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No Child Left Behind inflicts curse on public schools
The Oregonian
A Portland teacher of bilingual education finds the law doesn't recognize his qualifications


Last year I was a finalist for Teacher of the Year. Last year the National Geographic Society awarded me a $5,000 grant to help build an outdoor classroom with natural materials. Last year the Portland teachers association and school board asked me to mentor new teachers. Last year I trained a group of Portland teachers in the Tribes process, which nurtures supportive classroom communities.

Last week letters went home to the parents of my students telling them I'm not a "highly qualified" teacher. How can I fall so far in one year? Easy. I've been afflicted with the No Child Left Behind Curse. "No Child Left Behind" is the Bush administration's catchy yet hypocritical name for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that President Bush signed into law.

In its push to "leave no child behind" the law disregards my license, even though it's issued by the state, which sets some of the toughest standards in the nation. My license says I'm qualified to teach English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education in specified subjects though grade 12.

But the new law doesn't recognize my qualifications because I, like other bilingual teachers, was encouraged to take college courses focusing on bilingual and special education. That left me without a few teaching methods courses, but prepared me extremely well for teaching in both English and Spanish.

As an "under-qualified" teacher I have distinguished company. One of the few Portland Public School teachers who reached the highest and most difficult level of qualification -- a National Teaching Certificate -- also had letters sent home to the parents of her students informing them of her inadequate qualifications.

We've come under the curse.

It's the same one that's afflicted Gulfport Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Fla., and thousands like it. Gov. Jeb Bush says the school did so well academically last year it's due for a state bonus check of about $40,000. But Jeb's brother George says Gulfport performed so poorly parents can pull their children out. Which Bush is right?

This is the curse that forces students who haven't learned to speak and read English as well as students with severe disabilities to take high-stakes standardized tests they can't possibly pass. Those scores are then used to judge school performance.

This is a curse on our public schools. What else can you call it when arbitrary standards are imposed on schools, curriculum is twisted and distorted into test preparation packages, and "failing schools" are subjected to state takeover and charter status?

And who has our president appointed to preside over this farce? Rod Paige. He's the Texas miracle man who President Bush brags turned the Houston schools into a model of public accountability. The rave was based on the claim that the dropout rate had fallen to 1.5 percent in Houston's high schools.

Since Paige became secretary of education, a state audit of the Houston Public Schools found the school district under superintendent Paige swapped thousands of students who should have been listed as dropouts into other categories such as "transferred" or "moved."

The real dropout rate was nearly 40 percent, which would have been among the highest in the nation. A New York Times editorial called this "the educational equivalent of Enron's accounting results."

I would never say holding schools accountable for significant student progress and putting highly qualified teachers in every classroom are not laudable goals. They are.

But let's not confuse what's taking place in our public schools as "accountability." No Child Left Behind is a curse on both teachers and students. Jonathan Steinhoff is a third-grade teacher at Atkinson Elementary School in Southeast Portland. He has 14 years of teaching experience in Oregon and Illinois. He says the Oregon Education Association is arguing his case. "In another irony, I can take a test to show I understand (teaching methods)."

Steinhoff lives in Northeast Portland with his wife and two children: jsteinhoff@pps.k12.or.us