My husband grew up here in Ohio near the town where we now live, and last Sunday afternoon he told me he had noticed in the newspaper that his elementary school was celebrating its hundredth anniversary with an open house. He wondered if I’d like to go with him just for a little while to walk through the school to see what had changed in the years since his time there—from from 1951 until 1958—kindergarten through sixth grade.
We had a lovely time strolling through classrooms and old-fashioned cloak rooms. My husband, a not-particularly-sentimental person, took me to the classroom where he had attended each of the grades and remembered each teacher—his favorite teacher and others who challenged him. The halls were filled with the children who attend the school today along with their families, but we had the chance to talk with some of today’s teachers and to look at the work posted on classroom walls and in hallways. The teachers have been thinking with children about the passage of time. The word “centennial” seemed to be a prominent vocabulary word for all the grades, and there were news stories posted here and there about major events in each of the school’s ten decades.
I was delighted to realize that we were not seeing anything about the massive testing that has invaded this public school and all the other elementary schools across the country. Instead, there was evidence of thinking and writing and a conceptual approach to reading and learning. And we saw today’s teachers enjoying a happy time with children and their families.
But today’s test-and-punish realities are affecting the teachers we observed, despite the celebratory atmosphere during our Sunday afternoon visit. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s competitive programs like Race to the Top are demanding better test scores without significant additional federal investment. Teachers are being expected to work harder and smarter and do more with less. One result all across America has been the widespread scapegoating of school teachers when scores don’t rise fast enough. To qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers, states must incorporate students’ standardized test scores to at least some degree in the formal evaluations of teachers.
While the attack on teachers feels monolithic, there is growing push-back. Columnist Myra Blackmon, writing for the Athens, Georgia Banner-Herald, celebrates the school teachers who, during an unusual Georgia winter snowstorm, stayed with children and helped them survive a night at school when they could not get home. “There is no way student test scores can be used to evaluate those teachers. There is not a metric to measure commitment to children. Nor is there a way to measure teachers’ long-term impact on lives and families.” Blackmon quotes sociologist William Julius Wilson: “But the person who scored well on an SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman. These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.”
And in one of the best books written about public education in 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkley, celebrates the qualities that cannot be measured in a group of great teachers, this time in Union City, New Jersey, a formerly struggling school district that was transformed as its teachers came together to improve the coordination of curriculum and teaching from grade to grade. Kirp profiles one elementary school’s third grade teaching team: “It’s unlikely that these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away… Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended. Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some of them are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers. The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues. Experience matters, of course, but these teachers improve, the passable ones becoming solid practitioners…. These professionals know and trust one another, for they can draw on their history of working together, and that eases the path to collaboration.” (Improbable Scholars, pp. 61-62)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is well known for saying, “We measure what we treasure.” I wonder about that. As my husband walked around his former third grade classroom and told me about his favorite teacher, Miss Gallagher, he wasn’t thinking about an experience he has any way of quantifying all these years later.