When the new school opened in September 2007, however, there wasn’t much that resembled smaller learning communities. Seniors could find their counselors and administrators in one area of the building, while juniors could find theirs in another. But when I asked an administrator what happened to the academies, he replied, “We aren’t supposed to talk about that.”
It should have been obvious that such a system wouldn’t fly at T.C. Grouping students together for all their classes would have meant a separate academy for high-achieving kids enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. And the prevailing ultra-liberal philosophy in Alexandria abhors tracking, in which students are separated according to ability, or anything that could look like ethnic or class-based segregation.
(Yet another) transformation
Reform efforts went into overdrive after federal education officials added T.C. Williams to a list of “persistently lowest achieving” schools in March 2010. Although T.C. offers more than two dozen AP courses and more than 80 percent of its graduates go on to college, it has never figured out how to meet the needs of its most underprivileged and least prepared students. Hindered by social issues that schools can’t control, these students have lagged behind since the early days of the T.C. merger. And because of changing demographics, there are now many more of them, bringing down the school’s state test results and graduation rate.
The “lowest achieving” designation made T.C. eligible for new federal grants designed to help underperforming schools undergo a “transformation.” I wrote in these pages that I hoped it would serve as a wake-up call, forcing us to think differently about how to teach students who came to us reading far below grade level or unable to add without a calculator.
That wasn’t what happened.
Instead, we entered an era of diminished expectations. Under the regime imposed by Superintendent Morton Sherman, students couldn’t score below 50 on homework or an exam, unless they failed to do any work, in which case they could get a 40. They had until the end of each quarter to hand in late assignments. And they were allowed to retake exams on which they didn’t do well. When teachers distributed tough tests, kids took a quick look and asked, “When’s the make-up?”
Teachers were straitjacketed with warmed-over SPONGE. We had to write an “essential question” on the board for every class, get things going with an “activator activity” and finish by asking students to parrot back what they’d learned.
We were under pressure to pass all our students, even if they should have failed. “And for the better students,” says Eleanor Kenimer, a 2011 T.C. grad now at Duke University, “it allowed us to get lazy and quit challenging ourselves because it was so easy to calculate the minimum amount of work necessary to get an A.”
Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his “seven C’s” survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again.
My colleague Erika Dietz said that although T.C. had more money and resources than did the California district where she taught before, “at times, having so much was stunting. . . . I did more with far less at my previous school, in part because I had to, but also because I could focus on the basics of good teaching.”
More than four decades of education reforms didn’t make me a better teacher and haven’t made T.C. Williams a better school. Rather, the quick fixes promulgated by headline-seeking politicians, school administrators and self-styled education gurus have in some cases done more harm than good.
I found that the most helpful professional-development experiences involved fellow English teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms — always with the caveat: “This works for me; it may not work for you.” Being with people who loved doing what I did and exchanging ideas without any professional jealously was always reinvigorating.
A passion for communicating one’s subject matter to the next generation isn’t among the 74 items on Alexandria’s Curriculum Implementation Walk-Through Data Collection list, which Sherman, who left Alexandria schools last month, used to evaluate faculty. But it’s what all great teachers have in abundance. And it’s what will keep them going when the next wave of reforms comes rolling through.
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