Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind | Soap Box

The President's education plan is hurting students and teachers

I feel like the last marine who got out before the siege of Khe Sanh. I feel like the one Titanic band member who overslept, missed the voyage, and lived. In my darkest moments, I feel like a traitor.

I was an urban teacher for 14 years. I am still an urban teacher in my dreams, in my bones. For the last 14 months, I have been on a leave of absence from my eighth-grade English classroom in New Jersey, concentrating on my second career as a novelist for young adults. My three published books have been doing fabulously well. I have more school visit offers than I can handle, and the money is rolling in. I get fan mail every day. Fan mail, fer cryin’ out loud!

I should be marching away from my classroom in victory, but instead I feel like slinking away in the dead of night. People talk to writers all the time about the triumph of leaving one’s day job, but I didn’t have a day job—I had a 24/7 career. So why am I running away?


I’d been on the fence for months over this decision, until yesterday, when I went to have lunch with my dear, old friends on the eighth-grade team at my school. I was in the building for less than two hours, and three different people took me aside to give me unasked-for life advice: my mentor in the English department, an administrator, and a librarian. Eerily, all three said virtually the same thing: “Don’t come back. It would kill you.”

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess.

What they’re getting is workbooks. Never mind the shameless profiteering that underlies the testing system. Never mind the fact that the state tests are insanely invalid, that they’re graded by the lowest bidder, that the test-prep materials are rushed to press by fly-by-night companies, riddled with errors and stinking of the absolute worst in half-baked pedagogy. Never mind that the expense of hiring these companies as “consultants” sucks the lifeblood out of libraries and tech budgets. And never mind the ultimate irony, that replacing every good aspect of school with test prep will undoubtedly result in lower test scores. The reality is that the leaders of this great nation are working very hard to turn our children into undereducated test drones. And we are letting them get away with it.

What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra. So I’m leaving the classroom because my colleagues were right: going back without time for books would kill me. But it hurts very, very much to know that, in my absence, the classroom is killing my peers and my would-be students anyway.

If you’re a teacher, thanks for being braver than I am. Thanks for riding it out when I’m just, well, riding out. And if you’re a parent, please fight for your child. Ask to see your school’s test-materials budget and its library budget. Ask to visit the classroom on a random day, unannounced. Ask whether your kid is getting more or less art than she would have had five years ago. Ask why band practice is at 7 a.m. when it used to be part of the school day. And while you’re mourning the loss of art, music, language, or history, ask the one most damning question of all: What took its place? If you get really riled up by the answer, please consider running for a spot on the school board.

As for me, I’m out. And I’m sorry.

Jordan Sonnenblick’s latest book, Dodger and Me, will be published this month by Feiwel & Friends.

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