Opinion
Education Opinion

NCLB’s Teacher-in-Chief, the Secret Lives of Testmakers, and Bookless in (Suburban) Seattle

March 19, 2004 4 min read

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, March 8-19.

Three weeks after U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the NEA a “terrorist organization,” his department announced teacher-friendly changes to NCLB—changes addressing qualification issues, specifically. By most accounts, more tweaks are coming; so it’s worth noting that the President’s point man for implementing the law is a former math teacher. Named assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in January, 59-year-old Raymond Simon says that until now, the highlight of his 37-year career in public ed was teaching Mary Steenburgen math in Little Rock. Before you ask who, exactly, the actress is, consider this: Simon was director of education in Arkansas, where he was embroiled in a battle over consolidating the state’s 300 school districts, to the chagrin of parents and educators in small districts. So will Simon simply do the Bush Administration’s bidding? Too early to tell. But he did say this to complaints that NCLB is underfunded: “You can do a lot with the money you already have if you put your mind to spending it in a focused and organized way.”

How’s this for spending: Massachusetts is paying an outfit called Measured Progress $118 million to create future versions of the state’s MCAS tests. And Judith Rubenstein Gerstenblatt, the testing company’s publishing manager, assures us that her employees are not evil trolls plotting student failure. A peek inside MP’s HQ reveals well-intentioned test writers, some of them former teachers. They’re making certain that each year’s MCAS is time-sensitive—questions on the New England Patriots, anyone?—and different from previous tests so as to be cheatproof, not to mention immune to test-prep tricks. “The only real thing to do,” one interested observer says, “is know the content.”

That attitude may not help next year’s SAT-takers. A new version of the exam, complete with an essay question to help counterbalance the multiple-choice portions, will debut next March. Sounds promising, but folks at the Princeton Review claim that the readers, including high school teachers, hired to grade the 2.5 million essays will have two minutes to score each one. As an example of how rigid the assessments may be, they coupled test questions with the writings of famous authors, then graded accordingly. The results: Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, is Ivy League material, while Shakespeare should seriously consider community college.

Colleges, of course, are places you’d expect students to be exposed to alcohol. But the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University reports that up to 60 percent of visitors to alcohol-company Web sites are minors. Sexy screensavers, digital pinball, song samples, and ads for flavored drinks, or “alcopops,” are among the attractions. CAMY studied 74 sites, finding that “more than 700,000 minors visited at least one ... in the last half of 2003.” Anheuser-Busch has released a statement on its marketing practices, saying that underage drinking is a societal issue, not an advertising one. But that doesn’t fly with Lynne Goodwin, whose college-age daughter was killed by a teenage drunk driver last year. “Alcopops? They’re just like the tobacco industry’s Camel Joe,” Goodwin says. “They’re creating gateway behaviors. The first step to get someone to drink is making them comfortable with the concept.”

While accessing Web sites may be easy, finding books is hard at Edward Williams Elementary in Mount Vernon, New York. A majority of the library’s volumes date to the 1950s and ‘60s, when the student body was mostly white. But today’s mostly minority students, 90 percent of whom receive free or reduced lunches, didn’t have much to choose from during Black History Month—nothing on Whoopi, Oprah, Ossie Davis, Rosa Parks, or Duke Ellington. Even Harry Potter fans are out of luck, as are those looking for books on technology, unless The First Book of Television (1955) qualifies. Ernest Gregg, the school’s new principal, is trying to revamp the long-neglected library by soliciting donations and hiring a media specialist. But thus far, the specialist has had to buy books with her own money and loan the school her VCR. “There are limits to what I can do,” she says.

Deborah Jacobson, a science teacher at Meadowdale Middle School in Lynnwood, Washington, has done away with books altogethertextbooks, that is. “You don’t learn science out of a book,” the 11-year veteran explains. “Science is a verb, not a noun.” Case in point: Jacobson recently donned goggles and helped her kids use electrical currents to separate DNA samples, to see if a “suspect’s” DNA matched that at a “crime scene.” Her classes have also built 6-foot-tall catapults (to test potential and kinetic energy) and rockets fueled by sodium bicarbonate and citric acid (to study Newton’s laws). But doing away with texts—isn’t that extreme? Apparently not. Jacobson was recently among the nominees for the 2003 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

—Rich Shea

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