By Molly Walsh
Angry teachers and school administrators filled a school cafeteria Tuesday night to vent about the federal education reform known as the No Child Left Behind Act.
They railed about the 5-year-old law's standardized testing mandates and urged U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who hosted the meeting at Burlington High School, to revise the law or wipe it off the books.
"It's irredeemable. It's not worth trying to fix," said Dottye Ricks, a teacher at Twinfield Union School in Marshfield. She and others at the meeting suggested that the real goal of the law has nothing to do with improving public education.
"The ultimate goal of No Child Left Behind is to dismantle public education," Ricks said.
Sanders called the gathering a town meeting on No Child Left Behind. A panel of teachers and school administrators spoke and took questions from a crowd of more than 100 people, many of them educators. While some in attendance said there are aspects of the federal school accountability system that are worthwhile, many speakers said the benefits are outweighed by a long list of drawbacks.
Teachers spoke with emotion about distressing scenes of anxiety-filled children crying, wetting their pants and asking wrenching questions such as "Am I going to be held back?" as they sit down to the standardized tests required under both the federal law and Vermont's own accountability system.
No Child Left Behind requires testing annually in grades three to eight and one grade of high school. The goal of the law is for all students to reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Mary Ann Barnes, a teacher at Malletts Bay School in Colchester, said third-graders are simply too young to take Vermont's standardized tests, known as the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests.
Particularly for children who are struggling with reading, the experience is painful, she said. "I mean, what are we doing?" she asked.
Sanders, I-Vt., is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. He asked for comments on the law to inform Congress as it considers reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. Sanders voted against the law when he was a U.S. representative and said he hears from people across the state who have grave concerns about it.
He pledged to take Tuesday night's comments back with him to Congress. If he keeps his word, Washington will get an earful.
Many speakers called the law championed by the Bush administration as punitive and underfunded. They said the requirements that almost all students take the tests -- even if they are English language learners or special education students with disabilities -- are wrong. Some speakers suggested expanding the exceptions or exempting all special education students.
The law is demoralizing for students and insulting to teachers, said Terri Vest, an English and social studies teacher at Twinfield. She related the story of a student who was making impressive progress that stalled when her standardized test scores came back disappointingly low. She told Vest: "I'm quitting school because you told me I was fine and I'm stupid."
Vest spent a year putting the student back on track, she said. She has this advice for the creators of No Child Left Behind: "Leave me alone and let me do my job."
Several school superintendents piled on the law. Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Burlington Schools, said there are more than 700 ways the Burlington district can fail to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Particularly for a district with high poverty and a relatively large number of English language learners, the testing mandates are unfair, she said.
This year, refugee students who could not speak English enrolled in Burlington schools in September and "in October, we handed them the NECAP test," Collins said.
The state and federal accountability systems are driving creative people out of teaching, said Larry Carbonetti, a Chester resident who left his job at Springfield High School in frustration with all the testing. "It was a career I loved. It was a career that gave me joy and challenge every day."
Much of the criticism was directed at Washington, but Vermont state government also took some hits. John McCarthy, superintendent of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, urged the Vermont Education Department to stop "harassing" principals of schools that aren't making adequate yearly progress. "I'm not impressed with the educational leadership in Vermont right now," he said.
McCarthy lamented the upcoming retirement of Chaunce Benedict, principal of Missisquoi Valley Union School in Swanton. The school has failed to make adequate yearly progress at least four consecutive years and is under pressure from the Vermont Education Department to improve outcomes.
McCarthy called Benedict an "outstanding" principal and blamed the Vermont Education Department for driving him out of the job. "I'm publicly saying that what I would like to see is an attitude change," McCarthy said of the Vermont Education Department.
By Molly Walsh
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