By Patrick Welsh,
Erika Dietz was overwhelmed when she started teaching English at T.C. Williams High School two years ago. Not because the 24-year-old struggled to connect with students or to handle the workload. Relentless, yet also patient and charming, she quickly became one of the most popular teachers at the Alexandria school, and in June 2012 she received a state-funded Titan Transformer Award for “outstanding work toward the goal of transformation” of T.C.
What bothered her was everything that went along with that goal: the consultants, the jargon, the endless stream of new reform initiatives. “It felt like every buzzword or trend in education was being thrown at us at once,” she told me over the summer, shortly after moving to Texas. “When something didn’t work right away, it was discarded the next year or even midyear.”
Her frustrations echo those of other teachers at T.C. and across the country caught up in the politics of education reform. Those politics played out this past week in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced that his state would no longer take a leading role in implementing Common Core tests — a shift prompted by tea party opposition and applauded by many teachers.
But the tug of war over standardized tests is just the latest round of a struggle I’ve watched many times before. In the four decades between when I started teaching English at T.C. in 1970 and my retirement this year, I saw countless reforms come and go; some even returned years later disguised in new education lingo. Some that were touted as “best practices” couldn’t work, given Alexandria’s demographics. Others were nothing but common-sense bromides hyped as revolutionary epiphanies. All of them failed to do what I believe to be key to teaching: to make students care about what they’re studying and understand how it’s relevant to their lives.
A school for everyone
My first encounter with education reform came in 1971, my second year in Alexandria. That’s when the 11th and 12th grades of the city’s three high schools were combined under one roof at T.C. Williams. The move was seen as a way to achieve full integration of black and white students while avoiding the inflammatory issue of who got bussed where. It was also in line with the “comprehensive high school” model, promoted by former Harvard president James Conant, which sought to meet the needs of all students, from the “academically talented” to the “vocationally oriented.”
Concerns about racial tensions proved overblown — contrary to the fictional portrayal of the T.C. merger in the Disney film “Remember the Titans” (2000). In fact, my T.C. students had fewer discipline problems than my students at the Catholic school in Rochester, N.Y., where I’d previously taught.
But Conant’s idea that an equal opportunity would benefit all students proved to be an illusion. While the bigger school worked well for kids who were self-motivated or had parents urging them on, it soon became apparent that kids from less-involved families, many of them lower-income, lagged behind their peers.
A school at risk?
The next era of education reform grew out of a panic. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by Reagan Education Secretary Terrel Bell, warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”
I didn’t buy it. If schools were in such horrible shape, how was it possible that immigrant students — from Korea, Vietnam, Iran and other trouble spots around the globe — could enter T.C. Williams speaking little or no English and end up at top universities? Granted, there was then, as there is now, a crisis of poverty among children, and schools struggled to make headway against a persistent achievement gap. But that didn’t warrant an indictment of the entire American education system. (The hyperbole in “A Nation at Risk” is even more obvious today, in light of the fact that the system it maligned played a major role in producing the leaders of the digital revolution and in sustaining a military and an economy that are the envy of the world.)
Off-base though it was, “A Nation at Risk” inflated the education-consultant industry, and its various panaceas began to proliferate.
The “Effective Schools” concept, propounded by Harvard School of Education guru Ron Edmonds, was one of the first quick fixes to hit Alexandria. An oversize banner reading “EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS” decked the T.C. Williams auditorium for convocation in the fall of 1984. Teachers received a single-page handout on the seven qualities of effective schools: nuggets such as “the climate of an effective school is NOT OPPRESSIVE,” “the principal acts as an instructional leader,” and effective schools offer the “opportunity to learn and student time on task.” There was nothing about how we were supposed to integrate those ideas into our classrooms. And there was no follow-up.
After the ineffective year of effective schools came SPONGE. UCLA professor Madeline Hunter’s model for teaching sought to soak up every second of class time with so-called SPONGE activities to keep students focused and “on task.” I’ve never thought students should be focused — or could be focused — every moment, and I’ve always abhorred mindless, condescending busywork. But we had assistant principals coming through to make sure we applied the model.
When I asked one administrator about the origin of the SPONGE acronym, he couldn’t tell me, but he warned that it would be “teacher’s risk” not to keep students “on task,” unless there was a clear “teachable moment” that would allow me to deviate. (SPONGE, I later learned, meant: “SHORT, intense, vivid activities, which provide PRACTICE of learned material, which students can do ON their own, and which will also include NEW arrivals or those finishing an assignment early, by keeping the GROUP involved, and designed to ELICIT an immediate response.”) I don’t think that lasted more than two years.
The 1990s ushered in the era of standards-based education (SBE). One of the more laughable moments I recall came in 1999, when T.C. teachers were corralled for two days of SBE presentations. We were told that we could raise student achievement if we just understood what was “absolutely essential for all students to know and be able to do” and never strayed from the “drive-train sequence” (a metaphor taken from the way power is transmitted in motors) of the SBE classroom, which, we were informed, was different from the traditional classroom. Just before a lunch break, one of my more mercurial colleagues stormed out, yelling that anyone with an IQ over 100 should not return for the afternoon session.
Schools within schools
By the time a new $100 million T.C. Williams was being built in 2005, the pendulum had swung away from comprehensive schools and toward “smaller learning communities,” in part because of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Alexandria’s superintendent rhapsodized that our new building would be divided into smaller academies where students could be grouped together for all their classes and thus get more individual attention.
When the new school opened in September 2007, however, there wasn’t much that resembled smaller learning communities. Seniors could find their counselors and administrators in one area of the building, while juniors could find theirs in another. But when I asked an administrator what happened to the academies, he replied, “We aren’t supposed to talk about that.”
It should have been obvious that such a system wouldn’t fly at T.C. Grouping students together for all their classes would have meant a separate academy for high-achieving kids enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. And the prevailing ultra-liberal philosophy in Alexandria abhors tracking, in which students are separated according to ability, or anything that could look like ethnic or class-based segregation.
(Yet another) transformation
Reform efforts went into overdrive after federal education officials added T.C. Williams to a list of “persistently lowest achieving” schools in March 2010. Although T.C. offers more than two dozen AP courses and more than 80 percent of its graduates go on to college, it has never figured out how to meet the needs of its most underprivileged and least prepared students. Hindered by social issues that schools can’t control, these students have lagged behind since the early days of the T.C. merger. And because of changing demographics, there are now many more of them, bringing down the school’s state test results and graduation rate.
The “lowest achieving” designation made T.C. eligible for new federal grants designed to help underperforming schools undergo a “transformation.” I wrote in these pages that I hoped it would serve as a wake-up call, forcing us to think differently about how to teach students who came to us reading far below grade level or unable to add without a calculator.
That wasn’t what happened.
Instead, we entered an era of diminished expectations. Under the regime imposed by Superintendent Morton Sherman, students couldn’t score below 50 on homework or an exam, unless they failed to do any work, in which case they could get a 40. They had until the end of each quarter to hand in late assignments. And they were allowed to retake exams on which they didn’t do well. When teachers distributed tough tests, kids took a quick look and asked, “When’s the make-up?”
Teachers were straitjacketed with warmed-over SPONGE. We had to write an “essential question” on the board for every class, get things going with an “activator activity” and finish by asking students to parrot back what they’d learned.
We were under pressure to pass all our students, even if they should have failed. “And for the better students,” says Eleanor Kenimer, a 2011 T.C. grad now at Duke University, “it allowed us to get lazy and quit challenging ourselves because it was so easy to calculate the minimum amount of work necessary to get an A.”
Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his “seven C’s” survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again.
My colleague Erika Dietz said that although T.C. had more money and resources than did the California district where she taught before, “at times, having so much was stunting. . . . I did more with far less at my previous school, in part because I had to, but also because I could focus on the basics of good teaching.”
More than four decades of education reforms didn’t make me a better teacher and haven’t made T.C. Williams a better school. Rather, the quick fixes promulgated by headline-seeking politicians, school administrators and self-styled education gurus have in some cases done more harm than good.
I found that the most helpful professional-development experiences involved fellow English teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms — always with the caveat: “This works for me; it may not work for you.” Being with people who loved doing what I did and exchanging ideas without any professional jealously was always reinvigorating.
A passion for communicating one’s subject matter to the next generation isn’t among the 74 items on Alexandria’s Curriculum Implementation Walk-Through Data Collection list, which Sherman, who left Alexandria schools last month, used to evaluate faculty. But it’s what all great teachers have in abundance. And it’s what will keep them going when the next wave of reforms comes rolling through.