One teacher's take: Stop griping, our schools can measure up

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When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, it was met with incredible uproar, mainly from the educational community. The National Education Association (NEA) was quick to condemn it, as did many school districts, including the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). This comes as no surprise, because the "A" word - accountability - makes them shudder. Any time you have to produce results, somebody is going to make excuses, place blame elsewhere, or pass the buck.

I'm a teacher who supports No Child Left Behind (NCLB) - but I'm part of a very small minority in the educational community who sees its value. Just about every piece of legislation ever passed has had something that someone didn't like, and this one is no different. Teachers have an incredible amount of work to do already, without the added burdens of NCLB. And I, like most teachers, don't like being told how to do my job. Either I'm a professional and should be trusted, or I'm not and should be fired.

However, when looked at carefully, NCLB makes no unreasonable request. The president wants to see all students meet a certain standard in reading, writing, and math - something we are supposed to be teaching and reinforcing already. So what's the problem?

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The problem seems to be in the "standardized" testing. If students do not perform well, the school is deemed a failure.

Reg Weaver, president of the NEA, has noted that Princeton (N.J.) High School was among those listed as failures under NCLB standards, even though of Princeton's students, "100 percent graduate and 79 percent go on to four-year colleges, including seven National Merit semifinalists [in 2003]."

Obviously, there is a problem here. Either the tests are not addressing what is taught in the classroom, teachers are not teaching what is expected to be tested, or standards in our schools have been and still are far below what they should be. I lean toward the latter two.

I can attest to a big difference between what's taught and what's on standardized tests. Back in the mid-1990s, when we started giving the AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) test here, the math portion covered problems that a student wouldn't have seen unless he or she had taken intermediate algebra. The problem was that students were only required to take first-year algebra. This was setting them up for failure. Little has changed. If the standard is higher than what we are teaching, then change the requirements so the students meet the standard.

Various excuses have been used to explain poor performance here in Tucson:

• "The test is culturally biased." So change it.

• "The reading level is too high." So teach kids to read better.

• "The students have limited English proficiency." So immerse them in English.

Stop whining and just do what's necessary. Start at the kindergarten level and make sure students don't move on until they've met the standards - be it in reading, writing, or math. It's not a difficult concept. All too often we see students struggling, and rather than find a different approach to teaching them, we just want to get them out of our hair.

When I was teaching history in Tucson, where about half of the students are Hispanic and some 17 percent aren't English proficient, one method I found useful was to modify the curriculum to reflect their culture. By showing connections between the course material and the students' everyday life, and by having them read material with which they were familiar, their reading comprehension improved. Students could read magazines, comics, or newspapers - as long as it was in English. This was not to minimize the importance of their language, but merely to help them succeed in the US. I also broke down textbooks into notes and lectures. This way students who had lower reading skills found it easier to keep up with assignments.

As for my limited-English students, I spoke to them in English, using visuals to illustrate the material that they were supposed to learn. They did fine. While 2 to 3 percent of my students failed, the vast majority excelled and felt that they learned well, which they did.

I expect all my students to work hard and to succeed. If you expect them to do well, they will do well. If you expect them to fail, they will fail. Children generally will meet your expectations, be they high or low.

Each state now knows the standard. It is up to them to figure out how to help students meet that standard. Arizona ranks as one of the worst states in the nation in education, both in funding and in quality, according to separate studies conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics and Education Week.

We are the last ones who should be griping about being asked to improve our schools. While there is plenty of blame to go around, a good share of it can be laid at the feet of the teachers. Each teacher, teaching one child at a time, must look at the standard and use his or her knowledge and skill to help each student reach it, so that ultimately, there is No Child Left Behind.

Bruce P. Murchison teaches science at Sahuaro High School in Tucson. He is a Republican candidate for the Arizona State Senate.

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