(To Secretary DeVos, Part II. Part I Here.)
It starts with the tests. It always starts with the tests. But really, it isn’t just the tests: it is the very concept of “accountability.” Accountability says that we need to have paperwork — data — that shows that our schools are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish, and that the teachers are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and not something else. Accountability is founded on the idea that we don’t trust teachers. We think — because sometimes it’s true — that teachers are in it only for the paycheck, that they don’t care at all about the students who pass anonymously through their room.
We all have that story, right? Of the teacher that taught exclusively through movies and worksheets? I’ve known several (Though honestly, I never had one when I was in public school.) at the various schools where I’ve taught: there was the health teacher whose entire curriculum was canned, who showed his students videos four days a week and then tested them on the videos on the fifth. There was the math teacher who, every single week, Xeroxed the next chapter out of his textbook and handed it to his students while he sat at his desk and read the newspaper. Yeah, I’ve known those teachers. And I think those teachers should be gently pushed out of the profession. Or maybe not that gently: because the harm they have caused to my profession is entirely out of proportion to their actual sins.
They brought the idea of accountability to the fore. From lazy bastards like that, we got the idea that there are many teachers who don’t work very hard. And in order to satisfy those who insisted that this was a serious threat to our children’s futures, lots and lots of people agreed to ensure — ACCOUNTABILITY.
And so we get testing. And it’s funny, because everybody hates testing — students hate it, parents hate it, teachers fucking loathe it: but everyone likes, or at least accepts, the idea of accountability which drives that need for testing.
I had a meeting last week. An all day meeting, with all of the English teachers in my — my company, I guess it is; it’s a group of charter schools here in Arizona, some in Tucson and some in Phoenix. It’s a private corporation that runs these schools, though they are public schools, so yeah: my company. (Which means, of course, that I and my fellows are precisely what DeVos wants teachers and schools to look like; except that we collect our money from the state, instead of from tuition or tax vouchers. Down, Voucher, down! Gooood Charter.) And in this meeting, the biggest complaint was about our current testing system. We bitched about it for hours. Literally. Killed the whole meeting agenda. Hey — English teachers, we got a lot to say. Especially about standardized testing. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a stupid testing system, no question. And the consensus was that we should get rid of the clunky thing.
All of them wanted to replace it. With a different system, that would work better. One that would allow more essay tests, for instance, and that would follow our curriculum more closely. (Even though the curriculum is shitty. Know what the selling point for this curriculum was? It was made by other teachers. So it must be good. But it’s not. It’s shitty. But it’s ours, and we plan to follow it. And find a testing system that will align more closely to it. More on why the curriculum is shitty below.)
I don’t know if I was the only one who thought this, or if everybody else was just saying what they were supposed to say, but: I kept thinking — why do we even have a testing system at all? Why do we need to assess student learning? I mean, in theory we’re supposed to do it so as to make teaching more efficient: we learn what students know, and then we know what students need to learn, and then we teach that. That and, of course, accountability: because while the teachers are figuring out what the students know, the administrators and the politicians are using what the students know to determine how well the teachers are teaching.
Except that never works. Tests don’t show everything a student knows. The various members of any given class never know the same things, never need to learn the same things. In theory I’m supposed to differentiate instruction so that each student learns only and precisely what he or she needs, but of course that’s a joke: that flies in the face of public schooling, which is built around the idea of efficiency through mass instruction: I teach 100 students so that we don’t need 100 teachers. But that only works if I can teach 100 students basically the same thing. And I can’t even do that, because not all of the students care, or are interested, or see the value in it; not all of them like me and want to work with me; not all of them are present regularly, and not all of them are sober when they are present, or when they take the tests. And it’s even more skewed because they are sick, to death, of testing. I give them a test to find out what they know, and what I find out is: they know they hate tests. They stop trying about halfway through, and start guessing — if they didn’t start guessing from the outset. And there is nothing I can say that will change that. Somewhere, many years ago, a student guessed on a test and got an A, and every student who doesn’t care has been trying to replicate that feat. And not caring when it doesn’t work, because at least they didn’t put in much time or effort. And if they get a failing grade because of the test (Which is actually a bad idea, the administrator in my meeting told us: because the tests are designed to assess growth, and growth can’t be given a letter grade because letter grades show achievement, not growth [Example: I know everything my 10th graders need to know. If I take the test at the beginning of the year, I will score 100% achievement. When I take another test at the end of the year, I will show 0% growth — because I’ll score another 100%, because I already knew everything. So what’s my grade, the 0% the test says? Or an A+ based on my knowledge of the concepts?]. Which is funny, kinda, because my school administrators told me to make the test score a grade in the class, in an effort to get students to take the test more seriously. Didn’t work. Because:), they don’t really care because they’ll make up for the grade somewhere else, or else they’ll just live with a C as their final grade in English this year. Who cares? Not them.
So then you want accountability, right (Well, not you, but somebody sure does)? So how well am I teaching? Let’s say — because this actually happens a whole hell of a lot — students like my class, and they learn a lot from me; but they’re not too concerned with grades, and they hate standardized tests. So they intentionally blow it off as something of a protest, and shrug when I give them a bad grade — and then go right back to really learning, really thinking, really getting everything I’m trying to help them achieve. What’s my accountability score? Am I a rocking teacher for getting kids who don’t really care about school to pay attention and learn? Or am I a shit teacher for not getting good test scores out of them?
My answer is different from my school’s answer.
So there’s the thing, the main thing, that I am willing to see destroyed by Secretary DeVos if she manages to pull down the public education edifices in this country. If she wipes out standardized testing and the need for multiple layers of accountability, I will be ecstatic. I would like my school to know what I teach, how well I teach it, because they come and watch me teach. Frequently. Because they read my students’ papers, and see the comments I put on them. Because they talk to my students about what they learn, and their parents about what their kids have talked about this school year. On all of those measures, I’m a goddamn rock star. I would love it if DeVos pulls down the enormous wall of tests and lets people see what I can actually do. I would much, much rather be transparent, than accountable.
There’s more, too. The desire to make sure every school teaches the same thing, to ensure that every kid has the same access to the same learning, that everything bloody “aligns,” is a liberal obsession. It leads us to the Common Core, and standards-based education. Which is a goddamn joke, almost on the same scale as testing. Because here’s the thing (And it’s also a large part of the issue with standardized tests): who decides what the students need to learn? That’s the critical question about standards, and it never, never gets asked. But it has to be asked, because the ends determine the means: if I have to teach critical thinking, it’s going to mean a different class than if I have to teach grammar, which will be a different class from the one I teach to create cultural literacy.
So who decides? If it’s teachers, then you can expect to never actually get a working document: because every single person who teaches — who really teaches — a subject is going to have different ideas about the best way to do it, and the precise goals one should be aiming at when teaching that subject. Me, for instance: every English student needs to read Fahrenheit 451, and understand tone and symbolism in poetry. They have to do independent reading, and they need to write personal essays. They don’t ever need to study grammar or read any Victorian literature. There, see? I just caused every English teacher reading this to roll their eyes, and/or drop their jaws in shock. And when they come back and say every student simply MUST read Dostoevsky and the Brontes and diagram sentences, I’m going to puke black bile and India ink, just for them. No, that’s too gross. I’m just going to say No. Not in my class. Not ever.
So who decides? Easy: businesspeople decide. The ones with the money. They hire think tanks, who hire ex-teachers, who say whatever the businesspeople want to hear about what schools can do and what they should do. Because they are ex-teachers. What they hell do they care about what bullshit teachers have to put up with? They got out of the game already! Then those businesspeople bring their information to politicians and say, “This is what the business community thinks their next generation of workers should know. Don’t worry — we asked teachers, and they said all this was solid gold!” And the politicians, hungry for campaign contributions (“Did someone say gold?!?”) and eager to say they helped kids be ready for gainful employment, mandate that all schools in the district/state/country have to teach this vital information. And then maybe — maybe — some teachers sit down and talk about how they could teach that stuff. And they promptly disagree about everything, at which point the school district/state/federal government hires consultants: the ex-teachers who work for the think tanks. And they come and tell us, “It should be done this way.” And the teachers either think, because they’re like me, “All right, bro, but I’m still going to teach Fahrenheit 451 and tone and symbolism in poetry.” Or if they’re like most teachers, who were A+ students and still want to get gold stars, they think, “Okay, well I’ll try that and see if it works. I want to do what’s best for my students.” And there are the consultants, patting them on the shoulder and saying, “Trust me: this is what’s best for students.”
The first part of this process, up through the politicians, creates the Common Core. The second part, with the teachers, creates Engage NY. And the politicians love Engage NY and the Common Core because they make the businesspeople happy, and they mandate that all schools have to teach using that curriculum (or something just like it with a different name), and teach those standards (Or the same standards with a different name — like, say, the Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards, or AZCCRS.). Then they buy a testing system that aligns with those standards and that curriculum (And any liberals involved say, “Well, good, at least every student is getting exactly the same education and the same set of standards! That’s fair!”), and mandate that schools must achieve high scores or the state will impose sanctions. And then the Galileo company comes along and says “Use our test for practice, because then your students will get higher test scores on that state test!” And the administrators, who also have no idea of nor interest in what gets taught and how, buy the Galileo testing system because it’s cheap, and then they tell teachers that they have to do whatever it takes to raise student test scores on Galileo, because, they imagine, that will get students to do better on state tests (Because it aligns! IT ALL ALIGNS!), which will please the politicians, because it pleases the businesspeople. And so teachers — give up. And teach to the test. Because we can’t change the damn system, and we can’t escape it, and we might as well earn a decent paycheck, for once.
But we don’t, because the businesspeople also got the politicians to cut their taxes and cut spending, which means there’s less money for schools; and then they break teachers’ unions, and there’s nobody asking for more money for teachers, or trying to shift the focus off of testing and the Common Core.
All of that, Secretary DeVos. Kill the Common Core and all standards-based curricula, and let me decide, based on what I know and what my students want to know and need to know, what I should teach. Wipe out standardized testing, because if I want to know what my students know, I will assess their knowledge and ability in some way that makes sense: I will assign an essay, and I will read it. And you all can read them, too, if you want; (But only if Mrs. DeVos kills FERPA, the law that prevents teachers from allowing students names and grades to be public information, and which therefore keeps us from publishing student samples — even though one of the very best ways to learn is to read what other people just like you have written.. Please kill FERPA, Mrs. DeVos.) or you can ask me how they’re doing, and I’ll tell you. Because I will know. That’s actually my job, you know. And while you’re at it, lay off 2/3 of the administrators, from assistant principals to superintendents: at least 2/3 of all of the administrators that I have ever known have been even more incompetent and unqualified to run a school than — well, than you, Secretary DeVos. And that’s saying something. The other 1/3 have been outstanding: I would be happy with just those outstanding people running the school. And if you got rid of common curriculum, standards-based learning, standardized testing, and FERPA, then 2/3 of the school’s paperwork would disappear, and we wouldn’t need nearly as much middle management to handle it. Oh — and wipe out 504 plans and IEPs, would you? I have never yet had one of those things actually change the way I teach. Because if a student of mine has a learning disability or a challenge of some kind and they need extra time or extra help or a different standard of achievement, you know what I say? I don’t say, “Where’s your documentation, buster?”
I say “How can I help?”
Because I’m a teacher. Because I’m a good teacher.
So keep me, Mrs. DeVos. And if my colleagues are not good teachers, you can find out by talking to their students and parents, and watching them teach and talking to them about what they’re teaching; and then, by all means, fire them. Go out and find better teachers. Shit, if I’m wrong and I’m actually a terrible teacher, who’s been able to hide in the chaos and paper-smothered madness of modern education, then fire me, too. Find new people with new ideas and interesting subject matter. Let them make up classes — why does it always have to be math and science, history and English? Why can’t there be a class on video games? If it teaches critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, and good communication, who cares if it’s never been done before? Who cares if there isn’t a test for it? Let’s see if it works!
It certainly can’t be worse than the system we have now. Which, as long as you do it carefully and thoughtfully, feel free to break into smithereens. I’ll help.