It is tempting to sit back and wait to see what happens when TEA takes over. They will wrap it up in a pretty package and make it look like they are helping our kids learn. But any model that prioritizes test scores and accountability above human beings will end up exactly how my school did. The only way to impose joyless learning is through rigid control, intimidation, and force. [En español aqui]
I originally wrote this story in 2014. The previous year, the school described below had been one of three showcase schools that facilitated Houston ISD winning the Broad Prize from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. It was a small-scale project established by former superintendent Terry Grier, a corporate reformer. The Broad Foundation also runs a superintendent training school called the Broad Academy. Mike Miles, TEA’s likely superintendent pick for HISD, graduated from this program, which trains future superintendents of urban public school districts to use testing and accountability to improve schools. This is what that looked like in action, at a Broad-approved model school.
A Year of Teaching to a High Stakes Test
June 28, 2014
As we waited in line for the copy machine one morning during second period, one of my fellow teachers announced loudly enough for everyone to hear her, “This year cannot end soon enough for me. I can’t take this place much longer.” She said it firmly, without her usual smile. There were murmurs of agreement, and she continued. “On my way to work every morning, when I get close to this building, my stomach starts to hurt.”
I nodded because I knew exactly what she meant. For me, driving to school in the mornings sometimes felt akin to moving my hand toward the burner of a lit stove, knowing that I would have to leave my hand on the hot plate all day. Sometimes, the heat would be turned up, sometimes down, but it would always be on. Usually I could bear it, but only just.
When I was hired to teach at a Title I middle school in Houston ISD, I thought that the greatest challenge I would face while teaching there would be the students, 93% of whom were classified as “economically disadvantaged.” And of course, middle schoolers in general, regardless of socioeconomic status, are not known for being a springtime picnic.
Though I knew coming in that the students would be challenging, I was not at all prepared for the real problems I would be facing, which mostly involved adults. When I accepted the job, I felt lucky to have been hired. The school had a good reputation, the principal had recently received a prestigious award in the district, and the building was clean and new. The faculty was young and vibrant.
However, at teacher orientation, the first few yellow warning flags began to pop up. First of all, I began to notice just how young the faculty really was. There didn’t seem to be any old timers in the mix. In fact, the longest tenure I could find among the teachers that I spoke to was three years. Second year teachers, it appeared, were treated like seasoned veterans.
When one of the new teachers asked a second-year veteran why there had been so many new hires that year, she responded with, “Oh, you’ll see.” And then, before we could press her for more information, she shook her head and walked away.
And when the students arrived, I saw what she meant. The school, it turned out, was run like a prison, and the teachers were expected to act as the jailers. School hours were from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., and every day, my students went the whole day without any break or recess. They got twenty minutes to eat lunch, but they were restricted to sitting at assigned tables in the cafeteria. Once they had their food, they were not allowed at any point to get up, run around, play, or hang out with friends. When they got too loud, the punishment was “silent lunch.”
As a result, student behavior deteriorated very predictably throughout the day, most noticeably after lunch because the kids had so much pent up energy. I became truly alarmed when I learned that a good percentage of my students were not even taking PE. Middle school students in Texas are only required to take PE for two out of the three years. This meant that many of my students got no physical activity at all during the day, except for walking from class to class. Some of my students who had failed their STAAR tests the previous year were not even allowed to take elective classes. Instead of art or band, they took two extra reading classes, for a total of 3 hours of reading instruction every day.
As an English teacher, I had each of my classes for ninety minutes every day. (Math, as the other highly tested subject, also got ninety-minute periods.) However, I was not allowed to give my students a break, not even a bathroom break, during the entire ninety-minute block. The administrators at my school emphasized and enforced “bell to bell instruction.” We were to “maximize instructional time,” allowing no room for breaks or any other funny business.
During the first week of school, unaware of this expectation, I gave my students a short break in the middle of class, and just as my students were standing up, an administrator walked in. When I explained to her why they were out of their seats, she snapped at the student in front of her, “Well! You must have learned a lot already if you deserve a break! What did you learn?” The student floundered around for an answer, but the message (intended for me) was clear.
I watched this punitive culture take its toll not just on me, but also on my colleagues. As the year went on, we grew quieter, less bold, more washed out. People kept their cards close. It was not an environment of collaboration but of shifting alliances and of trying to stay out of trouble. Asking for help was a sign of weakness, and appearing weak was ill-advised. By the end of the year, we grew closer, not out of shared ideas but out of shared misery.
Most of the administrators were mean and petty and ruled by intimidation. The first week of school, all new teachers were dive-bombed by a horde of five or six administrators who barged into our classrooms unannounced to observe whatever was happening. I heard stories of some teachers’ classes being interrupted and the teachers being criticized soundly in front of their students. In some cases, the principal actually took over the class and began teaching it herself.
The teacher evaluation process was also a nightmare. I was used to getting strong evaluations at my previous jobs, but I saw very quickly that that was not going to be the case at this job. My evaluator stuck to a district-issued rubric which was vague and arbitrary and filled with jargon. I was berated for not having my objective written correctly on the board and for not demonstrating in a very specific way that I had “high expectations” for my students. I was rated as a mediocre teacher. Based on what I had heard from colleagues, this was pretty well par for the course.
I learned later in the year that my school “hemorrhages” teachers (almost 50%) after every school year, and that giving low evaluations was one way that the principal could keep people tied to the school. It becomes much more intimidating to look for another job when you are concerned that you won’t get a good recommendation from your current supervisor. Rumors abounded that the principal would try to sabotage people who wanted to leave by giving them poor recommendations.
Though it quickly became evident that my new job was not all I had imagined it to be, I still subscribed to the old “shut your door” mentality of teaching and believed I would be able to do my own thing in my own classroom. I had big plans for teaching reading and writing, plans which had worked beautifully in all my previous years as a teacher.
But at this new school, the day after my students had begun brainstorming moments in their lives which had been truly important to them, my principal came storming into the English teacher meeting and shouted at us at the top of her lungs that last year’s writing scores had been unacceptable, and that we clearly did not know what we were doing. She told us that now we needed to do things her way.
Her way meant that we were now to give our students a number of standardized test prompts and have them write in response to those. In other words, instead of my students writing a personal narrative about a moment in their lives that was actually important to them, they would be writing a personal narrative in response to a STAAR test prompt, such as, “Write about a time you overcame a challenge,” or “Write about a time you made a decision.”
Writing, which had once been my favorite thing to teach, quickly became my least favorite. Instead of becoming independent writers who loved and felt empowered by what they were doing, my students became dependent on me to teach them formulaic ways of responding to formulaic questions. I was miserable and so were they.
Reading was not much better. An administrator once “caught” me letting my students read books instead of doing test prep. The administrator loudly pulled me out of the classroom to reprimand me. When I came back in and the administrator was gone, one of my students said, “Miss, did they yell at you? We were scared they weren’t going to let us read anymore.”
Ironically for a school that valued “high expectations” for its students, the principal did not seem to think that our students were capable of authentically learning and then later demonstrating this learning on a standardized test. All learning had to be in the context of the test or it didn’t count. Our students didn’t read books. They read test passages. We were meant to use our planning time to analyze old test questions and look for words and phrasings that might trip them up.
The principal instructed us English teachers to administer mock STAAR tests to our students twice every two weeks. She explained that if they did not have enough experience with the test, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves on test day. Each mock STAAR test took my kids three ninety-minute class periods to complete. Then, to make certain that we were doing the mock tests and taking them seriously enough, the principal ordered that the averages of our students’ scores on each test be posted in giant print in the seventh-grade hallway with our (the teachers’) names under them. The assumption was that teachers with poor scores would be humiliated enough to work harder to bring their students’ scores up.
Sadly, all of this focus on test prep didn’t leave my students with many marketable skills. After the STAAR test in May, when we had a few “dead” weeks of instruction with our students, I had my students read a story and answer some questions in writing. One girl raised her hand in distress. She did not feel comfortable answering questions in writing without multiple choice options to help her. (She would go on to pass her STAAR reading and writing tests, another “success” to add to the school’s state accountability rating.)
If it was bad for teachers, the school’s climate was worse for students. Administrators often used physical intimidation–sticking out their chests, screaming, having the campus officer put kids in handcuffs–to control the students. The discipline practices of the school relied heavily on sending repeat offenders to an alternative school. Students sent there would be gone for months and would come back with worse behavior issues than they left with.
Even small disciplinary issues were dealt with using threats and intimidation and sometimes the police. One morning, my class was loudly interrupted by a team of two administrators and one police officer. As they stormed into the room, I assumed it would be a drug raid. The students were ordered to step away from their desks and keep their hands at their sides. Then they were commanded to surrender any Sharpies that they were harboring. The students looked as confused as I did, but the brute squad was not smiling. The unfortunate ones who gave up their Sharpies were then sentenced to Saturday morning detention.
By spring, every single member of my teacher team had given notice that we would not be returning to the school the following year. We lived in fear because rumor had it that teachers who admitted that they were not coming back were considered disloyal and had huge targets on their backs. Retaliation could apparently take the form of bad evaluations or foot dragging with transfer forms—things which could compromise one’s ability to get a new job. Luckily for us, their revenge was minor. They told us that our lesson plans, which they had not looked at all year, were below par and needed to be completely rewritten. It could have been much worse, but we didn’t breathe easily until we all had our new contracts signed and in front of us.
I have never been happier to leave a job than I was to leave that one. During that year, I saw the consequences of high stakes standardized testing, consequences which created a toxic environment for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. When my colleague felt sick to her stomach driving to work every morning; when my suicidal student couldn’t find a time to meet with the counselor because the counselor was too busy preparing the campus for the upcoming STAAR test; when an administrator wouldn’t move a victim out of the same class as her bullies because they didn’t want to have schedule disruptions so close to the STAAR test; these were some unintended consequences of “accountability.”
Certainly we want to “hold schools accountable.” But the system that was designed on paper to deliver this accountability, when put into actual practice, is bringing human beings to their knees. The new schools that we have created are cruel, and they are unprecedented.
I don’t claim to have the answer to the accountability question. But I do know that we need to start by listening to public school teachers, students, parents, and administrators who see the consequences of these systems every day. If you are outside of the system, you may very well have an opinion, but you haven’t seen the cut marks and the bloodshot pot smoke eyes of the students who are barely hanging on. You haven’t heard the confidence slowly leak out of the voices of your colleagues as the year trudges by. You haven’t watched once rational adults, given just a little bit of power, become ruthless. If you are outside the system, the best thing you can possibly do is to put your opinions to the side. Your job now is to listen.
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