October 01, 2002 6 min read
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HIGH STAKES: Children, Testing, and Failure in American Schools, by Dale Johnson and Bonnie Johnson (Rowman & Littlefield, 248 pages, $22.95).

The Johnsons, husband-and-wife education professors at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, took unpaid leaves of absence during the 2000-01 school year to teach 3rd and 4th grades at Redbud Elementary in the impoverished rural Louisiana town of the same name. They wanted to reacquaint themselves with the realities of classroom teaching. But more important, they wanted to observe the effects of the state’s accountability system on teachers and students. Louisiana, like many other states, uses high-stakes testing: 4th and 8th graders who fail the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, known as LEAP, must repeat the grade.

Accountability pressures, the Johnsons discover a few days into the school year, determine almost everything that happens at Redbud. Administrators, fearing for their jobs, urge their faculty to embark upon a stiff regimen of test preparation; everything else, a workshop presenter tells the teachers, is “fluff.” Subjects such as art, literature, and speech are seen as irrelevant and are virtually ignored.

High Stakes is written as a series of journal entries, and by October the Johnsons’ entries are seething with indignation. As they see it, the accountability system is rooted in hypocrisy, since the people who promote it—Louisiana politicians and highly paid education bureaucrats—have refused to be held accountable for the dismal condition of the public schools. Redbud Elementary, for example, is infested with cockroaches and rodents and has no hot water or playground equipment. Classroom supplies never seem to find their way to the school, so teachers, whose earnings average $26,000 a year, often have to buy their own.

As part of the accountability plan, teachers at Redbud, the Johnsons included, must document their weekly lesson plans in astonishing detail, using 44 different instructional codes. The principal collects these written plans, sometimes on the spur of the moment. And yet when one teacher asks the district for a simple set of flashcards, she is told to fill out several forms and a grant application.

If the teachers are bad off—many end up leaving after only a year or two—the children tend to have it far worse. Home life, in particular, can be dismal. Many come from broken families with parents who are in prison or addicted to one drug or another. Life can be tough at school, too. The assistant principal regularly paddles students who step out of line. One school rule stipulates that “no child should be paddled more than once a day, and no more than three licks should be given.”

But the worst punishment of all, the Johnsons write, may be the LEAP test, administered in the spring. Some kids get sick beforehand. Others, in a panic, randomly fill in the answer sheet’s bubbles. The spring the Johnsons are at the school, 54 of the 118 students in the 4th grade fail the test, and that, it turns out, is an improvement over the previous year. After the results are announced, teachers and students alike are devastated and overcome with emotion. One girl blurts out, “I am going to kill myself.”

Despite this, the children retain an almost heartbreaking sweetness. They tell their teachers they love them and apologize for not doing better on their schoolwork. When asked to describe the big problems in the world, they write about things like “drugs,” “the water bill,” “old shoes,” and “the LEAP test.”

The Johnsons conclude their book with a number of suggestions for reform, including the equalization of school funding and the use of other evaluative tools, such as portfolios and good, old-fashioned teacher judgment. Of course, we’ve heard all of this before. What we haven’t heard in some time, though, is a first-person account of schooling this harrowing and honest. Let’s hope that High Stakes finds readers in high places.

HARD LESSONS: The Promise of an Inner City Charter School,by Jonathan Schorr (Ballantine, 325 pages, $26.95).

Schorr, a former Los Angeles public school teacher and reporter for the Oakland Tribune, spent three years—from 1999 to 2002—examining the burgeoning charter school movement in Oakland, California. In particular, he immersed himself in the daily routines of the E.C. Reems Academy, one of two Oakland charter schools operated by School Futures, a nonprofit, pro-voucher organization based in San Diego and funded by billionaire, Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

Dozens of books about charter schools have appeared in recent years, but Schorr’s is different in terms of both its novelistic approach and its meticulous fair- mindedness. While he fully appreciates why desperate parents have turned to unproven education alternatives—their children have long been trapped in failing district schools—Schorr never succumbs to the temptation of portraying charter educators as heroic rescuers.

He depicts Reems’ temperamental principal and well-intentioned but green teachers as overwhelmed. Just like their public school counterparts, they must contend with low test scores and high faculty turnover. And Walton’s entrepreneurial School Futures comes across as no more efficient than the ossified Oakland public schools’ bureaucracy. The organization occasionally misses payroll, and when problems arise at the school, it flies in officials who hector the staff and then fly out.

On the positive side, Schorr finds that Reems, for all of its problems, has better morale and a stronger sense of community than most conventional urban schools, largely because of its small size and intense parental involvement. In the end, the author concludes that terrific charter schools exist in Oakland and elsewhere. But parents expecting such schools to be “an automatic ticket to excellence,” he writes, stand to be disappointed.

THE CLEVELAND VOUCHER CASE, by David Brennan (Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, 122 pages, $18.95).

Brennan, a wealthy Ohio businessman, was one of the principal movers behind Cleveland’s famous 1995 voucher program, which pays for a number of city students to attend private schools, including those with religious affiliations. As he relates here, the program’s creation and survival, now guaranteed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, are nothing short of miraculous. Although an overwhelming number of Cleveland parents favored the plan—7,000 applied for vouchers the first year they were available—it had to overcome resistance from the city’s public school establishment and numerous legal challenges.

Brennan first turned to vouchers after public school officials refused to adopt a successful literacy program he had put in place in his steel plants. Rebuffed, he not only put his energies into the Cleveland plan but also opened two schools for voucher students, both of which rely heavily upon computerized instruction and firm discipline. He later converted these schools, neither of which sounds particularly innovative or compelling, to charters so they could receive more state funding.

It is impossible at this early stage to gauge the overall success of the Cleveland voucher program or of Brennan’s schools. With any luck, they will prove more effective than the prose in this book, which includes sentence fragments, clumsy transitions, and incorrectly used semicolons. Indeed, judging by the writing, one might conclude that Brennan himself attended the Cleveland public schools he so disparages.

—David Ruenzel


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