No Complaint Left Behind

OOf the roughly 170 public elementary schools in Maryland where more than 70 percent of students live in poverty, only three had better test scores last year than Tyler Heights Elementary. A K-5 school built near the low-income housing projects of Annapolis, Tyler more than doubled its pass rates on state reading and math tests in just three years, moving off the list of schools tagged as low-performing by the No Child Left Behind Act. Politicians, school officials, and newspapers like the Washington Post held up the school as a “crown jewel”an example of how NCLB can help even the most disadvantaged children learn.

But Linda Perlstein is not convinced. A former Washington Post education reporter and author of a well-regarded book on middle school students, Perlstein spent the entire 2005-06 school year at Tyler Heights. In the resulting book, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, she argues that, despite the high scores and phenomenal efforts of principal Tina McKnight and her staff, Tyler doesn’t represent all that’s right about modern American education. Instead, she believes, it shows much of what’s wrong.

Tested begins at the end of the previous school year, with McKnight, a veteran educator who pours boundless energy and determination into her job, anxiously awaiting the school’s final test scores. They arrive, and they’re incredible. Two years before, only 35 percent of third graders were “proficient” in reading. Now90 percent! But as Tyler’s teachers celebrate, they also realize that the scores are a mixed blessing. “They had exactly one year,” writes Perlstein, “to prove that this was not a fluke.”

This is the central drama of Tested, and the intense pressure to match those outsize scores bears down on nearly every action Tyler’s faculty takes. As McKnight and her staffall women, many with only a few years of classroom experiencestruggle to adapt to each day’s challenges, the oppressive scarcity of time is always on their minds. The March 2006 state test of ten feels only minutes away.

A clear, vivid writer who combines deep empathy for her subjects with a reporter’s skepticism and eye for detail, Perlstein expertly shows just how complicated teaching really is. People often see elementary school through the lens of their childhood memories: a relaxed, simple time of playgrounds, primary colors, and the ABCs. In reality, primary education is a highly complex process of simultaneously managing the cognitive, social, and emotional development of hundreds of very diverse young people, each of whom learns in a different way.

This is a hard enough job in schools that serve students from stable, supportive homes. It’s exponentially more difficult in schools like Tyler, where impoverished students and non-English speakers are the norm. And as much as she admires the teachers’ efforts and acknowledges how far the school has come, Perlstein is troubled by much of what she sees. The teachers are required to use a highly structured, sometimes scripted curriculum. Science, art, and social studies are often ignored in favor of the tested subjects, reading and math. And the test prep is relentlessover and over, students practice writing the “brief constructed responses” (short written paragraphs interpreting a text) that feature prominently on the state exam.

Perlstein finds this disturbing, and she should. It is nobody’s vision of an ideal education. But the main question to askone that animates much of the current NCLB debateis whether the education that students receive at Tyler is cancer or chemotherapy: is it the disease, or the painful but unavoidable cure? The biggest failure of Tested is a refusal to tackle this question head on.

For example, Perlstein drives from Tyler to Crofton Elementary School, located in a wealthy planned community just fourteen miles away. Crofton students spend their days writing in journals, making crafts, studying science and history, and so on. There’s little test prep, but nearly every child passes the exam. The contrast is a gross injustice, Perlstein believes. In one of the editorial asides scattered throughout the booknot always to its benefitshe recalls President Bush’s denouncement of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for poor children, before averring that “To condemn them to a rudimentary education in the name of improvement is bigotry too.”

But then she immediately explains that, unlike Tyler students, youngsters at Crofton come to school from home environments “rich with logic and analysis, that stimulate the brain and saturate children with learning strategies.” They’re also less likely to have “brains compromised by pre-natal substance abuse, lead poisoning, and malnutrition” and thus have more in the way of “memory, attention span, and motivation.” In other words, Crofton doesn’t need to create a highly structured environment to make up for the lack of structure at home. It doesn’t need to explicitly teach learning and study strategies, because students get those from their parents.

Is Tina McKnight failing her students by not giving them a Crofton-like education? Could she if she wanted to, or is NCLB standing in her way? Perlstein largely sidesteps these questions, never really pressing McKnight on the wisdom of her test-focused approach. And while Perlstein often complains that education lawmakers spend little time in real schools, she provides few concrete recommendations of her own.

If Tested aspired to be merely a skillful portrait of life in one American school, those omissions would be forgivable. The book reminds us that schooling is far more difficult and complex than is commonly believed, and it’s worth reading for Perlstein’s humane, richly detailed descriptions of Tyler’s students and teachers alone.

But it wants to be more than that, an indictment of contemporary education policy writ large, and in this it comes up short. The later chapters become an increasingly predictable march through the vicious dilemmas facing high-poverty schools, along with invariably dark descriptions of various educational consultants and alleged profiteers. Teachers in schools like Tyler are often inexperienced and underqualified, but raising teacher standards can shut out talented young educators. The more you teach foundational skills like reading and math, the less you can teach everything else. The more you focus on the lowest-performing students, the less time there is for the gifted. And so on. But rather than exploring solutions to these knotty problems, Perlstein too often cites their existence as prima facie evidence that No Child Left Behind is unjust, absurd, or both. By the time the book (inevitably) gets around to noting that President Bush’s wastrel brother Neil owns an educational software company, one longs for a return to the Tyler classrooms, where the real educationboth for the students and the readeroccurs.

Then, as the book winds down and the end of the school year draws near, Perlstein suddenly takes pains to explain that the tests driving so much of the practices she deploresthe tests Tyler students were failing in droves just a few years agoare … kind of easy. And not, perhaps, to be taken so seriously after all. She knows what’s comingdespite the tough kids with terrible home lives, the teaching that focused too much on the exam and not enough on the content, Tyler’s third graders [Spoiler alert!] score even better than the year before. Is this a good thing? Could the school have produced those results without sacrificing so much else? If so, how? The reader is left to wonder.

But it’s worth remembering that there was a time when Tyler Heights Elementary taught low-income students without the rules and strictures of NCLB. The products of that era aren’t hard to findmany of Tyler’s students moved right back into (or stayed in) the projects and had children who are now enrolled at the very same school, children who struggle to learn in the barren day-to-day life of drugs, violence, absent parents, and murdered relatives that Perlstein describes with such wrenching clarity.

There are many reasons for this most commonplace of American tragedies, and most of them had nothing to do with school. But school didn’t helpor didn’t help enough. And in Tina McKnight’s words, “There wasn’t anybody pushing Tyler Heights to be anything more than what it was.” To their credit, the authors of NCLB tried to give schools that push, and educators like McKnight responded. The vast majority of students at Tyler, by mastering the basics of reading and math, may have grasped the first rung on the ladder that could allow them to escape their unpromising life circumstances. Maybe NCLB is far from perfect, but the improvement in test scores at Tyler means more than Linda Perlstein would like to believe. The ability to recognize this is the one test that Tested, for all its virtues, doesn’t pass.

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America and is guest editor of the Washington Monthly College Guide issue.