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It Is Not What Reformers Say; It Is What Educators (and Students) Hear

By John Thompson

To improve our toughest schools, a common language for practitioners and researchers must be developed. We must recognize that educators tend to be two peoples divided by the same language. The best example is the word, "Standards." It sounded too much like "standardized." So, a movement to teach fewer concepts for mastery morphed into a rush to cover standardized test questions.

I saw that dynamic during a bipartisan effort to raise taxes and reform schools in Oklahoma City. Our coalition, MAPS for KIDS, anticipated the Broader Bolder agenda, promising early education and a respectful learning culture, stating that the purpose was not raising test scores but increased learning, measured in part by test scores. To avoid "the blame game," MAPS said that our district had many excellent "random acts of improvement." Our goal was "aligned acts of improvement."

MAPS used the dictionary definition of "aligned," and we didn't anticipate "curriculum alignment." We sought teamwork, which was soon redefined as "horizontal alignment." Then came "vertical alignment," a new word for the old "scope and sequence," albeit one that implied new urgency. Educators were told to simultaneously do horizontal and vertical alignment, without hearing any explanation how that was possible. Worse, when told to do vertical alignment, administrators heard alignment and "pacing."

Teachers were told to slow down, teach for mastery, and take time to do horizontal alignment. Principals heard instructions to keep all teachers on the same page, rushing through the pacing guide. Under pressure from NCLB, teachers were required to teach to the benchmark testing schedule. My students, who were six years behind grade level, were tested on the same schedule as our nationally ranked magnet school. "Stakes" weren't attached to benchmarks, but grades were.

I was given a single day to cover:

"Standard 16.4, Examine the rise of nationalism, the causes and effects of World War II (e.g., Holocaust, economic and military shifts since 1945, the founding of the United Nations, and the political positioning of Europe, Africa, and Asia)."
The resulting failure rates ranged from 80% to 90%, and we lost 201 students in two months. By November, our school lost 40% of our kids.

Afterwards, I told an administrator why I believed the MAPS business leaders were sincere in not wanting nonstop test prep. This researcher stroked his beard and responded, "If you look at it over the last five years, you are right. I look at it over twenty years. We knew that we would have to teach-the-test sooner or later."

So, what if we had been free to admit that we were not even on the same page in understanding the words, "Standards," "teach-to-the-test," "teach-the-test," and "alignment"? If we had all been in the same buildings, thrashing out the same problems, who knows what could have been accomplished. Today, we have random acts where researchers and educators understand each other, but what if we had aligned efforts to share lessons about improving schools? Or better yet, what if policy people and practitioners organized ourselves into a team?

John Thompson has a doctorate from Rutgers University and was an award-winning historian before teaching in the inner city for eighteen years. He is writing a book of the experience, Getting Schooled, Battles Inside and Out of the Urban Classroom. He did not comply with the curriculum pacing that drove so many students out of school.

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