The air is filled with talk of teacher accountability. The cry is for good teachers to be rewarded and bad teachers to be tossed out of classrooms, based on student achievement assessed by scores on standardized tests.
These persistent soundings about accountability and test results have caused me to look back to the beginning of my own career in education more than 50 years ago, when I was an elementary school teacher in New York City. How did I perform as a new teacher? How was I evaluated? What pressures had an impact on me? How did standardized-test scores affect me? How did the absence of strict accountability measures influence what I did?
I was 24 years old then and had much to learn about myself and teaching. I had passed a test to become a “common branches” teacher and was assigned to Public School 154, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Queens. My 4th grade class consisted of 40 pupils.
As I look back, I recall ideas and information I picked up from the occasional workshop or conference I attended. I tried to implement the principles of the “New Mathematics” approach being advocated at that time. In social studies, I introduced committee work, as was suggested in the curriculum bulletins. And I organized the class into groups based on reading ability. But it is not the problems or benefits of these methods I recall. It is, rather, the exciting events, the vivid experiences, the fun times, and the different accomplishments of my students that I remember. Here is a sampling:
Walks in the neighborhood to find an anthill we could transfer to a large jar in our classroom, and observing the ants constructing their tunnels and transporting the bits of sugar we had inserted;
Observing baby praying mantises emerge from an egg case we had brought to our class;
Biweekly after-school trips, with kids packed into my old Chevy, to the Queensboro Public Library to collect books for classroom use in the absence of a school library;
Reading E.B. White’s Stuart Little and subsequently writing a play based on the book for presentation at a school assembly in the auditorium;
Playing dodgeball with a mixed group of boys and girls;
Challenging the class to find a word whose meaning I didn’t know and, if someone did, rewarding him or her with a pretzel;
Making charts with drawings of birds spotted in the neighborhood, and bulletin boards displaying the names of poems memorized by different children; and
Establishing a writer’s corner to which a child could retreat at any time of the day, if he or she had an idea for a story or poem.
In these beginning years, I didn’t operate with any ingrained educational philosophy. I wasn’t thinking about having my students score well on standardized tests. I had no idea that I was preparing them for the next grade, the next level, or for college. I don’t even recall the curriculum I was supposed to follow—something about Colonial days, I think. The driving force of my teaching was that I liked my students and tried to communicate my excitement, my interest, my curiosity, and, most of all, my love of books.
And this is where Bertha Padouk came in. She was the school’s reading teacher, who came to my class to help me develop an individualized reading program. I didn’t know much about the technical aspects of reading: locating the main idea, finding details, teaching comprehension, and so on. But I was enthusiastic about literature, and after we gathered books from the local library and family collections, the students had panel discussions, dressed up as story characters, wrote to authors, created dramatizations, and read, read, read.
There was a quiet quality about Bertha. With her, I never felt I was being judged. She gave me ideas—the names of good books, how to do individual diagnoses, what to look for in student conferences. In time, using a process better than any paper-and-pencil test, I discovered a child’s reading profile. I saw who the finger-pointers and the lip-movers were as they read, found out how a particular book matched up with a student’s reading level, and discerned each pupil’s strengths and weaknesses. Bertha would stay in my class and work with me. Her help was substantial, yet not intrusive.
Toward the end of that first year, as I was leaving one day, my principal called me aside. “Your students did amazingly well on the citywide test,” he said. “Their scores skyrocketed.” I was pleased that he was pleased. But beyond that, I gave it little thought. I remembered that a serious tone had accompanied the distribution of test booklets from the district’s central office, but most of that day had slipped from my memory.
Times have changed. Now, when I visit a new teacher I’ve agreed to mentor, she bemoans what’s happening. “The push for standards has put my students on a march to read a set number of books without stopping to love them,” she complains. “The things we’re doing are more suited to a factory than a school.” She wonders whether her students are reading at home, whether they fake responses in class discussions without having read the book. “Learning is becoming paper-driven,” she says sadly. “You’re supposed to list main ideas, record the number of books you’ve read, write down all the words that describe a character. But most of all, there’s all the time talking about test-taking techniques.”
As the time for the tests approaches, she vents further frustration: “It’s constant. It never lets up. Test, tests, tests. The kids are swamped. We’re dealing with numbers, not learning. This craze for better examination results is chipping away at any sense of professionalism I might have. Decisions about promotion are made on the basis of a mark on one test. What I’ve learned about a child over an entire year counts for little. I wonder if the test-makers know anything about schools and children.”
In my mind, I transport today’s environment to my early days as a classroom teacher and wonder how the stress on standardized tests would have influenced my behavior. Would I have allowed myself the time to take my class on walking tours where we listened and gathered the different sounds of the neighborhood? Would they have been able to hear the wind rustling tree leaves, birds chirping, people’s voices, dogs barking, cars honking, enveloping silence, all the sounds we tune out as we move to school each morning?
Were I a teacher today, would I be going to professional meetings whose focus is on skills such as helping children avoid mistakes as they move from test booklet to answer sheet, rather than on topics such as encouraging expressive writing and preparing for group work, topics I remember from meetings 50 years ago?
Would I have permitted one boy to take the time to concentrate on making a soap sculpture of the Acropolis instead of focusing on workbook exercises? Would I have had the courage to move away from the security of the basal reader and give my students freedom to choose books that interested and involved them?
Finally, I wonder if I would have advised my own children to consider teaching as their life’s work if I had faced the pressure to use prescribed instructional approaches and had the assessment of my abilities determined by numbers on a standardized test. Or would I have steered them toward a profession that gave freer rein to their creativity and imagination?
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Lacking Accountability, Doing Just Fine