As a teacher of more than 20 years at an inner-city high school in Los Angeles, I saw the value of federal dollars sent to our local public schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In fact, millions of America’s poorest schoolchildren depend on the Title 1 funding that was established in the law as part of the landmark 1965 “War on Poverty” legislation.
In Los Angeles, Title 1 funding allowed us to buy paper, pens and pencils that, while taken for granted in many communities, were a luxury for children and parents living in poverty. It also allowed us to hire instructional aides and provide programs that gave thousands of students the help they needed to succeed in school and prepare for college.
Congress must now decide whether to reauthorize the act, and whether to continue with the high-stakes testing mandates adopted as part of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top.
Unfortunately, the focus of the education law to address poverty has been fundamentally changed. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, this essential federal money became leverage for adopting the standardized testing that has distorted public education at every level. It is no surprise that many in the education community are questioning the value of reauthorizing the act if it means more years of using test scores to decide the fate of students, teachers, schools and districts.
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The issue for educators and parents is not about the value of testing per se but rather how these tests are used. Testing is essential in assessing student progress and is one tool, among many, in determining whether a young person has understood key concepts and information to move to the next level of instruction.
But No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have turned public schools into testing factories. The overarching concern for raising test scores on standardized tests has become the engine driving the academic program to the exclusion of all else. A great deal of time is now spent on test preparation and testing while enrichment courses and programs that were once a staple of a well-rounded academic program have been eliminated.
Many elementary school children, who once relished learning and playing with their friends, are finding every excuse to avoid the monotony and fear of hours of testing. Secondary students are saddled with hours of often mind-numbing homework that have questionable academic value. Reading for pleasure, playing catch with Dad or just relaxing at home after a full day of schoolwork have become relics of a bygone era.
The alarm that educators raised 15 years ago about the overemphasis on testing has now spread across the country. Many parents are choosing to have their children “opt out” of high-stakes exams. According to a recent Gallup/PDK poll, 68 percent of parents and 54 percent of the general public say that standardized tests are not helpful.
What is equally troubling about the current debate in Washington is the potential shift away from helping poor kids to allowing states more discretion in how to use that money. The crisis of poverty and lack of educational opportunity that motivated President Lyndon Johnson and Congress in the 1960s to enact the education act is more profound today than it has been in a generation. Currently, 16 million children live in poverty, or roughly 1 out of 4 kids. More than 1.3 million schoolchildren are homeless.
Without the assistance of the federal government, our nation’s poor children have little hope of succeeding in school, much less competing in a challenging job market.
Fortunately, Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that income inequality is a national problem. Let’s use that consensus view to truly help the growing number of poor children by reauthorizing the act while freeing our schools from the high-stakes testing mania that has squeezed out much of the joy and creativity of our public schools.
Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers.
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