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The Byrne Report

Bubble Heads

MORNINGS BEFORE the first bell, English teacher Daniel Alderson stands under the flagpole at Sonoma Valley High School reading out loud from Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, which is about a government that burns books. Along with other political classics, such as George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 may soon be iced out of the curriculum at Sonoma Valley High--at least for remedial readers and Spanish-speaking students.

The soft-spoken Alderson is organizing a series of read-ins to protest this consequence of George W. Bush's ironically labeled No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). According to Alderson, NCLB is proving to be a windfall for test and textbook manufacturers and consultants even as it dumbs down the nation's educational system, striking particularly hard at immigrant children who do not always pick the right bubble to shade on multiple-choice tests.

It all began in March when the U.S. Department of Education informed the Sonoma Valley Unified School District that it had failed to meet NCLB's standardized-testing performance criteria. Bush's program ties federal funding to average student scores on the California High School Exit Exam and the state's main achievement test, CAT6. The district's 4,630 students collectively failed to meet NCLB testing standards, which were formulated by neocon ideologues. The NCLB formula sorts young people into learning categories via their scores on these "bubble tests," which are well-known to be inadequate measures of learning ability.

The district, which has a high concentration of Latino students, has been placed on "performance improvement" status, a Kafkaesque netherworld from which there is virtually no escape, unless parents, teachers and students make common cause with Alderson. (Note to students: for insight into the NCLB mindset, read The Trial by Franz Kafka.)

Alderson correctly asserts that "PI" status could require teachers to use only watered-down, state-certified literature (and business-letter writing techniques) in mandatory classes for the bubble-test-challenged. Dumbed-down curricula would be dispensed according to strict time schedules and "teaching scripts." Classes would be monitored by federally recompensed consultants.

Sonoma Valley District superintendent D. Kim Jamieson says that being dumped into PI status "is as real as a heart attack. If we don't get out of it, we will be taken over by the state." Each year under NCLB, the benchmarks are increased, making it that much harder to statistically improve. Eventually 100 percent of all students--including the learning disabled and newly arrived Spanish speaking students--will have to pass the bubble tests.

If NCLB's benchmarks are not met within two years, the staff of a PI district can be fired, the curriculum can be replaced and the schools can be transformed into privately managed charter institutions. For example, scary Christian Dominionists could contract to take over Sonoma Valley schools, throwing out lessons they abhor, such as Darwin's description of biological evolution, Freud's psychological method of transference, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in physics and references to the works of Karl Marx, Jean Paul Sartre and Michael Moore.

Jamieson suggests that Alderson ("One of our best teachers") is taking a worst-case scenario from a state-required survey written by a group of consultants that was handed out to Sonoma Valley High teachers in May. Having read this survey, I think that Alderson is understating the extent to which NCLB is undermining public-school education in America. The survey actually buttresses Alderson's main point: that Spanish-speaking and economically poor students are going to be forced out of elective courses into remedial reading and mathematics courses geared toward answering bubble-test questions. Science and history courses will follow the same path. The bubble answers will be "embedded" in the reading material, like reporters in Iraq or ticks on a dog. Our children will become bubble heads.

The survey "aligns" certain categories of students with "approved" textbooks manufactured by McGraw-Hill, Hampton-Brown and Scholastic. Consultant Nancy Todd, who helped write the survey, says that revised curriculums currently under discussion will not apply to all students, but only to underperforming students who tend to be Hispanic and "English language learners" and students of "low socioeconomic status" (using NCLB jargon). The district awarded its consultants a no-bid contract worth 40 percent of the funds budgeted for PI work, including conducting the survey and starting to concoct a bubble-positive curriculum.

Alderson remarks that teachers need to do a better job with uninterested students, but, contrary to the dictates of NCLB, this should be done by providing them with exciting, relevant literature and the freedom to experiment with ideas. He notes that several states are figuring out how to refuse federal education money so they will not have to comply with NCLB. Only 11 percent of California's K-12 budget comes from Washington, D.C. Let's fill the gap with the salaries of fired prison guards and unemployed NCLB consultants.

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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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