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Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Teacher's Guide to Resisting NCLB

Education is grounded in metaphors, and those metaphors carry a host of assumptions. As we have seen before high school teachers who refer to their students as babies betray a condescending racism toward the adolescents that populate their classrooms. Metaphors also shape how the public thinks about urban education.

Educational issues are framed by policy makers and the media, not by teachers or students. The power to frame educational issues results in the consumption of policies that are viewed as common sense. Today schools are seen as businesses producing products. A premium is then put on profit, getting the best “product” for the least cost. The metaphor here is productivity. Of course to speak of productivity implies that there is a succinct way to measure it. Currently we measure productivity in the form of standardized test results. Schools are rated, classrooms are rated, teachers are rated, and students are rated. In such a system, what counts is what is assessed on these tests. In turn, effective teaching can be quantified and compared. Comparison is at the heart of neoliberalism.

Accountability is done under the aegis of leaving no child behind. After all who wants to leave a child behind? The productive get ahead, the unproductive are left behind. After all exactly what does it mean to be left behind? The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “In case of Rapture, this car will be abandoned.” Until No Child Left Behind, I associated the phrase “Left Behind” with a series of Christian novels by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that had to do with rapture. The poor souls that are “left behind” get thrown into the pit of hell while Christians ascend to heaven. It is kind of funny to think of No Child Left Behind in this way given President Bush’s faith based bend. Given this context, we don’t want any child “left behind” when the educational rapture commences.

What if we took the time to think about the actual effects of accountability instead of its metaphoric frame? For one thing we would quickly discover that accountability has resulted in the displacement of students. In Chicago student displacement has resulted in riots at receiving high schools. Another effect is that many teachers have lost any semblance of academic freedom in the name of test preparation. Finally, some good teachers lose their jobs and are stigmatized because they taught at chronically underperforming schools.

Teacher opposition often misses the point. Typically teachers simply invert the logic of accountability and provide a romantic, subjectivistic, overly emotional pleas on behalf of the preciousness of the individual child. But what teachers fail to recognize is that their “expertise” has already been undermined. Their claims to really “know the child” go out the window because in the system such teacher knowledge, since it can’t be measured, is discarded and labeled “subjective”.

Teachers and critics need to stop debating why the department of education or the board of education behaves the way it does. We don’t need anymore teacher stories that provide teachers with feelings of empowerment, because those in power are deaf to the testimony.

Teachers must also avoid the “if onlys” because they are not grounded in reality. You hear this all the time in high schools, “If only the elementary schools did a better job.” I even heard this at the city college level, “If only high schools did a better job.” The “if onlys” get us nowhere because they aren’t built on reality.

The reality of education today: Only the aptitudes, knowledges, and actions directly related to the overall needs of society are recognized; everything else is either marginalized or silenced from the curriculum. In education today what is true is what is measurable. That’s why NCLB puts a premium on quantitative research. If it can’t be measured it is either suspect or irrelevant. What is measurable becomes what is taught. Teaching methods are dictated by measurement. Eventually the range of possibility in the classroom becomes a function of compliance to an established quantifiable “norm”.

So what can teachers do? They can start by interrogating themselves, and noting how they are implicit in the application of power at the capillary level. Here are some questions to start this process:

What happens when a student receives the lowest possible grade on a project when it is the best work has has ever done?

What happens when a teacher tells a student they are wrong, when the student knows he is right?

What happens when a child is too hungry to work?

What happens when a child is punished for talking in class, when he was asking another student for help?

How does a student feel when he can’t ask a question because a teacher has to “move on”?

What happens when students only do what is difficult for them at school?

What happens when a student expects to learn about American history and is given test prep every day for 2 months?

What happens when a teacher refers to a student as lazy or disrespectful?

What happens when a teachers refer to their students as “babies”?

What does the expectation that students will always do as they are told indicate?

What do we learn about ourselves when we examine these questions in light of our own critiques of power and neoliberalism?

What happens when we justify a lesson by saying, "it's on the test" and nothing more.

What happens when we teach content that we don't believe is important?

What happens when we answer our own questions instead of pushing students?

What are the consequences of student failure?

Only by considering these questions can teachers claim a meaningful voice in determining the future of education.

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