How do you spell relief?

As I watched the last installment of the PBS NewsHour’s Merrow Report on NCLB, I was as moved by the heart-wrenching frustration of the masterful teachers he interviewed as I was by the appalling insensitivity of the Secretary of Education. I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this play before.” Like a classic Shakespearean tragedy…

Act I. Some years ago, I stood in the doorway of my high school classroom with jaw-dropping incredulity as the Special Education Coordinator of our district tongue-lashed one of the best teachers I’ve ever known for teaching her students too much. Mrs L. had been working diligently with her self-contained, special needs students teaching them the same skills their age-level peers would be assessed on in the high school exit exam. The Coordinator was furious. She berated Mrs. L for wasting district resources, screaming: “They don’t need to know all that! They just need to learn life skills. If they can learn all that other stuff, then what will happen to our program and how will we get paid?”

I hurt for Mrs. L and those students; and I got mad. Over the next several months, we [the teachers] tried to get higher authorities to intervene. We went up the chain of command in our district, and were told to mind our own business (?). We wrote letters to the state department and to the U.S. DOE. We contacted Congressmen and asked for some type of investigation. We tried to alert parents and get them to file complaints, especially when we learned that similar practices were going on in other schools and districts involving special education and Title I. No results.

Act II. Enter NCLB, with its promised intentions of making sure all children are taught well and become proficient learners. Surely this would help. After a few years of test results, the Secretary announces with great confidence that now we know which subgroups of students are not being well-served, and those schools and teachers responsible need to be labeled and punished.

Act III. That same special education coordinator (who is now the testing coordinator–having been promoted by the district for doing such a great job) is speaking to the teachers at their start-of-the-year meeting. With great passion, she is emphasizing why classroom teachers must do more if the district is to reach AYP. And why are those special education students lagging so far behind?

Act IV. When questioned by John Merrow (and others) about the obvious inequalities and inaccuracies in the current testing based system, Secretary Spellings responds with a logical fallacy (either/or): What would the critics have us do, not measure student performance? As if standardized testing is the only way professional educators can determine what students know and can do. Oops, my bad, she’s not a profesional educator. (I thought EduWonk did a wonderful take on this point).

Act V. Excellent, conscientious, highly effective teachers, like my friend Mrs. L., faced with being forced to train students to pass a narrowly focused test or being punished for helping students move forward (but not fast enough to reach an arbitrary standard called “grade level”) leave the classrooms.

Epilogue: Had the teachers’ warnings and recommendations been heeded in the first place, our students would all have been much further ahead. Had teachers been involved in the constructing and implementation of legislation and policy, such as NCLB, we could have avoided many of the pitfalls and unintended consequences it hs engendered. Had the expertise of teachers (particularly those of us who have proven ourselves effective with at-risk, high needs and/or high-ability students) been tapped, we might by now have more comprehensive measures of student learning developed to scale.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of re-runs. It’s past time for us to flip the script and take charge of our own profession.

Reviews and new plot submissions are welcome.