Tested – One American school struggles to make the grade

By Vidya Pradhan

It has always been a puzzle why American schools cannot replicate the dominance and the reputation for excellence demonstrated by American universities. US students have always performed rather shamefully compared to students from other countries. In an international math assessment of 15 year olds in 2003, American students came 29th out of 34 places. The outrage reports like these have generated was the driving motivator for the No Child Left Behind(NCLB) act, President Bush’s accountability-laden education policy unveiled just a year after he took office. Linda Perlstein, who has been covering the education beat for the Washington Post for several years, decided to spend a year with an elementary school in Maryland to study the impact of NCLB on the school system. What emerges is a gripping tale of heroism, sacrifice and uncommon bravery on the part of the principal, teachers and staff of Tyler Elementary as they attempt to deal with the new standards and punitive threats that NCLB brings in its wake. After struggling with the new assessments for 3 years, Tyler Elementary’s federal funding is in jeopardy. Every year its students don't perform, Tyler faces worsening consequences. Situated in an impoverished neighborhood with federal money as its only source of funding, things are looking dire for the school when, in an astonishing development, the school exceeds expectations in the school year 2005-2006, with 90% of third grade students passing the reading test as compared to 35% just 2 years ago. The success catapults the principal and school to stardom as they are held as poster children for NCLB’s educational reform. While basking in the glory though, there is a terrible fear on the part of the school staff – what if this was just a fluke? To understand the true magnitude of the school’s achievement it is necessary to take a look at the typical Tyler student – poor, living in the projects, no access to early education, a hostile home environment, suffering from lead poisoning, often marginally developmentally disabled. How the teachers extract test-worthy performances from this motley bunch is saga of Tested. In the environment that NCLB was created, American schools have come to have a growing responsibility to raise children, not just educate them. No matter what the home environment, what the education level of the parent, what language skills are deficient, the American public and its legislators expect the schools to turn out healthy, happy, intelligent and educated future citizens. The amount of pressure this puts on the teachers is incredible. Schools are expected to behave like businesses even though as Jim Collins, author of Good to Great put it, “schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent on the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.” In the face of this kind of pressure, the teachers at Tyler Elementary reduce education to its most elemental level. Till testing season happens in March, all the kids learn are reading and math. There is no time for science or social studies. Even reading and math are geared to the test. In reading comprehension a formula called BATS is used – Borrow from the question, Answer the question, use Text support and Stretch. The kids are tirelessly drilled on the test with no free time and reduced recess. In the mix are testing consultants, educational strategists and plenty of nit-picking oversight. Parental involvement is virtually non-existent. Somehow through all this, the teachers manage to keep their sanity till the tests are over and they can get back to the job of actually educating the kids and making knowledge fun. The book doesn’t cover how things were before NCLB, though the teachers often lament that they have no room for improvisation and creativity. It does deal at some length with the new Open Court and Harcourt syllabus and it is hard not to get cynical when you find out that President Bush’s brother Neil owns a company that sells educational software that is purchased by schools with federal money and family friend Howard Mcgraw III runs McGraw-Hill – one of the biggest curriculum and test providers in the world and the publishers of Open Court. What the book succeeds at is telling a fascinating story of how politics impacts educators. Tested is such a terrific read that I raced through the final chapters trying to find out if the teachers were able to replicate their success the following school year, as the journey to testing season was fraught with every pitfall you can imagine and then some. At the end of the day, the statistics appear to show that NCLB has worked in this beleaguered school but the book creates many questions for debate – have the kids really been educated? Are our brightest students being challenged creatively? Is the test-driven approach the right one? Is NCLB doing a real disservice to our kids? Most of all, can any school system that attempts to educate a group with diverse intelligence and economic background ever get it right? Cocooned in our affluent suburbs with rich schools, we think we are providing our kids with a multicultural, well rounded education by sending them to public schools. But the real war in education is going on in the inner cities and immigrant-heavy towns and our kids will all feel the ripple effects sooner or later. Linda Perlstein’s Tested is a must read for any parent wanting some transparency on the state of education in America today.

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