LIANE HANSEN, host:
No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002. The law was just a few years old when Youth Radio's Chela Delgado took a job teaching humanities at a Philadelphia high school. She thought she knew exactly where she stood on the all the testing she had to administer until she started listening to some of her students' parents.
CHELA DELGADO: When I was in second grade I had to sit at a separate table in the back of the classroom when we took our weekly times math tests. I got so nervous my fidgeting distracted the other kids. Then I became a teacher and found new reasons to hate tests. The school where I taught was like the ones I have attended growing up. Mostly low-income, mostly students of color.
Except that it was a charter school with a CEO and its mission statement claimed a commitment to closing the achievement gap. Every day it seemed we were preparing for some new test. I spent countless hours teaching tenth graders how to write essays for evaluators my kids would never meet.
My students outperformed other low-income African-American students in Philadelphia but they didn't come near the scores achieved by middle-class white students. Not because they were stupid but because schools have never done right by low-income students of color.
One day a parent of one of my students came to see me. Her daughter hadn't done well at regular Philly schools and the mother took every opportunity to check in with me about her daughter's progress. She had just received the Pennsylvania State test results.
Ms. Delgado, the mom wanted to know, how is it that my daughter receives good grades but did poorly on this exam? I assured the parent that her daughter was a strong writer. She had pulled off an impressive performance as Voltaire in her recent classroom role play. Your daughter simply hasn't learned to fold her intelligence into a test-taking box, I told the mom.
That's the problem with No Child Left Behind. There's nothing wrong with your daughter. I expected some solidarity, that the mom would be relieved, pleased even that I was trying to make space for her daughter's talents. Instead, the mom said, before No Child Left Behind no one believed my daughter could pass these tests. They didn't have to believe in her and so they didn't.
And I began to get it. As an overall strategy for civil rights, tests are not the answer, but test scores are the only leverage some parents have against schools who are underserving their kids. For this parent, for lots of parents, what the Bush administration calls the soft bigotry of low expectations rings true.
While educators like me talk about multiple forms of intelligence and structural racism, No Child Left Behind's rhetoric tells parents of color this country believes in your kids. Still, drill and kill is not civil rights. Forcing our students to pencil in bubbles on Scantron sheets while kids in private schools debate and write essays is not a strategy for achieving racial equity.
We don't need to level the playing field, we need a new ball game; a game that holds schools and teachers accountable to the needs of their students of color and encourages classrooms where real, different and dynamic learning takes place.
For NPR News, I'm Chela Delgado.
HANSEN: Chela Delgado left her teaching job and is now working on her doctorate in education at the University of California Berkeley. If you want to join Youth Radio's network of educators, go to YouthRadio.org and click on the Teach Youth Radio link.
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The academic year is winding down and soon it will be time for those final report cards to be sent home. Some parents who don't want to be surprised by their kids' grades have an alternative. At thousands of schools teachers are using online grade books that allow parents to access their children's academic and attendance records. Programs such as Parent Connect and Power School are gaining popularity because they help keep parents up to date on their child's performance without the hassle of a parent-teacher conference. Some programs even allow alerts to be sent directly to a parent's cell phone.