Dear Senator Alexander and the Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:
I am the mother of a special education child who will be graduating from high school this year. I consider myself fortunate that my son is old enough to have missed the worst of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I am a parent member for my school district’s Committee on Special Education and an active member of our Autism support group. I frequently talk to parents whose children are being crushed by the education reforms imposed by ESEA/NCLB/RttT and ad hoc policy changes to education that have been mandated by the USDOE under Secretary Duncan. This is not limited to parents of special education students, but that will be the primary focus of this letter.
The fundamental problem with the federal governments interpretation of “No Child Left Behind” is that is assumes all children need to, or should, be able to get to the same place. That is not how the human race works, nor should it. What every child does deserve, is a square deal, a chance to succeed on individual terms, not federally mandated terms, based on each child’s abilities and willingness. Great American projects, such as the Hoover Dam, or the Erie Canal, would not have been possible if everyone had to be the engineer. It took the backs of hard-working men to put these, and every other great achievement of mankind, into production. Under No Child Left Behind, we have created a system where you need a high school diploma to be a custodian for the MTA, and you need to pass High Stakes Exit exams to prove that you are “college ready” in order to earn that diploma. How does that make sense? And, if the federal government is pushing a system where students cannot earn a diploma to get a good, 40 hour a week job with benefits, how exactly is that “No Child Left Behind”?
There have been so many improvements in the understanding of early childhood development, and in how to reach students with many different learning disabilities. There are now adaptive technologies to help many students with learning disabilities to function better, to help with reading, or communication. These gains are being lost because special education students now need to serve the tests, they are the work product of the education system. The education system is supposed to serve the students, to meet them where they are, to help them to open doors, not close them.
The standardized test based education model is a failure. There is nothing wrong with trying new things to see if they can improve education, but there comes a time when you have to admit things do not work. Standardized testing has caused good people to become involved or implicated in cheating scandals, either to save their schools or to prove that there have been “improvements” that did not happen. Standardized testing is a political tool used to beat up students, parents, teachers and schools. There is no validity as the cut scores are set to serve a political agenda. They are either lowered so that states reach the benchmark needed to keep their NCLB waiver, or raised to prove that schools are failing and that more testing is required. Standardized testing takes money out of schools and out of the classrooms. One of the greatest ironies of NCLB is closing “failing schools” and opening charters, with smaller class sizes, when a major component of the solution for “failing schools” would be more teachers and aides to reduce class sizes. Charter schools “counsel out” students to keep their scores high. Special education students are left to flounder in public schools with reduced funding and reduce resources.
Students now serve the schools and go to school to serve the tests. No Child Left Behind has created an education system where teachers attempt to give tests to students as they lay in hospital beds. No Child Left Behind has created an education system where students who know that they read below grade level are forced to take tests to remind them of their limitations, rather then an education system that allows them to find their strengths. No Child Left Behind has created an education system where New York state is attempting to mandate that schools participate in stand alone field testing, using children and valuable education time, to work for Pearson so that tests can then be sold back to the school district the next year. No Child Left Behind has created an education system where teachers who are willing to go into Special Education are being punished via VAM, for being willing to serve the children who need the most help and the most support.
I don’t think George Orwell could have conceived of this possibility in his wildest imaginings, yet this is the reality of education today.