Keeping Classroom Creativity Alive in the NCLB Era

January marked the dubious 10-year anniversary of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation signed into law by former President George W. Bush. NCLB changed the focus of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act from emphasizing equal access and closing achievement gaps in education to focusing on high-stakes testing, labeling, and sanctions.

But savvy educators are finding ways to keep things creative in the classroom, despite the strictures imposed on them by NCLB.

For example, Poestenkill Elementary School in Upstate New York took a bold step last fall, when the principal and staff decided they would dedicate a week—five whole days—to not testing their students. No pre-test or post-test the week after Thanksgiving, just teaching and learning. No “data collecting” in the education reform sense of the word (although, of course, teachers gather real data every time they work with their students).

That bold step led to plans for all sorts of creative activities. Some teachers used cooking to teach measurement and fractions. Fourth-grade students built Indian long houses. The whole school read books by author Matt McElligott and staged activities to go with the books—including a crazy hair day in honor of McElligott’s Even Monsters Need Haircuts.

“As kids get older, the world demands creative thinking and problem solving,” says fifth-grade teacher Lisa Jeschke. The imaginative lessons of no-test week will help them develop those skills.  When the faculty is prepping students for state tests, she says, the lessons are more about formulaic ways to write essays and answer questions, because that’s what it takes to score high. There’s less opportunity for teachers or students to try fresh, original thinking.

The high cost of high-stakes testing in inhibiting creative teaching and failing to foster students’ inventiveness is not easily seen from the far away halls of Congress and the federal bureaucracy. Schools do not generally test for creative thinking, so there are no numbers to quantify the loss.

NCLB-era requirements are handcuffing states who want to design and implement assessments that promote key skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. NEA believes the federal government shouldn’t be a micromanager of state and local responsibilities and has urged Congress to include such flexibility as it moves forward with ESEA reauthorization this year.

NCLB  has caused barely a ripple in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the only national standardized testing system. But NCLB has made a difference in other ways. Teachers report they have less time for social studies, art, music, physical education, and even science because they must focus on the two subjects that can flunk a school under NCLB: English language arts and math. That’s especially true for schools that are not making “adequate yearly progress (AYP).”

The fact that Poestenkill Elementary is making AYP made it a lot easier to decide to take a week off from testing. The school has a very low poverty rate, is overwhelmingly white, and almost every child is fluent in English.

So it’s particularly telling that even at Poestenkill, the principal and faculty feel the testing culture is cramping creativity. Fifth-grade teacher Jeschke says that in her 24 years of teaching, she has developed a repertoire of effective strategies and the confidence to use them, and that helps her combat test frenzy. The impact of the tests is much greater on newer teachers, she says. Adding to the stress, the state now leans heavily on test scores to evaluate teachers.

Learning to Wonder

Even within the two subjects favored under the NCLB testing regime, teachers report they have to fight to teach creatively and to foster creativity among their students.

In Tigard, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, Karen Johnson still asks students to share a favorite book that they’ve read recently for pleasure. “It teaches me who they are as a reader, and it gives other kids ideas—‘Maybe I’ll read that,’” she says. “Can I point to the standard that lesson covers? Probably not. But it has so much value.”

Last year for the first time, many of her students couldn’t think of a book they’d read on their own—only those assigned in class. “I was appalled. So this year, I’m putting a big focus on getting kids to learn to choose books, because that’s part of the human experience and they’ll have a better life if they do!”

“The biggest and best thing I do is get kids excited about learning. Sometimes that means going off on a tangent. I want them to question and wonder. I remember the teacher who did that for me. It was the 1970s and chairs were always in straight rows, but he put them in a circle—that was weird!”

Her teacher had every student pick an interesting book. “Mine was about biorhythms,” Johnson recalls. “I thought that was cool. When I reported on it, he acted interested. And when he saw that the references in the bibliography were in German, he asked me, ‘Are you going to learn German so you can read more about this?’

“He truly did alter my life. I got it that you learn because learning is interesting, and if you learn deeply, it’s even more interesting. I want to be that teacher, not the teacher that had perfect test scores.”

No One Size Fits All

Across the country, educators compromise when they must, but keep fighting to help creativity flourish.

At Mt. Zion High School in Jonesboro, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, high school English teacher Shekema Silveri believes her students need risk-taking teaching, and she gives it to them.

This year Silveri used An Inconvenient Truth to explore the way hot political issues are debated. Her students watched the movie and another film that suggests global warming is a hoax. They analyzed facts and biases to come up with their own individual opinions.

And last October, Silveri was surprised in front of her clapping, cheering school with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award, given to celebrate, elevate, and activate exemplary K-12 educators

In the Bronx, New York, English teacher Jeanette Toomer had a terrible time in a middle school several years ago.

“It was a test factory with tests every eight weeks. We had to teach about testing conditions, Scantron sheets, pencils. The kids were stressed, we were stressed, the principal was going crazy. He’d say, ‘Stop what you’re doing! Prepare for the test on Wednesday!’”

So she moved to Jane Addams High School where she found more room to innovate and engage her students, although this school, too, says Toomer, is “on the firing line” because of low scores.

Toomer has an interesting method for combating test prep. When her students are working on memoir writing, Toomer invites authors who are writing their own. The son of an African-American Korean War soldier and a Korean mother told her students about growing up in a hut, joining a gang of boys who stole to survive, not knowing who his father was, and experiencing prejudice from other Koreans. They were spellbound.

“When he walked in, you had no idea he had this interesting past,” she said to them. “You, too, have a real story that people want to hear and that you can share. You’re the expert: It’s your life. Don’t feel you can’t do it. The richness is in you and it will come out on the paper.”

Sadly, that richness will not be on the test.