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In communities throughout the country, education is a top priority, but issues of quality and funding have been the focus of passionate debate for decades.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan released "A Nation at Risk," a study pointing to poor academic performance at nearly every level of the nation's public education system. The ensuing debate culminated in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the major education initiative of President George W. Bush which requires schools to improve students' basic skills or face tough sanctions.
Last year, the award-winning documentary "Waiting for Superman" rekindled debate as it took a critical look at American public education. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an eight-week series of stories at the end of 2010 entitled "Building a Better Teacher." The series examined the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed and the impact it has on student success.
Teachers and other public employees dominated the headlines in Wisconsin this spring when Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill that would limit bargaining rights for public unions, including teachers.
It sparked emotional debates over worker rights and compensation and benefits packages, and saw hundreds of teachers flock to the state capitol to protest, closing school in some districts.
For decades, Lakeland College's education division has produced talented educators working in schools all over the U.S. In January, Lakeland magazine hosted a roundtable discussion with eight graduates who are working in the industry and Mehraban Khodavandi, chair of Lakeland's education division. The group discussed the benefits and challenges of No Child Left Behind, the best ways to prepare teachers for today's classrooms and other issues facing the education industry.
No Child Left Behind
The federal government passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which included all federal laws governing education, in 1965. ESEA was reauthorized as NCLB in 2001. A major goal of NCLB is closing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and the act holds schools accountable for making annual progress toward specific academic goals. States develop and implement measurements for determining whether schools make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in four areas: reading achievement, mathematics achievement, test participation and school attendance or graduation rates. Most states use annual standardized tests to measure reading and math achievement, and each year a certain percentage of students must score at least "proficient" on these tests for the school to have achieved AYP. By 2014, NCLB requires that 100 percent of students in all schools be proficient in reading and mathematics.
One positive of NCLB, the group agreed, is that educators at all levels are paying closer attention to test scores and how they correlate to student achievement and their district's academic goals. "I'm looking closely at our benchmarks and looking at some of those students who were marginal," said Christine Roehler '84, an eighth grade language arts teacher in Chandler, Ariz. "That's something that I don't think teachers really looked at before."
Nick Reichhoff '02, an elementary school principal in Mukwonago, said NCLB's "heavy-handed" approach has forced schools to demonstrate that students are learning. "Where's the evidence of student growth?" Reichhoff said. "Pushing that on us forced us to face up to some of those questions."
The group cited several concerns and challenges with NCLB.
Measuring schools based on students' performance on one standardized test has been criticized since NCLB's inception. Many educators feel one test score from one day is merely a snapshot of a student's performance. "It's a faulty assumption to think we can gauge a student's learning for a year by testing them for four days," Reichhoff said.
Scott Greupink MEd'97, principal at Oostburg High School, said if schools wanted to quickly improve their test scores, they would opt out those students they know will struggle. "We would make a dramatic difference in the perception of our effectiveness, but it would have nothing to do with student learning," Greupink said. "The political environment of this really challenges schools to keep their focus on what really represents progress."
Motivating students to do well on the exams is an issue, because students see little incentive to perform at their best. Greupink said schools share methods they've used to bribe them into performing well. "At the high school and middle school level, the students are not a stakeholder in the results of this test," Greupink said. "Some of these students don't do their best in a caring, supportive classroom, much less on a cold test. It's a very big challenge."
For educators, the emphasis on exam scores can become deflating, especially when they focus hours of extra time on a handful of students who show progress, but still fall short of meeting proficiency. Barbara Logan '96, director of school services and training with The Efficacy Institute, said improvement for some students who don't meet proficiency can be dramatic, and NCLB should acknowledge that growth. "The test score isn't the only score we should consider," Logan said. "We need to celebrate when a student gains two years in one year. If we keep that momentum going, they might have success in time. Instead of using the data as an incentive to make changes, we use the data to blame teachers and parents."
Roehler said NCLB does not factor other problems that districts face which impact academic performance. "We still have truancy, we still have unmotivated students," Roehler said. "Is this a problem with the instruction or is it just the way it is with our population?"
Many educators dismiss the requirement that 100 percent of students in all schools be proficient in reading and mathematics because it is unobtainable. NCLB measures the performance of student subsets based on ethnicity, economic status, students who learned English as a second language and students with special needs, including mental or physical health issues. Each of those subsets will need to meet the 2014 requirement, so for larger, urban districts with diverse student populations, there are more opportunities to miss the mark.
"There's hundreds of young children who can't read," Khodavandi said. "I think the goal is a great idea, but in reality, it's not going to happen."
Teacher training and assessment
The group agreed that student teachers need more time in real classrooms before graduating, but Khodavandi said changes would be needed in state requirements to allow for that extra time. "We should require teachers to have more practical time in schools and less classroom instruction," Khodavandi said. "Certainly teachers have to earn a college degree and be certified, but teachers need more experience in the classroom rather than just student teaching at the end of their program. Give more credit for the practicum part of their program so they learn the art of teaching."
Logan said student teacher training should resemble a medical internship, which would give students an oppor tunity to try dif ferent approaches and theories in different classrooms to better understand how they work, and which one fits them best. "Those discoveries need to come early in a student teacher's experience," Logan said.
Teacher mentor programs are becoming more popular in school districts. Lisa Backman '07, a third grade teacher in Manitowoc, said her first year she was paired with a teacher who had more than 20 years experience. "It was fantastic," Backman said. "I still email her to ask for advice. There is so much you don't learn about being a teacher in college until you get in the classroom."
The group highlighted a number of successful ways they've seen teachers assessed that help the teacher grow, including teachers putting together portfolios of their work, and video taping teachers so they can later see themselves leading their classrooms.
They also stressed the need for professional development, especially giving teachers time to meet and discuss their craft, something they agreed the public is often quick to dismiss as unnecessary time.
"Where is the opportunity for new teachers to exchange ideas and find out what's happening in other districts?" said Deb LaDuke, '97 MEd'03, a fourth grade teacher in Kohler. "How do these teachers continue to grow and learn and know they're focusing on the right things? If they're fortunate to be in a district that has a strong mentorship program, bravo, but some don't, and so they're left flailing to their own devices."
Tony Johannes '96 MEd'04, a high school mathematics teacher in Sheboygan, said he loves collaborating with peers, but finding time is never easy. "In Sheboygan, we have building goals and district goals, and we're also asked to develop a plan for something we want to work on individually," Johannes said. "We don't have to work on every goal, but I run out of time to work on helping myself grow."
Education, it seems, is one of those topics on which not everyone will completely agree. For many, "Waiting for Superman" is an eye-opening film that raises concerns about public education which demand our attention. Others argue that the film takes one troubling side of public education and unfairly paints too broad a negative picture across the whole industry. Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system, was celebrated and reviled for her aggressive approach to overhauling one of the nation's lowest-performing school districts.
One consistent message is that for children to learn and become productive citizens, teachers play a crucial role, but everyone has a role to play in that process. "Parents and community members have to be closely involved in a child's education," said Ryan Holm '08, a fifth grade teacher in Gladstone, Mich. "It's hard, but it needs to be done."