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By Dr. Harold Pease and John Kopp

I have noticed a major difference in the level of performance of our incoming college freshman in the social science area the past ten years. Contributing factors are varied and probably include: the breakdown of the family, parents do not read as much to their children as once they did, illegal immigrants without adequate English skills fill our classrooms and teachers are forced to teach to the lowest common denominator, and etc. Apathy and indifference have replaced drive and incentive. Some students remind me that a letter grade of D in a course still stands for “degree.”

One major influence has been the George W. Bush, “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) educational program that essentially left all children behind—by two to three years. I am told that about 85% of our students enter college under-prepared. As a college professor I cannot assume that the vast majority of my students know the basics of U.S. History or government and quite frankly the gap to bridge for many may be too much. I asked John Kopp, a high school history instructor, to describe how this government program worked in the trenches.

“When NCLB was released in 2001 it radically changed how we educated our students,” he responded, “but it didn’t happen overnight.” Before NCLB, he added, “high school teachers were expected to follow a general guideline called ‘The Framework.’ This listed the basic topics that should be covered at each grade level in each subject. Teachers were encouraged to use a variety of methods to evaluate learning and achievement—none were required. Each school district was given the freedom to teach their children in a way that worked best for them—with materials and assessments of their own choosing.”

“This all changed after NCLB was released,” he said. If billions of federal dollars were going to be used for education the government wanted to affect that expenditure; this, despite the fact that the Founders left no role for the federal government in education because of its too chummy proximity to propaganda. When does education become propaganda? Constitutionally, education was left entirely to the states and lesser governments as per Amendment 10. Nevertheless, the government’s “pied piper” promise of better schools and more funding was powerful. This would help us catch up to Asian and European students; teachers were told, with the side benefit that “no child would be left behind.”

Very soon the administration, Kopp continued, “recognized the political fallout from low test scores and so pressure was applied to change how we teach. Experts were brought in to transform how we teach so that students could improve their learning and we were told that this would result in higher test scores. We were not being taught—yet—to teach to the test.”

“We were trained to use the STAR test as the starting point for how to prepare lessons for a class. We were to ‘backward-map’ our classes beginning with the test. We were given a list of ‘standards’ that became the Bible in our classes. Students were to be evaluated on how they were progressing on the state standards and we were strongly encouraged to use questions from the state of CA that were on previous STAR tests — these were called released questions. They became the cornerstone of our preparation tool. We drilled students using these questions believing that it would improve their test scores. Textbooks were all written based on these new standards. We only purchased textbooks in the core areas (math, science, English and social science) that were ‘standards-aligned’.” Still, the scores did not rise as promised.

“After a few years of average test scores we were required to create new lesson plans that would culminate in a ‘benchmark test.’ This test—given every few weeks—would be “standards-aligned” and would directly prepare students for the STAR Test. Teachers were then required to ‘scan’ their student responses into a computer program so that the administration could compile data about how students were doing on these benchmark exams so that they could see whether adequate progress was being made in anticipation of the STAR being given.” Those not achieving “a certain level of success on the test would have to go through mandated remediation.” Scores still did not improve. Unfortunately creativity, love of learning, and motivation were early fatalities.

Mr. Kopp continued, “All student field trips were required to be justified using the state standards—we were asked which standards this trip met. Trips that took students out of the classroom were discouraged—kids needed to be in their classes to meet their benchmark scores to prepare for the STAR. Field trips were to be taken after school or weekends if at all possible.”

What was initially not mandated became so. “Teacher evaluations were changed to include a teacher’s compliance with the benchmark process and the data collection requirement. Every teacher would give the district-approved benchmark and agree to meet together to assess the data. Teachers were not assigned to classes by what they taught best or enjoyed teaching, but how they could help the school reach its API (adequate performance index)—this is the score that would be used by the state and federal government to determine whether growth had occurred.”

Despite the government’s much expanded role in the classroom, we still have fantastic and gifted grade and high school teachers, Mr. John Kopp is one of them, but when they are robbed of their incentive and unique creativity in presenting what they know, their motivation wanes and their love of learning is less likely to be passed on to the student. When excitement for learning or teaching is a victim both students and teachers may tend to just put in their time. No wonder incoming college freshmen are so far behind with little motivation to catch up. Administrators and districts that “bought” into this program for the “free” money and false promises get a failing grade for this one.