During the first wave of what would become the 30-year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.
I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools; college professors who taught teachers; parents and community activists who were involved in education. What’s going on in your area that seems promising? I asked. What are teachers talking about? Who do parents hold in esteem? In all, I interviewed and often observed in action more than 60 teachers and 25 administrators in 30-some schools. I also met many students and parents from the communities I visited. What soon became evident—and is still true today—was an intellectual and social richness that was rarely discussed in the public sphere or in the media. I tried to capture this travelogue of educational achievement in a book published in 1995 called Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America. Twenty years later, I want to consider school reform in light of the lessons learned during that journey, and relearned in later conversations with some of these same teachers.
For all of the features that schools share, life inside a classroom is profoundly affected by the immediate life outside it, by the particular communities in which a school is embedded. Visiting a one-room schoolhouse in rural Montana or a crowded high school in Chicago, you will find much in the routines and the curriculum that holds steady—the grammar of schooling, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban called it in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995). Yet within that grammar lie differences: in topics of discussion, in the illustrations that teachers use, in how the language sounds, and in the worries of the day pressing in from the neighborhood. These differences, the differences of place, make each school distinct from every other.
During my travels, I watched as third-graders in Calexico, a California-Mexico border town, gave reports on current events in Spanish and in English. They followed the journalist’s central questions—who, what, why, when, where, and how—exploring the significance of the depleted ozone layer, of smog in nearby industrial Mexicali, of changes in the local school board.
In Chicago, 12th-graders discussed Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, trying to make sense of the characters’ different perspectives, offering provisional explanations of important occurrences in the novel. They were gaining a sense of the power of speculation, of moving an inquiry forward by wading into uncertain waters.
On Baltimore’s West Side, first-graders combined literature and science by reading a fanciful story about hermit crabs and then conducting an experiment—resulting from a student’s question—to understand the environment in which the crabs thrive.
In small towns in the Mississippi Delta, middle school children played games with physical representations of algebraic operations, part of civil rights activist Bob Moses’s Algebra Project, a curriculum as well as a social movement that still helps prepare children, regardless of academic background, for algebra, which Moses believes is an important pathway to opportunity.
And in a one-room schoolhouse in Polaris, Montana, students kept a naturalist’s journal on the willows in the creek behind the school. At one point the teacher bent over an older student who was working on sketches and measurements. The teacher pointed to one detailed drawing and asked his student why he thought the willows grew in such dense clusters, rather than long and snaky up a tree. The boy had fished these creeks for years, the teacher later explained, and “I just wanted him to take a different look at what he already knows.”
The teachers in these varied classrooms shared a belief in their students’ ability to become engaged by ideas and to develop as thoughtful, intellectually adventurous people. They saw the subjects they taught—whether science, literature, or math—as bountiful resources that would foster their students’ development.
To update Possible Lives, I spoke to each of these teachers again about 10 years after my visit and found that all of them shared a deep concern about the potential effect of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on the classrooms they had worked so hard to create. No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative are built on the assumption that our public schools are in crisis, and that the best way to improve them is by using standardized tests (up to now only in reading and math) to rate student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Learning is defined as a rise in a standardized test score and teaching as the set of activities that lead to that score, with the curriculum tightly linked to the tests. This system demonstrates a technocratic neatness, but it doesn’t measure what goes on in the classrooms I visited. A teacher can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, and yet not be providing a very good education.
Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.
School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of education, the most notable of which, A Nation at Risk (1983), warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools, is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.
Back when I was visiting schools for Possible Lives, critics were presenting charts of declining scores on SATs but overlooking the demographic and economic factors that contributed to these numbers—for example, more low-income and immigrant students were taking the tests (arguably an egalitarian development). Comparing our test scores with those of other countries, the critics also failed to consider the social, economic, and cultural differences. (Students in our nation’s affluent districts fare much better in international comparisons.) The proposed remedies included not only new curricula and tests to measure the mastery of these courses of study, but also more time in school, more rigorous teacher education and credentialing, and market-based options like school choice and vouchers. And the primary goal of reform was always presented as an economic one: to prepare our young people for the world of work and to protect our nation’s position in the global economy.
Since then, the reform effort has spread and grown more intense, and it continues to focus on public school failure. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have dramatically increased the influence of the federal government on public schools. Both programs require states to establish standardized testing programs, and federal funding often depends on the test results. If schools don’t meet certain performance criteria, they are subject to sanction and even closure. Race to the Top added a competitive grant program to the federal effort, requiring states to lift limits on charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores in order to be eligible for a significant one-time award of federal funds. Some philanthropies have also supported the reform agenda, and private advocacy groups have championed causes ranging from charter schools to alternative approaches to teacher credentialing to, most recently, overturning teacher tenure and union protections.
Not all those who identify themselves as reformers would subscribe to the redefinition of teaching and learning that concerns me, and some of those reformers are raising among their peers the same issues I am. But a dominant account does emerge from many influential reform reports and organizations, and it is supported by the U.S. Department of Education.
A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable—there can be no excuses for a student’s poor performance. It’s true that some teachers don’t expect much of the young people in their charge, particularly students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. But because we know that so many factors contribute to student achievement, the strongest of which is parental income, the low expectations of some teachers cannot possibly account for all the disparities in academic performance. The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished—what a friend of mine calls the caveman theory of motivation. An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students, whether these beliefs come from prejudice or from pity. Still, No Child Left Behind’s focus on vulnerable students was important, and the law did jolt some low-performing schools into 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 also led to other results that any student of organizational behavior could have predicted. A number of education officials manipulated the system by lowering the cutoff test scores for proficiency, or withheld from testing students who would perform poorly, or occasionally fudged the results. A dramatic example is the recent case of cheating in Atlanta, where school personnel all the way up to the superintendent were indicted.
Studies of what went on in classrooms are equally troubling and predictable. The high-stakes tests led many administrators and teachers to increase math and reading test preparation and reduce time spent on science, history, and geography. The arts were, in some cases, drastically reduced or eliminated. Aspects of math and reading that didn’t directly relate to the tests were also eliminated, even though they could have led to broader understanding and appreciation of these subjects.
Not long ago, a teacher I’ll call Priscilla contacted me with a typical story. She has been teaching for 30 years in an elementary school in a low-income community north of Los Angeles. The school’s test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure from the school district, mandated for all teachers a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills. The principal directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So now Priscilla cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven or individualize instruction. The time spent on the new curriculum has meant trims in science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. “There is no joy here,” she told me, “only admonishment.”
It makes sense to concentrate on the basics of math and reading, for they are 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. Test outcomes depend on the statistical models used, and scores can fluctuate and be marred by error—thus there is a 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 a teacher’s effectiveness.
A further issue is that a test that includes, say, the writing of an essay, a music recital, or the performance of an experiment embodies different notions of learning 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 represent knowledge in different ways and require different kinds of teaching.
The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers in schools like Priscilla’s concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience.
It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom. That’s one reason for the debate about whether a test score—which is, finally, a statistical abstraction—accurately measures learning. Some reform leaders, including Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, are now trying to dial down the emphasis on testing. But because tests are easy to use and have an aura of objectivity, they are likely to remain central in the reform agenda.
Priscilla’s story is emblematic not only of the mechanical and restrictive pedagogy that is frequently forced on teachers in a test-driven environment, but also of the attitude toward teachers. They live in a bipolar world, praised as central to students’ achievement and yet routinely condemned as the cause of low performance.
When the standardized test score is the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, other indicators of competence are discounted. One factor is seniority—which reformers believe, not without reason, overly constrains an administrator’s hiring decisions. Another is post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in education, a field many reformers hold in contempt. Several studies do report low correlation between experience (defined as years in the profession) and students’ test scores. Other studies find a similarly low correlation between students’ scores and teachers’ post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications. These studies lead to an absolute claim that neither experience nor schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree makes any difference.
What a remarkable assertion. Can you think of any other kind of work—from hair styling to neurosurgery—where we don’t value experience and training? If reformers had a better understanding of teaching, they might wonder whether something was amiss with the studies, which tend to deal in simple averages and define experience or training in crude ways. Experience, for example, is typically defined as years on the job, yet years in service, considered alone, don’t mean that much. A dictionary definition of experience—“activity that includes training, observation of practice, and personal participation and knowledge gained from this”—indicates the connection to competence. The teachers in Possible Lives had attended workshops and conferences, participated in professional networks, or taken classes. They experimented with their curricula and searched out ideas and materials to incorporate into their work. What people do with their time on the job becomes the foundation of expertise.
More generally, the qualities of good work—study and experimentation, the accumulation of knowledge, and refinement of skill—are thinly represented in descriptions of teacher quality, overshadowed by the simplified language of testing. In a similar vein, the long history of Western thought on education—from Plato to Septima Clark—is rarely if ever mentioned in the reform literature. History as well as experience and inquiry are replaced with a metric.
These attitudes toward experience are rooted in the technocratic-managerial ideology that drives many kinds of policy, from health care to urban planning to agriculture: the devaluing of local, craft, and experiential knowledge and the elevating of systems thinking, of finding the large economic, social, or organizational levers to pull in order to initiate change. A professor of management tells a University of California class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management—as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.
This dismissal of classroom knowledge fits with the trendy discourse of innovation and creative disruption, a discourse that runs throughout education reform, asserting that it will take entrepreneurial outsiders to change the system. I understand the impulse here, because getting something fresh through large school bureaucracies can be maddening. But creative disruption is predicated on the belief that anything new must be better, and it relies on a reductive model of organizational and technological change. One of the celebrated technologies in the disrupters’ armory is the computer, which clearly allows wonderful things to happen in education. But online charter schools have a troubled record, and higher education’s much ballyhooed massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are proving to be much more limited in their usefulness or success than predicted. The computer’s potential is realized only when people who are wise about teaching and learning program it, and when it is integrated into a strong curriculum taught by someone who is savvy about its use.
If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough, you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques. Technique becomes central to the reformers’ redefinition of teaching, and the focus on technique is at the heart of many of the alternative teacher credentialing programs that have emerged over the past decade. Effective techniques are an important part of the complex activity that is teaching, and good mentorship includes analyzing a teacher’s work and providing corrective feedback. Teachers of teachers have been doing this for a long time. What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define “effective” by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores. What is also new is the magnitude of the effort, punched up considerably by a $45 million project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to measure effective teaching.
Because teaching involves a good deal of craft, I’m all for implementing useful techniques, from guidance on giving directions to ways to pose a math problem. But given the technocratic orientation of contemporary school reform, I worry that other aspects of teaching less easily observed and circumscribed—bearing, beliefs about learning, a sensibility about students’ lives—will get short shrift.
Techniques don’t work in isolation. The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them. A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them.
When I was visiting schools in Chicago, I spent time in Michelle Smith’s high school math classroom. One morning, she was calling her class to order and saw that a boy who plays the class clown was sitting way in the back. She called him by name, then said, “My young gentleman, I’d like you to sit up here where I can see you.” The student groaned, uncurled himself from his desk, and walked to the front, sauntering for the benefit of his peers. “C’mon darlin’,” Smith added, head tilted, hand on hip, “humor me.” She watched; he sat down. “Thank you, sir. I feel better.” With a mix of humor and direction, she had deftly changed the seating to ensure order in the room—an effective technique for classroom management.
Imagine, however, the unpleasant ways this situation could have played out: the student refusing to move, insulting or threatening her, or stirring up his comrades sitting nearby. But Smith’s action occurred in the context of a relationship with the class and with that boy, a legacy of her care and of the learning that goes on in her classroom. (“Miss Smith,” the boy later told me, “she’s teaching us how to do things we couldn’t do before.”) Smith knows local culture, understands the rituals of masculinity and the huge importance of allowing that student a little space to save face. She has developed a classroom persona that blends sass and seriousness, and she uses it strategically. Technique works in context and within the flow of other events.
If you conceive of teaching as a repertoire of instructional and behavior management techniques, then you won’t appreciate the kind of social knowledge Michelle Smith possesses. This pinched notion of teaching combined with a “no excuses” stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty. We have a long tradition in the United States of seeing education as, in Horace Mann’s words, the “great equalizer” of social class differences. As our social safety net has been increasingly compromised, we have put the school at the center of our dwindling welfare state. Even though half a century’s research has demonstrated that parental income level is the primary determiner of educational achievement, the reformers hold fast to the demand that schools can overcome the assaults of poverty. Charter school leader Doug Lemov, whose Teach Like a Champion has become a user’s manual among reformers, offers a good illustration. In his introduction, Lemov reflects on the charter school teachers he has observed:
These outstanding teachers routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.
Schooling becomes the one solution to poverty, the intervention that will work where others have failed.
About 15 pages later, however, Lemov offers a reminder of the ugly staying power of inequality. A former student of his, “the bright and passionate son of a single mother with limited English,” made the remarkable journey to Williams College. At college, though, the student’s problems with writing dogged him and were reflected in a professor’s unfavorable response to a paper he wrote on Zora Neale Hurston. Lemov tells this story to stress the importance of teaching students standard written English. But having worked in university programs that serve students like this one—and having been such a student myself—I find that this story represents the intractability of inequality: even after the best teaching Lemov and his colleagues could provide, this young man still needs assistance at further points along the way. The student will also need people who understand what he must be feeling: the crushing disappointment, the possible anger, and the deep blow to his confidence. Schools like Lemov’s might be able to narrow an achievement gap, improving the scores on district or state standardized tests, but not necessarily erase the achievement gap, which requires sustained help of many kinds, including programs that Lemov dismisses as “hand-wringing.”
The teachers in Possible Lives worked with significant numbers of low-income children, and every one of those teachers tried in some way to address their hardship. They might have drawn in social service agencies, or participated in church-based or civic organizations or political campaigns aimed at helping the poor. Sometimes they tried to find resources for parents, or tutored and counseled their students individually, or spent their own money and donated food, clothing, and other goods. They taught diligently, sometimes brilliantly, fought back despair, didn’t let up. “The problems are big ones,” a young Calexico teacher told me, “but they’re not going to stop me from teaching.” You cannot be in teaching—or medicine or counseling or the ministry—without slamming up against failure. These teachers did not rush to find excuses for their failures, but they knew the trauma poverty brings and did their work with that awareness. To deny the effects of poverty blinds you to the reality of your students’ lives, lives you need to understand as fully as you can to intervene and enlist others inside and beyond the school. I deeply believe in the power of teaching, but to make teaching the magic bullet against inequality or to pit it against other social and economic interventions leads to insular and self-defeating education policy.
As is the case with public school teachers today, many of the teachers I wrote about grew up in families with modest incomes. Some came from the same region or background as their students. A small number went to major universities, but most graduated from smaller state universities or local colleges with teacher education programs. Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children.
The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment: “They don’t make fun of you if you mess up,” said a middle school student in Chicago. And there was safety to take intellectual risks. The teacher was “coaxing our thinking along,” as one of the students reading Faulkner put it.
Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population. Surveying images of Mexican-American history on the walls of a Los Angeles classroom, a student exclaimed, “This room is something positive. As you walk around, you say ‘Hey, we’re somebody!’ ” Respect also has a cognitive dimension. As a New York principal put it, “It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.”
Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class its direction, others came with curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place. But two things were always evident. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing.
These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility. As a Los Angeles middle school teacher observed, “Children can tell right off those people who believe in them and those who patronize them.” Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with each other—and there were times when such effort took them to their limits. To be sure, some students weren’t engaged, and everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be. The huge, burning question is how to create more classrooms like these.
What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high-stakes testing-—from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site—if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project, by university summer programs in literature or science or history, by teams of expert teachers themselves.
In such programs, teachers read, write, and think together. They learn new material, hear from others who have successfully integrated it into their classrooms, and try it out themselves. Some participating teachers become local experts, providing further training for their schools and districts. Electronic media would facilitate participation, connecting people from remote areas and helping everyone to check in regularly when trying new things. These programs already exist but could be expanded significantly if policymakers had a different orientation to reform, one that honored teaching and the teaching profession. Distributed professional development would substitute a human development model of school reform for the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would enhance what teachers teach and how they teach and assess it, there would be a more direct effect on the classroom.
Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies. If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided, some of which could be done by volunteers and interns from nearby colleges. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement. Such schools already exist, and an Obama administration initiative called Promise Neighborhoods awards grants to local programs and agencies that provide health and social services. But the provision of services is conceived as an add-on rather than an organic part of school reform itself, and the services are awarded by competition to only a percentage of the neighborhoods and schools that need them.
My proposals do not address all that ails our schools, and what they cost might be better spent on other ideas that are in the air. But they do move us away from the current model of reform and closer to the immediate needs of teachers and students. The proposals assume that our schools have talent to be tapped, and that the physical and social burdens of the poor are a drag on achievement.
As with the current reform programs, these proposals would draw on government and philanthropic funding and on large, sometimes distant, organizations such as the National Science Foundation. But the interventions would be adapted to the needs of particular schools and communities by local teachers and social service providers. The writing of narratives or a study of water-borne organisms would play out differently in New York City versus the Mississippi Delta.
Surveying the many unsuccessful and hugely expensive attempts at school reform in our past, historians Tyack and Cuban observed the same mistakes being repeated over and over again: top-down remedies, grandiose claims about the latest technology, disdain for teachers. To improve our schools, we need to be informed by knowledge gained from many days in the neighborhoods surrounding them and from many, many days inside the schoolhouse itself, learning from children’s experience and the full sweep of a teacher’s work. This is what contemporary school reform has failed to do.
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