Nina Carlson is the current Vice President for Legislation of the Oregon PTA and a lifelong Oregonian. She lives in Washington County, is a budget committee member for Hillsboro School District, and has a sixth grade son at Groner Elementary School.
During the last few years there has been much debate over whether or not No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has led to improvements in education. From my time volunteering in my son’s classroom over the last six years I have noticed a stronger emphasis on testing. Students are spending recesses inside to take tests and using library time to learn testing techniques. The numbers needed to pass the OAKS math and reading tests are posted in all hallways. There are notes to parents stressing they be especially mindful of bedtimes and extracurricular activities during testing weeks. More importantly, I have seen students, teachers and parents demoralized because despite significant improvement and incredible amounts of hard work, their school has been labeled a failing school. This could be because they haven’t raised test scores enough in a certain period of time or a small number of students are not meeting an arbitrary test score number. I have not seen smaller class sizes, more art and music, engaging and interactive science projects, literary circles with classroom discussions of books, or full-length school years. This being said, many admit there were positive aspects to the legislation, especially data that highlights which sub groups (specific student groups) in a school were being underserved, and whose achievement could be raised significantly through specialized interventions and extra attention.
As a result of the Oregon Department of Education application and subsequent provisional approval for a flexibility waiver from some of the most punitive measures of NCLB, I face my son’s last year of elementary school with a mixture of hope and disappointment, but most of all uncertainty. It is encouraging that more control is being given to local superintendents and building principals through provisions in the application. They are in the trenches, and know their kids, and what they need in the classroom and how to provide it better than anyone. I am excited that the waiver recognizes parental engagement/involvement as a key component of a successful school. There is data that reveals a school district would have to increase their budget by over 1000 dollars for every engaged, active parent participating in their child’s education at a school building level. Every day there are stories about parents starting or volunteering in exciting and thoughtful programming that improves the educational opportunities for every student in their school. It is extremely gratifying to see parent involvement spelled out as a necessary ingredient to a highly functioning school in the waiver application and many district achievement compacts. With any luck, site councils may be given the chance to be what they were intended—boards of teachers, parents and staff who give meaningful feedback and guidance to building administrators on the state of their schools and their direction. Lastly, the most positive development is seen in the ability to highlight and reward schools who are getting results and closing specific achievement gaps, even if their scores in other areas are not as impressive.
The disappointment follows when one considers that while schools will be offered more support (from their districts and other districts that have similar demographics and are closing their achievement gaps) to increase their OAKS scores and help all of their students achieve growth, none of the admirable goals of the application will lower the class sizes, upgrade the state of the school buildings and their technology, or provide the money necessary for a full-length school year. Test scores are still the leading way that schools will be assessed as succeeding or not, not by whether they are doing the job of producing active engaged learners with real world skills.
However, the overwhelming feeling I got as I waded through the application was uncertainty. Much of the framework in the application seemed like a sensible compromise that districts and the Department of Education were forced to make when faced with the intractable problems of having to do more (i.e. raising OAKS cut scores, ensuring all groups of students are making progress) in a time of flat enrollment, increased overhead, and decreasing state funds. Will this be the next great thing in education for the state of Oregon? Another unfunded mandate? Will achievement compacts that don’t yet have meaningful enforcements behind them really help students in the classroom and the professionals that are charged with the task of producing students prepared for college and careers? Hopefully the breathing room given from the strictures of NCLB will be put to good use by the Governor, Dr. Crew, the OEIB and our legislators. Most critically I hope that parents stay alert, continue to ask their building principals, school boards and elected officials the tough questions about the state of education today in Oregon, and will provide honest, real world feedback about what the changes or improvements the waiver and its new policies actually bring to the classrooms and the students in them.