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See, I DO Care What Other People Think – My Comments April 15, 2007

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I have shown my wisdom through the following comments:

http://stephcj.wordpress.com/2007/01/16/eng-310-opening-statement/

http://kooikema.wordpress.com/2007/02/24/want-to-feel-better-write-some-poetry/

http://tesslynn.wordpress.com/2007/02/21/to-let-the-kids-decide/

http://burchi501.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/death-by-powerpoint/

http://canknight.wordpress.com/2007/03/14/a-view-from-the-other-side/

http://trishcabobb.wordpress.com/2007/03/01/boy-trouble-edit/

http://andi12.wordpress.com/2007/04/12/does-it-even-work/

http://roersm.wordpress.com/2007/04/11/10/

Thank you to all who made comments on my blog and did not take complete offense to my sometimes outlandish statements.

So What Does It All Mean? April 15, 2007

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I have spent over three months writing on a blog dedicated to No Child Left Behind and have been a part of many discussions centered around it this semester.  Before creating this blog, I was vaguely familiar with what NCLB was and the issues surrounding it.  I will admit there are details and issues that still seem allusive at this point, but I feel I have a better grasp of this piece of legislation and have the ability to support an argument from both sides.

I remember thinking that I was going to take a completely neutral approach to NCLB, and for the most part I think I did.  I had been surrounded with so much negativity towards NCLB that I wanted so badly to find things that have worked with it, that are helping our students receive a better education.  I understand that I am overgeneralizing here, but what I found is that nearly all teachers are opposed to NCLB as it stands today.  This is not to say that all teachers want to see it erased completely, but I think it does show a flaw in our democracy.

It is hard to talk NCLB without talking politics, something I usually don’t have a problem with.  Yet, even I can only take so much.  There is no question that we are all after the same thing – giving our students the best opportunity at an education that will give them whatever skills or knowledge they need to lead successful lives (or some variation of this).  Politics unfortunately stands in the way between our goals and our actions.  How else can one explain how the majority of those who teach are teaching based on standards they don’t completely agree with?

One of the big issues with NCLB is standardized testing, and I feel my final post would not be complete without mention of it.  My viewpoint on standardized testing is probably what has changed the most since I started this blog.  I used to be completely against it, and although I still disagree with the way in which it is implemented, I have come to the conclusion that it is not going anywhere.  “Teaching to the test” – these words make me angry thinking about them.  What I now realize is why.  I used to think that less emphasis should be put on content and more on the skills that students acquire.  Teaching to the test meant rote memorization for the most part – students wasting their time storing useless facts and teachers wasting there time teaching them.  I now see that getting rid of the tests is probably not going to happen, but teaching to the test does not have to be such a bad thing.  When we can develop tests that effectively measure how well students apply the skills they have acquired in the classroom, teaching to the test and just teaching will be the same thing. 

NCLB is flawed and I will not deny this.  Instead of cringing everytime I hear those letters now, I start to wonder if maybe NCLB is the inevitable first step towards bettering our student’s education.  As a country, our educational system was lacking behind others and something needed to be done.  I think many of the moves made towards catching us up have not been effective, but it has gotten all of us talking about education and is that such a bad thing?  Maybe failed policy is needed in order to fix a problem.  If anything, NCLB has given this country the chance to make mistakes, and hopefully we can learn from them.

I Received Bright Ideas at the Bright Ideas Conference April 14, 2007

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Waking up at 6:00 a.m. is not the way I like to start my day.  I was looking forward to attending the Bright Ideas Spring Conference at Michigan State, yet unless waking up that early on a Saturday would result in either free pizza or a rollercoaster I was probably going to be slightly disappointed.  Instead there was free coffee and some pretty good information, so I guess I’ll take it.

The keynote speaker was author Jacqueline Woodson.  She explained her writing process, and a lot of the advice she presented were things that we have discussed in English 310.  The idea of writing anything, of just getting words down on paper, sounded like it came straight from Peter Elbow.  In fact, her somewhat lack of focus and ability to go off on tangents during her speech sounded Elbowian (yes, it’s an adjective) as well.  She also made reference to Anne Lamott, another author we have discussed in class, and the idea of writing one step at a time.  Woodson read some of her own work aloud, which was probably the most enjoyable part of her speech.

The first workshop I attended dealt with using mass media in the English classroom.  Its emphasis was on using wikis, youtube, and graphic design.  The discussion on Wikipedia and its legitimacy was interesting.  Students should know why Wikipedia is not a valid resource as it stands today, and by having students create wikis and understand how they work, they can understand this.  Talk about youtube was a big part of the section regarding journalism and its potential biases, and a possible lesson was presented to make students aware of the motives behind those broadcasting the news.  The graphic design part was interesting, yet it seemed we got a lot of information about something that can very loosely be related to the English classroom.  The idea of creating something visual as opposed to writing for a lesson is something that I liked, however.

The second workshop I attended dealt with peer revision and creating a comfortable classroom environment, something I was very interested in.  The presenter did an excellent job showing different ways in which the teacher can create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable sharing their writing.  We went over a few techniques regarding peer revision between two students, ways in which they can share their writing and talk about it in a more personal and less evaluative way.

Overall, waking up at 6:00 a.m. turned out to be a pretty good decision.  A lot of the information was not very new to me, although I did get some ideas that I would want to use in my classroom.  I think just being in an environment where I am completely surrounded by English teachers, people who are all there to try and learn something in order to make them better teachers or better prepare them for teaching, has a way of getting me motivated and excited to teach.

NCLB – Coming To A College Near You? March 14, 2007

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I came across an article in the U.S. News from March 4, 2007 that had less to do with high school education than it did college, but discussed critical elements of NCLB and the possibility of applying it to higher education, a connection I feel is close enough to allow me to write on this really interesting article.  As future educators, many of us college students going into teaching can be found griping and complaining about the flaws of standardized testing and the other standards that will likely be a hinderance to our creativity in the classroom.  Just wait to see how we will react if the government starts demanding more accountability from its universities.

Before I start dissecting this article, I want to make one thing clear:  I take an interest in college’s providing proof that they are giving their students a quality education because I am paying a lot of money and hope that it will translate into something.  I think that taking on this issue at a federal level is in no way the solution.  That being said…

Later this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will meet with college leaders to discuss the findings of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education and its plan to assess college learning through one or a number of standardized tests. “For years the colleges in this country have said, ‘We’re the best in the world; give us money and leave us alone,'” says Charles Miller, the chairman of the commission. “The higher-ed community needs to fess up to the public’s concerns.”

Amen.  There is an idea among college students that you put up with ridiculous expenses, become your homework’s slave each semester, and cram all night for exams the night before all to get a piece of paper that says you did so.  This becomes evidence that you are more qualified for a job that will pay a lot better than one you could have found before entering college, and eventually the student loans pay themselves off.  It isn’t just other students I have heard this from, it is adults, successful adults, that admit to not getting a whole lot from college.  Now I am sure they learned more than they realize, but is this really a system that will allow the U.S. to catch up academically with the countries that have recently been moving ahead of us?

I agree with the above quote in its message about making colleges accountable, but I definitely do not agree with the idea of standardized tests to do so.  Why would we be so naive to believe that a standardized test could be created to measure how effective our colleges are when in reality we still have not a clue how to do so on the high school level? 

“No one wants standardized No Child Left Behind-style testing in colleges—not parents, not students, not colleges,” says David Ward, president of the American Council of Education. Adds Lloyd Thacker, author of College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, “The danger is that the soul of education will be crushed in the rush to quantify the unquantifiable.”

I think there are other ways to measure colleges that seem a lot more effective than standardized testing.  The article mentions employment rates or enrollment into higher education one year after graduation, and I think this is a start.  The problem is colleges are obtaining a lot of information that would be a great measure of their universities, but are not coming public with the results.  I think legislation passed on a state level that would require colleges and universities to make certain records open to the public would force them to fix any discrepancies in their education in order to keep students out of high school applying to their institutions, an easy solution that could have very rewarding results.

NCLB – The Power of Rhetoric March 6, 2007

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No one can deny the influential power of those who have the ability to manipulate words.  For example, No Child Left Behind makes those who come out against it look as if they are, well, leaving children behind.  In fact, rhetoric is something that seems to be a very large part of NCLB.  This could have something to do with the fact that no one has time to actually read every last detail of the act, so we are subjected to countless opinionated summaries of what NCLB is all about.  Sadly, many of us fall for the rhetoric… it could have something to do with being lazy. 

I found an entry on a School Reform Blog by Whitney Tilson that brings up an e-mail that had been circulating that compared NCLB to football.  The e-mail read:

No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1.   All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship.  If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable.

2.    All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time and in the same conditions.  No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabilities.  ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL.

3.    Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction.  This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren’t interested in football, have limited athletic ability or whose parents don’t like football.

4.    Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th and 11th games.

5.    This will create a New Age of sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals. If no child gets ahead, then no child will be left behind.

It is not hard to figure out where the original author of this e-mail stood on the issue.  I could not help but read this and laugh at a few parts despite knowing how much it stretched the truth.  Whether you agree or disagree with NCLB, you have to admit that this is a clever attempt to influence readers against it.  Tilson did not see the humor in this e-mail, however, and decided she was going to make some changes.  She wrote:

No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1.   All teams must play hard and do their best.  If a team is poorly managed and disorganized, it will be put on probation until it improves, and the coaches will be held accountable.  The children and their parents will not be blamed for the failure of the coaches.

2.    All kids will be expected to play.  Obviously, some kids will play with more skill than others, but all kids will be expected to work hard and perform at a proficient level.  Some kids may need to work extra hours to achieve proficiency.  The coaches will be expected to put in those extra hours with the kids to ensure their success.

3.    Coaches will not focus their resources solely on the handful of players who demonstrate unusual proficiency at an early age.  Coaches will be held accountable for the success of EVERY player.

 4.    Games will be played year round, and statistics will be collected, analyzed and widely disseminated frequently.

5.    This will create a New Age of sports where every kid learns the necessary tools to succeed. Just because some children get ahead, it’s not acceptable that many children get left behind.

Once again, the author’s intentions are pretty obvious.  Is this really the way to fight for your cause though?  Is the only way to counter rhetoric by creating your own?

I wanted to discuss this e-mail and rewrite because I think it illustrates everything that is wrong with how change comes about in our political system.  In an attempt to prove my point, I think in the context of this post it is appropriate to use my own analogy: 

A man and a woman decide they should meet for lunch.  The man often eats lunch at a small bar about a block from his office and wants to meet there.  The woman usually spends her lunch break eating lunch at a coffee shop that is very close to her office and wants to meet there.  Rather than spending their time finding a place perhaps halfway between their offices, the two think of creative ways to put the other down and desperately search for approval from others.   

The facts are out there, but everyday are becoming buried deeper underneath the lies that those in favor or against NCLB are feeding us.  I think the future of our children’s education in America would look a lot brighter if we could replace all of this rhetoric with a little bit of truth. 

The Growing Irrelevancy of G.P.A., Passing the Blame March 1, 2007

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It seems like every week a new survey is put out describing how horrible our educational system in America has become.  What strikes me as interesting about the survey mentioned in the article “Grades Rise, but Reading Skills Do Not” in the February 23 New York Times is that although test results are much worse than they were fifteen years ago, grade point averages are on the increase.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam commonly known as the nation’s report card, found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992, when a comparable test was first given, and essentially flat since students previously took the exam in 2002.

So what does this mean?  From personal experience, assigning grades in High School can be pretty random and completely different from one class to the next.  There are teachers who weigh their tests very heavily, while others allow class participation and extra credit assignments as a way to boost grades.  The ladder would be an explanation for the nation’s rising G.P.A., a statistic that is turning more and more irrelevant each day.

What implications does a survey like this have about No Child Left Behind?  The Bush Administration sees it as proof that schools are not measuring up.

“The consensus for strengthening our high schools has never been stronger,” Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, said in a statement released in advance of the report. “Schools must prepare students to succeed in college and the 21st-century work force.”

The reaction is a typical political response.  What frustrates me is the fact that test results are not any better than they were in 2002, and this fact does not even seem to be acknowledged.  All of this leads me to an important question that I feel needs to start being asked:  How many years will we allow Washington to hold schools accountable for their lack of improvement before we start to question whether NCLB is a failed policy?  I understand this question may sound uninformed because there are many opinions against the legislation, but it seems like those who support NCLB are able to comfortably hide behind it and pass the blame to the schools when results are not as they hoped.  How long can this continue without seeing signs of improvement?

State vs. Federal Rights: An Old Debate That Will Never Go Away February 25, 2007

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In looking through my Google Reader, I came across a link to an article from the February 23 Grand Rapids Press that was mentioned in the educational blog edspresso.  The article deals with an issue that has been one of our country’s biggest political debates, in the context of No Child Left Behind – State vs. Federal Rights.  NCLB obviously advocates federal power when it comes to education, but is this an issue that should be left for the states?  U.S. Representative Peter Hoekstra believes it is.

Hoekstra plans on introducing legislation that would put education back in the hands of the states, making NCLB irrelevant.  Although he doesn’t think this type of legislation has a chance, Hoekstra is raising awareness of the issue he feels so strongly about.

“Education has always been under local and parental control. We want to empower the states so they can say, ‘We’re going to be responsible for the state education…'”.

I think that his argument is so simple that it can be overlooked.  If education is left in control of the states, they would perhaps be able to spend less time trying to conform to the standards of the country and more time improving their educational system on a local level.  The whole argument for state over federal rights stems from the idea that although we are all united, each state is very different from the next.  Should education requirements be universal throughout such a diverse nation?

There is a strong concern that education is replacing skills such as creativity and critical thinking with “how to pass a test” skills.  Holland Curriculum Director Phil Schlemmer was quoted in the article saying, “We’re all going to be there. The question is, is anybody going to be at the right place?”  It seems there are many concerned with the idea that much of the country could be successful in changing its educational policies to better conform to NCLB, yet after everything students will still not actually be receiving a better education, or sadly an even worse one.   

In a way, it seems that NCLB gives a lot of the responsibility to the states as it stands today.  After all, the standards and benchmarks that teachers have become so familiar with were determined by the states.  I can, however, understand the frustration from local educators struggling to meet the demands of an overgeneralized system that does not take the diverse status of our nation into as much consideration.  Although the states do possess some power, overall I think NCLB can only be effective as federal legislation by shifting most of its power back to the states.

Super Size Me – No Thanks February 20, 2007

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It turns out that eating McDonald’s for every meal of the day is not healthy for you.  This sounds pretty obvious, yet watching Morgan Spurlock indulge himself in Super Size Me to prove a point that we all already knew is entertaining nonetheless.  The movie is more generally about obesity in the United States, but Spurlock focuses on the fast food industry, using McDonald’s as the face of unnatural chicken and fries that never seem to go bad.

 I think that using a film such as Super Size Me in a classroom can have a very influential effect on student writing.  Spurlock takes an issue that is largely ignored in America and raises awareness of this problem in a very creative way.  If you are like me, after watching Super Size Me you told yourself that you are never going to eat fast food again.  Now I am sure that I will, because in the society we find ourselves in it is tough not to fall back on old habits (as Spurlock, although maybe unintentionally, shows in this film), but I am certain that I will be eating fast food a lot less.  The power of influence is at work here; one man with one idea made something that has made so many people question their eating habits.  If students can become as passionate about an issue or something in their lives as Spurlock demonstrates in this film, their writing can be used as a tool for displaying their thoughts.

What Spurlock does in this film should raise many questions.  For example, how would things have been different if he had exercised?  Is this a fair assessment of American society?  Can we really believe everything that we are seeing?  Since the success of Super Size Me, McDonald’s has gotten rid of the Super Size option, and issued a statement calling Super Size Me “a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice, and variety available at McDonald’s.”  I think that these are issues that students should be asked to look at as well.  What kind of editing decisions would a filmmaker make when trying to sway an audience one way or another?  Is it even possible for any type of media to report anything without being influenced by those in power? 

Not only can Super Size Me be used as a vehicle to show how one person can really make a difference, but also as an example to look into deeper societal issues and question the information that we are presented with every day of our lives.  Plus students will actually be entertained through all of this – not a bad combination.

References:  Big Mac Counterattack by David Edelstein

Tests = Incentive To Teach? January 29, 2007

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One of the more interesting debates about No Child Left Behind that I ran into reading an article from the January 26, 2007 Washington Post is that of students who are not native-English speakers being held to the same standards as their peers.  In Fairfax, Virginia, one of the nation’s largest school systems is going against the federally mandated testing of thousands of immigrant students.  The students will continue to be tested by the school, but not with the same grade-level material their native-English speaking peers are being tested with as is the standard for NCLB.

“It is wrong for our students to take a test they are predisposed to fail,” said board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence). “We will continue to test their proficiency twice a year and continue to move them forward as quickly as possible. This resolution is not, by any stretch, an attempt to shy away from accountability.”

I think that demanding the same standards for all students in all schools is simply ignoring how diverse our schools have become.  Students who are learning English as a second language may not be able to understand the way tests have been written, and this not only goes for a possible inability to read and write efficiently in English, but perhaps to the cultural bias that so many of our nation’s standardized tests seem to have. 

As unreasonable as it may seem to expect the same from those students who are learning English as a second language as native-English speakers, is there a way that these high expectations can actually be beneficial? 

Supporters of the federal provision also say that it forces school districts to focus on students who need extra help to catch up with their classmates. “We don’t want English-language learners to be left out of education,” said Peter Zamora, acting regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “If you remove this set of standards from the No Child Left Behind accountability system, you are removing the incentive to teach them.”

First of all, I have a very big problem with a statement like this because it makes it sound like teachers only teach to prepare students for tests, and if they didn’t have to worry about those funny immigrant students who don’t speak the language so well taking these tests, they could just sit them by themselves in a quiet room and forget about them.  As a future teacher, I am a little offended – I’d like to believe that my incentive to teach students couldn’t be taken away by test stipulations.  That being said, I will at least give the argument some consideration.  Because of these high standards, I think it is reasonable to believe that there are some school districts who will spend more time and money in working with students who speak English as a second language.

I understand both sides of the argument, and I think a happy medium can be found.  To have standards ESL students as high as their peers seems unreasonable, but to throw away any expectations of what these students can accomplish is not the solution either.  I think the answer lies with devising a set of standards that are specific for ESL students, challenging enough to ensure schools are doing their job in addressing these students needs, yet not so high that they are wasting time taking tests that don’t seem to make any sense to them.

full article

AYP, Teaching to the Test, and Growing Cynicism January 21, 2007

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The number of articles that deal with the issue of schools needing to improve to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind can be so overwhelming at times that one could grow serious doubts about our nation’s educational system.  I came across such an article written by Kathryn Heidecker from the Daily Freeman on January 12, 2007 that I felt was perfect to respond to because of its discussion of two topics that seem to be recurring themes in the debate – Adequate Yearly Progress and teaching to the test.

Three districts were cited in this article as needing improvement because they failed to achieve AYP in English test scores in middle and secondary classrooms.  What does this all mean?  The state could end up taking action if districts fail to meet the standards set forth by NCLB, possibly allowing students to attend nearby public schools, replacing staff, instituting a new curriculum, and an assortment of other creative ideas set forth by politicians staring at statistics rather than actual situations.  If you are questioning my neutrality stance on the issue from that last statement, understand that my cynicism is a result from my frustrations towards AYP, an idea that sounds great on the surface, but appears so flawed in writing. 

In some cases, the designation for needing improvement in middle-level and secondary English Language Arts means that as little as 1 percent of students are not performing up to par, said James Douglass, the Kingston district’s director of secondary education.

I think that making schools and teachers more accountable is a great thing, but the standards we are holding these districts to must be reasonable.  The way in which we are deciding AYP can also be brought into question.

…many students did not take sufficient notes during the oral comprehension part of the state English exam last year, and as a result, scored poorly on an essay portion of a test…

There is a nuance in having students know how to take a test… teachers have worked with consultants hired by district specifically to address testing strategies for students.

I think that if you were looking at this issue of teaching to the test, and just allowed yourself to take a step back and really see what was happening here, it would be easy to notice how ridiculous it has become.  Is using classroom time to prepare students to take tests that are assigned for states to evaluate schools and have little to do with the skills these students need for the future really a valuable use of time? 

 full article