CHAMPAIGN – A handful of concerned parents is forming a task force to look more closely at No Child Left Behind and how the federal act is affecting the Champaign school district.
Some of those parents say they are worried that hands-on, project-based learning is being sacrificed to prepare students for testing that will determine if they are learning the basic concepts mandated by state standards, and if schools and the district are making sufficient progress according to No Child Left Behind.
"When we started talking about this, we found out how little we actually knew," about No Child Left Behind, said Ellen de Waard, who has two children at Barkstall Elementary School. "We wanted more discussion and having better, clearer view of what's going on."
Brenda Koenig, whose children attend South Side Elementary School, organized an educational forum about NCLB, and the parents surveyed some teachers, asking how NCLB has affected their teaching and the educational experience of their students.
They received 22 responses, which de Waard described as "very negative." One of her biggest concerns is that teachers seem demoralized.
"Several said, 'I will retire as soon as I can,'" she said.
Koenig added, "Teachers are very concerned and share some of the concerns that parents have on narrowing of the curriculum, on the fact that they feel intense pressure to really focus on those topics that are going to be tested, and to present material in the same way that it's going to be presented on the test.
"Our general concern is that children are engaged in learning. You want children to feel motivated," Koenig continued.
The parents recently took their concerns to Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris, who oversees curriculum design for the district.
"The emphasis on testing that parents and teachers are concerned about is actually an additional tool," that can be used by teachers to gauge whether their students understand the concepts being taught and to plan their lessons accordingly, Norris said.
"There is an impression out there that teachers aren't able to do project-based learning, but anything they can tie to the curriculum ... to encourage critical thinking skills, there's not anything that says they can't do that," Norris continued. "Teachers do have the autonomy to go beyond curriculum maps as long as kids are mastering the standards."
In reality, though, teachers have little time to do more, said Deb Foertsch, a fifth- grade teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary School and president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers.
"They're either not going to keep up with the (curriculum) pacing or they really have to work some magic to figure it out," she said.
Foertsch agreed that the district's aligning the curriculum to state standards and using quarterly assessments to measure students' progress are good tools for teachers. But, she said, that needs to be balanced with other ways of teaching and evaluating students' learning.
"We know there are lots of ways to assess, and the district hasn't told us we can't use projects," she said. "But the reality, at least for me, is if I'm given a timeline and I know an exam is going to be given on this date and this is the content and type of exam to be given, you tend to structure your teaching so kids are going to achieve on that and do well. And you try to include some of the creative projects that you know are successful, and kids learn and remember. But it's almost impossible to get it all in, and get it all in by ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) time."
Foertsch would like to see fewer mandated district assessments, "but I know (No Child Left Behind) is high stakes and we've got to give the kids some practice," she said.
Norris acknowledged that teachers and administrators feel frustrated and stressed about the testing and progress requirements of the No Child Left Behind act.
"My hope is, with the training we've provided – differentiated instruction, teacher collaboration – that would alleviate some of the pressure," she said.
The task force parents and Norris hope to meet on a quarterly basis.
"We really want to make this a very constructive discussion with Unit 4. We're really delighted Dorland Norris is so interested in our efforts and so willing to continue the discussion," de Waard said.
Koenig said parents want to encourage communication among the district, teachers and parents, and support quality teaching practices. She said the group is in a "brainstorming phase" now, but one idea that has come up is to help experienced teachers share lesson plans that use creative techniques and have been particularly successful.
"Parents really have a vital role in this process, and I don't think parents realize that," she said. "Especially with something as politically controversial as this, teachers can only say so much. Administrators are also kind of stuck in the middle. Parents are free to say what we want."