When I began teaching 20 years ago, education was a well-respected and competitive profession. Over the years, I have served in various administrative positions, and am now a professor of educational leadership. At each turn in my career, I felt hopeful that education, both as a profession and as a service to children, was becoming more effective and more focused on providing excellence and equity. Even when legislatures did crazy things and the national spotlight veered away from what I knew was best for kids, I always felt that I had the power to make a difference.
Recently, however, I find that my optimism has faded along with the culture surrounding public education and educators. Teachers drop into and out of the profession, rotating between education and other occupations. Teaching is no longer considered to be an ideal, lifelong career. Educators and education are looked upon with suspicion, bond proposals fail even as buildings crumble, and untrusting constituents demand more and more proof of our competence.
When did public educators become the bad guys?
When did public educators become the bad guys, deserving of micromanagement by everyone from parents to politicians? When did we lose public admiration and respect? When was it decided that all the ills of society, from poverty to dysfunctional families to addiction, were the schools’ responsibility to fix, so that children would be intellectually and emotionally ready to learn? And why, when student-performance standards were raised beyond what could be realized with our meager resources, was public education branded the failure?
I have no real answers. I can say, however, that when education became politicized at the state and national levels and high-stakes accountability was introduced, public education began a fight for its very existence.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against reasonable accountability. Assessment as one leg of the written, taught, and tested curriculum is a basic tenet of education. What I am vehemently opposed to, however, is an arbitrary, one-shot accountability system that relies on a single test to measure student learning. In an awkward, reverse kind of logic, the minimums have become the expectations, test-taking strategies have become a major curricular component, and educators shake their heads sadly and say, “But what good is a rich, engaging curriculum if students can’t pass the test and graduate?”
If I were to point today to Exhibit No. 1 for both the reason and the result of the impending demise of public education, I would single out the debacle of high-stakes testing. Do any of us really believe that the current accountability system’s stranglehold on education is best for kids?
When our elementary-age children are in tears after test results are released or, indeed, are unable to even attend school on the day of testing because of anxiety-related illnesses, do we as educational professionals dig in our heels and loudly question testing’s validity—or do we grit our teeth and teach to the test one more time?
When special education students with identified learning disabilities are thrust into the mainstream testing environment with little preparation, so that the school will not be penalized for testing too many children “off level,” where is the justice in that?
When high school seniors with the required number of credits cannot receive diplomas because they are not good test-takers despite repeated attempts, do we rail against the powers that be who are holding our community’s children hostage by a series of inflexible hoops that must be navigated to graduate?
Let’s speak out about what high-stakes testing has done institutionally to the curriculum. It is no secret to educators or students that in many states the basic curriculum has disintegrated into a fragmented, mind-numbing collection of facts scattered hodgepodge across the landscape of the school day. There is no time to explore the intricacies of a compelling piece of literature, delve into the fascinating complexities of science, or follow a child’s train of thought across continents in social studies. There is no time to teach the love of learning, and no earthly reason to love the learning we are forced to provide.
Let’s speak out about what high-stakes testing has done institutionally to the curriculum.
Let’s speak out about what high-stakes testing has done to the dropout rate. Research shows that if a child is “held back” even one time, that child’s chances of dropping out before completing high school are increased by as much as 90 percent. Yet our accountability system has taken the perverse direction of mandating that children be retained at certain grade levels if they do not pass the test.
In an era of “no child left behind,” words that indicate every student is to be valued and carefully shepherded from kindergarten to graduation, we have an abundance of children whose spirits cannot withstand the drudgery, hopelessness, and despair of repeated failures, or the damage to their self-esteem resulting from endless hours filled with a parade of disconnected facts to be remembered and regurgitated. So our children (who are not as dumb as standardized tests would lead us to believe) say, “Enough,” and go away to a place where they can find meaning and value, even if it is only as a day laborer or short-order cook.
Let’s talk, too, about what high-stakes testing is doing to us, the educators charged with guiding children through their formative years. When national and state-level education bureaucracies and legislatures threaten the local school district with sanctions if certain levels of test scores are not achieved in a specified number of years, where is the outrage, the fury, the calls to unseat those who are threatening us?
The picture I paint is grim, and I would be remiss if I left it at this. We have been disempowered, disenfranchised, and deprived of our professional status and our voice because we have allowed this to happen. We who are so good at doing what is best for others have failed to maintain our own boundaries and our own professional health, and this course has taken us to a place where we are powerless to protect even those we care about the most: our students.
In the literature of education politics, there is a concept called “dissatisfaction theory.” Though it is usually applied to communities, I would like to extend it for consideration to the profession. In the community context, dissatisfaction is cyclical, the theory says, and at first manifests itself as an apathetic lack of interest in the local school and all things educational—until, that is, the school moves past a trigger point that signals an unacceptable divergence from community values. At that time, the community stirs like a sleeping giant, awakens with a roar, and board members are defeated, superintendents terminated, and new blood brought in to realign the school with community values. Then, like the calm that settles after a storm, the community recedes back into its apathetic but watchful posture … until the next time.
As educators, we have been a sleeping giant for too long. Our numbers are in the millions, and yet we meekly stand by as politicians mock the value of education, the contribution of educators, and the ultimate worth of children. We have been pressured by accountability until we have violated our own integrity and the integrity of our profession by hurting children.
It is time for the sleeping giant to stir, awaken with a roar, and take back our profession.
Where is our voice? It is time for the sleeping giant to stir, awaken with a roar, and take back our profession, our integrity, and the education of our children. It is time we quit being obedient sheep following the leader, and it is time we pledged our resources, our intellect, and our hearts to a battle that has the potential to be the crowning accomplishment, the capstone, of our careers.
This will not be without cost. It will involve disentangling ourselves from those who have lured us into a sense of safety and a lack of urgency with vague promises and goodwill. It will involve professional soul-searching to define exactly what we are about and what we are not about. We must become a force to be reckoned with.
If we fail to rise to this challenge, public education as we know it today will die a quiet death, becoming less viable each year, until privatization steps in with a flourish and wipes away the last struggling remnants of what used to be a free public education for all children, no matter who they were.
Who is better equipped than we to redefine and renew public education? Who else possesses the determination and educational vision, albeit left sleeping too long, that can now be awakened, honed to a sharp edge, and applied decisively? Who else has the knowledge, the training, and the love to make education something exciting and beautiful again?
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Finding Our Voice