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   from the issue of February 1, 2007

Gallagher chronicles state's No Child Left Behind effort


The State of Nebraska is a maverick in the field of K-12 education.


While most states administer annual statewide tests in response to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, Nebraska educational administrators have given the power of assessment to individuals who know students best: the teachers.

Chris Gallagher, an associate professor of English at UNL, has been a key figure in Nebraska's K-12 educational efforts. And he chronicles the state's unique approach in his new book, "Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda."

"Teachers are really struggling to protect their profession," Gallagher said. "Nebraska takes a different approach than the rest of the country. We ask, 'What would happen if we trusted teachers to know what's best for their students?' We have put resources into local pots so that teachers and schools can improve, not because we forced them to but because we have given them the resources to do better."

Long before No Child Left Behind, Nebraska teachers found innovative ways to assess their students, Gallagher noted. Teachers designed integrative, cross-disciplinary projects that challenged students in a number of skill areas. For Gallagher, work with assessments in Nebraska's K-12 schools has really been a preservation project.

In 2001, Gallagher was asked to coordinate an evaluation of the state accountability and assessment system. The research involved six qualitative interviewers, and two to three statistical studies each year, and ultimately gave rise to his book.

"There's a great deal of national interest in what is going on in Nebraska," Gallagher said. "When I meet people from other states, they want to know two things: how did we accomplish this politically, and how did we implement this logistically on the ground. I want to articulate the story from the perspective of those in the field."

As a result of these statewide studies, Nebraska redefined what assessment literacy looks like. The state reduced the number of reporting standards for teachers and schools, which gave teachers more time to build capacity to assess students creatively.

There are several reasons, Gallagher believes, that Nebraska is an ideal climate for these innovations. Nebraska students routinely score in the top 10 on national tests, so the state's "starting point" is strong. Additionally, many policymakers at the state's Department of Education are long-time educators, who came into their jobs with teachers' perspectives. In particular, Gallagher sites the tireless support of state education commissioner Doug Christensen.

"And then there's something about the kind of state this is," Gallagher said. "We have a really interesting political history here, in which we have tried to keep the government close to the people because we don't trust big corporations. Many other states are outsourcing education to test prep companies, but there's something deep in the soil and blood of this state that says communities best understand community needs. We've got a deep commitment to local control. We are taking back control of education from those external experts in testing companies and boardrooms, and relocating it in our classrooms and schools and communities."

It's not a secret, Gallagher added, that there are problems with standardized state tests; there is an inherent watering down of curriculum involved, as well as frequent testing and reporting errors and corruption within the system.

"The time is going to come when the policies of NCLB and the practices of state testing are going to be widely viewed as insufficient," he said. "As people scan the landscape for alternative models, we will stand out. What we're doing in Nebraska is really what NCLB is supposed to be about: inclusion. Our teachers look at their classes and develop assessments that will take into account the needs and abilities of all students. Meantime, NCLB is looking for the holy grail of a perfect test, rather than focusing on building capacity in teachers. In Nebraska, our message of hope is that when you put teachers in charge of assessment, they do excellent work."

Gallagher believes the act is undermining public education.

"It's a big game of gotcha," he said. "It's punishing schools, putting them in competition with each other, using sticks and carrots to make them behave in certain ways. If a teacher did those things in a classroom, it would be called educational malpractice."

There is still work to be done in Nebraska. While teachers report that they appreciate the state's method of assessment, it does create a significant amount of work for them. The state and districts need to streamline the system, which is an ongoing process. Still, Nebraskans have a great deal to be proud of, Gallagher believes. He hopes that his book will help spread the word of our state's successes to educators and policymakers across the country.

Gallagher will draw on this work when he keynotes UNL's Teaching and Learning Exposition, 2 p.m. March 29 in the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.



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