Education Opinion

Trust: A key ingredient in school change

By Anthony Cody — June 30, 2008 5 min read
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While I have been critical of No Child Left Behind since its inception, I have resisted accusing its proponents of having bad intentions. When we attack motives, it seems as if the debate devolves into a shouting match very quickly, especially if those on the other side are determined to hide their actual agenda. Recent comments in Time magazine by Susan Neuman, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, suggest there may indeed have been a destructive agenda at work. According to this article, “there were those within the administration who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit….’ ‘There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.’”

This is not a huge surprise. I had been suspicious of NCLB. After all, if it had been designed to help the schools, wouldn’t it look different? Wouldn’t it give us some chance of succeeding? This is a personal question for me and millions of teachers and students. The school where I taught for 18 years was making good progress, but has been terribly undermined by NCLB, and is in year 5 of Program Improvement – and may not survive much longer. My school actually improved our test scores significantly for four years in a row, but the Byzantine sub-group requirements meant that we still failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress every time. (You can read more details about this here. )

The success of urban schools depends on trust, and this is where NCLB has been most insidious. Urban educators walk a tightrope. Many of our students arrive suspicious of our motives – we are representatives of an often oppressive system that has often felt hostile to them. In order to get them to buy into school, and the hard work we want them to do, they have to understand that we have their best interests at heart. NCLB has made this much harder. In rhetoric and policy, the leaders have attacked educators, blaming us for poor test scores because of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” (Interesting to note that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan recently admitted in his book that he repeated this phrase dozens of times and “never had any idea what it meant.”) This blame was furthered by the labeling of schools as failures for not meeting arbitrary proficiency standards.

This regime of ridicule had the effect of making schools even more focused on standardized test scores. Billions of dollars have been spent on scripted curriculum and test preparation. Recent articles on progress in schools seem to note two discrepant realities. First, test scores seem to have increased marginally. This is cause for great congratulations all around. The schools have shown they can “rise to the challenge.” We have raised the bar, and students are working to surpass it. But then there is the dropout rate. More students than ever seem to be dropping out. Could it be that these two things are connected? Many schools are holding students back, because if they get another year of school before the 10th grade test, they may perform better and raise the school’s scores. In some districts, even kindergartners are being held back to raise scores. Holding students back has been shown to boost the rate at which they drop out.

I think NCLB’s greatest damage has come from a fundamental realignment of the purpose of schools. Our schools should serve the aspirations of each and every student and their families. These aspirations are tremendously diverse, and it is the creative challenge of a good teacher to come to understand what they are, and work with their colleagues to design programs that allow their students to meet them. We are accountable, first and foremost, to our students. We need to equip them for their future. That means giving them a strong academic foundation, and challenging them to excel in ways that are meaningful to them. Students must be encouraged to express themselves, to think critically, to develop their ideas in creative ways, to delve into history, science, art, math, literature, music, and writing – the things that give real meaning to education. When this happens, students take ownership of their own learning. They begin to understand school is not something being done to them, but is a whole host of opportunities for them.

But NCLB has short-circuited this relationship. It’s premise was that educators had betrayed students, and that the Federal and State government needed to intervene to ensure “accountability.” As a result, today much of school planning time is devoted to figuring out how to boost test scores. Students are exhorted to study and memorize so they can do well on the tests, pep rallies are held during test week, and success at school is defined by how well you can answer several hundred multiple choice questions on a few days in May. The focus on test scores at the classroom level leads to a corruption of the purpose of education. If education is to serve to develop our students as powerful learners, we do them a great disservice when we define their success based on test performance. The goal of the classroom teacher becomes to prepare students to please a third party, “the testmakers,” who hold tremendous power over the lives of everyone involved. The students do not arrive understanding the importance of this mysterious test in May, so its relevance must be emphasized, and they are told their futures depend on how well they perform on tests like these. They are told they cannot go to college without doing well on them, and if they don’t go to college, they will be unable to support a family. So is it is any wonder that students who do not excel on these tests decide school is not for them, and drop out?

This misplaced emphasis has led to a crisis of trust in our schools. Many students do not identify with the goals we have adopted, and teachers are massively frustrated. Students aren’t the only ones dropping out. Teacher turnover in urban districts like mine is close to twenty percent a year, making sustained systemic improvement difficult.

And now we know that at least some in the Bush administration carried an agenda actively hostile to our schools.

In response to my post last week, a commenter named Jimmy contributed this thought: “Let’s stop regurgitating what is already known. Let’s bravely go into the unknown. Let’s experiment and take chances. Let’s build trust and consciousness and overcome fear and worry. Let’s TEACH TRUST. Teach courage. Teach respect. Teach happiness. Teach health. But how are you going to teach those things if you don’t know them very well yourself? Kids can learn these things only if we model them. It’s time that we DO them.”

So how can we start modeling trust? I will share some thoughts over the next few days, but let’s continue the dialogue here. How do you think we can rebuild trust in our schools?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.