Trouble, Uncertainty, and Hope Face Public Education on the Brink of a New Decade

Next week, I will begin my third decade in public education. I began my career in 2001 on the eve of one of the most traumatic moments in U.S. history. Perhaps it is ironic–or possibly fitting–that in my very first month as a teacher, America was attacked by an act of terrorism that brought countless changes to our way of life. I’ll never forget the morning of September 11th, 2001. I was proctoring my very first ISTEP test that morning when the news began to break. Standardized testing has remained a constant in the ensuing two decades, that hasn’t changed. What has changed is the accountability system attached to it.

Just a few months before that awful day in September, 2001, a different kind of attack was being plotted. This was not an act of terrorism. In fact, many of its architects likely had good intentions. But the Road to Hell, as we know, is often paved with good intentions. On March 22, 2001, the legislation commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was introduced in the House of Representatives. By December 18, it had passed and cleared through both houses. On January 8, 2002, it was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Although it was repealed in 2015, the devastation wrought by this law cannot be overestimated. “No child left behind” is a phrase that sounds so positive, so hopeful, but if you’ll pardon a mixed metaphor, it turned out to be a pleasantly packaged Trojan Horse that unleashed a Pandora’s Box of evils onto the landscape of public education. The damage done is evident and obvious at a glance today as we stand at the cusp of a brand new decade.

I’ll get to the direct negative impacts of the NCLB law in a moment, but first, I want to suggest some less obvious but just as devastating effects that don’t get talked about as much. NCLB played a huge role in damaging the climate of many public schools, making them a much more hostile environment in which to work. In fact, the effects of NCLB has much too often created schools that are impossible places to work for far too many teachers. This has led to a mass exodus from the profession. It has also led to a critical shortage of students preparing to enter the teaching profession in colleges of education all over the country. Add those two things together and you’ve got a critical teacher shortage which is getting more serious by the day. I sense some of you wondering how NCLB created such a situation. Let’s look at just a few of the many factors.

When NCLB was put in place, the education landscape began to change dramatically. There was a big push to put more kids into mainstream classrooms than ever before. This means that a lot more kids with serious emotional disabilities which make it very difficult for them to function like typical students in a general education classroom were suddenly placed in them. Consequently, many classrooms became volatile atmospheres with too many students without the coping skills to be in general education settings suddenly thrust into them without the kinds of extra staff and supports put in place to help them manage their behaviors. This created an often chaotic environment that put much more stress on teachers and students alike. While the overwhelming majority of students in most classrooms are not behavior issues, it only takes a handful to completely infect the whole classroom environment. This has only gotten worse in recent years because so many schools have had to make budget cuts just to stay financially solvent. This has stretched special education staffs and teachers’ aides to the breaking point. Most schools in high poverty/trauma districts that I’m aware of don’t have nearly enough staffing in place to properly service high-risk special needs students who are out in the general education classrooms. As a consequence, it is a far too common occurrence for teachers to face daily abuse from students in some of their classes. Regretfully, it’s not rare for this abuse to escalate beyond the verbal into the physical. It’s no wonder so many teachers have decided either to move from high poverty/trauma schools to more affluent schools or to leave the profession completely.

You may be wondering why we don’t just expel those kids who misbehave. That brings up another factor springing from the NCLB reform, which was a much greater push for schools to reduce their suspension and expulsion numbers so that they wouldn’t be penalized financially for having too many kids removed from classrooms. Part of the formula for holding schools accountable (make no mistake, when we talk about school accountability, we are talking about funding, folks) was a focus on school discipline data. This means that a lot of kids who would have normally been sent home or to an alternate placement in the past are now kept in the already altered and tense general education classroom setting. Let me assure you that it is all too common for teachers to write a referral for a student who has completely destroyed the learning atmosphere, send them to the office, and have that student returned to their classroom the very same period. That wears on a teacher’s mental health, I can assure you.

Add to all of that the increased pressures to get kids to master the wildly inequitable standardized tests that schools, teachers, and students are now accountable to (remember, accountable means funding) and you can begin to see how the climates of many a public school have suffered greatly due to government education reform policies. 

I keep using the word “accountability” so let me get to the more obvious damages brought by the era of NCLB reforms. As I’ve said a couple times earlier, when you’re talking school and teacher accountability, it’s code for funding. I’ve been writing a lot about how Governor Holcomb keeps misleading people by bragging about how much Indiana has increased the education budget. What he won’t address is how the reform policies that govern school accountability (funding) are broken beyond repair. Precious little of all that money gets to the schools, teachers, and students who need it most critically. Schools that struggle on standardized tests have funding reduced. Teachers who teach in such schools don’t get pay raises. Students who attend those schools have programs cut, they often deal with a revolving door of temporary teachers called into emergency service because so many teachers are leaving these schools. It is a classic vicious cycle and it all points back to bad education reform policies created by politicians who don’t understand what they are trying to reform.

I’m not against education reform. In fact, we need it badly. We just have the wrong people doing the reforming. We need actual trained educators to have an effective voice–I’d go a step farther and say control–over education policy. We need people who have been in the trenches and understand the problems and the critical needs intimately. We need governors and lawmakers who are willing to give up some of the control of education to people who know what they are doing.

In the title of this piece, I used the words trouble, uncertainty, and hope. I’ve covered a lot of the trouble. I’ve covered the uncertainty. Now let’s close by looking to the hope. There is hope. The new decade will be ushered in by one of the most critical election years in our history on both the national and state level. I’m not fond of the idea of single-issue voters, but in times of crisis, I do believe that it is sometimes called for. We are in crisis with public education and we have a chance to turn the tide with our votes. There are candidates out there who are standing on a firm public education platform. They are ready to listen to teachers rather than spout the same stale and ineffective talking points that deflect attention away from the actual problems. The most critical issue for the future of our nation–the best way to assure leaving this place better for our children–is to invest in public education. I have endorsed Eddie Melton for Governor of Indiana. I have spoken with Mr. Melton and I know that he is ready to listen to teachers and give them an effective voice and some real power in the creation and implementation of education reform policy. I suggest that you check out his website and see for yourself. There will be many pro-public education candidates running for state congress and local governments. This year, instead of waiting to go to the polls and casting a vote for a name you don’t really know just because there is a certain letter next to the name, why not look at what the candidates want to do about public education and cast a vote with confidence that you are investing in the future for our children?

We’ve seen grassroots efforts perform miracles at the polls before. There is hope as we enter the new decade. But there is also great uncertainty. This coming election year will be the turning point.

We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

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