‘Drilling and Killing’

A Personal Story of What’s Wrong With Schools—And Right About School Reform

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Several reasonable criticisms can be made of the No Child Left Behind Act, but the most common is the least reasonable: that the federal testing requirements are transforming once-vibrant, exciting classrooms into lifeless drill machines, with teachers and students focused solely on preparations for “the tests.”

There may be a few such classrooms, but any teachers who start drilling-and-killing—and principals and superintendents who order such instruction—will be in for a sore disappointment. The best preparation for the kinds of low-level, not-very-difficult tests most states are giving is rich, vibrant, creative instruction that focuses carefully on developing the skill of reading and building the content knowledge of kids, so they can grasp big concepts and evaluate new information.

In fact, in classrooms where kids do well on state tests, observers do not see deadening drill-and-kill instruction. When I observed Linda Eberhart’s classroom in Baltimore’s Mount Royal Elementary/ Middle School, a school that draws from a tough neighborhood in a tough city and has performed at the top of the state in 5th grade math for years, it was jampacked with all the verve and creativity a teacher could ever be expected to produce.

But the truth is that—Linda Eberhart’s classroom notwithstanding—vibrant and creative classrooms are not and never were very common. A lot of research has been done on this question over the past decade or so, and it all points to what common-sense observation also tells us: Most schools have at least one terrific classroom—and sometimes more than one—but few kids have those vibrant, exciting classrooms in any given year. Poor kids, Latino kids, and black kids in particular have had very little access to those classrooms. For them, we run—and have run for a long time—classrooms dominated by worksheets, underprepared or overwhelmed teachers, and uninteresting curricula.

They have those kinds of classrooms because many of the people who run schools believe that only some children can learn, and that the academic obligation of the schools is solely to them. And the people who act on such beliefs have never before been called to account for their practices.

Permit me a personal anecdote to illustrate this point. When my older daughter was a freshman in high school (she graduated last spring), I sat on her school’s improvement team. Although we live in Montgomery County, Md., which prides itself on its “national reputation for excellence,” her school (and now her younger sister’s school) was not what Montgomery County prides itself on. Test scores are low, teacher turnover high, and the school is avoided by many middle-class families in my area.

At least some of that avoidance can be attributed to—let’s be blunt—sheer racism. My children’s high school is perhaps the most integrated school in America, with roughly equal percentages of black, white, Latino, and Asian students attending, many of them recent immigrants. And about one-third of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

I wasn’t worried about sending my daughters to school with the kids, though. I was, in fact, determined to do so. I hold fast to the ideal of the common school, where all children attend together and learn how to get along as preparation for democratic citizenry.

One teacher said to me, “Most of these kids will be hourly wage workers.” The implication was clear: College preparation would be a waste of time for them.

I was worried about sending them to school with the grown-ups. Although it is possible for a motivated student with good guidance to get a good high school education there, the high school was run as a poor-kids school, with all that implies. Crackling walkie-talkies, yelling administrators and security guards, disgusting bathrooms, and harsh punishments. The only thing it didn’t have was metal detectors. But harshness wasn’t the key problem. The key problem was the low academic expectations the grown-ups in the building had for most of the kids in the building. Many of the teachers told me to my face that the kids at the school couldn’t be expected to learn, and their classroom instruction, dominated by worksheets, coloring projects, droning voices, and videos, reflected that belief. One teacher said to me, with a dismissive tone, “Most of these kids will be hourly wage workers.” The implication was clear: College preparation would be a waste of time for them.

Never mind that most of “these kids,” if they manage to finish high school, enroll in the local community college. Because they are so poorly prepared, many of them have to repeat high school in remedial classes, and they struggle there. But they do go to college.

And yet, a guidance counselor told me that it was a “sin” to talk to most of the school’s students about four-year colleges and the grant and scholarship money that was available to attend them.

Mind you, many poor-kids schools are much, much worse than my child’s. They are more chaotic and have less-prepared teachers and fewer resources, making them in some cases dangerous places to be. But being a parent there sure has given me a little bit of an insight into what many poor kids and black and Latino kids and their parents have to endure every school day of their lives.

So there I was at the school-improvement-committee meeting. Someone at the state department of education had had the bright idea to require my child’s school to administer a reading test to all the incoming 9th graders in exchange for a special grant the state gave to struggling schools.

It turned out that about 60 of the incoming 9th graders read at the 12th grade level or higher. About 60 read at or below the 2nd grade level. The rest—several hundred—were arrayed in the middle.

There was a lot of head-shaking about those numbers.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Well, there’s nothing to do, but it does explain why our test scores are so low,” the principal replied.

Let me repeat that. “There’s nothing to do.” The principal of the high school was saying there was nothing to do to help his students who could not read.

“This is a crisis,” I countered. Those 60 kids who can’t read, I said, need emergency intervention. They can’t read the textbooks. They can’t learn high school material. They can’t do anything but fail. I was met with blank stares.

I spent some time in the next couple of weeks researching what approaches had been successful in teaching older kids to learn to read, then sent the materials to the principal. But my efforts were futile. The school had no intention of changing. Mind you, this was not an incompetent or uncaring principal, nor was he in any way stupid. He was simply a high school principal, responding to the expectations of his job.

In essence, the school’s strategy was to wait a couple of years until these kids drifted off to night school or some other convenient cesspool.

In essence, the school’s strategy was to wait a couple of years until these kids drifted off to night school or some other convenient cesspool.

Let me note that, judging from results, waiting for inconvenient kids to leave was an extremely successful strategy. Of those who entered the 9th grade in 1998—two years before my daughter did—only slightly more than half graduated in 2002. The others drifted off, just a few of them graduating from other high schools. It’s impossible to know if they were the kids who entered high school not reading, but it’s a good guess that there was a pretty large overlap between the two groups.

Today, my child’s high school operates special literacy classes for kids who are not reading on grade level, and there are rumors that students in the literacy classes are actually performing at grade level in some of their classes. I have to rely on rumors because the data is not public.

But whether or not the literacy efforts are successful, the point is this: Finally, the school has at least acknowledged a responsibility to kids who need help.

What made the difference in the intervening years, other than changes in principals? Speaking as an active, involved parent who spends a lot of time urging parents to be active and involved, I can assure you it had nothing to do with parental involvement. It didn’t have much to do with those new principals, either.

The difference was the introduction of accountability.

For the first time, the high school is being expected to teach all the kids, and tests are being given to see if all the kids are being taught. The data is public and easy to get. The superintendent of our school system is expected to preside over rising test scores, and he is putting pressure on his principals to do the same. And most of all, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has put some added “oomph” into the state’s accountability standards. It has focused attention on what kind of job the schools are doing for their neediest and most vulnerable students, and it is at least attempting to measure graduation rates in a more honest way than was done in the past.

I wouldn’t say my child’s high school has completely turned around. But for the first time, because of test data, teachers who are successful in teaching their students can be identified, and those who don’t bother to teach anything can also be identified—not by parents and kids, though they often know, but by administrators who are, for the first time, being held responsible for improving academic performance.

In other words, accountability should not stop truly good, creative teaching—in many cases, it will allow that good teaching to be noticed, showcased, studied, and replicated for the first time.

What accountability systems should stop is the long-standing practice of writing off droves of kids with the simple phrase, “There’s nothing to do.”

Vol. 24, Issue 34, Pages 39-40

Published in Print: May 4, 2005, as ‘Drilling and Killing’
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