Why our kids are “S.O.L.”

Earlier this month, my wife and did the three and a half hour trek from Virginia Beach, Virginia to our nation’s capital to see the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (in case you haven’t noticed from her articles, she has a penchant for all things Japanese). While exiting the Smithsonian along Constitution Avenue, we got to see something we don’t normally see in our sleepy little town: an old-fashioned organized protest.

While you’ll occasionally see septuagenarian Tea Partiers out with their Gadsen Flags on April 15th, in the Southeast it’s generally considered bad taste to discuss politics or religion in public (well, the wrong type of politics or religion). It was a shock to my system to see bold, liberal politics out in the fresh air on a Saturday afternoon.

The protestors were composed of parents, children and teachers demonstrating against the closing of 15 D.C. public schools next year. These schools, victims of the high-stakes testing associated with the unfortunately named No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, has made the task of education more difficult with passing years. This is a story being played out not just in D.C., but in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and most notably, Chicago, where protests over 53 school closings in March led to heated confrontations in front of City Hall and a number or arrests.

For those who are not involved in Education politics or have not had a child in school since 2001 let me quickly review why so many schools in our country are facing closure.  As part of sweeping reforms of education enacted during the Bush Administration, No Child Left Behind, or NCLB (which is itself a re-authorization or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) stated that all schools in the country should have 100% passing rate in all Reading, Math, and Science by 2012 based on a variety of patchworked, state-developed standardized tests.  This pass rate, called Adequate Yearly Progress (or, AYP, this law really liked acronyms), must be met every year, no matter how poor the school, how needy the students, or how much of the student body falls into the developmentally-delayed category (because the kid that eats paste also needs to know how to calculate fractals).  Schools who do not meet AYP are often met with unique ways to help meet their goals for next year, which might include firing school faculty and staff, restricting funds, or closing the school and sending its students to “charter schools” (ersatz private schools that receives public funds but is not subject to standardized assessments).

This minefield of constricting regulation and nearly impossible goal-setting has left a bad taste in the mouth of a number of education professionals.  A number of teachers, rather than fight for their existence, are throwing in the towel, claiming that the profession has “left them” rather than the other way around. Rather than attempt to retain and work with burned-out teachers, NCLB’s “teacher accountability” section places more of the blame on for testing failures on them.  That combined with a less than admirable attitude of teaching among conservative politicians and pundits have made them scapegoats of the law’s shoddy enactment.

This, unfortunately, is not the worst result of high-stakes testing: since tenure, bonuses, and funding are often connected to how well a group of eighth graders do in Applied Chemistry, cheating has become rampant.  Not among students, mind you, but teachers. The most recent scandal in Atlanta involving 35 teachers–including former Superintendent Beverly Hall–is only  one of a laundry list of and cheating and suspected cheating in cities such as Chicago, DC, Philadelphia, and even in Norfolk, Virginia, my hometown. Perhaps the greatest consequence is that Atlanta’s “improving” test scores led to a loss of over three-quarters of a million dollars in federal assistance for academically struggling students, in one case, promoting a girl to high school who was reading at a fifth-grade level.

While there will always be greedy, desperate people in every profession who will work the system to their advantage (we have yet to hear many calls from politicians and pundits to arrest the geniuses who cooked up “credit default swaps”), the cheating, the school closings, and the subsequent protests remain symptoms of a greater illness in public education.  Searching for the golden goose of better academic ranking for American Schools, we became lost along the way and have made testing the goal of education rather than a tool to assess student learning.  Too many of our schools, and too many of our students, teachers, and principals face draconian and often disadvantageous “reforms” that are closing small community schools, leaving competent professionals without meaningful work and an average $25,000 in student loan debt that can’t be repaid, and replacing them with for-profit private schools that serve neither community nor students (notably in New Orleans, a major charter school hub, where schools may reject  applicants due to special needs).

And, most importantly, this is an issue that hits close to home as a former public school music teacher (though I would say my experience in the classroom were less like Mr. Holland and more like Disney’s Goofy). I also know countless teachers, including my mother, sister and brother-in- law. They are hard-working, self-sacrificing folks that have seen their pay either cut or stagnate, and, as state school budgets have become slimmer, are digging more and more into their own pockets for supplies or having to resort to crowdsourcing websites such as Donorschoose.org (please visit and give to a school in your community, especially if you were lucky enough to get a refund this year).

It’s worth noting that in my state, our standardized tests are called the Standards of Learning, abbreviated, S.O.L.

Know what else S.O.L. stands for?

That’s what are kids will be if we don’t take action for meaning reform in our schools to keep the “public” in public education.

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Image Source: Chris Obrion, The Roanoke Times