Week 11 – Numbing, Dumbing Numbers


I heard on 94.9 KUOW this morning how Seattle Public Schools are starting to institute test scores as a measure of teacher performance.  Let me state, first off, that I teach in a private school, where I am the Supervising Teacher, blessed and honored to be trusted with the curriculum for my cohort.  I have total transparency with my administration, I base my curriculum on best practices, the state standards of Washington, Oregon, and California, and what I have learned over 16 years of being in the trenches.  Blessed with this bounty, I have no right — nothing, zero, zip, nil — to contribute to this conversation, except this: What the hell are they thinking?!?

Let me tell you a little story.*  I was honored to work at Brownell Academy in Gilroy, California (yes, children, the garlic capital of the world).  I was let loose on my first public school classroom there.  I came into the classroom as a long-term substitute, and left, three years later, with a masters of education, all in the same classroom.  My love of teaching was tempered in the crucible of a caring, loving, and might I say, damn-good middle school.

It was not perfect.  It had over 1,000 students.  It fought like a tiger with the “other” middle school.  It had some teachers I, personally, would have loved to drop kick over Niagara Falls.  It was riddled with the urban poor, the rural poor, immigrants out the wazoo, the pretentious over-wealthy, not to mention gang and drug problems.  But it had, in the face of all of that, the most caring and hopeful staff I have ever (probably will ever) see in a school.  We had a principal who really did give a damn.  Which is funny because her last name was, in fact, Damm.

And here is how that school was gutted like a trout.  The year before I arrived, the school was only a 7-8 school.  District politics mandated that the school needed to have a 6th grade.  And so, my first year, Brownell had its first 6th grade cohort.  I only taught 7th grade, but I heard from many other teachers that when the elementary schools were allowed to pick and choose the students they could send up to the middle school, they did not hesitate to send the students who were troublemakers.  And so, our school was “gifted” with 6th graders who struggled in elementary school and were somewhat bound to struggle in middle school.

Evidently, the district and the state were already looking towards evaluating teachers by test scores.  In this case, they were not looking at individual teachers, but at the composite scores by grade level.  Instead of looking at the same cohort as it grew from grade to grade, it compared one year’s class to the next year’s class (i.e., one year’s sixth graders against the next year’s sixth graders, and so forth).  So, although our test scores were actually the highest in the county, because the incoming new 6th grade had no previous year’s 6th grade to compare against, we were labeled as a “struggling school.”  Then, the next year, the new 7ths were compared with the last year’s 7ths.  Not surprisingly, the scores took a major dive, even though there was clear growth within the cohort.  Again, we were labeled a “struggling school” and the state stepped in.

This may sound familiar to other schools who went through the beginnings of the deliberately obtuse No Child Left Behind law (Which I read. All 1,000 pages of it).  You might have noticed that it happened to be the states with Democratic Governors in which schools were first labeled as “struggling”.  So, our school went through “trainings”, “re-trainings”, and finally “basic gutting”.  It was humiliating.  Furthermore, I can’t imagine how much money was wasted trying to turn what was already a great school into a “great school”.

It so happened that we had many excited, talented, young teachers (my friends) working on their credentials.  Most of whom had to quit because their credentials did not show up in time to meet some arbitrary deadline.  This was imposed upon “struggling” schools by NCLB, and enforced by the district office, which was desperate to secure the federal funding that comes with agreeing to implement NCLB.  Meanwhile, every desk at the district office had a flat-screen computer monitor in the days when these were still quite pricey, while my classroom only had the IT equipment that I could afford to provide by myself, on my meager starting-teacher salary.  But I digress.

When I left Brownell (my credential had squeaked in with days to spare, but I was moving to Japan to be with my husband), the school was in a defeated, ugly mood.  I felt a like a rat leaving a sinking ship.  And none of it would have happened if the state and the district had taken a better look at what was really happening in the classrooms.

And here I have to stop and take a deep breath.  I know that, when we replace real knowledge of people and environments with scores and numbers, we lose sight of what is most important.  When we take the easy route, we discover that ultimately, it ain’t cheap.  Students lose.  Teachers lose.  Our civilization will lose.

Here’s my experience with that.  My third year there, I was teaching a remedial English course.  Three quarters of the way through the year, the district sent some lackey into my room, during a class, to ask me why my students were so far behind the other teacher’s class with the same curriculum.  He was only interested in the number of pages we had covered and with hurrying me up, no matter what my students needed.   So, while my students were taking their Friday exam, this moron was grilling me about my speed.  I remember clearly, almost as if it was a slow motion film, the 32 heads (they had said they would limit the class to 24) starting to lift and turn around to look at us.  I was so angry at this man who so casually waltzed into my classroom and disrupted my students, that I flipped open my grade book and pointed to the grades.  Not one score under 89%.  Not more than two scores under 95%.

I fear I’m proving myself wrong here.  The difference between my numbers and Mr. District Office’s numbers is simply that I knew what my numbers actually meant.  I watched my students work hard every day.  I watched them sweat, struggle, and become successful, growing into those kinds of scores.  My students were learning, and they knew it.  He only knew what page I was on and what it would cost the school if my group didn’t finish the text before the end of the year. And silly me, when they said they wanted literacy for every child in the district, I believed they were willing to pay what it cost in both time and money.  It didn’t matter.  By the end of the year students in our team rose from a 3rd grade to a 6th grade reading level.  Almost unheard of.

Feeling the weight of 32 7th graders listening in, I told him that when the other teacher could prove that kind of success while moving that fast, he could come talk to me.  Because I would be damned if I was going to lose one child’s opportunity to be literate because he thought I should go faster.  And then, I told him he could get the hell out of my classroom. I might have stomped my foot, I can’t remember. Once the door had shut, I glared at my students.  All heads snapped back down as if on a spring.  (I’m 4′ 9″.  Napoleon’s got nothing on me.) I never heard a thing more, ever, from the District Office about… well, anything.  I’m kind of surprised I continued to get my paycheck.

I still know people who teach at Brownell.  I know people who teach in that district.  Some of them are those who lost their jobs that summer.  They are good people, I think fondly of all of them, and my heart still hurts for the pain they suffered because someone decided to look at numbers over people.

Number crunching Bastards.

And when I got home, I saw this.  It made me feel a little better.  A word of warning — it’s for adults.  (Or at least, those of us who think of ourselves as adults.)

* The story I tell here is accurate to the extent I remember it.  It is from my point of view, which is open to debate. I always reserve the right to be wrong and don’t mind people correcting me as long as they do it kindly and with good intentions.


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