May you live in interesting times.
So goes the reputed Chinese curse.
In education, we are living in interesting times, indeed. One of the prominent voices sounding a warning is that of Diane Ravitch. A Research Professor of Education at New York University and a former Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, Ravitch helped craft the No Child Left Behind Act and was optimistic that the school reforms it engendered testing, accountability, choice would benefit American school children. However, as the reforms were implemented, Ravitch realized that they were doing far more harm than good.
Last week she spoke to faculty, students and guests at several events at UNC Charlotte, highlighting some of the damage of the school reform movement.
For example, the curriculum under NCLB has narrowed, with less time or even none spent on disciplines that are not assessed by standardized tests.
Although many of the school reformers come from a business background, school districts which tried to overlay a business model onto education using competition between teachers for merit pay or tying student performance to teacher evaluations wasted money, demoralized their staff, and showed no improvement in student achievement.
As money was offered as incentives for raising student test scores, cheating scandals rocked several districts. Schools that didnt make Adequate Yearly Progress measured by standardized testing were taken over or closed, with disruption for communities, most of them in poor urban areas.
Profiteers stepped up to push legislators to divert public funds to for-profit charters and to private schools through vouchers, arguing that the American system of public education was in freefall, a wholesale failure.
That message was always a lie fueled in part by a serious misunderstanding of what standardized tests can and do measure. American children coming from middle-class and wealthy homes are getting a good education in public schools as good as the best schools in the world. Children living in poverty are not getting an equitable education, their schools unable to compensate for the deficits in material goods, health, and opportunities other children enjoy.
You wont hear that from the corporate reformers, however. Theres simply too much money being made with new curricula, tests, prep materials, and tuition.
Interesting times and not good ones for American students.
That wasnt the message I wanted to deliver to the first-year teachers in my district this week. As part of their professional development, they have been meeting regularly during the year to talk about their concerns and to read some of my Observer columns published as Notes from a Classroom. The administrator responsible for the group asked me to attend their final gathering to answer any questions they might have about the book.
It was late afternoon and the teachers looked exhausted. No wonder. Theyve been working overtime to master their content while learning how to effectively manage a classroom even as budget cuts and a serious shortfall in revenue has meant furloughs and layoffs in our district.
As I looked around the room, I saw two of my former students, bright women who have spent their first year dealing with students with serious behavior problems and physical disabilities. I heard one kindergarten teacher express her frustration that she cant give her 27 five-year-olds the attention they require. Another teacher worried that her third graders have little motivation to succeed academically.
If they were hoping I could reassure them that teaching gets easier the longer you do it, I disappointed them. In my experience, every student, every class, is a unique challenge. More days than not I feel like Im treading water, extending a great deal of energy keeping my head above the waves. That half of all teachers quit the profession in the first five years is not a surprise.
That so many of us stay is.
What I wanted to tell those first-year teachers was that despite these interesting times when the corporate reform movement has led to the unfair blaming and demonizing of teachers, when a national curriculum is being rolled out without being field tested, when school districts are furloughing and laying off teachers and staff and cutting programs students are more than numbers, that teachers are not now and never will be mere cogs in a machine.
I wanted to reassure them that even on our least rewarding and most challenging days, some child needs us to be there.
That although they pretend to be indifferent travelers through our classrooms, students carry us with them into the future.
That when we feel no one is listening, we are witnesses to what is happening in our schools, with a story that needs to be told.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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