An Astonishing Look At No Child Left Behind

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007; 12:10 PM

The arguments about No Child Left Behind surround me. Some days I imagine I am hearing them come through the walls. I work in the Post bureau in Alexandria, Va., a riverside city that houses many of the national organizations that focus on public schools. When I visit the main Post newsroom to prove to my editors I am still ambulatory, I am smack in the middle of another concentration of educational organizations in downtown D.C.

Everybody in those buildings is talking, talking, talking NCLB. But these conversations are about politics and testing procedures and assessment standards and state's rights and a lot of other stuff that bores me. Where are the teachers? Where are the kids?

I just found them. They are in a new book by my former Post colleague Linda Perlstein, who has done what all we other education reporters wish we had the time and talent to do. She has spent a year in an elementary school full of disadvantaged children and recorded with astonishingly clarity and insight just what No Child Left Behind is doing to and for those kids and their teachers, with none of the highs or lows, triumphs or failures, smart moves or idiotic pratfalls left out.

This is the best book ever written about No Child Left Behind. It may hold on to that title in perpetuity because we will soon have a new president and, I suspect, a new federal education program. That program may even give itself a new name, since the old name is crusted over with slimy stuff people have been throwing at it.

The book's title is "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade." You can get it for $16.50 on Perlstein uses her remarkable writing skills, shown to great advantage in her last book, "Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers," to take us inside Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Md., an Anne Arundel County school where more than 70 percent of the students qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

So what is Perlstein's take on NCLB? That is what school policy wonks want to know. Then we can embrace her book or discard it based on who's side she is on. I think it is fair to say she is far less a fan of the federal law than I am, but all sides can learn from her book, because it is vivid, unpredictable, fair, balanced and -- I am not kidding -- very entertaining. Perlstein has a storyteller's grasp of the fun to be found in the lives of teachers and students at a well-run school.

Yup. You read that right. Tyler Heights is a good school, not some roadkill that Perlstein could skewer and roast for dinner. She is smart enough to know that the people running such schools would be unlikely to open their doors to her, as Tyler Heights principal Tina McKnight did. But her book proves that even schools as successful as Tyler Heights -- it has one of the highest achievement rates in Maryland for a high-poverty school -- can reveal weaknesses in the federal law, once you let a first-class reporter hang around for a year.

Perlstein exposes, for instance, the tyranny of the brief constructed response, or BCR, a vital part of the Maryland School Assessments that set the standard for instruction at Tyler Heights. BCRs, Perlstein is careful to point out, do require children to write, something that many machine-scored-only state tests do not do. But they really do not encourage creative or thoughtful writing, just parroting of whatever the question asks.

For instance, after one reading passage in a practice test, children were asked what text features made the instructions easy for third-graders to follow. One child, having heard several dozen times that she had to start her BCR with words from the question, wrote, "This is easy for a third grader because ... ."

Her teacher told her this was not a precise enough formulation of the question. She wrote on her overhead projector, with all the students copying, these words: "The text features that make it easy for third graders to read are font size, bold print, and numbering." Any children with a yen for inventive writing were discouraged from forsaking the formula. It might hurt their score on the MSA.

One of the highlights of the book (or lowlights for anyone who cares about teaching) is the appearance at Tyler Heights of McKnight's supervisor, Lorna Leone. She does a four-hour inspection that reminds me of officer visits to my basic training barracks, including me and my unshined brass, at Ft. Lewis, Wash. I am sure Leone is a fine person. I congratulate her for letting Perlstein tag along. But parts of her visit will trouble many readers.

Perlstein wrote: "Passing through the gym, where kindergartners wafted a colorful parachute in the air and scampered under it in turns, Leone said of the teacher, 'I can't see his goal.' In prekindergarten, where Leone saw not only 'sight words' like is and and but also the MSA scores displayed on the wall, she said, 'I love the way these are all posted.' In fifth grade she was dismayed to find Mrs. Williams's students sitting at their desks reading books while others finished a test. She encouraged McKnight to come up with a school-wide protocol for spending time after completing a test, one that didn't include free reading."

I asked Leone and other Anne Arundel officials for comment on this episode. A public information officer said Leone is one of six directors of school performance for the county system. In a statement forwarded by the information officer, Leone wrote:

"School visits are not 'inspections' and don't take on a military tone, as Mr. Mathews has inferred. They are, instead, just one part of a collaborative framework designed to ensure that instruction is being delivered in a way that helps ALL students to achieve. Clear outcomes and goals are part of that delivery, as is making sure that every crucial minute of every class is used to its fullest potential. Tina McKnight and everyone associated with Tyler Heights Elementary School have done a great job, and I am proud to be a part of that team."

There is much more in the book, as McKnight and her teachers take their perilous journey through the 2005-06 school year, wondering if they can even come close to the high scores they registered in the 2004-05 year. Perlstein gets into the lives of bright kids and slow ones, happy kids and some very disturbed ones. She presents all sides, all opinions, although toward the end hints at her own view of the new era of testing:

"It's quite possible to believe in setting high standards and testing students, as I do, and still take issue with how the information is collected, how it is used, and what impact the process has on teaching and learning," she said.

I could not agree more. Despite all the time I have spent in schools, I know much more about the impact of our testing system on teaching and learning than I did before, just from having read this deep and revealing book.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company