Listen: Anthony Cody (of SOS March) on the effects of current reforms on students and teachers on NPR—and my response

The negative consequences of the education reforms, began by No Child Left Behind, have been continued and intensified by the current US Department of Education. Someone needs to tell them that children are more than test scores.

Check out this interview by California NPR news station KalNews with Anthony Cody, one the founding organizers of the SOS March taking place in Washington DC tomorrow. Here he breaks down the negative consequences of the education reforms began by No Child Left Behind and continued—actually “intensifed” he argues—by the current U.S. Department of Education. It is a very worthwhile 10 minute listen.

I appreciate his clarity and detail in describing how exactly, over around 10 years’ time, conditions in schools have changed, the content and ways children learn have changed, and the conditions of the teaching profession and teacher turnover rates have worsened. He describes the narrowing of the curriculum, which has become a buzzword and is starting to lose its meaning. However, as a high school science teacher, he makes it concrete: kids came to him with less and less science knowledge because schools had prioritized ELA and math.

At the end of the interview, he describes an initiaitive he was a part of years ago at a high-needs Oakland public school, where teachers were given time to collaborate, conduct lesson studies together, read books together, and generally learn and support one another as professional teachers. He says during these years, his school retained 100% of its teachers—something that is pretty rare in high-needs urban schools and something that is even more important there, where there is so much instability in students’ lives and their communities due to poverty and its effects. When the punitive measures of NCLB came, this school was labeled failing for reasons associated with test scores. Schools were encouraged to replace teachers, and the thriving teaching community and its progess came to a halt.

I can offer an almost identical story. In my first school in East Harlem, a high-needs middle school serving a large population of ELLs and students with special needs, we were developing a teaching community similar to the one Cody describes. Through a partnership with Bank Street College, teachers in our bilingual academy were given time to work on interdisciplinary curriculum, read and discuss relevant child development research together, and began to support one another in our common work with students. (This was in contrast with the usual top-down “professional development” mandates.)

We saw a huge improvement in teacher retention during those years and in our floor, which was a subset of the larger school, we actually saw a significant spike in student test scores. However, the entire school was still labeled failing. Our principal needed to take measures to improve test scores across the board, due to the pressure from punitive NCLB policies.

One of the measures was to close the bilingual academy. ELLs were too “costly”—not financially, but in terms of how their test scores usually looked and the consequences these posed for the school as a whole. The laws had recently changed and ELLs were expected to pass the state ELA and math tests after just one year in the country. Because of this change, the school stopped offering its transitional bilingual program and with this change, replaced many staff members. Teacher turnover that year was huge, and I was among the leavers. It was sad. I had loved working there with those students and colleagues, and the closing of the academy remains a huge loss.

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