t is with a great sense of urgency that I write to you today about our public schools. I write from the Pajaro Valley on the central coast of California to share with you some observations about how your No Child Left Behind Act is affecting local students.
You and I agree that no child should be left out when it comes to the opportunity education provides. We agree that schools should be accountable and that teachers should be of high quality. We agree that there should be standards that are clear, comprehensive and follow a logical sequence. I support these goals highlighted in NCLB and spend my days and nights putting these concepts into affect in my work as a language teacher and as a school board trustee.
I want to bring to your attention some effects of NCLB of which you may not be aware. Certainly, I imagine that if you were aware of these issues that you would instruct your soon to be appointed Secretary of Education to take immediate action to fix the flaws of NCLB.
Most significantly, it is the English Language Learners (ELLs) who by definition are not yet fluent in English and cannot possibly succeed in English on standardized tests created for fluent English children by second grade. Many children enter kindergarten with no English skills. Now, perhaps you have heard of a child who learned English really quickly and succeeded on standardized English tests in second grade. I do not deny the existence of such a child; however, the vast majority of English learners can not achieve English fluency this rapidly. To expect them to do so is to doom them to fail. Please allow English learners 5 years to attain English fluency. That is a reasonable time frame. These students' progress should be measured, but not using the same tests given to native English speakers.
Some students weep upon experiencing the spring testing since they are so disappointed and frustrated because they simply can not understand the test items. Some students become ill during the testing experience. I have spoken with parents who have become frantic that their child is not reaching unreasonable proficiency targets.
Additionally, there is the dilemma of new students arriving every day from countries where English is not spoken. Some of these students never attended school in their native land. Mr. President, please consider these children, some of them teenagers who can never catch up to native English speakers through no fault of their own. That they learn to speak English and attain several years of academic skill growth should be considered the success that it is.
My colleagues and I taught a deaf teenager from El Salvador to speak English, read, do math and acquire job readiness skills, but she could never have measured up to the NCLB expectations. Her progress should be hailed as a miracle of the public schools, not relegated to the league of NCLB failures.
It just isn't fair to measure all children and schools by the same yardstick. We need to recognize and celebrate progress. Some phenomenal progress is considered a failure because a school had one too many sick children during the test administration window and not enough students took all of the tests. Student achievement should be measured in terms of the progress each child makes over time.
I ask myself, "Why were things so much better for me in school than these children of whom I am writing?" The answer is very, very clear. I spoke English from birth. My parents were well-educated. Our family was not poor. These are the factors that define children who will perform well on standardized tests.
Please put your energy into programs that help families attain and maintain an adequate standard-of-living. Promote opportunities for children to be exposed to English during their pre-school years. Linguistically integrated neighborhoods and preschools would work wonders in this respect. And provide support for higher education and adult education so that all people can become well-educated.
Because an American chosen to lead this country must surely believe in the concept of the public schools on which we build an educated society of voters who will determine our country's future, above all else recognize vouchers for what they are. Vouchers are tax refunds for those parents who chose to abandon public schools.
Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and served on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.
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© Sandra Nichols 2004