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A Necessary Optimism

September 5, 2011 by wtucker · No Comments · public schools, school funding, school reform

 We’ve done it now. Eleven years we had to educate the public, to
register our protests and do everything in our power to warn people
what was coming, and we blew it. We knew the moment would eventually
come and we hem-hawed, looked at the ground, kicked at the dirt with
our shoes and failed to look the opposition in the eye and face them
down. All of us saw this coming, but very few took a stand and now
we — and our students — are paying the price. We could have been
prophets but failed the test.

In a bitter reflection on the consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB),  Jim Arnold reprimands educators for standing by while the hurricane of so-called  “educational reform” swept through our classrooms. The dire consequences of blaming the victims, canonizing standardized tests, and allowing schools to be branded and euthanized are well-known to those who have taught for the past decade. But this kind of breast-beating over a massive federal initiative gone wrong oversimplifies what has happened since 2001, the Decade of Standards.

Arnold argues that we saw it coming and stood by and let it happen.  True enough, but what did we see coming? It was not like the hurricane coming up the coast in the sense that we could foresee its path and knew it was an ill-wind that would “blow no good.” Well, we knew that anything that relied on standardized tests as its exclusive measuring stick was ill-fated, but there were some promising high-pressure fronts moving in alongside it.

First of all,  someone in Washington was paying attention to the public schools. The federal funding surge that came with NCLB was a welcome transfusion for schools struggling to hire new teachers and make classrooms smaller.  Public education was a national priority all of a sudden. Unprecedented bipartisanship emerged on this bill, which has never been seen again, unless you want to count the invasion of  Iraq. (You might call that a “fatal bipartisanship”).  Even in the Obama administration Congressional representatives have crossed the aisles to support federal school reform, although even that good will appears to have ended.

Second, education was making headlines daily and becoming a universal concern. The amount of ink and megabytes devoted to education has skyrocketed over the past decade.  Education in the K-12 schools was finally on the public radar, right alongside the economy and political intrigue.  It’s hard to recall that, in earlier decades, public schooling was usually buried in the back pages, if mentioned at all.  As many public relations directors will claim, “All publicity is good publicity,” because being seen in print and heard on the airwaves is half the battle.

Third, accountability was promoted as a tool of reform. Although this should have raised giant red pennants, there is a strong desire for proving performance in public education.  Teachers want to be recognized for their hard work as much as anyone else. The problem is figures lie, and we have struggled for generations to make them tell a true story.  Testing has always been our measuring stick.  Perhaps this time they would show authentic progress.  Perhaps this time it would somehow reflect the hard work we invested in the most disadvantaged children in our classes.

Mark Twain said, “Teaching is the most acute form of optimism,” and probably optimism is also teaching’s fatal flaw.  We believe the conditions of schooling will somehow improve every year and that students will come eager to learn after the long summer break. How else do we psyche ourselves up for another school year? We believe we can make a difference, even when the cards are stacked against us. We even believe that our best efforts in the classroom will be reflected in the next round of test scores.  Or at least we believe someone will recognize our small victories, if the test scores do not.

Now that investigations have revealed teachers complicit in altering the results of standardized tests, perhaps even that optimism is endangered.  But the vast majority of teachers are incurable optimists, and they hoped that accountability for student performance would reflect their hard work and their zeal for the struggling student. Hoped against all reason and experience.

Was  “No Child Left Behind” a malignant conspiracy? Can we accept it as well-intentioned school reform, regardless of the intrigues of testing companies and curriculum publishers and the heavy-handedness of school administrators warping and scripting the curriculum? To read it this way is to understand why more educators did not rise up and shout against it.  It put education in the spotlight and on the national conscience.  It made Washington pay attention as never before. It made private foundations re-deploy their support to education. It made teachers critical to the success of schools. How could that be bad?

Sadly the last two administrations have shown how testing and accountability can destroy schools and optimism, regardless of good intentions and stimulus dollars.  What might have been the decade of the teacher has become the decade of inquisition, of branding and purging failure in the schools.  Arnold’s verdict on the demise of real school reform is tragically fair.

But I don’t accept the reprimand of teachers, the incurably optimistic profession that thrives on the renewal in every school year. Teachers will be fooled over and over again by the craft of Washington and the Council of State School Officers, because they expect better from them as they expect it from their students.  Teachers are near-sighted about education; they see mostly the students in their classrooms and plan how to maximize what the district and Department of Education hand them. Perhaps they need more cynicism about school reform, but would that make them better teachers?

In the decade of NCLB hindsight is 20-20. Teaching is always about the next decade.


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