I get a real kick out the best-of lists that pop up at the end of the year. Two years ago, the First Decade of the New Millennium had passed into ignominy, so there was a lot commentary on the establishment of the No Child era: What was the great cosmic takeaway for educators?
While there are always transformative events and legislation, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. Education policy thinkers tend to be Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.
But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but the First Decade of No Child ended two years ago and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve the worst education crises in any meaningful way.
I have been a teacher in four distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations. But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?
My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Four Decades of American Education:
The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview. Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no content or instructional oversight and nothing resembling “professional development.”
Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got. Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away. Was pink-slipped in Years two, three, four and six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.
Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, autonomous profession. Most days, it was lots of fun.
The Eighties: Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.
Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, one of a couple dozen au courant cafeteria-style ed specialties (Career Ed, Distance Learning, Women’s Issues). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations. None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.
Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables most irritating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.
The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. Goals 2000 goals are kind of inane–first in the world in math and science?–but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and belief things can and should improve. Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever! Got into an argument in the staff lunchroom defending basic teacher proficiency tests in Arkansas.
Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. Standards and benchmarks in all subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Several disciplines in the district adopt the national standards–remember them? Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days.
Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.
Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.
The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke. All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!
Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.
We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.
Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts, shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.