Because of its length, this entry will come in two parts. I'll post part two in a week or so. This essay originally appeared in Dissent,, Spring, 2011. If you share or repost it, please acknowledge the magazine.
The good classroom is rich in small moments of intelligence and care. There is the big stuff of course – the week-long science experiment, the dramalogue, the reporting of one’s research – but important as well are the spontaneous question, the inviting gesture, the tone in a voice. They reveal the cognitive and philosophical intimacy of a room.
In the border town of Calexico, California, third-grade teacher Elena Castro is working with a group of students when a boy who is still learning English comes over from a book he’s reading to ask what the word “admire” means. She turns and gives him a definition, and, as he is walking away, she calls after him asking if he admires the farmer in a story the class had read that morning.
In a combined middle school classroom in Chicago, Kim Day and Dianna Shulla begin class by listening to their students’ distress about a new bus schedule that is getting some kids home late and missing other stops entirely. The teachers suggest that the class collectively discuss the problem and try to develop some strategies to solve it. Several students raise their hands. Dianna walks close to them, leans in slightly, and says, “Talk to me.”
In a one-room schoolhouse in Polaris, Montana, teacher Andy Bayliss is having his students keep a journal on the willows in the creek behind the school. He is working with one of the older students; both are bent over the boy’s sketches and measurements. Andy points to one nicely detailed drawing and asks his student why he thinks the willows grow in these dense clusters, rather than long and snaky up a tree. The boy has fished in these creeks for years, Andy later explains, and “I just wanted him to take a little different look at what he already knows.”
Back in Chicago, high school mathematics teacher Michelle Smith is calling her class to order and sees that one of the young men who plays the class clown is sitting way in the back. She calls him by name, then, with flourish says, “My young gentleman, I’d like you to sit up here where I can see you.” The student groans, uncurls himself from his desk, and walks to the front, sauntering for the benefit of his peers. “C’mon darlin’,” Michelle adds, head tilted, hand on hip, “humor me.” She watches; he sits. “Thank you, Sir. I feel better.” Then “O.K. people. We have work to do today. Let’s go!”
Stephanie Terry’s first-grade classroom in Baltimore, Maryland is packed with books, botanical experiments, children’s drawings and writing. There are areas in the room for students to read, to do science, to write and read their writing aloud. On this day, she introduces a visiting writer to the class. “We’re going to have an author stay with us.” “Ooooo, Miss Terry,” one of the students exclaims, waving his hand, “We’re authors, too!”
These vignettes are drawn from my book Possible Lives, an account of a cross-country journey observing good teachers, and, through their work, trying to capture the meaning of public education in our time. Such episodes are commonplace, available to anyone who would take the time to see them. In the first vignette, a teacher creates a moment of instruction on the fly, leading a student to apply a word he just learned. In that Chicago middle school, an erratic bus schedule is turned into a problem to collaboratively solve – and what students have to say is invited and taken seriously. In rural Montana a science experiment leads a boy to see the familiar in a new light. Next, a math teacher, with a mix of humor and direction, deftly allows a boy to save face while bringing order to her classroom. And finally the embrace of literacy is revealed as a first-grader claims the role of an author.
It might come as a surprise to some, given the thirty-year drumbeat of public education failure, that these vignettes are drawn from public schools, and, except for the one-room schoolhouse, they serve low-income communities of color. It is also worth noting that, with the possible exception of the boy learning the word “admire,” none of this would be captured by current measures of accountability. Yet most parents would want their children taught and treated this way.
This is an essay about what is missed or distorted in current school reform and the consequences for educational practice. Reform is guided by a technocratic-managerial orientation to education that is not informed by deep knowledge of the classroom, in fact, can be dismissive of it. This orientation has already led to some sizable policy blunders and results in a restricted definition of teaching and learning – and therefore a restricted sense of the person. It is telling, I think, that you rarely find portrayals of classroom life in the thousands of pages of school reform documents. Students and teachers are discussed, to be sure, but as abstractions, stick figures on a policy grid.
The purpose of education in this environment is thoroughly economic, and, to be fair, has been for decades before the current reforms, coinciding with our nation’s precarious position in the emerging global economy. From the President to the Secretary of Education to governors and mayors, the purpose of education is “to prepare students for 21st Century jobs.” True, a major goal of American education is to prepare the young to make a living. But in a democracy we send children to school for many other reasons as well: intellectual, social, civic, ethical, aesthetic. Historically, these justifications for schooling have held more importance. Not today.
The reformers are a varied lot, representing a wide range of ideology and motive – including free-marketeers who would like to see public education shrunk or dismantled. But overall, reformers are addressing issues of real importance. Though they tend to downplay disparities in resources between affluent and poor districts or the effects of poverty and discrimination on young people’s lives in school, they rightly target the education of low performing students and low expectations for what these students can achieve. As well, they criticize the recruitment, education, and evaluation of teachers; the structure and the anonymity of schooling, particularly in the large high school; and the state of school governance, especially in big districts, the bureaucratic inertia and seemingly intractable school politics. No wonder that a number of prominent liberals and Civil Rights groups support the reforms.
But it is with the remedies, the methods of reform, that problems arise, for it is the methods, and the assumptions behind them, that directly affect what happens in the classroom. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provides some unfortunate examples, the features of which are present in more current reforms.
The fundamental mechanism of NCLB has been an accountability system of high-stakes standardized tests of the core subjects, mathematics and reading. How schools and districts perform on the tests have big consequences, can ultimately lead to sanctions, withholding of federal funding, and a change in leadership. The assumptions underlying NCLB are that teachers and administrators hold low expectations for their students, particularly those who are less-advantaged, and aren’t putting in enough effort to educate them. NCLB, its framers claim, holds administrators’ and teachers’ feet to the fire.
NCLB did jolt some low-performing schools to evaluate their inadequate curricula and engage in staff development aimed at improving their students’ mastery of the basic math and reading skills measured by the tests. But the use of such tests and the high stakes attached to them led to other outcomes as well, and any student of organizational behavior could have predicted them. A number of education officials at various levels reacted to the high stakes by manipulating the system. They lowered the cut-off test scores for proficiency, or withheld from testing students who would perform poorly, or, occasionally, flat out-fudged the results. So some cases of remarkable improvement in test scores (remember the “Texas Miracle”?) turned out to be unstable or simply fraudulent, not miraculous at all.
Studies of what went on in classrooms were equally troubling – and again predictable. The high-stakes tests led many administrators and teachers to increase math and reading test preparation and reduce time on other subjects: science, history, and geography received less attention, and the arts were, in some cases, drastically reduced or eliminated. (Think here of losing that time-intensive study of the willows in the creek behind the one-room school or not having time to engage those Chicago middle-schoolers in solving the bus scheduling problem in their community.) Also trimmed were activities involving the core subjects of math and reading that didn’t directly map onto the tests but could lead to broader understanding and appreciation. Group reading, the writing of stories, children’s public reading of their stories – all that led to the Baltimore first-grader proclaiming an author’s identity – were jeopardized in the pedagogical calculus of high-stakes testing.
There is certainly an argument to be made for concentrating on the basics of math and reading, for they are so central to success in school, and an unacceptable number of students don’t master them. And a score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward measure of mastery. But in addition to the kinds of manipulation I discussed, there are a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, scoring, and interpreting such tests. “In most cases,” writes measurement specialist Robert Linn, “the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands placed on them by high-stakes accountability.” Thus there is debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student’s or a school’s achievement. Similar debates surround the currently popular use of “value-added” methods to determine teacher effectiveness.
There is a second, related, issue. Tests embody definitions of knowledge and learning. A test that would include, say, the writing of an essay, or a music recital, or the performance of an experiment embodies different notions of instruction and achievement than do the typical tasks on standardized tests: multiple choice items, matching, fill-ins. I have given both kinds of tests, both have value, but they get at different things, represent knowledge in different ways, can require different kinds of teaching. When one kind of test is emphasized and when the stakes are high, the tests, as we just saw, can drive and compress a curriculum.
This concern about the nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those students at the center of reform: poor children, immigrants, racial and ethnic minority students. You can prep kids for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education. The end result is the replication of a troubling pattern in American schooling: poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a lower-tier education, while students in more affluent districts get a robust course of study.
It’s important to remember how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom. That’s one reason why there is a debate as to whether a test score—which is, finally, a statistical abstraction—is really an accurate measure of learning. Yet the scores on standardized tests have become the gold standard of excellence – and this is the case for post-NCLB initiatives, most notably the Obama administration’s Race to the Top. Though the Department of Education is calling for multiple measures of achievement, to date the standardized tests of math and reading dominate, and because of their ease of use and aura of objectivity, there is good reason to believe they will continue to dominate.
Let me bring all this down to the level of a particular teacher in a particular school. Over the past few years, I’ve been privy to a lot of classrooms caught in the high-stakes machinery. Here’s Priscilla’s story. She’s a thirty-year veteran teaching in an elementary school in a working-class community. The school has 30 students in each of its first, second, and third grade classrooms; 36 to 41 children in grades four through six.
The school’s test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure, mandated a “scripted” curriculum, that is, a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills followed by all teachers. The principal also directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So Priscilla cannot draw upon her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven, extend, or individualize instruction. (Though like any experienced teacher, she figures out ways to use what she can when she can.) The teachers have also been directed by the principal to increase the time spent on the literacy and math curriculum and trim back science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. “There is no joy here,” she told me, “only admonition.” All this led her to do a remarkable thing, right out of a Jimmy Stewart movie. With her own money she flew back to Washington D.C. intent on telling the story of her school to somebody, anybody in authority. At the National Education Association, the nation’s second largest teachers union, she met with one of the officers.