Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Lesson on Failing

This summer at the SOS March & National Call to Action, I was pleased to see some young and enthusiastic, but independent-minded and healthily skeptical teachers. Among them was DCPS elementary school teacher, Olivia Chapman (on twitter: @sedcteacher). Olivia dual-majored in special and general education at The College of Saint Rose in her native upstate New York  and then worked for a year as a substitute teacher in Albany, New York, before accepting her current position. I was so impressed with Olivia (plus I'm always looking to feature the voices of teachers and education professionals who are on the ground) that I solicited a guest post from her. If she is symbolic of the young, smart, dedicated, and energetic teachers that neo-liberal reformers so often talk of attracting and keeping in the teaching profession, from Olivia's account below, they're not doing a very good job. Who, especially with all those qualities, lasts long in a stifling and absurd environment such as Olivia describes? For our nation's sake, I pray that Olivia and so many of the discouraged newer teachers I've talked to in recent years stick it out. We need you! As one of my children's teachers told me as we talked about the limitations of standardization and high-stakes testing were doing, "The pendulum is always swinging; I'm just waiting for it to swing in the other direction." In too many schools and systems, teaching rich, meaningful, and varied content and leading our children to embrace the beauty of the life of the mind has become an act of defiance when it should be an ethos. Here is Olivia's piece:

A Lesson on Failing

We hear a great deal these days from the media and education reformers about our “broken” public school system and about “failing” public schools. While I certainly haven’t been to all public schools and seen them for myself, I see and read about success in public schools often enough to know that not all public schools are “failing.” Unfortunately, though, I happen to work at a school that is failing and I used to be part of the reason for that failure.

Just to be clear, I'm not referring to a label of “failure” often placed on schools due to their failure to meet No Child Left Behind's lofty and unattainable AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) requirements. My school is failing because of what NCLB’s mandates have done to the students, teachers, and to the community. My school is failing because morality, honesty, compassion, and values have been replaced by an obsession with data, accountability, standardized testing, and evaluations.

Authentic, creative, and innovational learning experiences have been replaced by practice tests, overwhelming amounts of interim assessments, multiple choice drill and practice sheets, and an inundation of mandated programs and paper work that have little impact on real student learning.  I have seen genuinely good, veteran teachers lose touch with their morals out of fear. I have seen children bow their heads in shame upon the revelation that their test scores labeled them below basic in reading or math. I have had parents refer solely to their children’s test scores to describe their abilities, telling me that their children are good at math, but bad at reading and vice versa. I have witnessed cheating and lying to save careers. I have witnessed the stealing of materials and resources because budget cuts have allowed for very little funding for what our students really need. This is the harsh reality and this is failing. We are failing ourselves and we are failing our students. We are neglecting to truly educate our students because teachers aren’t allowed to be innovative and creative. Instead, we are overwhelmed by the task of producing robotic test-takers rather than thoughtful, lifelong learners.

When I was hired at DC Public Schools I was told that if I couldn’t get the students' test scores up, I was dispensable. Teachers who have students with high test scores are put on pedestals and those without are stigmatized, humiliated, and downright disrespected by the administration. This was the culture that I was thrown into as a first year teacher. At first, I was determined to succeed at attaining this highly esteemed respect from my colleagues and my principal.

I spent my first year teaching relentlessly chasing this prize. I drilled, I practiced, I taught test-taking strategies. I made the students want to stay in for recess to practice testing by rewarding them with dollar store surprises and animal crackers. I begged and pleaded for parents to get their kids to school early and stay after for more standardized test review. I thought that if my students had awesome test scores, I would earn the veneration I had yearned for. More importantly, I thought that this would prove that I was a good teacher. In reality, I lost sight of who I was and why I had become a teacher. Oh, and my students test scores turned out to be pretty low, despite my sixty-hour work weeks and endless nights spent grading bubble sheets. In addition, at the end of the school year I was rated "minimally effective" due to my students’ low test scores.

I spent the summer after my first year reflecting on why I had become a teacher and thought about quitting and traveling the world. But I soon realized that it wasn't teaching that was the problem, it was the environment I was teaching in (not to mention I didn’t have enough money saved to even travel locally)--the high-stress intensity of the testing atmosphere, the "walking on eggshells" feeling that you get when you know something bad is going to happen despite any precautions you may have taken. I decided to scrap the entire test prep regimen that I thought, and was told, was crucial to student success. I figured I had one more year to improve my rating before being terminated, so why not teach the way that I thought would be most effective, most compelling, and most beneficial to my students? Why not teach my students the way that my best teachers had taught me?

Last year, for my students' sake as well as for my own, I took the focus off of testing. I told my students that standardized testing was something that we had to do in order to prove to the city and to the nation that they have good teachers and that they are learning at school, and my head-strong group of fourth graders was determined to prove themselves. I reassured them regularly that I would not refer to them by a label determined by their test scores and that they were so smart and had so much knowledge that they did not need to worry about taking the silly old test. I treated the test as if it were just another thing on our fourth grade “to do” list. This constant reassurance gave them confidence to take on the test, but it also took the emphasis off of the end-all-be-all aspect of high-stakes standardized testing.

With this weight off of our shoulders, I moved my students on to more authentic learning. Genuine, meaningful learning cannot prosper when the burden of bubble sheets, arbitrary teacher firings and terms like “below basic” are clouding our brains. For the most part, I replaced weekly multiple-choice assessments with projects that met the standards as well as met the students' interests. We read materials that sparked intellectual curiosity, debates, and critical thinking.  I stopped using the “preferred” textbooks and found ways to fund class sets of books and magazines that were engaging and appropriate for my demographic. In the end, their test scores were fine. No, I didn’t produce any miraculous increase in proficiency levels, but these kids now know how to think, they gained content knowledge, they know a few things about the world around them, and they genuinely care about learning more.  

Critics of my anti-teaching-to-the-test approach often ask, “Well, how do you know that the students actually learned without looking at data from their test scores?” I look at tons of data! I listen for conversation skills, I review projects, I read reports, I observe debates and discussions, and I use rubrics to assess skits and videos. Sure, I throw in some multiple-choice style tests when appropriate and yes, I look at that data too. More importantly, I know that these students learned because they left my class with authentic means to express and apply their knowledge. These students still stop by my room to tell me what they are learning and doing in school. They value what I taught them because they see the importance of each lesson in their everyday lives. Furthermore, they look to deepen their understanding of topics of interest. They still ask me for help selecting books that will interest them and help them expand their knowledge. Some of my former students still check our class facebook page for extra learning activities to do at home. They ask me questions like, “Ms. Chapman, do you have any friends who are doctors/lawyers/engineers/authors that I could write to about how they got their careers?” Their fifth grade teacher informed me that during the earthquake, my previous students climbed under their desks because they had learned what to do during natural disasters by becoming “meteorologists” and writing live weather reports in class last year. 

I read somewhere that teachers whose students do not excel on high-stakes standardized tests are probably the best teachers.  I don’t necessarily agree with that. However, I do believe that teaching to the test makes children dislike school and makes teachers loathe teaching. I have realized in my first three years of teaching that the aspects of public education that are “failing” are our current education policies, reforms, and those who are pushing them, those who think that spending large sums of money on testing and teacher evaluations will make children smarter. Then administrators continue the “failing” by pushing these policies onto teachers, and in turn, so do the teachers who reluctantly choose to go along with them.

My school did not make AYP again this year. We now have a new principal who never ceases to express his endless devotion to getting an 80% pass rate on this year’s tests. I'm sure that my defiance of his test-prep regime, of his mandated ten multiple-choice question bi-weekly formative assessments, and of his failure to see the students he is supposed to educate as anything more than test scores will cause great controversy. I have been warned that I walk on thin ice because of the test scores that are tied heavily to my evaluation. In spite of this, what I fear most is not a poor rating based on a single test. What I fear most is failing my students and their community again by believing that my students' success and my own is based on teaching to that single test.


  1. A few questions...

    You write, "My school is failing because of what NCLB’s mandates have done to the students, teachers, and to the community."

    Does that mean *before* NCLB was passed, American urban education was:
    a.) Doing great because standardized testing wasn't ruining schools
    b.) Doing great because corporations weren't "privatizing" education
    c.) Doing great because teachers weren't being demonized
    d.) Last in the industrialized world

  2. No one here is claiming urban education was "doing great" before NCLB. How about:

    e) Two wrongs don't make a right.

    Life is too short for pettiness and too long for ignorance. You want to be petty & ignorant? Go do it elsewhere.

  3. Anonymous, I think you forgot:

    e) Teaching children to become creative, thoughtful, life-long learners

    A school that teaches to the test stifles any excitement, curiosity, or interest in learning that children bring. THAT is the greatest failure of all.

    American public education is top in the world when we control for family income level. America does not have an education problem, it has a poverty problem. In regards to childhood poverty in the industrialized world...well then, America is #1!

  4. @Rachel:
    Petty? Ignorant? You won't see ad hominem attacks from me -- I stick to remarks about policy.

    As far as "two wrongs don't make a right," that is useful, as you seem to be acknowledging there are problems with a system where tenured teachers can never be fired (short of a felony conviction), millions of dollars disappear in unnecessary administration, and that in general, monopolies aren't a good way to run anything.

    You may be acknowledging, in other words, that failure should have consequences.

    Trouble is, the anti-reform crowd is awfully heterogeneous, and you may not speak for all of them. A large union block believes the only reform that has ever been needed is to throw more money at the problem, and to the same people. They reliably oppose any accountability plan as demonizing (to any who fall short), destructive (because teachers will stop collaborating), and inherently unfair (because it includes subjectivity).

    It all depends on a central myth: that teaching is some kind of magic, unique service, unlike every other service in society. They want us to believe that in education, where kids are graded every semester, measuring performance in adults is "wrong." (At least if there are ever consequences to the measurements, that is.)

    Demography is destiny, eh? Tell that to some kick ass charter, private, and magnet schools who contradict your thesis every day.

    Or if I'm wrong, and these poor kids can't learn, we should just stop trying and save billions, right?

  5. They reliably oppose any accountability plan as demonizing (to any who fall short), destructive (because teachers will stop collaborating), and inherently unfair (because it includes subjectivity).

    Then it is your job, O Anonymous Reformer, to demonstrate that this is not so. It is your job to demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the evaluation systems you desire will only label teachers who are truly ineffective as such. It is your job to demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that collaboration between teachers will increase when they're now forced to compete with each other for merit pay or not to get fired. It is your job to demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the evaluation system you support will be completely fair, and that each and every person whose subjective judgments are part of a teacher's evaluation plan will be completely qualified in every single possible way to make such judgments.

    Failing to do so means that you have no case. If you are incapable of proving those three things beyond a whisper of a doubt—and given the pretty massive block of evidence that proves that the systems being proposed by the teacher-haters are, indeed, demonizing, destructive, and inherently unfair, it is all but impossible for you to even prove such things to even the lowest possible standards, a fact you're very well aware of but dishonestly continue to paper over in an effort to further your anti-teacher and anti-education agenda—then you have no case.

    Intellectual honesty demands that if you are incapable of defending your proposals against such charges—and it has been eminently proven, time and time again, that you are incapable of doing so, as there is no defense for such practices that deserves to be taken seriously by any rationally-thinking human being who actually cares about the education of children—you retract your proposals, or have the basic human decency to admit that your agenda has nothing to do with improving education, that you couldn't possibly care less about the well-being of children in public schools, that you have absolutely no respect for teachers and think that anyone can do their job, and that your true agenda is to decimate public education in this country.

  6. @James & @KatieO & All Other Commenters: Thanks for reading. Please do not feed the ideologues!

    @Ideologue, I mean, @Anonymous: Thanks for reading. You've had your say. I hope you'll move on.

    I'm not one for censorship, but any further comments that are not relevant to Olivia's post will most likely be deleted. There are plenty of blogs out there that serve as forums for uninformed & ideologically-based commentary. I'm trying my best to make sure this blog isn't one of them.

  7. Rachel, Olivia's post speaks, so well, to what so many of us in education struggle with every day. The fight between doing what is best for our students and what the system demands. The two seem, more and more, to be mutually exclusive. Every day I ask myself how will all this testing, this demand of "mastery" from 8, 9 and 10 year olds, play out in the end. I can't see much good from it. The reformers, such as our friend in the comments here, seem to forget their own years in elementary school. Did tests ever lead any of us to wanting more education? School should be a place where the love of learning is fostered and nourished, not where it is stifled to death. Well done, Olivia, well done.

  8. @rachel @lodesterre @James @ katieo and the others who still feel compassion for educators and the children that we spend countless hours planning for, preparing for, teaching and loving...thank you for your kind words and support. It is my hope that through means such as this I am able to put the focus back on what really matters, which to me (and many others I choose to surround myself with) is our students. I do not go into work each day thinking about central offices, corporate reformers, off-beat politicians or compliant administrators...I go thinking about how to best teach children not only content, but a love for learning.
    Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughtful insights:)

  9. More power to you Olivia. You've renewed my faith in the young. I'm glad for your sake and that of your students you haven't been sucked into this "reform movement". I'm saddened that these data obsessed reformers don't remember their childhood schooling. Was it really that bad, that you have to make others miserable? You might shudder to think that really rigid, test-oriented systems like: China, Korea, Japan, and India come over here to observe our schools. Seems that they are pretty enamored with the way we do things. Pretty impressive when you might argue that our schools are failures.


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