Patrick Welsh retired in June after 43 years teaching English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.
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.