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The Learning Factory

Michael Winerip, New York Times columnist and favorite target of Eduwonk, is retiring his column on education issues after four years.

In his final shot, he makes several excellent points about No Child Left Behind. However, he has a good question that strikes to the heart of the law.

As readers know, I’m not a fan of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law aimed at raising education quality. Instead of helping teachers, for me it’s a law created by politicians who distrust teachers. Because teachers’ judgment and standards are supposedly not reliable, the law substitutes a battery of state tests that are supposed to tell the real truth about children’s academic progress.

The question is: How successful can an education law be that makes teachers the enemy?

If we aren’t going to place a large degree of trust in teachers to evaluate the progress of their students and make judgement calls on how best to help them learn, then we may as well give up on universal public education as a national goal.

But that’s not saying that every teacher should be left alone in their classroom to do as they please with no standards and no accountability. Indeed, that would be worse than the inflexible one-size-fits-all system we are headed towards.

There is a middle ground where instruction is adapted to fit the different learning styles of students. Where we don’t proscribe the same goals for every single child.

Where teachers are treated like professionals, with professional levels of training and support.

No matter how much supporters of NCLB may wish it so, the art and science that is teaching cannot be automated. There is no way to exclude the teacher from education.

Not real education, anyway. If all you want students to be able to do is memorize facts and mechanical processes, then you might be able to devise a computerized system that will work for some students.

For real learning to occur, the type that prepares students to live and work in a constantly changing world, you need a highly trained, well-supported human being.

teaching, learning, nclb


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  1. Sometimes a simple phrase can lead a person to knock over all the chairs in a room, open the cabinets and windows, and rip paper into shreds and scream into the air: “AHHHHHHHHYESSSS!”

    Your words: …the art and science that is teaching cannot be automated. really resonate with me, and reflect something I’ve been thinking about the past few weeks. Each teacher is granted a certain amount of leeway in the classroom, and how each teacher teaches is up to him/her. A certain amount of planning may go into two or more educatiors teaching the same class, but the “teachable moment” arrives when it’s needed.

    Thirty kids don’t get a lesson? Rework it — at the moment.

    Twelve kids don’t get it? Rework it — at the moment.

    One kid doesn’t get it? Rework it — at the moment.

    Granted, I haven’t dealt with any of the NCLB problems a number of other teachers face. I’m not required to write daily lesson plans, and I’m not required to meet with a supervisor before class starts, but I do understand that I am required to meet state guidelines, and that’s what I do (if I don’t work to exceed them).

    Every teacher is visited by an administrator a few times a year; my classroom was visited roughly 5 times. Only once was that visit unscheduled, and my principal commended me for what happened during his visit, which makes me wonder: Why is it teachers are assumed as “the enemy?” Why do our cohorts (in this apparent un-education) not support us? Furthermore, if the state of education is so awful, why doesn’t the government completely take over the process?

    I ain’t the world’s greatest teacher, but I do my best to ensure my students do their best. And like you advise, I work with my students to show them I am capable of evolving to a constantly changing world. I am a “highly trained, well-supported human being.” I know that (for the most part) all teachers do this — we work to make their classroom relveant and understandable. If we don’t, well, that’s the test by which we should be marked.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. The purpose of NCLB is to starve the education beast. Teachers are evil people simply because they work in schools that, for the most part, are unpopularly known to have failed.

    Teachers in private, charter schools are not the enemy, but instead, respected because they took good care of children, even though they don’t have to adhere to the same rules public school teachers do.

    If the Republicans can demonize what happens in public schools, then we can justify diverting funding to private and/or charter schools that shouldn’t be funded by taxpayer dollars.

    That’s MY opinion.


  3. Look, I’m in for some amount of podcasting of lectures. I can see the huge benefits in a place like Africa, where students do a “night vigil” from 5.00am to be able to squeeze through 900 students and hear lectures in a hall that can only hold 150. I see those who do not have the means to pay for mad-priced college education hearing the voices of professors via podcast downloads, combining that with distance education and sitting for exams to qualify for degrees. Not everyone of them will cope but the benefits will be tremendous for the 56% who do. I see the US, Europe and Japan sending educational aid to developing nations in podcasts of lectures direct to students so despots and dictators don’t have the chance to squeeze the cash and wire back to vaults in Switzerland. I’m promoting the idea on http://www.braincollege.com when next it is updated.

  4. NCLB does not look at teachers as the enemy. It looks at teachers as the vital link for the highest quality education. It doesn’t always define highly qualified teachers in the best possible way. Nor does it contain the most brilliant process for determining school effectiveness. But NCLB tries to do something that no legislation has done before, place an accountability program in place. As professionals teachers should not only do what they want to do. Would you want to go to a doctor who chose to take out your tonsils through your ear? NCLB goes a long way in making education a true science and teachers true professionals. But it does have weaknesses.

    Andrew Pass

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