Tag Archives: No Child Left Behind

Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and You

23 Apr

I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal.  How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally.  But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.

As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses.  There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation.  As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency.  But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt.  They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process.   One by one they came forward and made deals.  Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.  There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.

As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved.  Everyone.  Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve.  But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose.  George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy.   Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.”  Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.

The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.  Their jobs were on the line.  They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables.  Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening.  Erasing student scores was wrong.  We all know this.  But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?”  Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?”  Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much.   Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season.  Fear, intimidation, retaliation.  Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation.  NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.

I felt for the judge.  He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators.  He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney.  It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds.  I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this.  Everything about this trial was painful to watch.  I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment.  But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers?  They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again.  They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals.  They are broke and broken.

As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing.  I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom.  I would have taken the deal.  Any deal.  Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.

And that is what this entire testing culture is.  It’s not about the children.  It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning.  It’s pure filth.  And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us.  We’re in it for the kids.  But it’s not about them anymore.  It’s all about the data.

In my last entry, I described our testing season.  We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal.  I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them.  And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that.  Most of these things are out of our control.  The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.”  In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems.  Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things.  Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.

Parents all around the state  and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons.  But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken.  One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day.    Fear, intimidation and retaliation.  While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder.  It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place.  And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history.  And its starting to show.  I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate.  Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness.  I’ve always liked teaching, and still do.  But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.”  Covering your bum.  It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them.   We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.

Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.

5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!

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We Need a Better Transition Program

7 Nov
The way NCLB is currently structured and the way schools are really pushing and driving, now is the time to straighten out the transition-to-work emphasis, especially for those students who are older than 18.  I currently have 2 that should have/could have graduated at 18, but they are being served in the public school system in my classroom.  Is the focus on academics the best thing for them at this age?  Certainly not for my students or those with more moderate intellectual disabilities.  The unemployment rate for students with disabilities runs 80-90%, and this is because school systems are ill-equipped for this task.  Public high schools are being pushed and pressured to offered a curriculum that prepares all students for college.  The large vocational programs that were in place in the 1970’s and ’80’s are now long gone and are largely replaced by more academic space or by computer labs. 
 
So on top of the demands for offering the regular education curriculum for all of my students, I am also having to try to offer some sort of meaningful job/employment services and skills.  These skills are not aligned with the basic core academic standards that I am supposed to be using in order to teach.  The daily living skills are also not aligned to core standards.  And yet, when I submit lesson plans, they must include the state academic standards and must somehow align.  This is the basic problem that NCLB brings to the local school system.  We are not doing that good of a job in the core mission of academics and we are also tasked with teaching some sort of meaningful vocational skills. 
 
The problem is that the least restrictive environment for a 16 year-old is not the same as it is for a 20 year-old.  And yet, that is exactly how it works in our school system.  Regular students are either working or going to further their education while students with severe disabilities have no other choice but to remain in the same building, in the same classrooms with the same teachers until they age out at 21+ years of age.  Other students have moved on while those with severe disabilities are stuck.  And for all of my training and background I simply do not have the resources to offer everything to everyone all the time.  When NCLB first started impacting those of us who taught this population, there was a lot of talk about aligning our goals with the standards.  We were to just take what we were already doing and find some way to make it fit into the regular curriculum.  Some things work more natural than others.  For instance, speaking and communicating are part of almost every task we do and that easily aligns.  We can count things that approach an algebra standard.  However, when we get into the real meat and guts of a high school academic curriculum, very little fits into what a student with severe disabilities does in the real world and in real life.  Geometry, American literature, physical science and world cultures are not very relevant to them.  That doesn’t mean they can’t learn it or that we can not teach them.  But when a skill has to be taught 500-1500 times in order to be mastered, is that the best use of our time?  To be sure, teaching the core content takes alot of creativity and is sometimes even fun.  It does, in fact, reflect just what their peers are doing, only at a more basic level.
 
However, at the age of 18, that is no longer true.  Their peers or not still in high school.  They have moved on, and so it is that the students with severe disabilities should also move on.  The present academically focused atmosphere of NCLB arguably serves its purpose but there gets to be a point where is becomes an even more serious impediment and liability.  Students need to be preparing for work outside of school.  They need to get outside of the bell schedule, outside of class changes and out of their desks.  They need to be in a seperate place where the focus is solely on transitioning to work.  The regular high school is not trhe least restrictive environment for students who are 19-21+.  They need to be in a place better suited to train them towards goals that will better serve them outside of the constraints of NCLB.  A student could opt to continue to work towards the regular credentials, of course, but there should also be another option besides spending the entire 7-8 years after middle school in one building, in one room.  This simply turns high school SID/PID rooms into yet another version of institutionalization.  No other population of student gets handled and treated this way.
 
To that end, we do need to do a better job of including our students in the regular education setting, even if it is for a modified period of time.  At the present time, the opportunity for discimination is entirely too rampant.  I have voiced concern about mainstreaming and inclusion before.  But after waking up to some issues with being discriminated against, I realize that the only way to combat it is to always be around and in everyone’s face.  Plus, for my part, if they won’t let me get away from SID/PID than perhaps I can gain access to the regular education classroom by getting my students placed there.  Suddenly I become a more critical part of the landscape as teachers scramble trying to figure out what to do with these kids.
 
So two things need to happen: 1.) Make a final drive towards full inclusion 2.) Establish a place for those who graduate from high school to be served until they are aged out, where the emphasis is vocational skills rather than the core standards mandated by NCLB.
 
It’s really going to be up to parents to make demands toward this, though.  I’m speaking as both teacher and parent but know that as an employee of the school system my voice can more easily be squelched.  Plus this might not be something other parents want, so I’m curious about that.  Should we more fully include those with severe and profound disabilities? 
 
I will say to you parents that the regular school system is simply too poorly equipped to offer your student the vocational training that he/she really and truly needs.  The mission of the school system is to educate students according to the state curriculum standards.  That will always come first, and everything else is extra, regardless of what is put on the IEP.  We can write lovely goals and a lovely transition plan but that neither compels nor empowers us to carry out those plans.  The IEP is pretty much toothless in areas that do not align with NCLB.  If it does not address the state curriculum, I’m going to have a hard time carrying it out because the law clearly mandates what I’m required to do — teach to the standards.  And I do not have sufficient time to even do that very well.  So guess what happens to those goals, objectives and transition plans?  They are being sidelined.
 
Under IDEA, all students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)  However, NCLB has totally changed the definition of “appropriate.”  It is all about the state mandated curriculum and meeting standards of performance mandated by the federal government.  So you may want your child to learn some functional skills like tying his/her shoe, going to the bathroom, do some sorting, assembling or other vocational/life skill tasks.  However we at the school are under serious constraints of time and resources.  I’m going to do my best for the students that I have, and their parents but this is not the same business that it was when I started or even 2 years ago.  The shift has been focused and radical. 
 

A Few NICE Words About NCLB

13 Oct

I have been bashing No Child Left Behind pretty much nonstop for the last 3 years.  Most educators hate it with a flamey white hot passion.  NCLB has done some very bad things for education, teaching and students.  I will return to my regularly scheduled  NCLB bashing right after this little break.

So what are some good things that have happened since the passage of NCLB?  Let me list them….

1.

Okay!  Thanks for stopping by and don’t forget to drop a comment in the box!

 

 

Okay, seriously, there are a couple of things that I would consider improvements under NCLB.

First, because of the new emphasis on a standards-based curriculum, schools seem a bit more streamlined in their mission and focus.  By that, I mean in the past schools seemed a bit lost in their mission and seemed focused on mitigating various social ills and inequalities.  The mission was so diffused that they couldn’t do anything right.  Schools are still expected to accomplish more things, but now that emphasis is codified within state standards.  This does have some very real consequences within special education, especially the goals and objectives, but that is an entirely different post.

Another benefit that I am going to have to allow is the fact that many students within “the golden band” have benefitted.  That is, those students who were just below the line in proficiency.    In fact, we have seen some students who were further behind catch up faster than expected within this year’s 9th grade class.  Every 9th grader with a mild disability is in a regular class, and most of those classes are co-taught.  This is good for the co-teaching even though co-teaching is an expensive proposition.  This is the one big area where funding could do a lot of good. 

Within my own class, this focus on academics has pretty much taken me off the hook for a lot of the stuff we used to have to do.  Technically, as a teacher, this is a positive thing.  As a parent, this would not be a very good thing.  However, remember the focus is on the state standards.  We can not justify spending time and money on things that are not focused on the standards.  Communication has become a more critical area and as we try to get our students to respond and adaptive technology has been stressed more.  Schools could use more monetary help in this area, too.  Specific grants towards adaptive technology research as well as developing more open source solutions would benefit schools and parents who are all under budget restrictions.  But in the meantime, toileting, feeding and social skills are fading from the table because they are not standards-based.  The school’s mission is to deliver the state-mandated curriculum, and since NCLB trumps IDEA, that is where teachers are going to be spending most of their time.

I have had to develop my sense of humor, and in that respect NCLB has enriched me.  I sit with my little groups studying American literature, algebra, geometry and all manner of social studies and science.   The few brave teachers who darken my door walk in, look and then shake their heads in amazement before walking out.  I am taking thousands of photos of us doing this stuff, and it is pretty crazy.  I manage to bring things down to their level but am thinking about simply abandoning all the prerequisites and just get pictures of them doing some calculus, Latin and AP economics along with some physics.  Why not? 

I’ve had to stretch my concept of “teaching” and “learning” in order to make the curriculum fit with my kids.  Again, a wry sense of humor does not hurt, because if you take any of this too seriously, it will depress you beyond words.  My creativity has been tested and over time I think I’m getting more clever about how to work the system and have some fun with it at the same time. 

As you can see, many of the “good” things are rather mixed and half of them are as personal benefits that may or may not have anything to do with student achievement.  “Student achievement” is more than simply one test score, and I’ve been challenged this year with finding creative ways to measure and track it unlike the federal government who has no interest in creativity.