The accountability movement and the NCLB (No Child Left Behind legislation) has been an important step forward in American education. Now we find ourselves in a period of change and adjustment as a natural result of this progress. The benefits of the NCLB far outweigh the losses but the onus is on school administration to help the faculty and staff transition into 21st century teaching skills and strategies that reduce the obstacles and expand the benefits, literally to all children, not just those in danger of being “left behind” by our traditional approach to learning and teaching.
Teachers and administrators have long (always?) relied on a definition of education that approximates an exposure to and retention of facts. This is no longer a reliable paradigm. Students today are exposed to more information than any reasonable person can contain. Additionally they have no driving need to contain this information in their brains because multitudes of data storage devises exist to render the holding of information in conscious memory obsolete.
Compounding this new reality is the increased pace of scientific discovery and refutation of old beliefs. In short, the “facts” themselves change much too rapidly to make it practical for students to hold on to them as static reality. Students must, instead learn to sort, evaluate, use and extrapolate rather than contain factoids. The new definition of education we need to embrace is more along the lines of “learning how to learn” “learning how to think” and “learning how to create”.
A paradigm shift is always difficult. The shift is made more difficult by inflexibility and a desire to stay right where we are. Resisting the natural impulse to do things as they have always been done is really our greatest challenge. Along with that comes the challenge of learning from our students. Most teachers know this is a natural dynamic in the classroom but it takes a bit of humility to consciously use that skill.
Benefits of NCLB Legislation
One of the greatest benefits of the NCLB legislation has been the raising of standards of learning for all teachers and all students. Clearly, it is impossible to reach a goal when no goal has been set. Thus, the NCLB and the standardized tests resulting from it have set goals to be reached by all teachers and studenst. Those goals provide clear directives as well as a measurement of progress in which both students and teachers can take pride.
Another benefit of the NCLB legislation is the attention that gets focused on struggling students and those who are not learning well by the standard methods of teaching. It has been said that the purest form of love is attention. Indeed, it is the attention of caring adults that motivates learning and growth in all children regardless of up bringing. Children enter this world ready to learn and expand their lives. Homes filled with neglect and abuse in all its many forms stunt the growth of the child’s learning capacities. NCLB legislation and testing has had the benefit of engaging the attention of teachers and administrators and focusing it on the children who need that attention the most, the ones who project an image of being less, the ones who have received only negative attention and have never learned to attract the positive focus of adults. These very children are our most critical assets.
Challenges of NCLB Legislation
One of the greatest challenges resulting from the NCLB legislation is the tendency for teachers to focus only on the factoids and specifics most likely to appear on the standardized tests. This is what is commonly known as “teaching to the test”. It is tempting in the absence of quality teaching instruction and proven methods of effective delivery, for teachers to simply give notes, lectures, and memorization drills on the key facts. The problem of “teaching to the test” is that teachers may lose their sense of what good effective teaching is. In a desperate attempt to raise student scores teachers may completely fail to teach students the most important thing they learn in schools: how to think and how to learn.
Another challenge presented by NCLB legislation is that the needs of advanced level performing students are sometimes pushed aside as teachers focus on bring all students up to minimum competencies. As I see it this challenge goes hand in had with the problem of “teaching to the test”. Though in this case different students and different voices are involved, the problem remains that of helping teachers to build effective strategies for teaching students to think, challenge themselves and grow while still covering the core learning standards.
Sadly, many school administrators compound the obstacles and minimize the benefits by putting undue pressure on teachers without providing well-supported strategies of instruction that use the NCLB standards of learning as a substrate to the learning process, rather than the end goal. The key, I believe is in a new way of looking at learning. Our present learning paradigm was developed long before the flood of information technology we now live with. Our students are growing up knowing that there is “too much” information available on any given subject. Yet, we, based on our 18th century teaching paradigm, are still approaching education as if students’ brains need to contain the specific tidbits of information that our old brains have engulfed and hold dear.
When young people cannot read time on an analog clock we are shocked, never mind that multiple digital time devices are readily available at any given minute. We are aghast that students cannot do basic mathematics in their heads, yet with the availability of calculators they will never need such antiquated “skills”. Moreover, by freeing their minds from the task of “fact holding” that multitudes of electronic and data storage devices can do more efficiently, students could expand their skills to 21st century problem solving and creative innovations (also known as “higher order thinking skills”).
The interesting thing is that a shift in the direction of more effective teaching and higher student performance scores would mean less work for teachers and more engagement by students. Right now many teachers feel as if they are running to stand still in their efforts to meet the demands of NCLB legislation. However, using the standards of learning as a substrate or guideline for engaging students in higher order learning activities would net more results in shorter periods of time.
No sources were used. This information has long been collecting, marinating, and stewing in my brain case. Thanks for the opportunity to serve the dish.