Teachers Grapple with Attaining Education Law’s Goals
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JIM LEHRER: Now our series on the No Child Left Behind law. In tonight’s third and final report, how some of the country’s best teachers are responding to the law. Here again is the work of our special correspondent for education, John Merrow.
ANTHONY CODY, Teacher: Solar energy is a huge topic, so it affects a lot of things.
JOHN MERROW, Special Correspondent for Education: We first met Anthony Cody in 1999, when he was teaching science at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, California.
ANTHONY CODY: There are some investigations that we’ve already begun using shadows and using the sun.
JOHN MERROW: A gifted teacher, Cody is nationally certified, a distinction that only 2 percent of teachers ever attain. And Cody shared his expertise mentoring other teachers.
ANTHONY CODY: As a teacher, my first priority is my own 90-some students. But thinking broadly, I really try to work with other teachers across the district. And I can reach more students in that way, by supporting new teachers, trying to give them some fresh ideas to work with in the classroom.
So the shadow starts where?
STUDENT: From the base of the thing.
JOHN MERROW: Eight years have passed, and when we caught up with Anthony Cody this time, his outlook had changed.
ANTHONY CODY: I’m seeing a lot of desperation on the part of teachers, a lot of frustration. Out of the group of six teachers that I’ve worked with for a long time, only one is still in the classroom.
JOHN MERROW: Cody believes the change in teacher morale dates back to 2002 and the No Child Left Behind law.
ANTHONY CODY: No Child Left Behind has cast a pall over the whole urban educational system. It has created unrealistic expectations and punished us for not meeting them.
JOHN MERROW: The U.S. secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, says that, before the law, many problems were being ignored.
MARGARET SPELLINGS, U.S. Secretary of Education: We were leaving thousands and thousands — millions of kids behind. We had the ostrich approach when it came to them. And now, all of a sudden, we have an intensity around meeting their needs, and it’s making people uncomfortable.
JOHN MERROW: Under the law, children in grades three though eight are expected to perform at grade level on multiple choice tests. But many of Anthony Cody’s students were already three and even four grades behind when they arrived in his classroom.
ANTHONY CODY: If I say that No Child Left Behind sets unrealistic goals, then the very name of the law says that, by implication, I am leaving children behind. I am not interested in leaving anyone behind, but I’m not going to say that I am a failure because he came to me reading at the fourth-grade level and I’ve only managed to move him up to the fifth- or sixth-grade level in one year.
You know, I’m not going to say that he’s a failure. I’m not going to say that I’m a failure. But the law says I’m a failure because he’s not proficient. He’s not at grade level.
Affecting outstanding teachers
JOHN MERROW: We wondered whether Anthony Cody's experience was unique. Could No Child Left Behind be affecting other outstanding teachers? We came here to Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the best public school districts in the nation. And behind me is Bailey's Elementary, one of its best schools.
LYNN RIGGS, Teacher: So today we will be building our own roller coasters...
JOHN MERROW: At Bailey's, we met Lynn Riggs, Fairfax County's teacher of the year for 2006-2007.
LYNN RIGGS: We've got gravity that we have to work with.
JOHN MERROW: Riggs is a science resource teacher. Besides teaching science, she also helps other teachers create challenging lessons.
LYNN RIGGS: One of the things that I do every year with fifth-graders, I do a roller coaster lesson. And really what it is, is a physics lesson.
I'm trying to turn that bucket upside down, but how come those paper clips aren't falling out?
Any good teaching involves connecting with the kids and having something that is real, that's authentic, something that will not only grab their attention, but will engage them so that they're learning.
JOHN MERROW: Like Anthony Cody in Oakland, Lynn Riggs is concerned about No Child Left Behind, particularly its reliance on multiple-choice tests.
LYNN RIGGS: I think that multiple-choice, bubble-in tests are the easiest kind of tests to give. Why are we spending all of this time training kids to give us the right answer when we should be training them to think?
JOHN MERROW: Bailey's prides itself on teaching children to think. This K-5 school is in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population. With its focus on science and the arts, Bailey's attracts talented teachers and student applicants from all over the county.
TEACHER: Do we come to school on Sunday?
JOHN MERROW: Bailey's 800 students come from more than 40 countries and speak more than 20 languages.
BETSY WALTER, Teacher: Now, here's the challenge: I want you to show me interdependence in a way totally different...
I have 26 students, and 17 of them are second-language learners, in my classroom. And so we have to do things that are visual and with our bodies or else they won't understand. And so I try to do things that will play to their strengths, build up their weaknesses, and make them the most well-rounded learner they can be.
JOHN MERROW: But is No Child Left Behind looking for well-rounded learners?
BETSY WALTER: I don't think the law was intended to be about testing. I think the law was intended to be about the quality of our schools and our teachers, and I think that it's turned into being about statistics.
Pressure for high test scores
JOHN MERROW: Under No Child Left Behind, schools are evaluated by test scores, which are broken down by subgroups such as race, family income, and disability. If even one subgroup fails, the entire school is labeled as having failed to make adequate yearly progress. At Bailey's, teachers in the testing grades -- three, four and five -- are feeling the pressure.
LYNN RIGGS: Everybody has succumbed to drilling to learn how to take a multiple choice test, so that we've all modified our teaching, Fairfax County included, Bailey's Elementary included.
JOHN MERROW: Secretary Spellings says that should not be a problem.
MARGARET SPELLINGS: If you have a curriculum that is sound and strong and is what you want your kids to know and you're measuring against that, there's not a thing wrong with teaching to the test.
JOHN MERROW: Fairfax County teacher of the year said, "Our country needs people who can solve problems, be analytical. All that's lost in the high-stakes tests and narrowing curriculum."
MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, I mean, I guess what my question is, is that person advocating that we go back to not finding out how poorly or how well our students are being served, that we eliminate measurement of kids?
JOHN MERROW: But Bailey's teachers don't believe that one test is an accurate measure of student progress.
BETSY WALTER: As a teacher, I'm continually assessing my students. And I believe that they're much more authentic assessments than a standardized test. I don't come in every day and baby sit. I am a teacher. We have significant learning that goes on every day. It just might not be shown on that test that someone developed at the testing place.
LYNN RIGGS: We're going to find out about different types of energy.
JOHN MERROW: Lynn Riggs ran into a different problem when her fifth-grade students did a project on deep sea vents, underwater volcanoes.
LYNN RIGGS: One of the things that is absolutely fascinating about this fabulous ecosystem that is miles beneath the ocean, there is no sunlight there. What is it that's driving this ecosystem? What is this chemo-synthesis? How does this work? I've got to be able to explain it to fifth-graders.
JOHN MERROW: Riggs says her students love tackling such a difficult subject.
LYNN RIGGS: But the kicker is, this spring, as the kids were preparing for their state tests, one of the questions was about food chains. Of course, the right answer is "the sun." And I'm thinking, "Great, they're going to get the question wrong. I've taught them too much. They're going to be thinking, 'But what about the deep-sea vents, chemosynthesis? There's no sunlight that deep down in the ocean. It's dark.'"
JOHN MERROW: And testing pressure is getting worse. Earlier this year, Fairfax County lost a battle with the U.S. Department of Education. As a result, Bailey's teachers had to give grade-level English tests to immigrant students, regardless of their ability to understand English.
BETSY WALTER: I can tell you right now that my entire class will not pass. I have children who came to America a year ago that are being tested. I have children who have illiterate parents, so when they go home, no one can help them with their reading.
JOHN MERROW: Do you fear that Bailey's will not make adequate yearly progress?
LYNN RIGGS: I don't fear it; I know it. Chances are good that we will not be making adequate progress in at least one or two of our categories.
JOHN MERROW: And what will that mean?
LYNN RIGGS: It will mean we are a failing school.
MADDIE FENNELL, 2007 Nebraska Teacher of the Year: I'm joined with my colleagues today from across the country...
More frustration in Nebraska
JOHN MERROW: Far beyond Bailey's Elementary, teacher frustration is building.
MADDIE FENNELL: My name is Maddie Fennell, and I'm the teacher of the year for the state of Nebraska.
JOHN MERROW: In an unprecedented action, 50 of the 2007 state teachers of the year met in Washington, D.C., this April to propose major changes to No Child Left Behind.
MADDIE FENNELL: We know that America's public education system is in need of repair, yet classroom teachers have been denied a seat at the table when it comes to shaping and implementing the most influential education reform, No Child Left Behind.
If No Child Left Behind stays the way it is, I think the level of frustration is going to cause people to say, "You know what? This is just not worth it. I love my children, but I can't continue to do this when professionally I know this is what's not in the best interests of my students." We're just going to have many more people leaving the profession.
JOHN MERROW: In Oakland, Anthony Cody, after 18 years in the classroom, has already quit.
ANTHONY CODY: I left teaching because the morale at the school had fallen. There wasn't a feeling of optimism.
JOHN MERROW: Do you miss teaching?
ANTHONY CODY: In my collaborative research group, we used to talk about, "Wouldn't it be great if we could start our own school?" We don't talk about that anymore.
JOHN MERROW: But you haven't given up.
ANTHONY CODY: No, I haven't given up, but I can't see -- I haven't felt effective in the classroom lately. And I'd like to go back, but I'd like to know that I could be effective, and that the school would be effective, and that the school would be honored, and that I would be honored for the work that I do.
LYNN RIGGS: Predictions, who's got a hypothesis?
JOHN MERROW: And what about Lynn Riggs, the Fairfax County teacher of the year?
Knowing what you know now about No Child Left Behind, if you were starting over, would you be a classroom teacher?
LYNN RIGGS: I'm not a classroom teacher now.
JOHN MERROW: You've got the ideal job.
LYNN RIGGS: I have the ideal job. I am a resource teacher. I do not have to administer the state test. It does not impact my job. I would not go back to the classroom today.
JOHN MERROW: As the school year wound down, students and teachers at Bailey's celebrated the arts.
STUDENT: So the sort of basic idea of our mural was legacy, what people would remember about us.
JOHN MERROW: Nothing here looked like failure, but the teachers knew the all-important test scores would not come in until mid-August.
JIM LEHRER: Three teachers of the year will answer questions online about their experiences with the No Child Left Behind law. You can participate in that forum, and you can also watch John's previous stories by going to our Web site at PBS.org.