE sets out 17 basic principles and 13 suggestions for implementing them. Humphrey distributed copies, so attendees could see the contrast with NCLB: an emphasis on the individual as a person with the right to question authority (and the responsibility to find answers to such questions); education based on the student’s desire to make sense of the world and individual style of learning and differing abilities; relating education to a much wider environment and to local realities, without limiting such learning to separate “subjects;”  having students support each other’s learning, and finding support from the surrounding community; and encouraging a sense of ownership of,  responsibility for, and pride in the school and its diverse students.

    “I feel we have lost our way in Vermont,” Humphrey said. “It’s time to stand up and decide what we want.” The idea of the VDE wasn’t to mandate one approach, but to encourage every school to work out their own design, with local control, rather than having a Big Brother approach to education.

    A neoconservative philosophy that amounts to “Social Darwinism” (each person is responsible for their own welfare, and those who rise to the top belong there since the fittest survive) is attacking the public schools around the country, Mathis said. But the annual Gallup poll commissioned by Phi Delta Kappa has shown strong support for local schools, with about 70 percent saying it would be better to reform the existing system to improve education rather than finding an alternative system.

    Vermont isn’t “failing” its children, Mathis said--not when this state is second in the country in child well-being, third in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, fifth in graduate productivity, and sixth lowest in its teen delinquency rate. When critics say Vermont’s public education system is in terrible shape, “basically they want to substitute their values and judgment for yours. That’s not trusting democracy.”


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