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Beyond Anger Lies Hope?

Dear Diane,

Yes, anger is sometimes energizing. But it can also, for people less public than you, lead to numbness in the face of a seemingly all-powerful enemy! Perhaps one reason I fall back on naively viewing "them" (the "new" de-formers) as reasonable people is to avoid feeling so helpless. "If I could just say it right, they'd see ..."

But it's hard when "they" have access to millions and the Coalition of Essential Schools, FairTest, etc., struggle to simply survive. I, too, sometimes am tempted to retreat rather than redouble my effort on their behalf. Your anger invigorates me!

I just spent a few days in Philadelphia and Salisbury, Md., and the warmth of the welcome in both places reminded me that we have many, many allies among teachers, academics, reporters, and lawyers (I spoke to lawyers in Philly). I think, in fact, that we may be on the eve of an opening.

Meanwhile, I act "as if" the truth shall set us free. It helps to see study after study dismiss almost all the claims of the current wave of reform; I feel cheered up. It's not merely my subjective bias. Even if test scores were a good measure, these reforms have proven a failure. The best way to motivate people to engage in hard work cannot be merely fear of being punished or rewarded. (See Daniel Pink's 11-minute video for more.) Yet I have, quite frankly, always assumed that teaching to the test would help test scores, even if it were educationally unwise! But the evidence suggests I was wrong. Good news.

It gives me less to fear that doing the right things for kids won't hurt their test scores. But at the same time it gets harder and harder to do otherwise. We now have not just one test a year, but one every few weeks to assess whether we are focused narrowly enough and are moving at the proper pace. The system seems determined to make it hard to deviate from its mis-educative script.

Value-added assessment of teachers, as Sean Corcoran notes (thanks, Diane), is like tossing coins—the results are random. But, as you noted, some teachers may lose their jobs because of test scores and even perhaps commit suicide out of shame.

I recall how great an impact the movie "Music of the Heart" had on the extraordinary music teacher it used as a foil to elevate the heroine savior. Of course, we all told him he was great. Parents and kids rallied around. But he was a year from retirement, and this seemed a cruel blow—and one that couldn't be reversed in the public eye.

One parent's dissatisfaction on family conference nights can overwhelm the other happy ones. I watched it happen year after year. Teachers are far more internally vulnerable than many professions because part of being good at our work is the degree to which we expose ourselves, making authentic connections with kids and families. It may be one reason schools used to keep parents away. Without sufficient time for building relationships with both our students and their families, misunderstandings are the norm, not the exception—even if only one parent dares complain out loud in our presence.

That's why classroom size is important—not only do we have fewer students to get to know, but fewer families. That's why small schools help, because we get to know children and families even when they are not directly our students. It's one reason some of us are so determined to have multi-age classes so that we can get to know students and their families over at least two years. The mother who gently accused me of stealing her son's dime nine months earlier would have been less reluctant to call me right away had it happened during the second year. It's easier to hold off pressing a child in an area of weakness, and reveling in their strengths for a time, when the family understands and supports our decision.

If we want to talk at length with parents (minimum 30 minutes!) twice a year (minimum), that's 50 extra hours (200+ for secondary school teachers). Sometimes far more. It was parental trust in our good intentions demonstrated over time that allowed me as a high school principal to share concerns with families that otherwise could lead to angry confrontations: "I have heard, and suspect it's true, that your daughter...". It's not then heard as a threat, but an assurance that what I know, so should you. Sure, there are exceptions, kids for whom how their parents view us and we view them doesn't interfere with learning.

Building communities of mutual respect and trust isn't helped by the forces out there intent on sowing distrust. (Definitely read Jamie Vollmer's Schools Cannot Do It Alone, as well as Anthony Bryk and company.)

It requires far more information than could be found on test scores or reviewing homework sheets. It takes close listening and watching and time to check out questions with the child, her family, and other teachers about what we think we see and hear. Keeping the student's growth at the center means that both teachers and parents must share knowledge—carefully—but honestly. The same is what a good learning community allows principals to do with the members of their staff, and teachers for one another.

Every one of the current reforms seems determined to undermine such attachments to each other. Why is it that this isn't obvious, Diane???????

Deborah

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