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It was eight years ago—one of those years when I was trying to be super mom, super wife, super teacher. My husband, out of desperation, finally decided to hire a housekeeper to come once every two weeks to relieve some of the pressure at home. What a gift!
For months the housekeeper slipped quietly into my home while I was at school. I couldn’t wait to get home. I would take in the smell of Pledge and Pinesol as I opened the door. On this particular day, she came while I was working at home. When she was finished working her magic, she walked in softly and stood by my desk. When I looked up, her eyes were on the floor. She stammered, “As I’ve been cleaning your house, I guessed you was a teacher.” “Why, yes!” I said, quite proud of my profession. “Well. … I was wondering. I graduated from high school here in town but I didn’t never learn to read. Do you think you could teach me to read?”
I was appalled. How was it possible that in this day and age that a child could graduate from high school and not learn to read?
At that same time, my own son was entering 9th grade with over 800 peers—but only 380 of those students would graduate four years later. What was happening to all those kids? When I asked teachers, counselors, and principals, their eyes glazed over. They had no idea what was happening and no one was asking that question. There was something wrong.
Gradually, I began to read about dismal graduation rates, often on page eight of the local paper. Then I read that only 35 percent of area students were reading at grade level. A light began to dawn. As I watched school board meetings, I heard about inner-city schools that lacked the same resources that I enjoyed in my suburban school, but the conversations were more like postscripts.
The system was obviously broken, but there was no uprising among parents or teachers. I often wondered, why not? Finally, finally some brave souls stood up and said, “We’re not going to take it anymore. We will not stand for mediocrity and students graduating who cannot read. We will make education our number one priority and we will hold states and schools and teachers accountable.”
The No Child Left Behind Act was ushered into the new century with bipartisan support. It held the promise of improving student achievement and changing the culture of American schools in a single generation. Soon the names of “failing” schools were splashed across the headlines—those same schools that we had sporadically heard about for years. We had always known they were failing, but now they were priority Number One on the school board agenda.
They received intensive “research-based” professional development, resources, and community attention and support. Many of the elementary schools led the evening news with their successes. Student achievement and graduation rates were meticulously charted and followed. The system became transparent—both our successes in elementary schools and our continuing challenges in middle and high schools.
I am proud of what has been started. Professional development, at least in my school, has never been better. Many elementary schools have turned the corner and problems in middle school and high school are now taking center stage. We have identified many of the problems and there has never been more mainstream conversation and discussion about possible solutions.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we have “fixed” the system. I hate this whole notion of directed instruction that stifles creativity and thought. I hate the idea of everything depending on one high-stakes test. But I do admire those who were willing to call attention to our educational quagmire at the turn of the century and take risky steps to do something about it.
I am looking forward to the reauthorization of NCLB in hopes that many of the more difficult aspects of the legislation will be tweaked and that it will come closer to what we as educators dream is possible. Maybe now “the brave” will be teachers who will stand up and say, I can still teach the whole child. I can make learning exciting and fun. I can teach to the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and guess what, my kids will ace that test because I am brave enough to do what I know is right. I am imaginative and creative enough to take what has to be done and work collaboratively with my colleagues to prepare lessons that meet those goals with depth and discovery.
Today, it’s just hard for me to see the brokenness of the system because what I see is a firm foundation rising out of the ashes—a foundation that has been built on the lessons learned these last few years. From where I stand, everything seems possible.