I walked into the kindergarten classroom with the schools superintendent and the principal. The well-behaved children in their plaid uniforms were discussing butterflies with their teacher. Then, as we left the room and entered the hall, the teacher rushed after us with a panicked look on her face and apologized: “I’m sorry. We had finished our lesson early, and one of the children asked if he could bring his caterpillar to school, which led us to a discussion of how caterpillars turn into butterflies.”
At first, I couldn’t figure out why the teacher was apologizing and why her supervisors looked so displeased. And then I understood: This young teacher was worried because she had committed what is considered taboo at this particular private school. She had gone off script. In seizing what she saw as a teachable moment, in spontaneously allowing the children to discuss the process of metamorphosis when she was scheduled to be teaching something else, the teacher knew she was in danger of receiving a negative evaluation and perhaps losing her job.
If higher test scores are achieved by mandating that teachers follow a script and eschew spontaneity and passion, we will find few great teachers left in the classroom.
The next week, I visited a very different kind of private school. In this kindergarten class, the teacher was relaxed and energetic. As the admissions director took me into the classroom, I saw that many of the children were building structures in the sandbox. The teacher smiled and explained to us that the children had acted out the story of the billy goats gruff the day before, and that one child had wondered how bridges are built so they don’t fall down before they are completed. That night, the teacher said, she had phoned one of the fathers, a structural engineer, to invite him to come to the class to explain how bridges are built. He was coming the following day and bringing some models with him; in preparation for his visit, the 5- and 6-year-olds were using their own structures to guess what they would learn.
As we left the room, the admissions director beamed as she explained, “We have a school full of teachers like her—people who constantly think of new ways to get our students excited about the world around them.” Obviously, bridge building was not part of any scripted curriculum, and it would not appear on any high-stakes test. But when the subject came up, the teacher knew she was free to allow her students to use class time to explore a mystery that interested them, and she had the freedom to invite someone in who could answer her students’ questions.
I often share these anecdotes with parents who express interest in sending their children to schools that use a scripted curriculum. These schools often have long lines of parents waiting to sign up for their preschool programs, so that their children will be “ahead” of their peers in the sense that they will be reciting phonics lessons and number facts before they even enter kindergarten. When I meet with parents considering such a school, I advise them to consider whether such a rush to ensure their children are academically ahead might come at the expense of their children’s emotional, creative, and intellectual development.
While many parents do worry about the negative consequences of early academics for children, few consider what it’s like being a teacher in such an atmosphere. To encourage them to think about this perspective, I suggest they recall some of the really great teachers they had, the ones who taught important basic skills but also infused their classrooms with creativity and passion, such that their former students remember these teachers and what they taught them well into their adulthood. Then I ask the parents to imagine such teachers teaching in a system where they are reprimanded if they go off script, if they deviate from the lesson plans that every other teacher teaching that grade is instructed to follow. Most parents conclude that it’s difficult to imagine why really great teachers, with many public and private schools eager to offer them a job, would stay at a school in which rigid lesson plans devised by others dictated how they spent almost every minute of the school day, schools in which encouraging discussions and activities generated by the children’s interests and curiosity were considered pedagogical sins.
To my dismay, and the dismay of many educators throughout the country, the popularity of scripted curricula has spread to many public schools, especially those serving poor communities. In response to the widespread belief that high-stakes testing will improve the nation’s schools, teachers are pressured to teach to standardized tests and not waste time on lessons or activities that won’t be on one of these tests. Even if there is a major event the children are eager to discuss—a presidential election, an eclipse, the collapse of a freeway, or an earthquake—many teachers fear spending precious class time on anything that won’t be on the end-of-the-year standardized test. And in many districts, especially those that serve children from the poorest families, teachers are handed scripts and ordered to follow them. The companies that produce these programs point to studies demonstrating that adhering to the scripts will pay off in higher test scores. While they may in fact raise scores somewhat, scripted lesson plans can be deadly to children eager to learn more than what is covered on the test for their grade level.
These schools can be even more mind-numbing for teachers who have been attracted to the profession by a desire to engender in their students a passion for learning. While some new teachers may welcome a script that spells out what to do with most of the school day, veteran teachers and dynamic, creative young teachers are more likely than ever to leave the profession, disgusted by the tedium of drill-and-kill and saddened by the lack of time or freedom to engage their students in the excitement of learning interesting stuff. Or they look for jobs in schools like the second one I described—schools, public or private, where instructors are treated like professionals and trusted to teach students the skills they need, but are also given the freedom to respond with spontaneity to their students’ interest in subjects that are outside the tested curriculum.
The idea of using high-stakes testing to improve schools may stem from a genuine desire to offer all children a high-quality education. But if higher test scores are achieved by mandating that teachers follow a script and eschew spontaneity and passion, we will find few great teachers left in the classroom. In fact, we might as well save money on salaries and benefits and employ robots to run the drills.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Goodbye, Mr. & Ms. Chips