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Never Never Land

Publication Date: 2002-10-09

The short version of opening exercises for the school year is that it's all our fault: the achievement gap exists because we teachers "don't believe all children can learn."

IT IS THE end of August, and the 2,000 teachers in my district are gathering in the civic auditorium for the opening exercises for the school year. The superintendent has sent us a welcome-back letter that states that "research tells us . . . that what we do as adults at the schools is twice as influential as student demographics." I e-mail her to ask for a citation to justify such an astonishing statement, and she promises to send it along. (After two months, I'm still waiting.)

There's a huge banner above the auditorium entrance that trumpets "Beat the Gap." Some of the teachers hugging old friends wonder what in the world that means, but we Kappan readers know: it's that pesky achievement gap. There's a strange, not-so-funny cartoon on the program. It shows a landscape with a gaping chasm running diagonally from the lower left into the far distance of the upper right. The chasm is labeled Achievement Gap. The far side of the chasm seems to be a desert, while the near side has some flowers and an affectionate couple holding outsized books in their arms.

The other major feature of this cartoon is a wide bridge made of books that spans the divide. Joyful children are shown sliding or jumping down from this bridge onto the fertile side. The bridge is labeled Literacy. Ah, literacy is the bridge that allows us to cross the achievement gap. Finally, and mysteriously, in the far distance the word Equity glows in the sky. It seems to be located at the end of the Achievement Gap, like a pot of gold. This last bit sums up quite succinctly what I think the problem is: the current rhetoric of "reform" touts equity as the goal, when it should be the starting point.

Then the motivational speeches begin. The short version of the next two days is that it's all our fault: the achievement gap exists because we teachers "don't believe all children can learn." There will be no excuses made for why we can't push all our children across the achievement gap to the fertile side -- and, eventually, to equity, shining in the sky.

The program we're given mentions these specific goals: "Ninety percent of students will read on grade level in third grade. One hundred percent of students will pass the High School Exit Exam in 12th grade." Is there anyone out there who thinks politicians will be pleased if all our seniors pass the exit exam? No, indeed. There will be strident demands to "raise the bar" to meet "world-class standards." And how can 90% read at grade level as measured by our norm-referenced test? It is constructed so that 50% of the test-takers will score below grade level (whatever that is).

WE END the general festivities with an inspirational sing-along, after which we disperse to our schools for another day and a half of training. This consists, first, of reviewing the school handbook, which has 44 pages on the now-mandatory "mission, vision, and goals." (Even my hardware store has its mission posted. Don't we all know what hardware stores are for?) Then there are sections headed Rules, Discipline, Bulletin Boards, Disaster (14 pages), Yard Duty, and Lifeskills (37 pages). Then we have our Laser-Like Focus on Literacy (24 pages) and, finally, our K-6 Language Arts Standards (nine pages). We are also given two packets on "management," which presume adversarial, disrespectful, manipulative, fast-paced, entertaining, whole-class, frontal teaching. In the Newspeak of school reform, punishments have become "learning opportunities." As Frank Smith has said, "Skinner has won."

Between the district and my school, we have a staggering seven "areas of focus," seven "strategic priorities," seven "core values" (the number is purely coincidental), five "goals for 2005," a "mission statement," four "literacy givens," 15 "life skills," a Self-Directed Improvement System? (note the trademark), and the "six essential elements of an effective literacy program."

On the second day of training, we "analyze the data." We spend nearly two hours examining a grid of our test scores for the last four years for grades 2 through 6. We look horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. We discuss one- and two-point score differences as if they actually mean something. As recently pointed out, from 50% to 80% of scores can be attributed to random influences.1 And, as Robert Linn says, scores always improve two to three points a year as a result of innocent teaching to the test.2 But we are told to plan our curriculum around these meaningless numbers. We're certainly data-driven -- but whither?

The real analysis comes as we disaggregate the naked numbers. One teacher at my table says, "There were a lot of subs in that fourth grade last year before they got a real teacher." Another complains, "I had four kids transfer into my class in the two weeks before testing -- and they were all very low scorers." Still another offers, "Those fifth-graders have always been a very bright group." And one concludes, "You know, the new teachers can't teach to the tests because they didn't see them the year before."

The politicians say that we are giving these tests to learn something about achievement. That is, these numbers are supposed to tell teachers something that we can use to teach better. But it takes our preexisting knowledge of our students to explain the numbers. It's the numbers that need us, not the other way around. What's the point?

The point becomes clear as this second day wears on: it's our fault. There are no legitimate reasons that could help explain the gap -- there are only excuses. There are dozens of schools out there in which 90% of the poor and minority students score above grade level (whatever that is). The key is the teachers' belief system: if we believe, they will achieve. Some of this magical thinking comes straight from the Heritage Foundation's No Excuses propaganda, thoroughly debunked by Richard Rothstein in the New York Times and elsewhere by Bruce Biddle and Gerald Bracey.3 More recently the Education Trust has published more of the same, and Rothstein has thoroughly debunked these claims, too.4 These messages are groundless "research by aphorism," and they perpetuate the myth that teachers' beliefs are responsible for the gap.

This myth is a setup. It's "never-never land" magic. As Peter Pan tells the Darling children, "Think of lovely things," and you'll fly. We who teach poor students are simply to think they can achieve like middle-class students, and it will happen. Even having external standards (or benchmarks or outcomes or goals -- whatever they're called this year) that are the same for all children is vicious, unless we provide sufficient resources. But "achieve" in the current reform rhetoric doesn't even mean "learn"; it means "score." And no, I don't believe the students I teach will ever really score well on tests written by white, middle-class professionals for their white, middle-class children and certainly not on those tests that are referenced to a norm so that half of the children who take them must fail. If they began to, those test writers would change the test, just as the politicians will ratchet up the exit exams if too many students -- and particularly my students -- do well on them.

One of the problems with pointing out that perhaps all children can't learn the same stuff on the same timetable is that it sounds so churlish. After all, don't I have faith in children's capacity? Why am I making excuses? Am I a racist? Those are conversation stoppers -- and straw men. The real gap is between the rich and the poor, and it is growing. . . .

--Wendy Darling is a pseudonym for a teacher in a western state who values her principal and so must remain anonymous.

Read the rest of the article in Phi Delta Kappan October 2002. The link is below, but you really should subscribe: 1-800-766-1156.


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