News & Politics

Have Our Schools Become Educational Plantations?

Is high-stakes testing turning our teachers into 21st Century overseers -- and our schools into latter day plantations?

Photo Credit: Robert Crum via Shutterstock.com

This is a strange time to be involved in education. Either those shaping education policy on the state and federal level -- many of whom have never been teachers -- are incapable of imagining the consequences of their policies in actual classrooms, or they are cynically trying to destroy public education in the United States.

No better example of this is the now widely practiced policy of rating teachers based on student test scores, and using variations in those scores, through the “value added” formula, as the basis for determining teachers professional standing. All throughout the nation teachers are being told that if they don’t raise student test scores, they could lose their tenure, lose their jobs, and in some places be publicly humiliated as an “incompetent teachers.” If they work in a high poverty school, their school could be closed and their entire teaching staff fired.

While this performance based model may make sense in a business environment, it can have dangerous consequences in a class room, especially in high poverty schools. When teachers are told they can lose their jobs if they don’t get students to perform well on standardized tests, it puts them in an adversarial relationship with young people who are often wounded, needy, and in desperate need of individual attention. Nowhere is this tension more manifest than in the community [where] I have the deepest connection to people working in the public schools: the Bronx.

Yesterday, I received the following email from a retired teacher involved in teacher training and mentoring:

“ I was just talking to close friend who works in PS 33 Bx. Jerome, near Fordham. He told me of three young teachers crying, saying they couldn't take it any more. One was taken away in an ambulance with panic attack. This is why we have to speak out.”

I wish I could say this situation was idiosyncratic. But last spring, one of my former students, a brilliant young English teacher at a Bronx high school, left her job because she couldn’t stand the pressure to achieve results on standardized tests in the face of the overwhelming personal issues her students confronted. When she told her students that she was going, one wrote, “Why do the best ones always leave.”

Tough luck you might say. These young people clearly aren’t suited to be teachers in the new standards and performance based environment we are creating.

But you can only say that, I contend, if you don’t know the young people in Bronx schools. Many come emotionally wounded, some are hungry (literally), others are sleep deprived, many have language issues due to their recent immigrant status. All can learn, but some need special help in acquiring skills, and others, many others, need emotional support and nurturing. In this setting, abstract discipline universally imposed rarely works; multiple strategies based on individual relationships with children are required, reinforced by activities and relationships that extend outside the classroom. A good teacher in the Bronx must be part performer, part social worker, part tutor and part surrogate parent. The goal is not only skill acquisition, but learning to work cooperatively in a group environment without withdrawing into a shell or striking out in rage. If you think this is easy, I invite you to try it. Even in the best of circumstances, it is one of the most demanding jobs on the planet.

Now take a teacher who is using all of these strategies and tell her, or him, that they could lose their jobs if their students don’t do better on standardized tests. This fundamentally changes their multifaceted relationships with students to a single one: Overseer on an Educational Plantation. They not only have to make students absorb information at rate many of them can’t handle, but they have to make them sit still through days and days of testing that many, because of skill deficits, find profoundly humiliating.

This story, just told to me this morning, brings that conundrum to life with overwhelming force:

"An 18 year-old special needs child (but someone who still apparently had to pass one of the January tests) just kept looking at the test and putting his head on the desk. (My husband was a proctor in the room.) He said to his teacher (a new teacher of 2 years), 'Miss XXXXX - am I stupid?' She just sobbed and sobbed while assuring the child that he was NOT stupid and would do just fine in life. My husband came home (a veteran teacher of 34 years) and was sick all night."

I could not -- and still cannot -- read this story without my eyes tearing up. Is this the atmosphere we want to have in high needs schools? Do we want them to be a place where performance imperatives are imposed with a casual impersonality that ignores the circumstances of student’s lives because we have told ourselves “Poverty is not an excuse.” Do we want teachers who love and nurture young people or do we want cold, hard classroom leaders who drive students to perform at a pace they may not be ready to go, and in the process humiliate some students, enrage others, and drive others out.

Let me be blunt. Making teacher’s professional status dependent on student test scores is going to drive our most sensitive, creative, compassionate people out of the teaching profession. And with the best teachers gone, and instruction reduced to impersonal drilling by people who have immunized themselves against compassion, it will lead a whole generation of students to turn off school.

Both of these are happening as I speak. And they will only accelerate as new performance based assessments, such as the ones recently passed by the New York State Legislature, become law. 

 

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports.