Educating in the shadow of NCLB—The good, the bad and moving out from under

For the past 15 years, I’ve worked in a variety of educational settings and seen a lot of things. I taught in rural Louisiana. I worked in high-performing urban charter schools for low-income children. I volunteered at an elementary school that literally had no books in the classroom. I’ve worked in the public Montessori realm as well.

Almost my entire career in education has been within the shadow of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and a pervasive and insistent emphasis on The Test. Over time, I’ve come to believe that the problem is not The Test; the problem is how districts and individual schools have typically responded.

Jumping through hoops

In reaction to NCLB, we’ve evolved a system focused on training children to jump through test-related hoops, when instead, we should simply focus on solid instruction. Among the most problematic responses:

  1. Canceling non-tested subjects: In Texas, subjects like science are not tested until 5th grade. In an attempt to improve reading and math scores in earlier grades, some schools do double blocks of reading and math, and cancel science and social studies classes.
  2. Considering the tests to be the high bar versus the bare minimum: When I was growing up, I sat for standardized tests every year. The night before, our teachers would tell us to get a good night of sleep and to eat breakfast in the morning. That was it. Our curriculum was at such a high level in my middle-class neighborhood that the tests didn’t require much thought. Now that we are overwhelmingly focused on just The Test, we are inadvertently lowering our standards.
  3. Focusing on test-specific skills, not mastery of fundamentals: Effective reading instruction involves letting children read books on their individual levels, and helping them to progress. And yet, time after time, I’ve watched teachers focus instead on drilling students on test objectives such as identifying the “main idea.” While it is important to ensure that our children know what question tests are asking, it is far more important for children to be able to read on grade level.
  4. Over-administering benchmarks: I once worked in a district that required us to administer four assessments every two weeks. I happened to teach in a multiage classroom with three grade levels, which meant 12 assessments every two weeks. There was very little time left to teach. Although it is helpful to get a gauge of where children are performing, we have to make sure it’s not at the expense of much-needed instructional time.

How can we adjust course, and create a system that favors individualized, data-driven, systematic instruction which is focused on educating the whole child?

Focusing on the whole child

How can we adjust course, and create a system that favors individualized, data-driven, systematic instruction which is focused on educating the whole child?

Making a handful of shifts will move us a long way toward that goal. We should:

  1. Use data to systematically monitor progress and drive instruction: One thing that NCLB has done is shown us that there are real gaps between different groups of students. In order to close those gaps, we have to monitor each child’s progress and use the data that we collect daily to determine our next steps. New tools enable us to capture and compare a greater range of data than we have in the past, in order to help each child meet specific goals.
  2.  Combine data-driven insights with innovative models of teaching to individualize instruction: Teaching everyone the same thing at the same time and in the same way leaves higher-performing children bored and lower-performing children frustrated and tuned out. Children working within their zones of proximal development make more efficient and effective progress. Well-designed blended learning models are beginning to address the challenge of differentiating instruction. The Montessori model is another long-standing methodology that designs classroom interactions that address the needs of children with different interests and abilities.
  3. Broaden what we measure and what we teach: If we’re truly committed to preparing children for the 21st century, we have to reevaluate what we teach and assess within our schools. We have to value (and begin to measure) skills like collaboration and time management as much as we value (and measure) skills like identifying main idea.

All of the above said, would I throw out The Test? No.  Insofar as it seeks to ensure that all children achieve a consistent, measurable minimum, it has value. But we also need to keep our eyes on a higher bar: Creating rich educational environments that deeply prepare children for success in college, the 21st century workplace and in life, as leaders in families and communities that need them.

Sara Cotner is the founder and executive director of Montessori For All. Cotner started Montessori For All in 2011 to help children in diverse communities gain access to a high-performing, authentic Montessori education. The school’s first campus will open in Austin, TX in the fall of 2014.