The Crisis Story, and “What’s Your Alternative?”
Posting today after pondering Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story“, California teacher David Cohen discussed the danger of the single story that has emerged about American public education.
Now, I’m going to exaggerate – but only slightly – in suggesting that the “single story” about American education right now goes like this: our wholly inadequate public school system is in crisis, staffed by barely-competent teachers who count on their lifetime tenure to shield them from accountability as they sit in dropout factories and preside over classes of uninspired students who are being surpassed in every way by the rest of the world. But there is hope! Armed with national standards, bolstered by reams of data, declining tenure and embracing merit pay, TFA interns will work 80 hour weeks at charter schools serving voucher-carrying kids – and save the day! We don’t have to keep waiting for Superman forever!
But as Adichie points out, when you have a single story, other information doesn’t seem to fit. If schools are failing and American students are falling behind, then success stories make no sense…
I agree that the Crisis Narrative is the overwhelmingly dominant (if not single) story about education today. As I speak with others about what I’ve experienced and am learning in the course of this project, I keep encountering a question that walks hand-in-hand with the Crisis Narrative: “What’s your alternative?”
For instance, Alan Gottlieb of Education News Colorado has been asking those of us who don’t agree with the current reform regime to state what we would do instead. Now, I do not necessarily object to this. I’m happy to have this conversation with people, because I recognize that the people asking such a question are usually acting in good faith and attempting to bridge differences (unlike the hardened “reform” types, who consider any and all dissent to be “devastating”).
But the reason I view it as part of the Crisis story, and not a purely independent question, is because of the assumptions the question carries. Implicit in that question are two assumptions born of the Crisis Narrative:
- Prior to the advent of certain reform activities, little or nothing worthwhile was happening in the schools
- Educators themselves were not (or, presently are not) engaging in the process of trying to improve schools before the non-educator “reformers” stepped in, and would not have done so without their urging.
Both of these assumptions are false. I’ll share a specific incident to illustrate why.
As most readers know by now, I most recently taught in a “failing” school. Because of its persistently low test scores, the school faced the threat of serious sanctions as a result. As a fifth-grade teacher, I had students in my classroom whose reading achievement was as much as five years below what is expected in fifth grade. The majority (60%) were somewhere between one and three years below. As a Reading First school, we were given money to spend on interventions and assessments that are “scientifically based” (as defined by the Bush administration). One such assessment is DIBELS, which at my grade level measures students’ oral reading rate (how many words they can correctly say in a minute).
Now, this test is fraught with problems I won’t fully dissect here. My main problems with it last year, though, were that we were using it inappropriately, and that it didn’t provide useful information. For instance, our data team would aggregate student DIBELS performance by class and use it as a performance metric for teachers (class-by-class performance was displayed monthly during faculty meetings, noted on evaluations, etc.). At best, DIBELS can identify students who may have trouble reading and monitor their progress, but it is not an achievement test. The scores should never have been aggregated or displayed that way. Moreover, I already knew which students struggled with reading. What I needed to know was why. In this situation, the most useful thing to do is a miscue analysis. (Folks interested in learning the technical aspects of that should follow the link. I’ll spare everyone else :))
When I first raised these issues with my administration, I was dismissed. I continued to resist– however short the DIBELS might be, having to do it monthly (sometimes bi-weekly, for certain students) for 32 kids is a sizable time commitment. And given the urgency of my students’ reading needs, why would I spend any time doing something useless?
Finally, in a rare moment of honesty, my principal admitted that he agreed with me, and he explained why they were pushing this test. From the resulting e-mail exchange (emphasis mine):
…[F]olks from central office– especially if they don’t know the developmental stages of reading– need a graph or something to “judge” whether [our school] is moving. They also tend to want to see things that cannot be subjectively scored by us.
I find it hard to get most higher-ups to look at the body of evidence [students' work which offers evidence of their learning]; it was the same case when I worked in [another city] as a consultant. After some frustration, I determined that they just don’t know what they’re looking at so they don’t look at it…
However useful miscue analysis (and other alternatives) may be for actual learning, they don’t count outside of the classroom. That kind of information (true data, instead of Data) can’t easily be displayed on a graph, and the powers that be don’t trust us, nor do they understand what they’re examining. I fought this and a few other battles as much as I could, but we know how that turned out.
Consider the implications of that for a moment.
- Highly qualified teachers like me have been pressured to do things that are educationally unsound, when we’re ready and willing to pursue better options.
- Many of us have been punished for exercising sound professional judgment and resisting.
- Far from imposing necessary accountability and improving achievement, our leaders’ ignorance about teaching and learning encouraged behavior among staff that prevented improvements in classroom practice and learning. We were forced to spend time on bogus assessments and then take additional time away from instruction to perform useful ones.
Before No Child Left Behind, and Goals 2000, and “A Nation At Risk” and all the other Crisis dogma (and during, and ever since) teachers and scholars have worked together to try to understand how people learn and how we can bring that understanding to bear on classroom teaching practice. That’s our job. While taking our prep courses, and in our continuing education afterwards, we grapple with the purpose of education, and our philosophies as educators, and think of ways to engage all learners, and figure out how to make learning authentic and meaningful and accessible for all. (Just like lawyers study law at law school, and doctors study medicine in med school!) That’s what we do.
In this light, asking educators for our “alternatives” to the business-driven tenets of the current “reform” movement (however innocently) is completely backward. Teachers should not be in the position of defending their work to “reformers” paid by hedge fund managers. They should have to prove to all of us–teachers, students, and parents– that they are bringing something worthwhile to the table! This is especially true when we consider what they’ve brought so far: three decades of increased profits for private industries (while budget cuts ravage everything that isn’t related to the collection, dissemination, and improvement of Data), more testing and less instruction, and more instability and turmoil in the schools that can least afford it.
We’ve lost hundreds of billions of dollars, and too many students, to this PR game. Let’s start questioning the Crisis Story, and the real status quo.