Sunday, November 15, 2015

Guest Post: No Excuse, Deceptive Metrics and School Success

Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher in the Boston area. She's currently teaching in a public school, but her previous experience is with one of the region's high-achieving charter chains. She has written here about both her experience and some lessons from it, and I'm pleased to publish this here with her permission.


           Sixteen seven- and eight-year olds sit in a circle on the floor. On the wall to their left— the first thing they see upon entering and exiting the classroom, always done in complete silence— is a list of individual “Assessment Goals.” (This “no excuses” charter network creates its own high-stress tests, which all students take at least five times per month, beginning in kindergarten.) One student´s math goal reads, “I only use strategies that I know.” All are written in the teacher’s handwriting. Others include, “I read my work over so I don´t make careless mistakes.” “I begin each sentence with a capital letter.” “I draw base-ten blocks to show my work.”
On the wall to their right is a list of the class averages from the last six network assessments (taken by all second graders across the charter network´s three campuses), all of which are in the 50s and 60s. Even though these two-hour tests are designed by network leaders to be exceptionally challenging— a class average of an 80% is the holy grail of teachers, who use their students´ scores to compete for status and salary increases— this class´s scores are the lowest in the school, and the students know it.
The teacher speaks to them in a slow, measured tone. “When I left school here yesterday, after working hard all day to give you a good education so you can go to college, I felt disappointed. I felt sad.”
Shoulders drop. Children put their faces in their hands.
“And do you know why?” The teacher looks around the circle; children avert their eyes.
One child raises her hand tentatively. “We didn´t do good on our tests?”
The teacher nods. “Yes, you didn´t do well on your assessments. Our class average was very low. And so I felt sad. I went home and I felt very sad for the rest of the day.”
The children nod resignedly. They´ve heard this many times before.
Suddenly, one child, an eight-year-old who has been suspended for a total of sixteen days for repeatedly failing to comply with school rules, raises his hand. The teacher looks at him. “I am noticing that there is a question.”
The child tilts his head. “What does average mean?” Several children nod; it seems that they, too, have been wondering this, but have been too afraid to ask.
The teacher sighs. “It´s a way to tell if everyone in this room is showing self-determination. And what I saw yesterday is that we are not. Scholars in Connecticut College” —at the school, children are “scholars,” and classrooms are named after four-year colleges— “are not less smart than scholars in UMass. But the scholars in UMass got a 78% average.”
One girl pipes up. “And we only got a 65%!”
The teacher moves the child´s clothespin a rung down on the “choice stick” for speaking out of turn. “And the scholars in Lesley got a 79%. The scholars in UMass and the scholars in Lesley are not smarter than you are. They do not know how to read better than you.” She looks around. “They do not know how to write better than you.” Suddenly, her voice rises in volume. “Scholars, what can we do to show UMass and Lesley that we are just as smart as they are?”
The children look to the list of “assessment goals” posted on the wall. They raise their hands, one by one.
“I will read my work over so I don´t make mistakes.”
The teacher nods.
“I will begin every sentence with a capital letter.”
“I will do my best work so you don´t get sad anymore.”
The teacher smiles. “Good.”

            This teacher— with whom I co-taught a second grade class— is now a high-level administrator and “instructional coach” at the school. It is her job to ensure that the school’s instructors (almost all of whom are white) to “teach” using these dehumanizing, teacher-focused tactics with their students (almost all of whom are children of color from low-income families.) The school is one of several Boston-area “no excuses” charters that receive major accolades (and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and prizes) for their high scores on state standardized tests. Supporters and leaders of these schools claim that the high scores extracted using these methods prove that the schools are “closing the achievement gap.” Look, they say, pointing to the score reports: poor black kids in Boston are outperforming rich white kids in Newton and Brookline and Wellesley.
            And, indeed, this data is compelling. Its very existence teaches a powerful lesson that this country needs to hear: children of color from low-income homes can outperform wealthy white children on standardized tests, which are the metrics that we as a society have decided mean…well, something.
            The problem is that standardized test scores mean very little. On the only tests that do mean a tremendous amount for these students— the SSATs— students at the school I taught at perform abysmally. Subsequently, these same middle schoolers who often dramatically outperform their wealthy white peers on these tests are not accepted in large numbers to the most selective high schools (and most of those who do struggle socially and emotionally when thrust into student bodies that aren’t upwards of 98% students of color); struggle to succeed academically in high school (81% earn high school grade-point averages below 3.0 in the first semester); and certainly do not thrive after high school, graduating from college at very low rates and, among those who don’t go to college, failing in large numbers to secure full-time employment.
Correlation is not causation, after all; the fact that those wealthy white students who do well on state standardized tests go on to enjoy tremendous opportunities, in education and in life, does not mean that these scores cause these outcomes. This fallacy, however, constitutes the fuel of the no-excuses runaway train, and leads to the dehumanization of children of color at schools like the one at which I taught. At this school, children are deprived of a comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and humane education; instead, they are subjected to militaristic discipline, excessive amounts of testing (well beyond that which is already mandated by the state), a criminally deficient amount of playtime (in a nine-hour school day, kindergartners have twenty minutes of recess), and lack of access to social-emotional curricula— all so that the people who run their schools can make a political point.
            If we are to improve the educational prospects of this country’s most at-risk students, we need to examine our educational practices and institutions using metrics that matter. Standardized test scores are easier to obtain and compare than data which are nuanced, holistic, and, to the extent possible, representative of aspects of K-12 education which enable and predict access to higher education and opportunities in life. (The fact that we have not yet found the perfect embodiment of the latter by no means excuses the continued use of the former.) Our obsession with meaningless, deceptive standardized test scores creates schools, like the “no excuses” charter at which I taught, which seem to excel— but fail in the ways that truly matter. There is simply no excuse.


  1. Making young children feel guilty in order to get a bigger paycheck is repulsive behavior from an adult. But that is what is described at the beginning of this post. The teacher and school describe there were simply using the children as a means for the financial gain of the teacher and the school. That's wrong.

  2. I think it's more indicative of the standardization push and the misperception of teaching and learning in a neoliberal context. Also, it's why merit pay is wrong and retention based on test scores doesn't work.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brad. What do you mean?

  3. Wow. The headline for this one should come with a warning for those of us who thought having a snack while reading would be a good idea. *barf*

    Scary scary stuff.

  4. I want to cry and throw up simultaneously. Any school that operates like this should be shut down. And not by the state- by child protective services. NINE HOUR DAY? That is against labor laws for ADULTS without the required amount of breaks. Posting results? An adult putting the blame for her "sadness" squarely on the shoulders of a young child? Its criminal. Additionally, I fear this concept that it's ok to treat children like this is culturally infectious. Though nothing like this post, you can feel a disregard for the true needs of children and the idea that it's a teachers job to engage, care for and motivate young children in a way that honors their age and attempts to bring joy to their days slowly creeping into classrooms everywhere. How long can we say things like "every kindergartner must know how to read" before we all actually believe it.? How long can we say third graders must be able to pass an age-inappropriate online standardized test in order to move on to fourth grade before everyone believes that's reasonable? How long can this go on? We are deeply damaging an entire generation of children. It's merciless.

  5. This story makes me want to cry. How horrific to make students feel guilty about their class average. In my class we laugh and cheer when someone does well. We DO NOT penalize those who have not yet mastered a skill, instead we wait for them to master it then celebrate! I am a teacher with 34 years in the profession. I will not buckle to the reformsters!

  6. That teacher's words sounds like something from an evil stepmother in a Disney movie. Her name didn't happen to be Malificent, did it?

  7. Is this legal?
    Where are the parents of these children?
    Who exactly thinks this is anything short of state-sanctioned child abuse?
    Where is CPS?!
    I agree with a previous commentor - I don't know whether to cry or throw up.

  8. At my age, I've unfortunately become numb to the effects of a lot of the stupidity that goes on in schools, so an emotional response to a report like this is rare. However, reading this almost brings me to tears. Nine hours of school for 5 year olds is insane, but 20 minutes of recess in that 5 hours is child abuse. And for what? So the kids can go on to fail in high school or college when the reality of the income achievement gap hits them square in the eyes?

    The really sad thing is that parents are filling waiting lists to get into these kinds of schools. What they need is a little truth-in-advertising.

  9. Sadly, this is what happens when students are no longer the center of education; rather than student-centered classrooms, the center of teaching becomes the teachers and schools themselves. Learning becomes the mastery of rote skills, memorization, and the ability to take tests rather than rich experiences and conceptual understanding which students use to make connections, think critically, and solve relevant problems; all of which last beyond the duration of a test or the walls of a classroom. But because the education system uses such measures to evaluate students and schools, the problem seems unsolvable without radical and sweeping changes. Such changes often seem impossible, too distant, or just too big to tackle. What I believe is that the solution lies with individual teachers and schools. How can I make my classroom, my school more student-centered today and from now on? The shift back to or to student-centered teaching/learning requires more work, more metacognition, more courage, and will ultimately lead to more student success, for any student and for all students.

  10. Wow, this was horrifying. She had the opportunity to teach the kids what average means and totally blew it to instead do some sort of horrible guilt trip. I'm so glad my kids go to plain old public school.

  11. This teacher's use of psychological manipulation of children through guilt is truly horrifying. The no excuses testing regime is sadistic to start, and then the teacher makes kids feel guilty on top of that? The purpose of education is not to get kids to take care of the teacher's emotions. It feels sick and tortuous. Why are we paying for people to do this to kids?

  12. That teacher sounds like the Mary Tyler Moore character in ORDINARY PEOPLE, with her students getting the same treatment that she dished out to her son, played by Timothy Hutton got

    (Boy, that reference sure dates me.)

  13. After 35 years teaching in higher ed, I can tell you've I've seen many of these students. Their eyes don't meet yours, their shoulders are slumped, and their attitude is "I can't." The hardest, hardest part of teaching in higher ed has been reeducating those kids and getting them to believe "I can." It starts with critical thinking, which begins in English classes with discussion, not testing.

  14. Based on the comments I've read so far, there is agreement that this type of teaching is wrong and has no place in education. The real discussion should be around what to do about it. I'm in Georgia and there will be a vote this fall to amend the State constitution that allows the Governor to take over 'failing' schools; failure defined using test scores, and use charter organizations to take over those schools. This is all based on impressions made on the Governor and key legislators when they visited New Orleans schools, the trip paid for by a leading Charter company. If you follow the money, you can get to the root cause of the problem. I regularly contact my state Senator and Assemblyman explaining to them the folly of this approach. I know for the most part it falls on deaf ears, but I continue because I want my voice to be heard. After 34 years in education, a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and extensive experience working with dedicated teachers to reach the 'whole child', I have a right to be heard, as do all of the people who have commented so far. It's time to speak up!

  15. Is this fiction? Is this a horror story? Does this really happen? Of course this is an accurate report but my brain is having a fit. This is child abuse disguised as education.

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