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from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

What was your favorite subject in school? 

Perhaps it was science. Maybe history, or foreign languages. Maybe what most interested you was not an “academic” subject. Perhaps it was music, or art, or technical education. Maybe you lived for gym, or in elementary school you couldn’t wait for recess. Perhaps by high school what made a difference was junior ROTC, or a child development course, a cooking class, or even something I have not mentioned.

Imagine school without that favorite subject. It shouldn’t be that hard. If you go visit schools today, increasingly you will find those subjects disappearing. Why? The answer is No Child Left Behind.


Currently NCLB behind requires that every student be tested each year in grades 3-8 in reading and in math. Students must also be tested at least once in high school in the required areas. Beginning next year tests are also supposed to be added in science. But the law has no tests for any of the other subjects. And already this is having a deleterious effect on schools. In elementary schools recess, history, art and music are being eliminated or cut back so that more time can be spent drilling in the math and reading skills that will be tested. In high school, “at risk” students are assigned extra reading and math in lieu of electives. Schools and school systems are worried about the consequences if test scores do not improve. Given the structure of NCLB, most schools will be found in need of improvement (and generally described as failing) because not all subgroups will show Annual Yearly Progress. In the meantime, administrators and teachers struggle to bring scores up to postpone when the ax may fall.

Yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times (one of the nation’s truly great newspapers) had a [story http://www.sptimes.com/2005/07/29/Tampabay/To_pump_up_reading__s.shtml] on this.
Entitled “To pump up reading, schools cub back fun” with a subtitle that read
Schools are intent on improving the reading ability of students. But in doing so, they may reduce programs that keep kids in school.


This is the key. As a teacher I know that often what keeps a student from dropping out is that one subject that turns her on. I teach government, which is not tested under NCLB. At least in our state it is a required course for graduation, and there is a state test which this year’s freshman will have to test in order to graduate. Thus my class and my job will not be eliminated. But for some of my students what gives them the reason to remain focused may not be my class, but rather Art or Music, or Consumer Science. Because they have to learn academic discipline in those subjects, their overall work improves. If what turns them on is our AF JROTC program, it may provide them with the overall discipline and structure that would otherwise be missing in their lives, and without which they would not succeed, and might well drop out.

The article examines the effects of a new Florida initiative stressing reading and more reading in the upper grades even through high school.

A statewide effort to improve reading in middle and high schools is whittling away beloved elective courses that many educators think keep struggling students from dropping out. . . .

The result: many high school students will be swapping chorus for 90 minutes of reading, vocational classes for 90 minutes of reading, Junior ROTC for 90 minutes of reading.


The effects on local schools is heavy:


In Pasco County - which is most affected because it has fewer class periods than other local districts - Hudson High's Junior ROTC program could fall short of the numbers needed to keep it funded. A quarter of the students who signed up were identified as needing reading instruction instead.

At Pinellas County's Boca Ciega High School, two foreign language
teachers and one physical education position were eliminated to make room for a new reading program that targets 800 students. That's almost nine times as many students as last year.


Over a quarter of a million of the states high school students could be targeted for the extra reading instruction, which leads people in career-technical education to worry that
removing kids from classes they feel are
relevant could undermine efforts to keep them reading and in school.

"We know some students only stay in school because of those electives," acknowledged Tammy Rabon, the curriculum director in Pasco County. "The electives are a wonderful way for them to explore their passions.

And yet, we need children to be literate, as Rabon acknowledges.

The article gives illustrations of the effects of the initiative on several students. let me offer one example of what might be lost”
Brad Birchfield, 17, a Hudson High junior, said he wonders what would have happened if the requirement had been in place when he started high school. Junior ROTC turned him from a "slacker" with an F-average, he said, to an enthusiastic 4.0 GPA student. "ROTC gave me something to want to be here for," he said.


Because NCLB requires the emphasis on reading and math, the Center on Education policy reports school districts across the nation making massive cutbacks in other subjects
27 percent report cutting back in social studies, 22 percent in science, 20 percent in art and music and 10 percent in physical education.


The Florida legislature doubled the amount of money available to help with reading instruction, but to get any part of that $89 million, school districts had to
submit plans outlining 90 minutes of reading for elementary students and 50 to 90 minutes for middle and high school kids who scored poorly on the FCAT.

The article does not discuss the poor quality of FCAT, the statewide test system. Even were it a superior instrument, this approach would be causing some problems. But given the lack of quality of the testing program, the negative impact on students is so much more tragic. And yet in fairness, students who cannot read are far more likely to drop out even if drawn to stay in school by electives. It is a problem. How can you both keep the electives and still give those students needing extra reading instruction the help they need?

Judy Whitaker, a board member with the Association of Career and Technical Education, said that with No Child Left Behind raising the bar for reading and math instruction, vocational programs are having to fight for a seat at the table. At the high school level, she said, reading must be taught through courses students find relevant, whether it's math, science or auto mechanics.

"If a child is struggling in a course and you give them a double dose of it, sometimes they resent it and they go backward," she said.


A problem in delivering the extra help in reading is that many high school teachers do not have the training to do such courses. In Maryland, where I teach, all newly certified teachers have to have two courses in reading instruction, but as one who was at least briefly enrolled in a masters program in reading instruction, I can tell you that even two courses is insufficient.


If is unfair and immoral that we can allow children to get to high school without being able to read properly. It is absolutely true that even as we address why we have failed to properly teach them in the elementary school, we have an obligation to try to remediate the previous failure among those students who have passed on to secondary schools. I hope and pray that we are determining who those students are by accurate measures. I also hope and pray that we recognize that raising test scores should not be the primary goal of our schools, certainly not at the expense of future health (here I note the dropping of recess and phys ed). Our schools should educate the whole child. We should include the courses in the arts and technical skills that can be so important to keeping children in school and interested in school. We should also recognize that many of these classes enable students to discover career paths they might otherwise not consider.

This is not a problem which can easily be addressed. Issues of reading are critical. What is missing in the approach described in the article is the recognition that school is insufficient if it is the sole means of addressing reading. Somehow we need to reach out to the broader community, so that reading becomes reinforced - students need to be encouraged so that they see reading not as a struggle, but as something enjoyable, and exciting. It is not that students won’t read - the Harry Potter phenomenon clearly demonstrates that given something of interest, students will do a lot of reading. I can see my high school students who really don’t do much of their school work devouring Rap music magazines and sports sections of newspapers.

I do not have easy answers. The purpose of this entry is to provoke a discussion. Education is a crucial public policy issue for the future of our country. If we look at problems solely through a political perspective we may not realize that some who are our political opponents have genuine concerns. We have a moral responsibility to equip our children for the future. Reasonable people can disagree about how this should be approached. My concern is that if we focus too narrowly on one aspect -- say, fixing poor reading -- we may in the process of addressing that problem create one that is just as detrimental, such as dropping the electives that serve as the motivators to encourage our students to come to and remain in school so that we can help them with their reading.
Comments:
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