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Beyond 'teaching to the test'

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I haven't read the No Child Left Behind Act, but I've been in on lots of discussions about this piece of federal legislation since it was adopted as the law of the land in 2001.

I'm inherently skeptical of feel-good wording like, 'No Child Left Behind,' especially when they're the work of bureaucrats who are trying to sell a new social program or regulation.

Call me cynical, but No Child Left Behind sounds like spin. In fact, my B.S. meter indicates that No Child Left Behind may do just the opposite - leave children behind, primarily because it is narrow in scope and punitive in application.

My limited understanding of Public Law 107-110 is that it sets performance standards schools must achieve to qualify for federal funding. Those standards are measured largely by students' ability to pass certain tests - if they pass, the school gets an infusion of funding; if they don't, the school not only gets cut off from its federal meal ticket but also gets branded as shoddy and second-rate, sort of like the class dunce, who is made to wear a pointed hat and sit humiliated off in the corner.

Not that I'm opposed to performance standards. I've managed enough people to know that the ones who usually object to performance standards are the laggards, people who don't want to be held accountable for the results of their labor. Children and their future are too important to be subject to mediocre performance on the part of teachers.

In the business world, objections to performance standards are common and take several basic forms. The objections usually sound something like this: 'The goals are unrealistic (true meaning: too demanding, don't want to work that hard)' or 'The economy is bad (true meaning: I don't want to be held accountable and blame poor performance on external forces, and say it isn't my fault)' or 'We've always done it this way (true meaning: I don't want to step out of my comfort zone). Sometimes there is validity to these arguments, but more often than not they are just excuses.

Top performers usually embrace standards because they see them as a challenge to be met and/or an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack. These people are easy to spot. You can see their passion from a mile away. They are never satisfied with the status quo and seem to have unbridled energy and enthusiasm. They are the first to raise their hands when there is a call for volunteers who don't know the meaning of the word 'can't.'

Several years ago the Gallup organization did a study of hundreds of the country's top performers and concluded that there is virtually no limit to what they can do. Conversely, they found that there is no excuse too trivial for the other 80 percent of the population.

The chief criticism I hear of No Child Left Behind is that it dispirits educators and moves them to 'teach to the test.' The implication is that by focusing on skills, like reading and math, less time and energy are spent on the nuances that turn kids into well-rounded human beings capable of living life to the fullest. There may be some merit to this criticism, although the best teachers will find ways to do both.

The problem is in the law itself. How do you test for values like confidence, compassion, honesty, respect, vision and hope? Or do these values even matter?

I think in some way these values can be even more important than the ones stressed by No Child Left Behind, which is why I am so impressed with what I've been seeing at Scappoose High School lately. In particular, high school Principal Sue Hays has organized a couple of activities that are bound to have a huge, positive and lifelong impact on her students, and they have nothing to do with math or reading or No Child Left Behind. The first activity was opening the doors of Scappoose High School to students from Vernonia after their own school was all but destroyed by the December flood. That exercise was full of important lessons, including sharing, sacrifice, citizenship, and extending a helping hand to neighbors in need. The others were the recent candlelight vigil and subsequent forum with Multnomah County officials to help kids understand the issues surrounding the death of a classmate on Cornelius Pass Road. These were excellent events because they helped kids deal with their grief, anger, frustration and bewilderment in a positive and proactive way. Moreover, they are examples of innovative instruction that will never be captured in No Child Left Behind. Certainly, performance standards have their place in our educational system, but not to the exclusion of the other values schools need to be instilling in our young people.

Rick Swart is publisher of the South County Spotlight. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..