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Is This Really Reform? A Teacher Writes


The most powerful justification for the continuation of the test-centered reform model of No Child Left Behind has been the claim that it is all about bringing up the less fortunate. From the start, NCLB was sold on the claim that it would "shine a light" on those who had been left behind. Unfortunately, it has delivered an extended era of darkness to the lowest performing schools, as is evidenced by the letter I shared a week ago, and the one below, from a teacher in one of California's lowest performing middle schools.

The Teachers' Letters to Obama project continues to gather steam, thanks to the eloquent testimony of leaders like Kathie Marshall, who gave me permission to share her words here:


President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan:
I am hoping that you are reading my Letter to Obama forwarded by my colleague, Anthony Cody, because that will mean that you have read all of these letters. You will note, as Anthony did, that teachers from across the nation feel a remarkable sense of consensus on the issues. We're not talking about employment security, teacher working conditions, or compensation. We're talking about our kids, and how NCLB and current reform directions threaten education.

I have been an educator since 1970 in a wide variety of grade levels and both public and private schools. In every situation my students were tested externally in some fashion. As a new Los Angeles USD teacher, my students in South Central Los Angeles moved from the bottom third to the middle third. When I taught sixth graders preparing for private junior highs, students went from the 60th percentile to the 90th or higher on a regular basis, allowing them access to the most exclusive private junior highs in Los Angeles.

When I returned to LAUSD, my students in a low-performing middle school raised their SAT and other test scores remarkably. Then I made a six-year decision to become a literacy coach at one of California's lowest performing middle schools. I watched teacher morale lessen with each "drop of the shoe" as the district began its own reform, adding more and more top-down curricular decisions and wresting control of the classroom from teachers' hands.

In September, 2008, I returned to the classroom because I could never shake my love of working with my own students. Although that "dastardly" union tenure meant I could select the best and brightest classes, I opted to teach a group of intervention reading students who most needed help. All year I was stuck with a scripted curriculum that was mind-numbingly deadly, even though some years ago I had developed my own reading intervention curriculum based on service learning that was highly successful. I also taught a group of sixth graders who ranged from FBB to Advanced.

What have I learned since my return to the classroom after six years out?
1) My general ed students are far different than the ones I had six or more years ago. They mostly can't stand school. Although they are compliant, there is little "spark" in their eyes when I present lessons that for years brought me comments from students such as "You're the only reason I come to school!" My students are primarily resistant to learning. They can read, yes, but mostly as word-callers. If I try to deepen their thinking, they freeze. In many ways it has been a disappointing return for me; I did not expect such drastic change in students' attitudes and work ethics. I continue to plug away and try my best to reach my students and turn around these attitudes.

2) When I got my students' standardized test scores in September, I was horrified to see that in my regular class of 25 students, 14 had dropped a band on the CST. Only one has gone up a band. In my intervention group, one student jumped two bands, three others one band, but the majority stayed "far below basic.". THIS was the result of my efforts? I began to agonize over what had gone wrong. After all, even in my first year of teaching in 1970 I had been identified as a successful teacher (via test scores and other measures), and I had taught for many years in very diverse conditions. What had gone wrong?

3) After much reflection, the only thing I could identify was that I had not properly prepared my students for multiple choice tests. For you see, for decades I have taught students through discussion, writing, project-based assessments, and creative and intellectual thought. In all honesty, I continued to downplay multiple choice tests because as a student myself, I had always known that multiple choice tests do not test understanding. I had never done as well on multiple choice tests as I did on other types of assessments. I was valedictorian of my high school class and a National Merit Honoree, but when I went to college, I continued to struggle wth multiple choice tests. Give me an essay, and I can show you what I know. Give me a multiple choice test, and maybe I'll get an A--but maybe I'll get a C. The learning is the same; the assessment is the difference.

4) So this year I am working additional time at home to develop standards-based assessments, and I'm bringing in test preparation materials, all in the hopes of raising my students' CST scores. I'm not teaching them more effectively; I'm doing more test preparation.

Is this really reform, I ask? Is it more engaging for my at-risk students? I am teaching some of the lowest performing, special needs students in one of the lowest performing middle schools in California. My school is a QEIA school, one of nearly 500 schools identified as the worst performing in the state. I am trying to revive enthusiasm for school and develop confidence in learning for students who have struggled in school for years. And my primary addition to my practice this year is more multiple choice tests!? Is this really the reform you want in our schools? Wouldn't you rather sit down with teachers who have been successful for years in a wide variety of circumstances to try to identify the intangibles that promote student learning and clearly are not identified in high-stakes, multiple-choice tests?

Why are teachers left out of reform?
How in the world did we become the scapegoats of education? How do you expect to attract the best and brightest of our young people to become teachers when teacher empowerment and morale has never been lower, and when the focus is on multiple choice tests, which even as a high schooler I could see were a vastly inadequate measure of learning?

Kathie Marshall
Member, Teacher Leaders Network
Pacoima, California

What do you think about Kathie Marshall's questions? How does her experience compare with yours?

Note: The entire batch of 100 letters submitted thus far can now be downloaded here.

image by Kathie Marshall


Thank you for posting this heartfelt and moving letter. It is being read across the country. I hope that the message is heeded -- NCLB has turned our children into test-taking drones and our teachers into test-prep robots.

I long for the days of children who were excited to go to school. Now, it's drill, drill, drill with no spark of excitement for learning.

Given what the law requires, I do not blame the teachers or the children. I blame the public officials who sold this simplistic babble as an improvement and the members of the public who bought it.

I couldn't agree more with Kathie Marshall's letter. After being out of education for 30 years, when I came back three years ago I was frustrated by how entrenched multiple choice testing had become. We do children such a disservice by teaching them to take and pass multiple choice tests. Children are exposed to so few experiences that require them to really think through a problem that when a teacher tries to teach them to think on their own, they do not know how.

Thank you so much for so eloquently expressing the sentiments of most long-time teachers.

I too teach in a high poverty, economically disadvantaged area of Los Angeles, where most students come to school with little English.

I spent the first 6 weeks of this year trying to meet the needs of my students by remediating, extending, and enriching. I did this based on the expertise I have developed during 28 years of teaching. After my students took the first multiple choice test of the year, I was very disheartened by their scores. The principal even commented that my scores were lower than another teacher's.

Most teachers at my school began teaching to the test long ago. They are young and have never know any other way to teach. I tried to keep my focus on student needs and not solely on arbitrary standards and tests. I finally succumbed to the pressure of NCLB. Suddenly (and sadly), I realized that teaching to the test is what all teachers must do to survive. We work in a country that currently values scores above education.

For the second 6 weeks, I gave multiple choice practice tests, drilled test taking skills, and taught the question format that they would most likely see. This took up a good portion of every school day. Therefore, I did not have time to go deeper into the curriculum than the test demanded. No time remained to nurture the children's curiosity. I stifled their comments in order to plod along teaching how to take the test. My students scored highly on that assessment; but at what cost?

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