I’m sure that many socially minded people interested in education have a hard time understanding why some of us are so concerned about the direction of current school reform. I mean, we can all agree that way too many children – primarily poor children – are not being well served by our schools. We would all agree, as well, that, as in any profession, there are some teachers who shouldn’t be teaching – and some districts that are administratively and politically dysfunctional. It is the reformers’ remedies to these problems that spark concern, their technocratic, market-oriented, test-driven solutions that distort what education ought to be.
I keep in touch with a lot of the teachers I profiled in my book Possible Lives, an account of a journey across America documenting good teaching. When I visited her in Tupelo, Mississippi, Sharon Davis was teaching chemistry and physics at the local high school. She was remarkable, a masterful presenter who set up all sorts of experiments that her students did in the lab, in the hallway, out on the lawn – the intelligence of these young people buzzing through the activities.
I got a New Year’s card from Sharon in which she asked about me, told me about her son (who I met while in Tupelo), and offered this disquieting observation about school reform in Mississippi: “Good teachers, some even great teachers, are leaving the profession because state and districts are basing teacher efficacy off one test score. I moved from high school to 7th grade to teach a class that is not state tested so that I could still teach…”
Bless those lucky 7th graders, but I can’t help but think about the loss to another generation of Mississippi juniors and seniors – especially the girls – who will miss out on this wonderful science teacher.
I’ve heard similar stories from the other teachers with whom I’ve stayed in contact. For a reform to take hold and be effective, it has to build on what already works as well as chart a course for improvement. But a reform that promises a solution while undercutting current excellence is, at the least, counterproductive. Something is wrong when an attempt to measure teacher efficacy drives some of our most efficacious teachers out of the classroom.