Monday, May 22, 2006

Watching One Child Get Left Behind

Your guess is as good as mine as to why this story of a fifth grade girl from Brooklyn NY appears in the Arizona reporter, but this is Indeed a story about what happens when instead of real education reform we get NCLB and the test mania that comes with it:


The author (right) contends that the federal No Child Left Behind Act failed the student she tutored. The fifth grader, unable to pass demanding new standardized tests, was left back. The author (right) contends that the federal No Child Left Behind Act failed the student she tutored. The fifth grader, unable to pass demanding new standardized tests, was left back. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Wash

A tutor discovers that big dreams aren't always enough
By Stephanie Wash
Balloons were scattered. The children's shirts were adorned with fresh orchids. Hundreds of families were packed into the elementary school auditorium last June for fifth grade graduation, a milestone the children anticipated all year. Yet I felt a large void as I took my seat. Not all the fifth graders I had tutored and had grown to love had made it.

One was Kimberly, a tall, shy, brown-eyed 12-year-old who lives with her mother, stepfather and older sister in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was hard celebrating the other children's fortune when I felt so deeply Kimberly's misfortune.

"It made really sad that I couldn't graduate with my class," Kimberly told me. She is now nearly done with her second bid at fifth grade. I wonder if she'll graduate this spring. And if she doesn't, what then?


Her story is the story of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, legislation signed by President Bush in 2002 that was supposed to promote academic growth, largely through standardized testing.

Kimberly had never grasped basic mathematical concepts. She went from grade to grade, falling further behind, missing fundamental concepts in mathematics and language studies. She couldn't progress, because she never had a foundation.

I invested two years in her education, as a tutor in Ms. Shaw-Murphy's class, with New York University's America Reads program. But it's hard to teach kids when the average elementary class size is 34, as it is in Kimberly's district. What I've seen in my work with Kimberly and her classmates is that students left back - five percent of New York City fifth graders last year -- don't get the attention they need to catch up. In the name of leaving no child behind, many children are being not just left behind, but written off.

I was privileged to receive a top-notch public school education in my hometown, Braintree, Massachusetts. My elementary and middle school offered me enrichment programs, advanced classes, and a rigorous curriculum. Later, I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. I was always pushed by my teachers to excel. If I didn't understand a lesson, they worked with me until I did. If I couldn't do something, they stood by until I succeeded. Straight A's were almost expected of me, and my father encouraged me to challenge myself by taking advanced classes. I never felt alone; my teachers and parents showed genuine concern and interest in my academics. My education afforded me the opportunity to attend New York University.

My connection with Kimberly is much deeper than a tutor-student relationship. I see myself in her. As I was, she is willing to learn. She has big dreams, as I did. The only difference is that she lacks the guidance, support, and motivation I received as a young girl.

Kimberly is part of a large achievement gap in public education. Materials are scarce in the overcrowded, aged building where she studies. Photocopies are a luxury, and pens and pencils are missing from the classrooms. The teachers scramble for paper towels and hoard them in cupboards. The libraries are filled with a mixture of antique books that were collecting dust in old book rooms and new, glossy books that the teachers buy themselves.

No matter how much I help Kimberly, it will not make up for the past seven years of education that has failed her.

There was so much that could have been done for her. And now I look back with anger on the past two years. Even an outsider can see that change is necessary. Is it that nobody else cares?

I asked Kimberly about summer school.

"It was a waste of time," she said. "We didn't really do any work. The teacher just gave us worksheets every day but she never corrected us or told us what we got wrong."

What about the free tutoring that theoretically exists for students in need, before and after school? Kimberly thought she was eligible, but it wasn't available.

"What extra help did I get? Nothing - I didn't get any. They just sent me to summer school," she said.

Instead, her family tried to hire a private tutor. "Last year I had a tutor who came five days a week for a couple of hours, but it was costing my mother $30 an hour," she said. "Then the tutor wanted $50 an hour and that was way too expensive." Now her sister Kiara, a seventh grader, tutors her daily.

After her setbacks, I've seen a loss of hope in her face, and heard in her voice fear that she won't be able to catch up. I've seen other children who have fallen behind have their motivation destroyed and slip even further. Meanwhile, Kimberly says, the students who excel academically get more attention and enrichment and pull even further ahead.

As Kimberly tells me this in the hot, dimly lit classroom, I find myself willing her to succeed, so that this June, I will be able to pin a fresh orchid on her graduation dress.

This is just one story of one girl
. NCLB does not reduce this girl's class sizes or even provide the materials for a proper education. What it does offer is privatization, vouchers and charter schools. There are people that believe that these things will more properly educate these kids. Every day I get a feed from Google containing headlines that contain the words "charter school," and everyday on that page I read about abuses of the system, convictions for fraud, schools closed because of misuse of funds, etc. Privatization is not a better use of public education dollars. Helping the parents to organize, and change things themselves is a way that has been shown to work. Schools with dedicated staff and good leadership with adequate funding have been shown to work. Vouchers and charter schools are not working. Privatization will not work. Let's get rid of NCLB and get on with the task of giving communities the resources to make schools that work for their kids.

1 comment:

lisa said...

Thank you for sharing this important story. It is clear to all but someone who doesn't want to see it that NCLB is leving a generation of children behind. Not only those children who never had the foundation necessary to assure a quality education but also those who should be achieving at the highest levels but are forced to learn a curriculum lacking in content so that the greatest number of students can succeed not in reality but on paper. What does 100% proficiency by 2014 mean if children are not performing to their capacity and a lifetime of missed opportunity defines them instead of what "could have been"? By the time someone has the courage to admit this experiment was a grave error in judgment, it will be much too late to do anything about it. This will go down in history as a tragedy and our grandchildren will wonder how we ever let it happen... that is, of course, assuming children are still taught math and reading by then.