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.