Standard Error

Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press, 524 pages, $29.95)

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein (Henry Holt and Company, 302 pages, $25.00 )

The educational standards movement has made strange bedfellows. Its staunchest champion has been a conservative Republican president who is proudly incurious and anti-intellectual, but the movement has also attracted support from many Democrats and advocates of minority rights who want to use testing to hold schools accountable and advance equality in education. The passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- the 2001 law aimed at reducing the educational achievement gap -- is the movement's major accomplishment and George W. Bush's principal legacy in domestic policy. As Bush's presidency comes to a close, it is an apt time to ask whether NCLB has been a good thing for education. There was probably no stranger bed-fellow in the educational standards movement than Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, who died in 1997 at the age of 69. Early in his career, when Shanker led the teachers in New York City, he saw himself as building a union. "I don't represent children. I represent the teachers," he said in the aftermath of a 1968 teacher strike. But in later years he modified his position and became a prominent advocate for school reform.

Richard Kahlenberg's excellent new biography of Shanker, Tough Liberal, portrays him as a social democrat who upheld an older New Deal tradition against the liberalism and "new politics" of the 1960s. Shanker defended public education and fought against economic inequality in domestic politics, while favoring a hawkish position in international relations. This combination alienated liberals on foreign policy and conservatives on domestic policy, but Kahlenberg sees in Shanker an intellectually consistent kindred soul. Like Shanker, Kahlenberg opposes identity politics and race-based affirmative action, instead favoring a coalition on the lines of the New Deal that links the poor and the middle class behind a vision of expanded governmental responsibility. For Shanker, in this telling, the educational standards and accountability movement was an effort to realize the promise of public education for all.

A key moment in Shanker's transformation on school reform came in 1983, when he embraced the findings of A Nation at Risk, a report sponsored by Ronald Reagan's Department of Education, which claimed there was a "rising tide of mediocrity" in America's schools and that the United States would lose its international economic standing if it did not improve its educational performance. What teachers needed to do, Shanker argued, was not deny the problem but professionalize their practice along the lines of law or medicine, collectively taking responsibility for their students' results. If they did not, he argued, they would find themselves subject to increasing degrees of external control.

Shanker's analysis was prophetic, but he left a dual legacy. Shanker and his union, the American Federation of Teachers, gave the standards movement critical support that helped pave the way to reform, but he also identified the dangers that external accountability might create. And those dangers have become much more apparent since the standards movement won the enactment of NCLB.

How NCLB has affected education is the subject of Linda Perlstein's book, Tested, which chronicles the efforts of an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood to comply with the law. Perlstein, a Washington Post reporter, spent a year at the school -- Tyler Heights in Annapolis, Maryland -- visiting classrooms, talking with students and teachers, and tracking the remarkable efforts of the school's principal, Tina McKnight. In a field that is dominated by ideological polemics and dry academic studies, Perlstein has written a vivid, carefully documented, and even suspenseful book -- Will Tyler Heights make the federal grade? -- that offers the general reader and scholar alike an engaging, if often grim, portrait of life under NCLB. Unlike most educational policy researchers, who emphasize the scientifically quantifiable, Perlstein's writing also reflects a humanistic sensibility and concern for the ultimate purposes of education.

Perlstein picked Tyler Heights because it has been a No Child Left Behind success story that has been written up in local papers. In the three years before Perlstein arrived at the school, the proportion of third graders passing the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) rose from 35 percent to 90 percent. And as Perlstein's year at the school unfolds, we see why its students have succeeded. Tyler Heights spends virtually every minute of its time, from the first day of school to the day of the test in March, trying to boost test scores.

For example, by the time the students take the MSA, they have written thousands of "BCRs," brief constructed responses similar to those on the test, following a specific formula devised by the teachers (borrow from the question, answer the question, find support from the text, and so on). The MSA asks what makes something a poem, so students spend hours writing such passages as "I know 'Smart' is a poem because it has stanzas and rhyme. I know the text has stanzas and not paragraphs because they didn't indent." The test asks what features make it easy for third graders to read the text, so they learn to write, "The text features that make it easy for third graders to read are font size, bold print, and numbering."

Tyler Heights tried every available strategy that could potentially raise students' scores. It standardized much of the instruction by its teachers. Interim assessments tracked students' performance and were entered into spreadsheets and discussed at teacher meetings. In the months leading up to the test, virtually all of the time previously spent on science and social studies was devoted to reading and math. The school postponed field trips, class projects, labs, and anything else -- including a celebration of Dr. Seuss' birthday -- that could detract from test prep. MSA tips were posted on lockers. Students sang songs about their readiness for the MSAs at assemblies. Immediately before taking the tests, students went through a bizarre relaxation ritual of caressing their earlobes, rubbing their bellies and collarbones, drinking water, chanting, and eating a "Pep-O-Mint," a practice supposedly grounded in research.

Perlstein's description of Tyler Heights poses significant challenges to backers of NCLB, especially to Democrats and civil-rights advocates who supported it precisely for what they hoped it would do for schools in low-income communities. It is hard to see how anyone who cares about education could be in favor of what has happened at Tyler Heights. All the efforts to prepare students for testing not only narrowed the curriculum but also eliminated (against the better judgment of the teachers) virtually any kind of activity that could potentially interest children in schooling. There is also no good evidence that students learned much more than what is on the state tests. National studies suggest that while state scores have risen, these gains do not necessarily correlate with performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected independent barometer of student skills. Tyler Heights is only one school -- and one likely at the high end of the test prep continuum -- but its supposed success under NCLB should make even the law's most ardent supporters worry about how it is distorting education.

Tested suggests that the failings of No Child Left Behind are in its conception and not its implementation. The principal and teachers at Tyler Heights are doing exactly what the legislators have asked of them. NCLB reflects a peculiar mix of high aspirations for equity, limited means to reach those aspirations, and a legislative determination to compel progress by tightly monitoring school results from afar. And the kind of test-centered schooling offered at Tyler Heights is what that combination produces.

What might better avenues for reform look like? Proposals that have been floated to mend No Child Left Behind could address some of the problems evident at Tyler Heights. "Growth models" that measure the gains of individual students over time would be a fairer way of measuring student progress. Multiple ways to evaluate school progress might reduce the incessant emphasis on testing. And the use of better tests and portfolios of student work to measure performance are clearly needed if external assessment remains a central part of the reform strategy.

But even if all these changes are made, there is little reason to think they would be enough to deal with problems as serious as the ones that Perlstein describes. Most students at Tyler Heights have little academic support at home and little sense of why they go to school, and they see few examples in their communities of what education might eventually do for them. For these children to go to college on an equal footing with middle-class children whose parents provide them with every advantage would be an extraordinary feat, and there is no reason to think that it can be accomplished through ordinary means. Even to approach equality in education would require far more intensive measures than the revisions to NCLB propose. Those measures would include attracting talented teachers and principals who incorporate (but are not controlled by) research-based practices; differentiated instruction matched to the needs of students; individual tutoring for students who need remedial help; and psychological counseling to deal with trauma stemming from events outside of school. And there would need to be significantly more time spent learning: Some charter schools that are trying to bring children up to grade level run school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, plus Saturday mornings and a month in the summer.

The obstacles to this kind of intervention are many -- the cost, the difficulty of attracting talented people to a currently low-paying and low-status field, and union opposition to longer school days and years -- but that is what it will take if we are really serious about leaving no child behind.

And if we are serious about education's ultimate purposes, we ought to remember that school has to engage students' imaginations. In contrast to the dismal picture of test prep at Tyler Heights, Perlstein briefly visits Crofton Elementary, a suburban school 14 miles away, where she finds the children creating fairy tales on the computer, giving speeches on Olympic sports, making tortilla teepees, and questioning visiting Anne Arundel county officials during a unit on politics. Now there is no reason to think that Tyler Heights looked like Crofton Elementary even before NCLB, nor is it possible for children to write fairy tales until they can construct sentences. But Crofton's approach is a better model than a test-prep training program. When legislators meet to think about the next round of reform, they would do well to think more about Crofton Elementary and less about how to create ever more refined accountability systems.

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