Tuesday will mark a merciful end to the disorienting hot air of my summer. I'm not talking about the weather. I'm talking about my exposure to the theories, reforms, initiatives and spin of education experts and bureaucrats--both in Alexandria where I have been teaching for the past 30 years and from think tanks and centers of higher learning across the country. What I heard and read over the past three months had so little to do with kids or classrooms that I felt as if I had been launched into space. Soon, though, I'll be on solid ground again as the real world of education rushes back to me in the form of some 120 seniors--part of the class of 2000.
Last week's hot air was by far the most oppressive. The "in-service" days that teachers must undergo the week before school starts usually seem dull and irrelevant, but this year the Alexandria school system outdid itself. For two days teachers attended workshops on Standards Based Education (SBE), the new panacea for public schools, which in essence claims we can raise student achievement if we understand what is "absolutely essential for all students to know and be able to do." SBE is sweeping the country like a virus.
I'm still not quite sure I fully understand how SBE is meant to work. First, we watched a video in which a teacher explained that the "drivetrain sequence" of the SBE classroom is different from the traditional class. As we left the auditorium we were handed the new bible of the school system, "Instruction for All Students." The next two days, for which we were divided into groups of about 40 teachers, were a combination farce and nightmare.
Our instructors--fellow teachers trained during the summer--began by asking us to walk over to various laminated signs posted on the walls and to take notes. These signs, we later discovered, were simply blowups of pages from the books we'd just been given. Roaming around the room was supposed to be a bonding experience. That realization set the tone for teachers' reactions to the training to come--a mixture of shocked disbelief, uncontrolled laughter and dismay that our colleagues had volunteered to get involved in this nonsense.
It's hard to pick the silliest of all the new advice, but the tips on how to translate Alexandria's current curriculum phrases into SBE lingo ranks right up there. What our bureaucrats had been calling "essential learnings" are to be renamed "standards," "indicator statements" are to become "benchmarks," and "grade-level objectives" will from now on be "performance indicators."
As I have done before during such sessions, I kept asking myself, "Is there something I'm missing? Isn't this the same old stuff I've been hearing for years?" Colleagues assured me that it was indeed the same old stuff--much of it was what we had been calling "content reading skills." When I investigated further, I found that our own reading teachers already had the material that was contained in our new $29.95 bibles.
Joel Kaplan, who taught in New York for 13 years before coming to T.C. Williams to teach chemistry, pointed out that "someone comes up with a new idea to sell a movement or a book, and the school systems go for it. It makes administrators look like they are doing something." Another faculty member was not so sanguine. Storming out of the room at the lunch break, he hollered that no one with an IQ over 100 should come back for the afternoon session.
The underlying fallacy is that any single concept can save the world. Every good teacher has to pick and choose from many ideas, knowing that each class is different, that methods that work with one group of kids won't necessarily work with another. The best in-service class I've taken was on learning styles run by two of T.C. Williams's own teachers, Chris Gutierrez and Jean Hunter. Both women demonstrated to me and other teachers that kids absorb material in different ways, that a student I may not have considered very bright might actually be able to achieve a great deal if I discover how he or she learns best.
One Alexandria principal recently suggested to me that the reason so many programs come and go without a trace is that "the School Board and central office are too impatient; they want instant returns, usually something before the next board elections. But real change takes time, from five to seven years."
The pattern is clear to many of the kids--and to their parents. "There's always this talk about revolutionizing things in the school system, but I've never seen any action, any real difference," says Khalda Ibrahim, who was in my senior English class last year and will enter Harvard this month. "It's all for show." And Ann Ellis, who has had children in the Alexandria schools for the past 15 years, says that "after a while you learn to stop paying attention to the pronouncements from above, to the new programs. You look to individual schools, to principals and teachers, to see what is really going on. That's the only way you can know if your kids can get what they need."
Teachers have a hard time keeping faith, though, not just because of the proliferation of new programs but because of the constant PR and spin that come with them. Compare the Alexandria school system's leadership in the late 1980s and early '90s with that of today, and there appear to be startling differences in mission, philosophy and programs. The old board, appointed by the City Council, said its mission was to raise the scores of low-income black students. The superintendent hired in 1987, Paul Masem, was brought in for that purpose. His Minority Achievement Plan created more work for teachers, who had to fill out forms and design individual plans for each kid who scored below a certain percentile on standardized tests. But the results for the students were harder to detect. There was no guidance or follow-though from the creators of the plan, and when the scores didn't go up, teachers felt they got the blame.
Many middle-class white parents began to feel that standards were dropping. Some even pulled their kids out of the public school system. The result was that a referendum to have future school boards elected by the community instead of being appointed by the City Council passed overwhelmingly.
In 1994, School Board candidates ran on the promise to restore high standards. Soon after the election, the board hired a new superintendent, Herbert Berg. On paper the board changed the mission of the school system from "Minority Achievement" to making all students "responsible, self-reliant, contributing members of a changing world." It was clear that the real goal was to get back the parents who had left the system and keep those who were wavering. And as things have turned out, almost all of Masem's changes are still in place.
Maybe teachers like me who complain about the constant hype and spin from our leaders are naive. Some positive spin may be a good thing. Ellis recognizes the hype for what it is but thinks School Board members are in a difficult position. "So many of the problems of the system involve inflammatory racial issues. I don't see how anyone would want the job. It can eat up their lives. They have all these competing interests pushing at them . . . they have to make decisions that no one is happy with."
In many ways I agree with Ellis. I know people whose neighbors and friends turned on them once they got on the board and made a decision that was for the good of the system but angered a small interest group. There are few educators I respect as much as Superintendent Berg. I would last about a week in his job, trying to run a school system where the largest percentage of poor children in Northern Virginia mixes with affluent kids who have highly educated and demanding parents.
Despite these challenges, I still don't think that my school, those in my district, or the schools nationwide are in as much trouble as many politicians and education experts would have us believe. Having been invited to a meeting this summer with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, where the virtues of SBE were being propounded by members of think tanks and other experts, I know that many of them believe the schools are in disastrous shape. But that's a myth with a long history. As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute points out, today's complaints about students' poor reading and math skills, ignorance of history, inadequate preparation for the work force, unfocused curriculums, lack of moral education--you name it--have been echoed for more than a century. In 1892, when less than 6 percent of high school graduates went to college, the Harvard Board of Overseers issued a report complaining that only 4 percent of the Harvard applicants could "could write an essay, spell or properly punctuate a sentence."
The grousing about schools seemed to reach a crescendo in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk," a study commissioned by the Reagan administration. It memorably warned that a "rising tide of mediocrity" had so engulfed our schools that the very future of the U.S. economy was threatened. "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets," wrote Terrel Bell, then secretary of education, "we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."
Common sense leads me to a rather different conclusion: If our schools were so bad in 1983 and, in the opinion of many so-called reformers, are just as bad today, how is it that America's economy and technology are the envy of the world? We teachers must be doing something right. Still, the gloom and doom reverberates today. It seems that the further one is removed from the everyday life of schools, the more negative--and unrealistic--the perception becomes. Gallup polls, for instance, show that while only about 20 percent of adults nationwide give schools a grade of A or B, 72 percent of parents give the schools their own children attend an A or B. Familiarity breeds contentment.
Whatever the moralists and reformers say, and however hard I find it to tell the difference between "essential learnings" and "performance indicators," I do know a few things about teaching. I know a few things about turning on students, whose heads are full of Lauryn Hill and Dave Matthews, to the poetry of John Donne, A.E. Housman and Adrienne Rich. And I know something about how to get kids to write more clearly and gracefully. But most important, I know that being a teacher is an opportunity to touch lives, to affect the future. That's my "benchmark"--and it's the benchmark of most teachers I know, who can't wait for that first bell to ring in the new year on Tuesday morning.
Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.
The Experts Speak
In 1898, results of a writing exam at the University of California at Berkeley found that "30 to 40 percent of the entering freshmen were not proficient in English."
In 1902, the New York Sun's editors wrote that back when they were in school, they "had to do a little work. . . . Spelling, writing and arithmetic were not electives, and you had to learn." They went on to call schools of the day "a vaudeville show" where "the child had to be amused and learns what he pleases."
In 1927, the National Association of Manufacturers claimed that 40 percent of high school graduates were not able to communicate clearly in English or do basic arithmetic.
In 1947, New York Times education editor, Benjamin Fine, wrote, "Education faces a serious crisis . . . . We will suffer the consequences of our present neglect of education a generation hence."
In 1961, Columbia University Dean Jacques Barzun argued that many of his graduate students "need coaching in the elements of literacy . . . [partly because of] the loss of proper pedagogy in the lower schools."
Source: "The Way We Were: The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement," (Century Foundation Press, 1998)