BY Stacey Anderton
Mr. David Miller’s recent column “No Child Left Behind: Widespread demoralization of teachers, students” (Sept. 6) filled me with indignation on behalf of my students, myself, my colleagues and my school.
People who are demoralized exhibit hopelessness and are on the verge of giving up. They are downtrodden and beaten, with little optimism left. Nothing could be further from the truth at Saegertown Junior-Senior High School where I teach. In fact, I would say that the word to describe us would be empowered. We are an educational community that takes great pride in our achievements, and we are constantly working to ensure that no child really is left behind.
As an award-winning teacher myself, I read with dismay Miller’s account of the teacher who wept because his ability to teach had been undermined by the “punitive regime” which had “foisted” this NCLB legislation upon the nation’s schools. While it is always sad to hear of teachers choosing to leave the profession, I can honestly say that my own teaching has been informed, enhanced and energized by NCLB.
Five years ago, I was unaware that many of my students did not have the skills and strategies to understand the reading I was assigning to them. They all learned to read in elementary school, didn’t they? Of course, I was disappointed when they failed my reading quizzes on “The Scarlet Letter” and sat mute in my classroom during discussions of the reading, but I was teaching the way I had been taught myself. I was reflecting what I had learned in my education classes. I felt confident that those students who were interested or “trying” were getting it. As for the others, I rationalized that they were choosing to do nothing. They had a right to fail.
When testing and accountability measures were introduced, I understood that my philosophy would have to change. My students would all take these assessments, and we would all be held accountable for the results. In a short time, NCLB convinced me that I would have to exhaust every option I could find to give them the reading skills they would need to be successful in life.
And so I began to research adolescent literacy. Through books like “Yellow Brick Roads” by Janet Allen and “When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do” by Kylene Beers, I started to understand that all students (and all readers in general) experience reading challenges. Whether they have always been struggling readers or they are advanced academic students encountering Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time, they all need to be taught how to cope with and understand text.
Looking at my own practices, I realized that I had been teaching around the books, assigning pages, asking questions, and then answering them for the students and telling them what the book said. They didn’t know what to do with the text, and I wasn’t helping them gain the skills they needed.
Fortunately, other staff members in my building were reaching similar conclusions. We started talking about reading strategies and how to improve students’ ability to understand and use what they read.
This didn’t happen because we were given more time or better working conditions. It happened because we care deeply about our students and want what is best for them and because our current scores revealed many areas in need of improvement.
And so, a reading revolution began. Across the curriculum, teachers started looking at the state standards and incorporating direct instruction of reading strategies into their classroom activities. We began to reach out to one another to embrace this task of helping all students move toward proficiency in reading.
It didn’t happen all at once, of course, and the work is still ongoing. But from humble beginnings, more teachers have learned more ways to help more students become better readers each year.
And it wasn’t “teaching to the test,” a charge leveled far too often at public educators by people who are not in classrooms every day. It was and still is teaching students skills that will make them all better readers. It would be hard to find anyone who disputes this as a laudable goal.
It’s the skills ... and the test measures them. I would invite anyone to go online to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (www.pde.state.pa.us/) and look at a sample PSSA test. To be proficient readers, students need to use context clues, make predictions and inferences, look back in the text to find answers, and write about what they have read using specific text evidence. These are skills many of us use every day as functionally literate adults.
This leads us to Miller’s assertion that “Testing, in and of itself, does not lead to improvement …” He could not be more correct. If the test results were just sitting in a drawer somewhere in my building, then there would be little benefit to the community of learners. This is just not the case, however. Schools all over the country, including mine, are using the test results to improve the way students are being taught. It is called “data-driven instruction,” and it makes perfect sense. If something is wrong, work to fix it. In fact, the test results provide empowerment because we are no longer troubleshooting our teaching practices in the dark. We have data to light the way.
Admittedly, NCLB is not perfect, particularly with regard to our struggling learners. There are currently 75 recommendations being considered for its improvement, and changes will be made. But the ideas behind it: that every child should learn, that educators should be armed with the information they need to improve student learning, and that we should never give up on any student are sound, not “fundamentally fallacious,” as Mr. Miller claimed.
To sum up, Mr. Miller’s doleful chant of demoralization requires a response. I am not willing to have this negative label foisted upon my students or myself, and we will not accept it.
While it has not been easy to adapt to the changes NCLB has wrought, we will continue to work through the challenges together, as a community. Great things are happening in public education today. I am proud and honored to be part of them, and I am sure that I am not alone. Let thoughtful voices provide wisdom for changes to NCLB, and let’s get on with the task at hand.
Anderton teaches English and journalism at Saegertown Junior-Senior High School. She is a member of the Pennsylvania State Reading and Writing Committees for the Department of Education as well as the IU5 Secondary Literacy Council. She has been the recipient of the WQLN 2007 Great Teacher Award, the Edinboro University Golden Apple Award and the Susquehanna University Russell Galt Award for Outstanding Secondary Educators.
BY Stacey Anderton