“Drill and kill” as a failed educational strategy

September 10, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

What does “No Child Left Behind” mean in real-life classrooms? I’ve discussed this topic with several grade school teachers. They are uniformly distressed that NCLB narrows the focus of classroom instruction to the point where children are too often “taught” factoids, ephemeral bits of information that will allow them to pass a test without significantly advancing their ability to understand the world around them.

Jonathan Kozol writes passionately about this point at this Huffpo post:

The poisonous essence of this law lies in the mania of obsessive testing it has forced upon our nation’s schools and, in the case of underfunded, overcrowded inner-city schools, the miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic “teaching to the test” it has imposed on teachers, the best of whom are fleeing from these schools because they know that this debased curriculum would never have been tolerated in the good suburban schools that they, themselves, attended.

When I ask them why they’ve grown demoralized, they routinely tell me it’s the feeling of continual anxiety, the sense of being in a kind of “state of siege,” as well as the pressure to conform to teaching methods that drain every bit of joy out of the hours that their children spend with them in school.

“I didn’t study all these years,” a highly principled and effective first-grade teacher told me — she had studied literature and anthropology in college while also having been immersed in education courses — “in order to turn black babies into mindless little robots, denied the normal breadth of learning, all the arts and sciences, all the joy in reading literary classics, all the spontaneity and power to ask interesting questions, that kids are getting in the middle-class white systems.”

Kozol raises the issue of what to do about the many dysfunctional inner-city schools. It is, after all, a tragedy that we have so many buildings that look like schools but don’t function like schools. I happen to live near several dysfunctional inner-city schools. No thoughtful parent with options to do otherwise would willingly send their kids to such “schools.” I wrote about one teacher’s experience in one such school. I invite you to read the words of this conscientious teacher, who I called “Geri Anderson.” The epilogue to that troubling story is that “Geri’s” contract was not renewed. I have heard it over and over (from teachers and ex-teachers) that inner-city school teachers who show heartfelt enthusiam and creativity can expect to burn out or get fired in short order. In fact, one of my neighbors volunteered to tutor at that same school for several years. She spoke up last year when she noticed that a 2nd grader was getting none of the special education he required (and that school documents indicated he was getting). Epilogue II: My neighbor, the volunteer, was consequently “fired” (told that her services were no longer needed).

How do we fix these problem schools? I hate to sound like a broken record, but media reform is a big part of this problem (and most other big problems too). Stories of what it’s really like to go to these types of schools should be on the front page of local newspapers every day until we address the situation with real changes. We do have lots of available space on the newspaper front page–it’s often filled with advertising disguised as articles and other feel-good stories such as how to purchase a special Halloween-theme leash for your dog. Advertisers don’t like stories about failing schools, though. It makes people feel that they should tax themselves enough to fix the problem. It makes them feel guilty about buying those diamond bracelets, sporty new cars and the other non-essentials advertised in the paper.

Depriving children, our next generation of adults, of real education is a bill we will pay, within our lifetimes, with the high costs of prisons and social services. That’s the message that should be front and center every day.

Kozol is correct, in my opinion, that one important way to help the schools is to quit foisting NCLB onto teachers. Great teachers and good teachers don’t teach in ways that obsess with the narrow-minded tests required by NCLB. After all, when they grow up, these kids aren’t going to find jobs that require them to take trivial quizzes. They will need to know how to think so that they can continually tool up to meet the needs of jobs that don’t even exist today.

Kozol goes further, advocating a new round of inter-district busing, a system not based on race. I’m wary of such an approach for many reasons, however. Mainly, it’s an approach that doesn’t force bad schools to become better. Why not spend limited money on more teachers and better teachers rather than bus drivers? Politicians advocating another round of busing have no chance of getting elected in most of the U.S.

Instead, why not publish a constant steam of media stories about what it’s really like to attend class in a dysfunctional school. Cut the classroom photo ops and show the citizens that too many of the kids in the classroom are not getting a meaningful education. Do it until people can’t stand to see these articles anymore. If people stop reading the papers because they don’t want to do anything about this massive problem, then we have a much bigger problem, indeed. Especially in light of the fact that it makes economic sense to address this problem. Fixing this problem should appeal the self-interest of everyone.

In the meantime, Kozol is right that the status quo is intolerable. We need to put an end to fake education; no more bandaids. No more big government programs that actually make education worse. NCLB is a fraud being perpetrated on the public. It defrauds parents who send their kids to the horrible schools and it defrauds a public that assumes that other people’s kids are being educated when they are actually being turned into resentful robots. Those kids are being taught to be turned off by anything that goes by the name of “education.” That’s the state of education in all too many of our public schools.

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Category: Education, Media, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, ISBN 0-06-114061-9 covers the flaws in the "No Child Left Behind" concept.

    The law actually forced schools and teachers to cheat. It puts an incentive/disincentive system on the school systems and teachers, but the quality of education is gauged by the absolute performance of the students on standard tests.

    As a result, it politicizes the school system. It makes the schools and teachers responsible for something while at the same time taking the authority away from them.

    So little Johnny can't read because he plays video games until 2 AM and doesn't do his homework. He does really bad on the test, so the teacher is fired. Kind of reminds me of the old story about the "Whipping Boy" who would receive the punishment for the prince.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Here's the wisdom of Bill Moyers on this topic. Before you had posted the George Carlin riff on politics, Moyers was my second choice to John Edwards for President in '08!

    Go to http://www.tompaine.com/print/america_101.php

    Moyers has right on about American education.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: I appreciate your comments. NCLB is set up to fail in a variety of ways, as you describe. I agree that the system can take down good teachers.

    What struck me is that even when NCLB "works," (when the children pass the tests), there is no assurance that they are being meaningfully educated. How strange that politicians celebrate when children are learning the kinds of tricks that can be easily tested rather than learning how to be self-teachers (what else could a truly good education ever really be about?). Show me a standardized test that can show that the student is learning to collaborate, learning emotional IQ, learning to be creative or learning the joys of discovery and self-initiative.

    If you were a high-tech employer, who would you be content to hire people who merely showed that they could pass standardized math and verbal tests?

  4. Joshua Boone says:

    I think that this is a really good point. I am currently a junior at North High School in Sioux City, IA, and am doing a research paper on the pointlessness and dumacity of the no child left behind act and need some information, if any one has any, please e-mail me at copperjosh@yahoo.com SUBJECT: RESEARCH PAPER INFO.

    DEADLINE FOR INFORMATION IS JANUARY 1ST!!!!

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