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The Crisis Story, and “What’s Your Alternative?”

September 16, 2010

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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 6:42 pm

    Soundly written Sabrina. I find it interesting that our policy makers so often miss the value of everyday daily formative assessment that informs teachers. I thought it so strange until I realize that so many of our policy makers have little or no experience teaching. Teachers understand assessment doesn’t drive teaching children do. Much of the data policy makers want does not take into account if a child is tired, sick, or hungry. Let me give you an actual example Anthony a third grader scored at the intervention level on our Connecticut Mastery test. No one understood how this reader became a non-reader over night. Well they send him to our Literacy Center. We worked with him he seems to be a decent reader, but not a motivated one. He just seem non interested and distance at times.
    Now the difference between those policy maker standardized measures and what we do is we talk to students, their parents, and their teachers.
    We discovered Anthony’s father had died two years earlier, and his mother was serving in Iraq during the most intensive fighting of the war. Anthony drove our instruction not the test. We focused on helping him keep up with schoolwork, and his reading.
    Anthony did a bit better on the Connecticut Mastery Test, but still well below proficiency. We continued focusing on keeping him up to date on his school, and keeping him positive. The following year Mom comes home, and Anthony is above goal on the Mastery Test again.
    I love to tell people there is the data that counts, and the data that really counts. For us we paid attention to the data that really counted, the fact that Anthony who already lost his father was afraid he would lose his mother. These things impact learning.
    Much of the current data we are collecting in schools these days is cold and devoid of any human emotion.
    Perhaps the real crisis is we are not listening to those we teach,

  2. Yvonne Siu-Runyan permalink
    September 16, 2010 7:56 pm

    Excellent, Sabrina. I agree with Jesse.

  3. Michael Fiorillo permalink
    September 16, 2010 8:05 pm

    Good points, well presented.

    Another dishonest aspect of the ed deform narrative is its ahistoricism. They totally ignore the multi-decade underfunding of urban public schools. In New York City, where I teach, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit conclusively demonstrated the systemic inequities in school funding throughout the state, at the expense of urban districts. In the 1970’s, as a result of deindustrialization and redlining by banks and insurers, the NYC schools suffered layoffs of 15,000 teachers, and the destruction of music, art and guidance programs. It took a generation for the schools to begin to recover, only to then by hit by the wave of bogus accountability rhetoric and standards.

    Where were all these people then? Most of them were enriching themselves – as they now plan to continue to do by privatizing the schools, by branding them as “failing” – and sending their own kids to private schools with 15 students in a class and enrichment that public school students and teachers cannot even imagine.

    • September 17, 2010 9:13 am

      Well put! And isn’t it interesting, too, that someone can walk into a powerful position at a school district, without ever even attempting to study the history of that district (let alone education more generally)…It’s just crazy.

      I think that if you’re going to run a school district, you should be required to put your children in those schools. Imagine how the conversation about curriculum, or class size reduction, would change if it were their kids bored to tears with drill-and-kill nonsense, or shoved into a room so crowded they had to sit at the teacher’s desk during lessons!

  4. Bernard permalink
    September 17, 2010 4:42 am

    Good piece, Sabrina. There is a crisis, just not the one that the “reformers” are talking about. There is a movement for change. Just not the retrograde, anti-democratic one being foisted on us by giant foundations, teacher bashers, and testing industry. But we do have to make the alternatives known. Keep writing.

    • September 17, 2010 9:08 am

      Thanks for reading! You’re absolutely right, we do need to share our ideas– as said, I’m happy to have that conversation (and we nod to that by having our Saturday Solutions piece, etc.). I just think we need to stop giving in to the notion that ideas from practitioners ourselves are “the alternative.” Educators need to reclaim the mainstream, and push people who want to undermine public education (and profit in the process) back to the fringe. I believe that’s one part of what’s failing our schools– the crazy idea that teachers don’t know what they’re doing, and need to be fixed by people who have no clue what they’re doing. Glad we’re on the same side 🙂

  5. Political consultant permalink
    September 17, 2010 3:49 pm


    You are absolutely right about the dominant narrative, which is bunk. The problem is that it has the features that a public policy narrative requires, and educators on the other side do not have a viable counter-narrative.

    As correct as you are about the false assumptions, that is not an argument that educators can win. Educators saying, “No, we’re not obstructionists” is like arguing over how many communists there are in the state department.

    What qualities must a counter-narrative have in order to turn the debate in educators’ favor?
    (1) A clear and credible answer to that question, “What should be done instead?”; and
    (2) A bad guy.

    The bad guy is easy. The “reform” movement is being led by politicians, lawyer-cum-lifelong-bureaucrat chancellors, hedge fund managers, oh, and newspaper editors. Enough said.

    “What should be done instead” is what educators need to come together on. To me, focusing on standards and curriculum is a huge mistake. Do the teachers out there really believe that changing the curriculum is going to make failing kids successful?

    Why are kids failing, and what would it take to turn them around? Educators need to come up with a sensible answer to that question and start repeating it the way the “reformers” keep saying “accountability” and “teacher effectiveness.”

    The alternative is, educators will know better, but the “reform” agenda will prevail.

    • September 19, 2010 7:53 am

      Fair point. So what do you think our “buzzwords” should be?

  6. jennaream permalink
    September 19, 2010 9:09 am

    Sabrina, Great post that presents a well reasoned argument as to what is wrong with current reform efforts. I, too, support your advocacy that “What’s the Alternative” is not the answer- as every school, every district, in every region of the country have both similar and different needs. What might be an answer in one community, may not be in another. So, what if instead of seeking new answers, we seek to highlight what IS working, right now, within and in spite of our current regulations and then seek to understand WHY these classrooms, teachers, schools and/or districts support quality teaching and learning? Our goal in this project would not be to find elements that could be replicated or scaled (though, certainly, many of them will be great for that purpose) but instead to UNDERSTAND the interlocking elements that at this specific point in time, support high quality learning. I think that if we engage in teacher/administrator/community inquiry we can identify what is and is not working in any given setting. My guess is, even amongst the dibeling and disenfranchising rampant in our most data driven schools, we all can identify a bright spot to recognize and build on. If, while working to do best from within, we as educators share our personal, professional opinions of what is going right AND wrong in our schools, we can help the voting public and our elected decision-makers recognize that comprehensive, one-size fits all reform is NOT the answer and identify better paths to improvement appropriate within our schools.

    • September 19, 2010 12:26 pm

      Amen, Jenna! Your point about looking at what’s going right is especially resonant. For instance, in the school I was in, there was some *fantastic* collaboration among teachers (despite the personal sacrifices that making that time entailed). Some of my colleagues teamed up to work on a mystery unit that successfully turned reluctant readers into voracious ones (and greatly aided their comprehension). Many of us teamed up to create reading buddies and cross-age tutoring across grade levels. Our librarian spent her own time to help teachers help students make time for research projects and other things that interested them. (And, not to brag, but my students and I worked really hard to create the sort of community that rejected bullying and violence– too common in our school– to embrace the class motto, “Don’t Hate, Collaborate!” and write a song about it. I’m still SO proud of them I could cry!

      I believe that kind of hard work would pay off in the long run, but that matters little to the powers that be. I, and other teachers like me, have been blacklisted from our district for speaking out about the problems we see in our school reform culture. As it stands, that school will probably not exist in its current form (and a considerable number of staff members may be fired– it is in the process of being “turned around”) because those changes didn’t register in most of the grades’ test scores. Who can look at this and call it progress?

  7. Political consultant permalink
    September 19, 2010 6:15 pm

    What IS working: schools in middle-class communities, basically everywhere in the country.

    What isn’t working: high-needs, segregated schools, principally in big cities.

    This is the basic fact of education, and ‘reformers’ refuse to address it. The answer to “but some schools succeed” is: “You don’t base policy on the rare exception, you base it on the norm.”

    What doesn’t work is taking high concentrations of high-needs kids and expecting them to succeed by working harder, or telling their teachers to work harder.

    Want a buzzline? “Showing kids they’re failing doesn’t make them succeed.” [Same for teachers.]

    What will make them succeed . . . depends entirely on what is holding them back.

    And we know what this is. Kids from disadvantaged homes are known to start school behind their middle-class peers–not just in cognitive skills, but more importantly in soft skills. So, middle-class kids not only begin with a head start, they are also faster learners. Given that reality, to expect the slower learners to catch up is unreasonable. To call from the sidelines, “Come on, you can do it” is cruel.

    We have to start earlier and do more, to teach kids, not reading and math, but how to learn.

    More buzzlines? How about:

    1. Kids don’t fail for no reason.

    2. Show me a fourth grader who can’t pass the state math test, and I’ll show you a child for whom learning is difficult.

    3. Anyone who is not addressing the cause of the problem doesn’t have a solution.

    • September 19, 2010 8:11 pm

      I disagree with your assessment of the differences between middle class and low-income children. Having worked with kids in affluent independent schools and kids in low-income communities, I’d have to say on average that I’m *consistently* more impressed with the poor kids, cognitively-speaking. They’re really good at thinking deeply and making connections, they just tend to lack the kinds of social presentation skills we value in school, and they don’t necessarily have the command of Standard English that most of us associate with being smart/educated. They also just don’t go for BS (which is pretty rampant in the dry curriculum we’re stuck with these days; when you actually tap into meaningful things with them– or all kids, really– the power of their thinking is quite impressive). I stand by my belief that if we actually had/used culturally-neutral ways of assessing children, there would be no achievement gap.

  8. September 19, 2010 10:15 pm

    Just a comment for Political Consultant to “What isn’t working: high-needs, segregated schools, principally in big cities.” Actually over the last year or two, efforts that have been going on in urban school are finally getting above the radar. Is just one of many. If you’re interested you might stop by at #ecosys on twitter, where we are collecting more examples of amazing things happening in urban education in the States.

    No doubt the “crisis” narrative is mostly for getting votes for politicians and viewers for bloggers and media sites. That unfortunately is to be expected.

    A bigger concern is that the crisis for urban high school kids has been going on for much too long. Given the human damage every day, it seems to me that we are facing the “Fierce Urgency of Now.” No doubt some mistakes will be made and there will be some human damage to the good teachers. It occurs to me that the question the education professionals need to answer is
    “What is your alternative Now.”

  9. Political consultant permalink
    September 20, 2010 6:12 pm

    “if we actually had/used culturally-neutral ways of assessing children, there would be no achievement gap.”



  1. Changing the Narrative « Chart.Ed
  2. What if the “cure” is making us sicker? « Failing Schools
  3. What if the “cure” is making us sicker? « Failing Schools « Parents 4 democratic Schools
  4. Saving Schools from the ‘Supermen’ #RTTT @GovernorMarkell « Transparent Christina
  5. More Criticism of “Superman” | The Ruth Group
  6. Saturday Solutions: Humanize Schools « Failing Schools
  7. Humanize schools « Education News Colorado Opinion & Commentary
  8. “But no one’s saying test scores should be *everything*…” « Failing Schools
  9. “If the students are doomed from the start…” :: Sabrina Stevens Shupe

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