Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.
I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.
Text dependent analysis question? Check.
Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.
Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.
The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.
And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.
He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.
He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.
“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.
“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”
But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.
The scores have gone down in the preceding year.
Nothing drastic but enough.
When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.
Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.
Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.
But look at these growth scores!
That’s where we can have an impact!
And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.
It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.
I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.
We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.
Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.
That’s just not how learning and teaching works.
We can INFLUENCE learning.
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.
But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.
Let me give you a real world example.
The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”
He refused to fix it.
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.
He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.
So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.
I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.
But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
And he still wouldn’t do it.
That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!
As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.
I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.
I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.
By all means – evaluate me on that.
But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.
To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.
And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.
That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.
Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.
Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.
Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.
How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?
How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?
How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?
Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.
He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?
A hand went up.
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?
To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.
But the meeting was already over.
The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.
I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.
This is madness, I thought.
Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.
The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.
They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.
Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.
These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.
Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?
Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?
Wake up, America.
It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.
Teachers can’t do it all alone.
Growth, achievement, whatever.
Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.
If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.
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