The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Ignorant Armies Still Clash By Night!

on February 8, 2016

In November of 2007 when my term as the president of the National Council of Teachers of English ended, I was expected to give a speech.  Since no particular topic was required I decided to rage against “No Child Left Behind” and all the unreasonable demands being put on public schools at that time. Today seems like a good time for me to post my speech  because many of the problems that existed under NCLB still remain.  Also I will be out of town for the next two weeks and will do no writing during that time.  Finally, remember that this is a speech, not a written essay.  It’s long, it’s complicated, and it’s intended to move an audience to action.

Although the title of my presidential address, “Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night,” was taken from Matthew Arnold’s (1867) poem “Dover Beach,” the political and cultural battles we face today are quite different from those Arnold believed were threatening his society in 19th-century England. Still, they are no less dangerous, and we have no less reason to be fearful as we see a misrepresented and futile war in the Middle East; threats of further war; hatred between religions, tribes, and countries; suicide bombings; debilitating poverty in the third world and here in the richest country on earth; worldwide climate change caused by human selfishness and neglect; government corruption here and abroad; and an American president who believes he is king.

Compared to all the forces tearing apart the larger world, the destruction of American education may seem a minor matter. But it looms large in my small world and, I think, in yours. Perhaps no one will die because our federal government has usurped the right that the U.S. Constitution delegated to states to establish and oversee public education and which the states, in turn, largely delegated to local communities. But the policies put into federal law, the practices that have emanated from those policies, and the belief system that generated them in the first place have already damaged the lives of students and teachers and eroded the excellence, flexibility, and vitality of American education.

Over the more than forty years I worked in public schools as a teacher, principal, and district superintendent, I was always proud of our American system and my own small role in it. I believed that we had arrived at a place in the last quarter of the 20th-century where we really cared about children and demonstrated our caring with child-centered teaching, meaningful curricula, and sensible school operations. Moreover, I believed that the hallmark of American education was second chances. We didn’t give up on strugglers, late bloomers, or even dropouts, but worked relentlessly to help them replace failure with success.

The most illustrious example of second chances was the opportunity after World War II for servicemen and women to go back to school at government expense. Our national confidence in these veterans was vindicated by the fact that so many who had been indifferent students when they were young succeeded amazingly the second time around. I’m not ashamed to admit that two and three decades later my own children benefited from second chances in public schools and were also able to succeed. On the other hand, I am ashamed to say that I think neither my children nor anyone else’s would get second chances today.

The difference is that American education in the 21st century is caught in a morass of false theories and foolish practices. Under the direction of the federal government, narrow paths and high barriers have replaced the principle of second chances and the supports to make them work. Using test scores as the sole criterion of effective teaching and learning, federal law now puts derogatory public labels on schools, humiliates teachers, and robs school districts of the resources they need to serve students effectively. Meanwhile, all this destruction goes unnoticed by the decision makers in Washington. Blind, deaf, and ignorant, they press on with their negative tactics, exemplifying the popular satiric saying, “Beatings will continue until morale improves.”

So far, elementary education has taken the largest share of the beatings, but secondary schools have also felt the sting of the whip, and colleges and universities, especially those preparing teachers, are next in line. Recently, we have seen the grading of high schools in New York City, proposals for mid-course high school exams that would decide who goes on in an academic track and who gets diverted into job training, calls for college exit exams, private agency rating of teacher education programs, and Department of Education scrutiny of college professors’ curriculum vitae to see if they have the proper ideological backgrounds to serve as consultants. And above all this noise is the persistent drumbeat telling us that American education lags far behind that of other industrialized countries.

To be fair, I must admit that this is not the first time schools have come under attack. The history of educational criticism is as long as the history of education itself. American public schools have had their share of critics from their beginnings, charging that various curricula were not serving the needs of students or the public good, that the prescribed course of schooling was too long or too short, and that students were not being taught to read and write. Over the course of my own career, schools have been castigated for undermining parental authority, inflating grades, allowing students to read “dirty” or atheistic books, and, most often, for not teaching phonics, or enough phonics, or phonics the right way.

Yet, for all the critics and all the criticism that education has endured, this is the first time that the federal government has exerted its power over the nation’s schools, telling them what and how to teach, and judging whether or not students have made sufficient progress in certain skills and areas of knowledge. Under the unassailable slogan, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government has stretched its tentacles of control into every corner of American classrooms, sweeping aside the hard-earned knowledge of researchers and teachers and confidently asserting that “we know best.”

In both its design and application, the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB from here on) is deeply flawed: punitive, disrespectful toward students and teachers, dependent on unreliable evidence, underfunded, and beholden to ideologues and profiteers. But while many commentators have pointed out these flaws, too few have cut to the heart of the matter, making clear that the creators and implementers of the law do not understand learning, teaching, or human behavior. Has any commentator dared to say that without these understandings, no one has the moral authority—nor should they have the legal authority—to make decisions for the education of America’s children?

One key misunderstanding about learning stands out in the language of the law and its supporters. While NCLB repeatedly mentions “high achievement” and “improving student achievement,” it rarely, if ever, speaks of learning. These two words are not synonymous. Achievement is the information you spout in class discussions and write on tests; learning is what you do with that information in real life. As Alfred North Whitehead says in his 1929 book, The Aims of Education: Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self- development . . . Your learning is useless to you till you have lost your textbooks, burnt your lecture notes, and forgotten the minutiae which you learnt by heart for the examination.

Under pressure from NCLB to focus on achievement rather than learning, our schools have all but abandoned their basic mission. They have narrowed the curriculum to only the subjects to be tested and narrowed those subjects to only mechanical skills and low-level information. In the field of reading, the mechanical skill of matching vocal sounds to letter symbols becomes everything in the primary grades. And later on, reading words quickly is the goal. Even the literal meanings of texts get little attention until the intermediate grades, and then only formulaically through prescribed “strategies.” In the teaching of writing, spelling, grammar, and punctuation receive the most emphasis, followed by attention to the structure of paragraphs and essays.

In addition, schools are attempting to manipulate their test data by pushing certain students “in” and others “out” of the competition. Teachers are told to concentrate their efforts on the so-called “bubble” kids—the ones close to passing the tests—a practice that results in neglect of both the most able and least able of their students. Retention data from all school levels show that the greatest numbers of students are being held back in the grades preceding tests, and high school dropout data show the same pattern. These facts and reports from teachers, students, and parents show clearly that schools are concerned not with learning but with the numbers that symbolize achievement.

In the few years since the passage of NCLB, many journalists and book authors have confirmed the facts above in their moving stories about real children hurt by school practices and real teachers demoralized. Recently, I read Linda Perlstein’s (2007) book, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, and found that she saw the same kinds of abuses in an Annapolis, Maryland, school that I have seen in schools in and around Portland, Oregon. Specifically, in a first-grade classroom at one wealthy suburban school, I saw children working straight through a six-hour school day with only a 40-minute break for lunch. Under the teacher’s direction they exercised indoors by walking around the classroom and stretching their bodies a few times. Their reading activities included a daily choral recitation of the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet—although most of the children were already reading without difficulty—and the memorization of technical literary terms, such as onomatopoeia and metaphor. These young children were also expected to identify the plot, characters, setting, mood, and climax of the stories they were reading. The only story elements they were spared were “theme” and “denouement.”

In a Reading First school, I observed a kindergarten reading lesson that had children go through a small book by decoding all the words without stopping to talk about the illustrations or attempting to find any story hidden there. I also saw several writing lessons where the emphasis was on spelling words correctly rather than producing a clear and interesting story.

In addition to misunderstanding what learning is, NCLB misunderstands how learning works. This error is most apparent in the law’s insistence on “explicit, systematic instruction” in reading. The notion that children learn best from this type of teaching, rooted in mid-20th-century behaviorist theory and pretty much discredited by later research, was revived by the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000. Unfortunately, two factors that strongly influenced the panel’s recommendations for explicit, systematic teaching go unacknowledged and, perhaps, unrecognized by the people who developed the process for schools to get money under the “Reading First” section of NCLB. One of those factors was the preference of the majority of the panel’s members for behaviorism, and the other was the nature of experimental research, which the panel selected as its source of research studies. To be considered well-designed, experimental studies must use treatments that can be clearly described, checked for fidelity of application, and replicated by other researchers. Thus, all the studies the NRP chose to examine focused on teaching methods that were explicit and systematic. In practice, “explicit, systematic instruction” means that any skill or body of information is divided into discrete, step-by-step lessons to be learned by rote. The instructor presents the object of each lesson, the principles, the process, and some examples of application. The students memorize those elements and practice by applying them in controlled situations. Practice continues with decreasing teacher supervision and support until students can apply the principles or the process correctly and automatically on their own.
The problem with this type of instruction is that it does not square with what we know about how children learn. Decades of research on children’s learning show that children tend to be random, concrete, piecemeal learners. Children do not start learning anything by rules and systematic steps. They experience concrete examples of phenomena, draw what they think are the principles from them, and then experiment by creating their own examples. If the created examples work, children accept their original principles; if not, they adjust them and try again.

Two other characteristics of children’s learning processes are important to note: (1) In creating examples, children approximate correctness and are satisfied with it for a time until they perceive a need for greater exactness. (2) Children tend not to complete the learning of any skill or body of information in one continuous attempt. Rather, they leave things partly learned whenever their attention is drawn elsewhere and then return to them when they again have a strong need or interest.

A classic example of the natural pattern of children’s learning and the minimal effect of explicit, systematic instruction on it is recounted by psycholinguist David McNeil (1966) in his chapter in The Genesis of Language. He reports a conversation between a mother and a young child in which the mother directly and explicitly attempts to teach her son correct English grammar:

CHILD: Nobody don’t like me.
MOTHER: No, say, “Nobody likes me.”
CHILD: Nobody don’t like me.
(Eight repetitions of this dialogue)
MOTHER: No, now listen carefully: say, “Nobody likes me.

ChildOh! Nobody don’t likes me.

This pattern and its variations are characteristic of students’ learning well into their teen years. Complete and systematic learning processes normally develop in late adolescence under pressure from schools, parents and/or employers to “get organized.” Even so, many successful people remain concrete, random learners all their lives.

The preference for explicit, systematic instruction is not the only misunderstanding about children’s learning embodied in NCLB, however. Although some are worth mentioning here, I will not take the time to go into full explanations; the reasoning and evidence behind them are already obvious.

  1. Prescribed ranges for “average yearly progress”(AYP) do not make sense when we remember that different children learn at different rates. It is not unusual for a child’s learning to plateau for a while and then leap ahead.
  2. Expecting children to excel in all academic areas is not realistic. All of us have strong interests and abilities in certain areas and little in others.
  3. Fluency, which is the ability to read quickly and correctly, does not mean that a child understands what he or she is reading.
  4. In attempting to measure learning, we cannot assume that all of it takes place in school or is the result of teaching. Much important learning happens at home and in the community, without anyone teaching, as children read, write, listen, observe, and interact with other children or adults.
  5. The fact that children are able to memorize and reproduce technical terms and advanced academic content does not mean they understand those things or will remember them.
  6. Attempting to assess children’s learning with one standardized test a year is a fool’s errand.

Underlying the creation of NCLB is a profound mistrust of schools and teachers, concealed by the term “accountability.” Certainly, any person or entity receiving public money should be accountable for the spending of that money. But to whom and how should accountability be demonstrated? Public schools and teachers have always been accountable to their communities through various demonstrations of student learning, such as report cards and the ongoing performance of graduates. School operations have always been transparent because children and parents talk about what goes on there. Teachers, in addition to being accountable to their communities, have also been accountable to their employing school districts, formally through yearly evaluations and informally through parent complaints and commendations.

Only now has the federal government demanded a further layer of accountability—to itself—through school test scores and attendance rates. And only now has the federal government specified the means that schools and teachers should use to meet its standards of accountability. Most prominent among those means recommended for all schools, and required for Reading First schools, are so-called “scientifically based” or “research-based” reading materials. This heavy-handed government approval of certain texts exemplifies NCLB’s mistrust of teachers’ ability to recognize good materials on their own. It also exemplifies NCLB’s misunderstanding of the nature of teaching.

Almost all of the government-approved materials for teaching reading are scripted programs. These programs tell the teacher exactly what to say and do in each lesson. They also lay out a strict daily timetable for instruction, and some of them forbid the use of supplementary books and teaching aids that are not part of the program. These programs are often supplemented by formulaic training sessions that are erroneously labeled “professional development”; the programs may even recommend the use of “literacy coaches,” who in reality are monitors and enforcers of the material’s faithful use.

The fallacy in scripted and overly directive materials is that they don’t acknowledge that the only person really qualified to decide what, when, and how to teach reading is the teacher on site who knows the students involved and who can respond to their performances and to classroom happenings. No text writer at a distance, regardless of knowledge or experience, can do as well as a good teacher physically, mentally, and psychologically in touch with students. In favoring scripted programs, the Department of Education implementers of NCLB reveal that they do not understand that teaching demands contextualized planning, personalized treatment of students, and circumstantial decision-making.

Further evidence of this misunderstanding of teaching is the use of the phrase “delivery of instruction” in documents, articles, and speeches supporting NCLB. Teaching is not like a freshly baked pizza that can be placed in one neat box and given to students to consume and digest on their own. It is the ongoing interaction between a knowledgeable, skilled teacher and a particular group of students that leads those students on an uncharted journey to some new place. Actually, I should say, “on uncharted journeys to new places,” because students do not all travel the same route or end up in the same place. Teachers know this; scripted program supporters don’t.

Still another NCLB misunderstanding about teaching is defining “highly qualified teachers”solely in terms of subject matter knowledge. Although such knowledge is a part of a teacher’s qualifications, it is not the whole package. Just as important are a teacher’s abilities to inspire students to learn, to incorporate their interests into the curriculum, to earn their trust and cooperation, and to channel their energies into productive work. The narrow view not only devalues teachers who are working effectively in areas they did not initially prepare for, but also creates insoluble hiring dilemmas for many small or rural schools. In addition, the government approved practice of certifying people with academic degrees but no teacher preparation or experience has put many novices into situations they can’t handle, shortchanging their students.

Finally, what NCLB does not understand about teaching (and what few people anywhere understand) is that teaching is a performance profession like law, medicine, and acting. A performance profession is one that requires a great deal of individual, unobserved work to prepare for and reflect on each brief public performance. Teachers, like the other professionals named, spend as much time and thought—and use as much of their skills—in preparing for and evaluating instruction, keeping records, and reporting on student progress as they do in the teaching act itself. Yet the law treats them as if they were unskilled, hourly employees.

The last big misunderstanding is perhaps the worst. In its misreading of human behavior, NCLB uses fear and punishment as tools for improving student achievement. By instilling fear in schools, teachers, students, and parents, it seeks to move them toward its own goals. By leveling punishments for not reaching those goals, it hopes to make them try harder. The trouble is that human behavior responds to punishment only superficially and only for the short term. Desire, freedom to choose, self-confidence, and small successes along the way are much better motivators.

In reality, children come to school because they have to. Whether or not they cooperate there, learn, or attend regularly are personal choices based on how rewarding school is for them. Good teaching, appealing materials, interesting work, positive relationships, variety in activities, academic and social success, and fun move children to choose school and learning. Ironically, NCLB denies children almost all of the experiences that lead to good choices.

Older students make the same choices and more: whether or not to work for good grades, try to please their parents, aim for higher education, put effort into state tests, drop out of school. Unfortunately, while NCLB offers no positive motivations for these students to make the choices that society wants and that are in the students’ best interests, it does motivate schools to hold back the strugglers or force them out.

Unlike students, teachers come to school by choice. But like them, what they do there and whether or not they stay are choices, albeit ones influenced by economic needs and professional loyalties. The onerous burdens placed on teachers by NCLB and its disrespect for their abilities make them less likely to put heart and soul into their work and less likely to stay for the long run. No wonder that statistics show a large percentage of teachers leaving the profession during their first five years.

Fearing NCLB sanctions, many teachers have also chosen to teach for student achievement rather than learning. In other words, they “teach to the tests.” Some teachers have also stretched the limits of allowable assistance to students during tests, dishonoring their profession and themselves. Why do teachers do these things that go against their beliefs and their sense of right and wrong? Because they are acting out of fear, trying desperately to save their students and themselves.

Although not now a part of NCLB, merit pay for teachers whose students score well on tests has been promoted by many of the law’s supporters and adopted by some states and communities. Other supporters have advocated merit pay for teachers who volunteer to teach in high-poverty, low-scoring schools. Most teachers, on the other hand, seem uninterested in merit pay. They would much prefer better working conditions, greater autonomy, and respect. What teachers mean by better working conditions is more planning time, chances to work with their colleagues, self-chosen professional development experiences, and a significant role in school decision making. Autonomy means being able to select appropriate materials and methods for their students,

NCLB also misunderstands what motivates parents. The law gives parents of children in failing schools the right to ask for extra instruction for them or to transfer them to other schools. Yet very few parents take advantage of these opportunities, especially the transfers. For poor parents a major reason is the difficulty of transporting their children to a distant school, but for middle-class parents the most-often voiced reason is that they are satisfied with their local school and want their children to stay there. Right or wrong, parents’ responses are in line with normal human behavior.

Without realizing it, Charles Dickens passed the final judgment on NCLB and its misunderstanding of learning, teaching, and human behavior. One hundred fifty-three years ago in his novel Hard Times, Dickens described an English public school classroom under government control with a “highly qualified” teacher using an explicit systematic method like this:

So, Mr. M’choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honorable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and- thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

As good and as true as Dickens’ view of government-mandated education is, I don’t want to end this review of NCLB on a negative note. I believe there is strong reason to hope that the law will be changed for the better in 2008 and eliminated during the next presidential administration. Too many voices from both political parties, from a broad spectrum of professional organizations and think tanks, and from the public have spoken against it. And there are indications that Congress has heard and will act. For us on the fringes of Congressional attention, the choices are few but still powerful. We must keep telling Congress and the public about the damage NCLB is causing to our schools and our students. We must continue doing real teaching for real student learning. We must go on with our own learning. And we must communicate with and support each other. All these things are implied in the last stanza of “Dover Beach.” Let’s listen to the whole of it for immediate solace and future guidance:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night


Our students, our colleagues, our knowledge, our ideals, our profession; these are our loves. We must be true to them all.


One response to “Ignorant Armies Still Clash By Night!

  1. Jane Watson says:

    What a great piece – as timely as ever. Forwarding this to a newspaper columnist who thinks teachers must let go of the ‘learning styles’ fad. How long ago was that???I can’t remember…..


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