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Should No Child Left Behind Be Left Behind?

Oregon's middle school teachers feel that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has resulted in too much time spent preparing for state tests and not enough emphasis on social and emotional learning.

This is just one of the attitudes Maureen Musser and her research colleagues discovered after surveying middle school principals and teachers across the state to learn the effects of NCLB on teaching practices. And these results are of concern, they say, considering other research that proves the importance of schools focusing on early adolescents' development and meeting the needs of the whole child.

"Many teachers are frustrated," says Musser, an associate professor of education. "They feel they are being forced to teach in a way that they don't believe in, that they don't have time to do what they really think is valuable."

Musser, who became director of Willamette's School of Education this fall, is known statewide for her expertise regarding middle school. She will be taking her work to the national level in November when she and her colleagues present their research at the National Middle School Association conference in Nashville -- a tough presenting gig to get.

Musser chose to come to Willamette's education school in 1998 because the University had the premier middle-level education program in the state, she says. "I've always been really interested in early adolescence," says Musser, a former sixth-grade teacher. "Middle-schoolers are changing so much both emotionally and physically. They have a great sense of humor."

Willamette was instrumental in starting the Oregon Middle Level Consortium, a statewide group of principals and teacher educators who are interested in middle school education. Musser was co-chair of the group for many years. The consortium is influential, she says; Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission relies on the group for information when making big changes to middle schools.

In 2003, discussions among consortium members revealed the need for more research on middle-level education, particularly what was happening in schools since the institution of NCLB. Musser and five other experts from the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Southern Oregon University, Corban College and Portland State University formed a research group to look at the issue.

First, they surveyed school principals from a sample of campuses in rural and urban areas of the state. Then they surveyed teachers, first through written questionnaires and later through in-person focus groups.

Many teachers said the federal standards and emphasis on state tests as indicators of success mean they have to focus too much on testing rather than addressing other "survival" skills they feel are important for middle-schoolers -- getting along with others, a strong work ethic and reliability, for example. Some schools spend four to five weeks a year simply on test preparation. "From our research, we're concerned that so much time is being spent on preparing for tests rather than teaching kids content," Musser says.

This is a problem, the group says, because multiple researchers in the last 20 years have shown that a successful middle school must include relevant and challenging curriculum, multiple learning and teaching approaches that respond to students' diversity, support for meaningful relationships, and policies that foster health, wellness and safety.

Musser and her research colleagues will make two presentations at the National Middle School Association conference. One will include their research on teachers' responses, which has not yet been published, and the other will focus on how educators can teach for learning instead of teaching to the test.

Their research did find positive attitudes toward NCLB. Teachers said the standards made them focus more on what they're teaching, have helped align curricula among schools and have raised overall educational expectations for students. "We don't want to present it as totally negative," Musser says. "The higher expectations for kids are very important."

The research group included a long list of recommendations for Oregon's education agencies, school administrators and teacher preparation programs. The researchers recommend that teacher training programs and administrators develop a new education model that ensures rigorous content area preparation and addresses the uniqueness of early adolescents and middle schools. They also recommend that teachers of early adolescents receive more support as they try to learn and use the best practices to teach this age group.

Much of the controversy of NCLB stems from a change in the public's attitude toward schools, Musser says -- a shift from people thinking teachers know what's best to a questioning of teachers' methods. "There is research showing that people with kids in school usually think that their kid's school is great," Musser says. "Yet there's still this public perception among others that schools are failing."