Classroom Caste System

Washington Post Op. Ed. -- April 9, 2007
by David Keyes

Written five years ago to reduce the "achievement gap," the No Child
Left Behind Act has in fact created a gap in American education. Its
pressure to raise test scores has caused many schools to give poor and
minority students an impoverished education that focuses primarily on
basic skills.

As it comes up for reauthorization, members of Congress should consider
the unintended consequence of the act: a new gap between poor and
minority students, who are being taught to seek simple answers, and
largely wealthy and white students, who are learning to ask complex
questions. In my work as an elementary school teacher, I have seen this
new gap and I worry about its impact on my students' future prospects.

Although supporters and critics of No Child Left Behind agree on little,
both would acknowledge that testing lies at the heart of the law.
Schools approach the act's testing requirements differently, depending
on the students they serve.

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools remain
largely segregated. Schools serving mostly wealthy and white students
have a distinct advantage when it comes to testing. Their students are
far more likely to be raised in an environment that gives them the
necessary tools to succeed on tests. They grow up with the intellectual
abundance their wealth provides: books, educational videos and Baby
Einstein games, to name a few. Having these resources may not make
children smarter, but it does educate them in many of the skills -- such
as letter sounds and addition facts -- that are covered on standardized
tests. Knowing their students are likely to succeed on tests gives these
schools freedom to teach higher-level thinking skills.

Poor and minority children also come to school with rich backgrounds.
They speak foreign languages, make music, tell vivid stories and have
other skills not typical of their peers. Their backgrounds, however,
often do not provide them with the academic skills needed to succeed on
standardized tests. Fearful of poor test scores that can bring punitive
measures, schools spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their
students for the tests.

Schools often use test-prep programs to try to raise test scores. The
problem with these programs is that they teach the skills covered on
tests, and only these skills. Poor and minority students spend hours
repeating "B buh ball" and two plus two equals four. Every hour spent
drilling basic skills is an hour not spent developing the higher-level
thinking skills that are emphasized in wealthier school districts.

I have worked in both types of schools. Currently, I teach in an almost
exclusively minority, high-poverty elementary school. Administrators
require teachers to strictly adhere to a months-long test-prep program.
My students recoil at the sight of their test-prep books. Last year,
some of my students cried, wracked with anxiety over the tests.

My students are 7 and 8 years old.

I did my student teaching in an almost exclusively white and wealthy
school. There, the students studied the role of quilts on the
Underground Railroad, brainstormed plans to save wolves from extinction
and performed dances based on retellings of Cinderella. The children
learned to think and they loved it.

At the end of the year, test results will come out for these two
schools. Educators and politicians will trumpet any reduction of the
so-called achievement gap. This misses the point. Students will leave
these two schools and schools like them with a widely varying set of
skills. As the achievement gap is being reduced, another gap is being
created. Students in largely wealthy and white schools are learning to
ask larger questions; students in poor and minority schools are only
being taught to answer smaller ones.

The effect of this gap will be long-lasting. Students taught
higher-level thinking skills will be able to compete for jobs at the
upper echelon of the 21st-century economy. Students who receive an
impoverished education focused on basic skills will be stuck at the bottom.

The No Child Left Behind Act is creating a caste-like system in which
students' future prospects are likely to be similar to those of their
parents. This undemocratic development is at odds with a society that
prides itself on being a meritocracy. As Congress debates the renewal of
the law, members should consider not only whether the act is reducing
the achievement gap but also the skills gap it is creating.

The writer is a second-grade teacher at Bel Pre Elementary School in
Silver Spring.