NCLB turns us into trainers

a group of Santa's Elves

Picture yourself as one of these guys.

I want you to imagine for a moment that you are one of Santa’s helpers. You don’t make the toys yourself, but you lead a small group of elves who make the toys. Although most elves enjoy their toy making, not all of them do. Some elves prefer to spend their time playing reindeer games on their x-box, watching and talking about the real penguins of the south pole, and even a few prefer to drink hot chocolate and tease other elves. So some elves, like you, supervise and encourage the slacker toy elves. In the good old days you did your best with each elf and tried to get the most toys out of each elf. But then Santa came up with his No Elven Lazy Butts (NELB) initiative which created strict quotas for each elf and judged the fore-elves by what percentage of their worker elves made their quota. In a perfect world, every elf wants to make toys and this would be easy. But since the world is not perfect, Santa decided to put some rewards and punishments into NELB. For the toy makers, if they make quota they get to move on to more fun toys. For the fore-elves if a certain percentage of worker elves make quota they get candy canes and get a pat on the back. However, if the fore-elves don’t have a high enough quota rate, they get warnings, then they get a consultant elf to come in and tell them how to do their job, and finally they lose their candy canes and are sent out to clean the reindeer stables. While there are other ways to get candy canes, the consultant elves and reindeer poop are both pretty disgusting and best avoided. So you really want your toy elves to make their quotas. Unfortunately, there are pretty strict limits on what you can do to motivate your elves, you can’t get rid of them for not doing their job, and you can’t actually help them make their toys, only show them how. Also Santa in his finite wisdom decided that the percentage of toy elves that make quota most increase each year until you reach 100%.
Suddenly that reindeer poop begins to loom large. And that is when your life becomes more about avoiding the poop and less about making the most toys. After studying the system some elves realize that there is no advantage to having their best workers make more toys and begin to focus primarily on the slackers. They also realize that the toys don’t have to perfect, so they begin to train their elves to make passable toys, not great toys. And they teach their elves tricks to make the toys faster, even if they aren’t really good. A few elves even get so desperate they cheat and make it look like their slackers are making quota when they really aren’t.
My experiences as a public school teacher suggest to me that we are moving through this process now. We are training our students to pass their end of course exams rather than teaching every student to be their best. When I started teaching, I tried my best to teach to all levels, giving the basic concepts and some more difficult concepts. That gave the best students some challenges, without failing out everyone else. But then my administrators began have us try to make our exams more like the state exams, watch for students in danger of failing, and tailor lessons to their needs. I actually wound up taking some of the more interesting and difficult items out of my curriculum to focus more on training students to pass their exams. I heard other teachers make jokes about not teaching anything but what was on the test. And the students are getting it as well. I have heard multiple students make comments about how easy it is to pass (depending on the class, 55% correct will be a passing grade) but very difficult to reach the advanced level (generally about 90%) so why put in any extra effort.
So NCLB has pushed teachers towards being trainers. To avoid being punished, we train students in the areas that are likely to be tested, ignoring other areas. We focus very much on the students who are less motivated or less able, to get them over the bar and into the next class. And we spend time teaching students how to take tests rather than how learn and use the material in the course. In short we train them to pass, not teach them to learn, think, or excel.


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