Some Notes on Education

[Dwayne Betts]

About a week ago The New York Times ran this article on teachers juicing their students' test scores.  Specifically the article is about Normandy Cross Elementary school just outside of Houston, where teachers awaited the results of state tests knowing success came with a nice little bonus for them: $2,850. Long story short the tests came back too good to be true and after an investigation resignations started coming in. But did they do anything that goes beyond expectation? Tying teacher pay to student performance in this way seems doomed to fail, and the Times article cites sufficient examples of teachers playing with test scores to support that. But the main reason I see linking raises to test scores as a plan doomed to failure is because that system seems not to acknowledge how whatever you can teach a kid this year is tied to what they learned or failed to learn last year.


Of the many things President Obama has done recently, I'm most frustrated with what rarely gets discussed on national television: his education policy. He's not calling for a fundamental shift in the way we do education in the United States. He's calling for, among other things, reforming the NCLB act through improved assessments and an improved accountability system. Check out his plan here. The push for more assistance going to early education, and expanding Head Start, pre-school, and child care tax credits are all welcome moves. I have no idea where the money to pay for these initiatives will come from, though, but that's a different issue. What I'm considering here is whether improving assessments, the piece of his plan most relevant to teacher pay, will lead to more teacher's looking to nudge test scores is an issue. 

If you look at what the president says needs to be done to improve teacher retention and teacher preparation, it all rings true--but nothing in the plan seems to account for why so many teachers leave after five years: terrible pay and often rough teaching conditions. Those two facts alone would lead a teacher whose raise is tied to a student's performance on a standardized test to consider cheating, maybe. But it definitely will and has lead to classrooms where entire months are dedicated to teaching towards a test. Testing as a means to assess what's been learned is one thing; testing as a means to assess the ability to prepare for that particular test is another.

I've read in other places a call for states to "lift limits that stifle growth among successful charter schools," and while I'm a fan of some charter schools, I've always seen them as a way to reduce the quality of public education. In D.C., the charter schools can admit students and then kick them out of the school based on their behavior problems. Since public schools don't have that luxury, you can't help but to increase the number of behavior problems in the public school as more and more parents look to private schools for a reprieve from the violence.

And even when charter schools work, it seems like they work because there is freedom in a charter school to basically do whatever you want as an educator. Even here, in the July/August issue of The Atlantic where TNC talks about a program at a school in the South Bronx, the program is essentially a chance for the school to go completely out the box. So is the push for more freedom among charter schools a passive way to promote a shift in the United States' education culture? Why not just call for changes, fundamental changes, in the shape and operation of public schools?

This year I've taught poetry at Hart Middle School in Southeast, a private school on Capitol Hill, and at the SEED School, a public charter school in Southeast. The SEED School, a public boarding school, was featured on 60 Minutes. You can check them out here. All three schools were filled with students (the ones I worked with) who had a desire to learn and the capacity to get how language works and translate that into their own poems; however, even though their creative abilities paralleled, their academic outcomes were wildly disparate. The kids I work with at the D.C. Creative Workshop's after school program at Hart--all of them either Hart students or former Hart students--rewrote Our Town and then made a movie out of it. The trailer is just a glimpse of what access and opportunity can do.

Still, the main difference among the three schools is the chaos that exists in the hallways at the public schools, the utter audacity of these 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-old mouths and the relative respect the students at the other schools seem to expect to have to give. I'm tired of seeing the reasons for this documented. I began to list my own reasons, but the reasons are in every Kozol book, in just about every study on successful charter schools, in every study on successful schools in general. 

Does anyone remember that Cosby show spin-off? With the Doug E. Doug, who played Popsicle in Class Act? There was an episode where the schools had a teacher draft and the top teachers were getting paid millions of dollars. That's my proposal for school reform. Don't pay me well because of how my class of students performed on a test--pay me well because my education, my academic performance, and my past teaching experience all tell you in advance exactly what you're getting.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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