Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.
But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.
Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” And if I still taught in New York I’d be facing the prospect of having my name and ratings published in newspapers and on the internet if the Legislature gets its way in what the New York State Union of Teachers called the “name/shame/blame game.”
But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their own mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration. But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.
By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.
But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.
One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.
Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. He was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.
But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”
You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.
If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let down students like Tyler in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Beacon Broadside.