Unintended Consequences of NCLB in Arizona: by a School Principal

by theschoolprincipal on September 27, 2010


My first post is about the unintended consequences of NCLB in Arizona. Other states will have different stories to share. Not all Arizona districts will have experienced the same problems that I describe, but all have had to work under the mandates of the Arizona Department of Education. The particular Arizona schools and districts that I write about are excellent.  The teachers and administrators are dedicated and work hard. I would even describe them as zealous in their eagerness to improve their schools and provide the best education possible for all children.

So I feel a bit like the little boy in the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” when he yelled out, “Look, the emperor has no clothes!”  But my intent is not to embarrass these well-intentioned educators. Obviously, I will not tell you who they are or where in Arizona they work. But as I’ve heard stories from credible teachers and administrators around the state — and experienced at least a couple of these things myself in the district from which I recently retired — I’ve become alarmed. Working so hard and with the best of intentions to comply with the mandates of NCLB, these schools and districts don’t yet see the unintended consequences of their efforts. Right now the train they’re riding is hurtling through the middle of a long, dark tunnel. They can’t see out — and they can’t see around the bend to know that the tracks up ahead are almost completely derailed — but the train is hastening forward, throttle wide open, full speed ahead.

I have decided instead of writing one very long post that I will break this topic into several posts over the next couple of weeks. I will soon add a page on the sidebar called “Lessons to be Learned from NCLB.” After each of these posts I plan to add something new to either “Lessons to be Learned” or to “Principal’s Principles,” or to both.

Here I go (by the way, Diane Ravitch has already said it all) . . .

Unintended Consequence #1 in Some Arizona School Districts

Because of NCLB, students are not being prepared well for their next level of schooling. Elementary students should leave elementary school ready to be successful in middle school. If they are, then middle school teachers can prepare students well to be successful in high school. That is how the system is supposed to work.

In Arizona, we must give students the AIMS reading, writing, and math tests in 3rd – 8th grades and in 10th grade. A school’s scores on the AIMS test determine if that school is labeled “excelling,”  “highly performing,” “performing plus,”  “performing,”  or “underperforming.” Students who “pass” a particular test are given a score of “Meets the Standard” or “Exceeds the Standard.” In order for a school to be labeled “excelling,” it must have a certain percentage of students who “exceed the standard.” Don’t you want your school to be labeled “excelling”? Any goal-oriented, quality teacher or principal committed to excellence would think this label is highly desirable and would want it for his or her school.

But the AIMS tests, especially in reading and writing, are based on minimum standards (and we won’t mention the fact that the passing scores for these tests (called “cut” scores) have been lowered several times).  A school leader who forgets this important point will lose his way. And that’s what has happened in Arizona. Some elementary principals, in order to find time for students to bring up their scores in reading, writing, and math, have instructed their teachers to drop science and social studies from the curriculum — or to “do it” during reading. (Let’s don’t even mention what’s happening in art, music, and p.e.) Supportive district administrators, proud that their principals are chasing that elusive pot at the end of the rainbow, never stop to think about the unintended consequences waiting down the  road.

What do you suppose will happen when these elementary students reach middle school? Have they “learned” about the rock cycle and the digestive system? Do they know where the 50 states are and have some basic understanding of American history? No.

So instead of teaching a middle school science and social studies curriculum, the middle school teachers have to go back and teach the elementary science and social studies curriculum. Could it get worse? Oh yes.

What if the principal of the middle school has the same philosophy as the elementary principal below him? What if he or she has directed that his science and social studies teachers spend their time drilling students on reading, writing, and math? Can you see why I am talking about “a train wreck” right down the road?

How prepared will these students be for high school science and social studies? High school science teachers will be introducing the 4th grade rock cycle and  5th grade human body systems rather than teaching the high school science curricula. Just as  the public’s eye is turning toward high school renewal, the students entering high school will not be prepared — but the high school will get the blame for its students’ declining test scores! (There is a high school AIMS test in science, but students’ science scores are not used for determining a school’s label. Predict what will happen in time to these science scores, which are already pathetically low in Arizona.)

When one particular high school science department got wind of what was happening in the grades below, the department head began a brainstorming session: if the grades below us are not teaching science or teaching it during reading, we need to give those teachers a  list of the science concepts the students must know before arriving in high school — metrics, lab procedures, how to write a lab report, names of glassware, etc., certain basic concepts of physical science (gravity, properties of matter, how temperature change and pressure affect matter), etc. (I doubt if anyone had the courage to hand that list to the elementary and middle school principals.) Elementary teachers can’t randomly have their students read Weekly Reader and think they’ve learned science, can they?

The ironic thing is that the students who were doing well in school before NCLB are the ones who are missing out now on a sound and challenging curriculum. Before NCLB in most schools across Arizona, these students received instruction in science and social studies. NCLB has hurt these students, who probably make up 70% or more of enrollment at many, many schools. No one intended for this to happen. But it’s one of the unintended consequences of NCLB.

If this train wreck is allowed to happen, what do you suppose that 20% or more of the parents of those students are going to do? They will lose confidence in the public schools and seek out other alternatives. The districts will lose their most capable students and watch their test scores decline over time.

Lesson to be Learned: Any future  school reform efforts must take into account human nature and what would motivate principals to choose such a short-sighted course of action.  Certain principals and administrators, whatever the reason, lose  track of their real mission and chase the excelling label, forgetting that their school is part of a larger system.

For  my Principal’s Principles #1 and #2, check out Principal’s Principles on the sidebar.

Principal’s Principle # 3: The school reform movement must insist upon, and then protect, a challenging,  meaningful curriculum for the students who are already successful in school. Unintended Consequence # 2: NCLB has had the opposite effect on a large percentage of our student population.

Principal’s Principle #4: In addition to all of the many things a teacher is responsible for (socialization, work habits, developing problem-solvers – and on and on) a teacher has one priority: to make certain that his students have learned the academic concepts that will enable them to be successful in the next grade. A kindergarten teacher’s priority is to make sure her students will be successful in 1st grade. An 8th grade science  teacher’s one priority is to make sure his 8th graders will be successful in 9th grade science. The desire to be labeled an excelling school should never divert teachers from this priority. Principals must not get sidetracked. They must make sure that teachers are focusing on their priority, which is to prepare students for the next grade, rather than continually preparing students for a test that has little relationship to the curriculum.

If this isn’t happening, the entire system will break down.

If you are interested in the unintended consequences of NCLB, come back. Unfortunately, I have more examples for you.

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