From School Reform to Reform School

Group Of Elementary Age Schoolchildren Answering Question In Class With Teacher
Group Of Elementary Age Schoolchildren Answering Question In Class With Teacher

Tuesday, May 7, is National Teacher Day, part of National Teacher Appreciation Week? What shall we do to celebrate? I have an idea: proponents of high-stakes testing can stand up and shout out, "Never mind!"

Oh, never mind....

Something about this "celebration of teachers" feels very hollow right now, and I'm not just talking about the tacky gift cards and promotional items huckstered on numerous websites. I'm thinking, for example, that while it's very nice for the Gates Foundation to tweet a shout out to teachers, see below, I wish that Gates could also own up to the folly it's helped to perpetrate against teachers through the misguided advocacy for forms of "reform" that have done little except to alienate teachers, disrupt classrooms, and discourage potential teaching careers.

This year we've been treated to one of the more outrageous consequences of the "take no prisoners" school of school reform. The Atlanta cheating scandal is beyond shocking, a travesty of educational irresponsibility, greed and utterly shameful misconduct on the part of people who should have known better -- the superintendent, principals and teachers who allegedly colluded in changing test scores. Let me be clear: I feel not one iota of sympathy for the alleged cheaters; they should suffer the most serious consequences if they are guilty as charged. The fact that the improper use of testing to evaluate teachers is a very bad idea is absolutely no excuse for the alleged erasures and other misconduct.

At the same time, the school reform movement needs to examine its own conscience to understand what drives teachers and principals to desperate acts. A healthy dose of reform school is due not only to the perpetrators of the cheating but those business leaders, philanthropists, editorial writers and politicians who have created a climate of fear and intimidation for the very teachers we need to encourage to stick with this most difficult of professions. Note that very few people with real expertise in teaching and learning --- teachers and administrators who are doing the actual work on the front lines --- are at the table for most school reform discussions, except, perhaps, as the imaginary strawmen against whom the reformers rail as the reasons for students who fail to learn.

And, by the way, the school reformers should be just as vigorous in challenging the potential for scandal in their own ranks --- John Merrow has put enough out there about Michelle Rhee and the D.C. Public Schools to be worthy of serious investigation like Atlanta --- as they are in being sanctimonious about third grade teachers.

Education is a very hard, often frustrating kind of work in even the best of communities with the most robust resources. Education in communities with broken families, the prevalence of drugs and violence, and widespread adult illiteracy is a breathtaking challenge that only the most daring souls can survive with their idealism intact. "Poverty is not an excuse," is the much-beloved phrase of school reformers who use that phrase as a put-down for anyone who dares to suggest that improving education in the urban core is a daunting challenge. Nobody really says poverty is an excuse, but those of us who work every day with low income student populations at all levels know that poverty and its evil cousins of violence, homelessness, hunger, adult illiteracy, poor health habits and scores of other soul-twisting conditions all are severe barriers to academic success for even the most hard-working teachers and students. (See Mike Rose "Leave No Unwealthy Child Behind")

Can great teachers help students to overcome such conditions? Yes, of course, there are many brilliant examples of success --- but also many more flameouts. Teachers often face the same conditions their students suffer --- the threat of violence is never-ending, the disciplinary challenges enormous.. The work is hard, the rewards are few, the public criticism is unrelenting.

But fighting poverty is so 60's. Nobody talks about the War on Poverty anymore. Instead, we have the education wars with teachers at ground zero.

To his credit, none other than Bill Gates himself has come out in favor of a more nuanced approach to the use of testing in teacher evaluation. The problem remains, however, that the Gates Foundation has been one of the major drivers --- financially, intellectually, socially --- behind the gamut of school reform initiatives including high stakes testing, Race to the Top, and similar activities of questionable value in the long-run for improving educational outcomes. Too late for too many teachers, the Gates report on "Measures of Effective Teaching" released in January takes a far more moderate approach to teacher evaluation.

Testing has become a political tool instead of a legitimate part of a much larger and more diverse repertoire of assessment methods for student learning. Standardized testing divorces the teacher from assessment of student learning, which is a linchpin of effective teaching. Assessment is fundamental to the teacher's job, an integral part of good pedagogy, but imposing the wrong assessment methods guarantees dreadful results. So, after all this time, we're still not seeing much progress in many school systems on standardized test results --- maybe the problem is the tests, not the teachers.

Allocating one day out of 180 days of teaching to celebrate teachers when they are put down the rest of the year is just patronizing. If we really want to honor and celebrate teachers, let's show them some respect, support and encouragement. Let's take the time to listen to them, to hear what they really need to be more effective, to invite and welcome their ideas about what would be a true school reform agenda.

Maybe some teachers could organize a reform school for the school reformers. I wonder what kinds of tests they could devise for them?