No Child Left Behind became law in January 2002. Twelve years later, it is a discredited law that remains on the books only because Congress can't agree doesn't know what to do next. They are trapped in the quagmire of a failed accountability system and they don't know how to get out.
But Race to the Top compounded the basic error of NCLB--relying on testing and accountability to "reform" schools--and it added a new ingredient: a frontal attack on teachers as the primary cause of low test scores. Its effort to quantify the value of teachers by the test scores of their students has not only made testing the sine qua non of daily education but has destroyed the joy of learning and harmed the teaching profession. Race to the Top made teaching to the test a necessity. Every time you hear either President Obama or Secretary Duncan say that teachers should not teach to the test, but they should be rewarded for higher scores and fired for lower scores, remember that this is what hypocrisy sounds like.
To see the harm of Race to the Top through the eyes of disillusioned and disheartened teachers, read this comment:
I met a friend for lunch today. She was a colleague with whom I taught, up until last year, before I moved to another school within our district (an urban Title I District which serves a demographic of primarily Hispanic, English Language Learners). As we talked, we both discussed our disenchantment with a broken system and mused about moving to a mythical place where we would be afforded more creative freedom to teach in way that was deeply impactful and meaningful. We talked about how our anger had turned to apathy, and how we feared getting lost in the oblivion of bitterness and burn out. We talked about how the instruction of our students had been reduced to district directives putting our students at the mercy of mind-numbing computer tutorials and scripted skinnarian intervention programs. But mostly, we talked about how, through all of this, we have been slowly and systematically robbed of the relationship we have with our students.
Let me explain how I came to know this colleague. She is a middle school social studies teacher and, hands-down, one of the finest teachers with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working. I have drawn from her strength, as I witnessed her question the “status quo”, stand up against arbitrary policy, and show a depth of understanding for each and every student that crosses the threshold of her classroom. I was the special education teacher who supported the identified students on her team, for which she was the team leader. Never, in my twenty-four years of teaching, had I heard so many students express such a love of social studies, or a specific teacher, for that matter. When I would ask why, the response was generally the same. “I don’t know, she just makes it fun.” Or, “It’s just really calm in her classroom and you want to learn.” Or, “She just cares about us.” This came from Middle School Special Education students, many of whom were reading between a first and third grade reading level, but nonetheless, experienced success in her classroom.
So, why is this story significant? This year our district has taken Special Education and intervention to new heights. We have been directed to pull out our lowest twenty-five percent during science, social studies, and elective classes when providing support. Consequently, many students get one day per week in the classes that many typically thrive in and enjoy the most. We are over-dosing, yet essentially depleting, our most vulnerable, struggling students. When I questioned my administrator on this directive last year before leaving, her response was something like, “Well, who really needs social studies in life? Who needs to know where this country is on a map? It’s just not that important.” After attempting to recover from her flippant, uninformed comments, my response to her was, “But it’s the only class many students like and she teaches reading and writing through her content. Plus she is masterful at meeting the needs of every level of student.” She hemmed and hawed and finally conceded that that was just the way it was.
Now that I think about it, I believe the students just like my friend and feel safe in her classroom, regardless of what an excellent teacher she is. They are learning despite themselves. This, my friends, is not quantifiable. This is about relationship. Yet, given the new teacher evaluation mandates, she will be measured and evaluated on the progress of students who spend eighty percent of their week in front of a computer or being read scripted questions, verbatim, which must be answered on the cue of a bell or clicker; pre-packaged programs which, by their very nature, prevent inquiry, creative thinking, and most importantly, a relationship with a trusted teacher.
“Where do we go from here?” we asked each other. I don’t know. I do know that we have both found ourselves mourning a profound loss. Then my friend shared her own personal insight. “It’s like when you are in a bad relationship”, she said. “You start to compromise who you are. First, you let go of this. Then you let go of another thing. Pretty soon you realize that you just can’t go on because you aren’t being true to yourself anymore.” I am glad I met my friend for lunch, because she continues to give me the courage to find my own voice. She once said to me that people who have a gift for teaching urban middle school students have a moral obligation to continue the work. Now I see her wavering, not because she does not love her students, but because she cannot be true to the relationship, and ultimately herself. I am terrified that this will be yet another a piece of the carnage left behind in this battle–just one more casualty soon forgotten in the sweeping, dispassionate corporate take over of our American Public Education System. But even more, I am soul sick for the students who may never have the opportunity to cross the threshold of her classroom.