I Hate “No Child Left Behind,” But I Love My Son’s Teacher!

So tonight I began my career as a public school parent by attending our first back-to-school night at White Oaks Elementary School. We were greeted as we walked in the door by a throng of political operatives very aggressively handing out flyers for school board candidates. It made me wonder if someone has a nefarious plan to take over the Fairfax County school system and cut the free lunches for poor kids and all the music and art classes to save the taxpayers money. Given the world in which we live, it wouldn’t surprise me.

So we started off the evening with a presentation in the school cafeteria. I really like the principal. I like the way that she talks about their positive discipline policy in which they provide extra encouragement and structure for kids who are having trouble but try to avoid stigmatizing them and teaching them to see themselves as chronic problem kids. I like the philosophies and attitudes they have as a school. I like the way the principal calls the teachers her “teammates.” Maybe it sounds like a silly PC thing, but I never taught under a principal who went out of her way to use egalitarian language.

But then the second half of the principal’s presentation was taken up by her having to explain why the school didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under “No Child Left Behind.” They have passing rates of 93-95% on all of their standardized tests overall. But because they started off high, their twenty or so goals for “progress” had to be set higher and a single goal wasn’t met for the sub-group of economically disadvantaged kids who make up a very small percentage of the school (which probably includes my own son if we’re talking relative terms since we live in the second richest county in America).

It upset me that the principal had to go through the humiliation of reporting that her school was “failing” according to the terms of “No Child Left Behind” even though they were in fact wildly succeeding according to any rational person’s perspective. I wanted to beat up the blogger-wonks in the edu-consultant industrial complex who have stoked so much disrespect for our teachers with their documentaries and gimmicky programs that siphon out so much of our taxpayer money. They’re the black hole where all the money is going in education. When I was a teacher, I had a file cabinet full of three-ring binders that were the mandatory party favors of whatever trendy edu-guru happened to convince our principal that they were the next big thing, resulting in a tremendous waste of our time as teachers and taxpayer money each semester. It might not fix public education completely to drop-kick the gurus and the gimmicks out forever, but it would be a nice start.

Anyhow, after the standardized testing spiel, we went back to Matthew’s kindergarten room to sit down with his teacher Mrs. Austin who is without a doubt the best kindergarten teacher in the whole world. I met Mrs. Austin at a church picnic earlier this summer and had been hoping that Matthew would have her. She’s the only lady who wears a hat in our church. She’s been teaching for 40 years and comes from a whole different universe before the world of standardized testing and gimmicky consultant nonsense that we now live in.

Mrs. Austin said that her most important goal for the year is to build a “classroom community of mutual support and understanding.” She considers the community-building to take precedence even over academic achievement (which is such a huge thing for a kindergarten teacher to say in Fairfax County!!!). She has an acronym for the kind of attitudes she wants for the kids to develop: CARES — Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, Self-control. In order to develop this community environment, they have class meetings where they discuss and troubleshoot interpersonal conflicts in the room as a class. If you need to resolve your beef with somebody, you can put your conflict “on the agenda” but only after you have approached the other person and had an “I statement” conversation with them that hasn’t worked. The class meeting prescribes different solutions to conflicts such as an “apology of action,” which is basically like a penance if you do something that requires more than an “I’m sorry” such as cutting somebody else’s hair in the middle of class when they’re getting on your nerves, for example. Apologies of action can include things like writing a letter or drawing a picture for the other person or taking flowers to them the next day.

Mrs. Austin had been a first-grade teacher but she shifted down to kindergarten this year because the standardized testing has started to drive the curriculum completely in first grade, and so much of what Mrs. Austin wants to teach are the intangibles which lay the foundation for everything else. What I cannot say emphatically enough is that those of us who want our teachers to be teaching kids old-fashioned values and character and basic decency have no business supporting the “market-based” attitude about education which tries to turn everything into a quantifiable competition. Kids are not widgets. The most important education they receive not just in kindergarten but in school in general is in their ability to relate to other people. That’s actually the skill area they need to master to be successful in a number of different vocations (particularly the business world). But because character education isn’t something that’s easy to evaluate with bubble sheets, it’s an externality deemed irrelevant to the economy of AYP, kind of like when factories pollute a river without paying the cost of cleanup since the river belongs to nobody and everybody at the same time.

I’m so thankful that we’ve got Mrs. Austin for this year. I just hope that standardized testing doesn’t sabotage our son’s education in future grades. And I hope the crazies don’t take over the school board this fall.

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