Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk, Conn., was just one of thousands of American public schools classified as failing during the 2010-2011 school year, according to standardized test scores. In "Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000* Failing Public Schools," Ron Berler, a journalist who has written for The New York Times and Chicago Tribune, documents the year he spent observing students and educators at Brookside as they struggled to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.
Berler recently spoke to U.S. News about what he sees as problems with standardized testing, the lack of school readiness in the youngest students, and the role he says parents should play in their children's academic success. Excerpts:
What does it mean that 45,000 schools are failing?
That's a scary number. When [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan came out [in 2011] and said that it was possible that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be failing by the end of 2012, I had to scratch my head. Are our schools that bad? What are we testing, and how are we doing it? What I think is that we're doing way too much of this testing, and it is changing the way in which we educate our children. So, in a lot of ways that are obvious, and a lot that are not obvious at all, the testing colors everything in a school like Brookside.
Is testing a fair measure of a school's quality?
Suppose you are a fifth grader and you walk into class at the beginning of the year reading at a high-second-grade level, and, sadly, that is not all that uncommon. Now that teacher carries you up to a mid-fourth-grade level. That's like a year-and-two-thirds jump in a year. Because [the Connecticut Mastery Test] tests fifth-grade levels, that kid got no credit for that advancement. Nor did the teacher, nor did the school. That school did a tremendous job, but they get nothing to show for it. On paper, idealistically, No Child Left Behind was a wonderful thought, but it wasn't put out there with any practical thought.
What is the effect of excessive testing on elementary-school curriculums?
From September until Christmas vacation, [Brookside] was like any school you would imagine. Then, once they got back from Christmas break, for the next nine weeks until testing began, it was a different animal. What they did was drop their curriculum, drop their texts, and instead study exclusively from a standardized-test prep book. Kids weren't getting a liberal arts education, but prepping to a very narrowly drawn standardized test in primarily language arts and math. Because they were interested in passing the test more than anything else, for that 22 percent of the school year, they taught primarily to the broad middle section of kids that were going to pass. Plus, the school went and reached out to those kids who they thought were on the cusp of possibly passing. So who gets left out? The kids at the bottom and the kids at the top.
Are incoming kindergartners at Brookside well prepared?
Each year, the kindergarten teachers at Brookside issue what's called an academic readiness test. Thirty-eight percent of the incoming kindergartners this year failed one or more of those eight questions. Now, if a child takes this test before he or she has ever had a day of school, how can you blame the teachers or the school for that?
What is the role of parents in early education?
Kids are in school for six hours a day. The rest of the time, they're at home. And unless parents work in concert with their children's teachers, their children will never be able to reach their true potential. Over the summer, it's entirely possible for a kid, if that kid does not read, to drop as much as half a year in reading ability. There are a million ways in which parents could be doing a better job with their children, and we don't talk about that.
How do you think recent budget cuts might affect schools like Brookside?
It's not only the cuts, but the way in which the cuts are made. In this year's budget, 80 percent of that budget [cut] was applied at the elementary school level, which is just the opposite of what it should be. [With] first and second graders, if they're behind at that level, it's entirely possible to bring that child back to grade level. But once you start having to address a child who's in sixth grade, or the seventh grade, or the eighth grade, that kid has fallen far behind.
What do you think are the best ways to invest in education?
I would say reduce and adjust the amount of standardized testing. Reallocate your existing funds so that the thrust of your investment goes to elementary school, early school education, rather than your middle and high school. And finally, parents have to be intimately involved in their child's school lives for them to succeed. And, I think, if you look at my book, you'll see that it doesn't have an agenda. It's balanced, and it's [written] through the voices and the feelings of those who are involved in the daily pressures brought on by No Child Left Behind.
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