Teachers sing the blues over ed law

The idea was born one night last year in Birmingham, Ala. Retired educator Eldon "Cap" Lee was one of dozens of administrators, teachers, and parents meeting there to express support for a successful new school called World of Opportunity (WOO) - a school designed to accommodate students forced out of regular public schools due to their poor performance on standardized tests.

It was, in other words, the kind of place where one might not expect to find much support for the test-driven No Child Left Behind federal education law.

So perhaps it was only natural that one evening, as the educators sat around talking about the negative impact of high-stakes testing, Mr. Lee took out his backpacker guitar, and began singing 1960s folk songs.

The themes of struggle and activism in the words they sang rang true on that night in Birmingham four decades after they were written. Soon, somebody started making up lyrics about the No Child Left Behind law, set to the tunes Lee played. Somebody else jotted down the words to the impromptu parodies.

By the time Lee returned to his home in Milwaukee, he was fired up with the notion of creating the CD that is now known as "No Child Left Behind: Bring Back the Joy."

He put out a call for more songs from teachers, hoping to give voice to the people who deal with the impact of the education law every day. "Change happens when people have a rallying cry," says David H.B. Drake, who performs with Lee as part of the folk trio Dangerous Folk.

The 15-song album is a combination of original compositions and others set to classic tunes like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

The CD is certainly one of the more original forms of protest against the federal education law. Some state legislators have proposed rebelling against the law and a handful of school districts nationwide have actually done so. And clusters of parents and teachers in various areas have organized to lament both NCLB's heavy reliance on standardized test results and the punitive measures it threatens against schools that don't make the grade.

But this appears to be the first time anyone has set such complaints to 1960s-style protest tunes.

The one-of-a-kind CD isn't exactly surging up the charts. So far, it has sold just a few more than 400 copies, mostly at teacher conferences and via a link through Drake's website, www.davidhbdrake.com. (Proceeds are donated to WOO back in Birmingham.)

But the album's creators are not discouraged. For them, just putting their protest to music has value.

"If there is something that is hurting others, you stand up and you sing about it. Maybe somebody will listen," says Mr. Drake.

Drake and Lee and some of the others involved in the project insist the federal education law is hurting the country's schools. Lee is a former special ed teacher and principal of an alternative school without grades. He's a proponent of assessment but sees little value in NCLB's method of comparing a school's seventh-grade test scores to the scores of seventh graders in previous years to indicate if there has been improvement or not.

"Those kind of comparisons are good for headlines," Lee says, but "they don't do schools or kids any good."

He and other critics of NCLB also worry that standardized learning and testing devalues subjects that aren't tested, - such as the performing arts. "So Many Ways to Be Smart," by Stuart Stotts, is a positive spin on the "multiple intelligences" theory put forth by Harvard University researcher Howard Gardner:

Some folks are good at getting along
Some folks are good at making up songs
Some folks are good at stopping a Wal-mart
So many ways to be smart!

"The heart has been torn out of schools," says Drake. "You've got to want to teach, and they've got to want to learn. And when both happen, it's magic. It may not be what you intended to teach, but it's when kids really learn. But now teachers are being forced to teach the test, which isn't formulated by teachers but by bureaucrats. They have to let teachable moments go."

Although the NCLB project is intended to give a voice to educators, one of the strongest vocal performances on the CD is by Lili Kryzanek, who was 12 years old at the time of the recording. Lee and Drake wrote the bluesy title song that she belts out based on national headlines about the state of public education.

Lili is a poster child for deemphasizing tests and nurturing kids' interests. Her parents drive 60 miles a day to take her to a public school with arts instruction.

"There are no dance teachers left in Wisconsin other than in specialty arts-emphasis schools," says Drake. "Art teachers go from room to room with an art cart. There's literally no room set aside for art."

And even at a school with a special focus like hers which emphasizes the arts, "[School] is still a big test," says Lili.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.