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Book Review: High Stakes: Poverty, Testing and Failure in American Schools (Second Edition)

The theme of this situation seems to be every teacher left behind. Truly heartbreaking and outrageous.

reviewed by Holly Yettick

Title: High Stakes: Poverty, Testing and Failure in American Schools (Second Edition)
Author(s): Dale D. Johnson and Bonnie Johnson
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, New York
ISBN: 0742535320, Pages: 257, Year: 2006

Spiders the sizes of silver dollars scuttle across the floors. Holes in the walls admit ant parades and the occasional daring rat. The only playground equipment is for the preschoolers, and the only faucet that emits hot running water is in the teacher’s lounge. Yet consultants driving fancy cars provide thousands of dollars worth of test-preparation software in a school with no library.

That is the grim reality that greets University of Wisconsin professors Dale and Bonnie Johnson in the summer of 2000 when they arrive at an impoverished Louisiana elementary school. The husband-wife team had taken a year-long, unpaid leave from the University of Louisiana at Monroe to teach third and fourth graders at the school they call Redbud Elementary. They wanted to “refresh” themselves “with real-life teaching experience” (p. xvii). They also wanted to “see firsthand the effects of the accountability movement on life in school” (p. xvii). In the end, they achieved both goals. The result is High Stakes: Poverty, Testing and Failure in American School, first published in 2002.

The Johnsons devote most of their book to diaries describing the daily realities of teaching in a high-poverty school undergoing high-stakes testing. The second edition includes an additional chapter and an epilogue that update the progress of accountability measures and high-stakes testing in the nation, in Louisiana, and in Redbud. Both editions also contain a chapter that broadens the outlook provided by the Johnsons’ diaries by raising questions, suggesting recommendations, and providing a brief history of the accountability movement.

The book’s heart, however, is the journal presenting the diaries. It is not only the Johnsons’ longest section but their strongest. It feels authentic and fresh, as if the couple is relating the events of their day over the dinner table. One reason for this is that the Johnsons didn’t wait months or years to record their impressions. They wrote about life as life unfolded. And life as it unravels daily in any elementary school classroom is both heartbreaking and humorous. A lost baby tooth is discovered in a classroom. A rail-thin boy offers his teacher some of his own lunch because he’s concerned she brought too little for herself. A third-grader solemnly proposes that the Pilgrims came to America because they wanted Thanksgiving dinner.

The natural rhythms of the school year provide the backbone of the journal’s structure. At Redbud, these rhythms center on LEAP—the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program exams administered each spring. There is a reason why LEAP exams are especially important at Redbud. According to these tests, Redbud is failing.

The Johnsons soon learn that accountability means not only high-stakes tests for the students but also tests of endurance for their teachers. In part because of the pressure to prepare for these tests, Redbud teachers do not have time to come up for air. From 7:15 in the morning when breakfast duty begins until the last bus leaves at 3:35 p.m., the teachers are on the go. They get ten minutes per day of “planning time” to use for everything from running to the restroom to calling parents on the 611-student school’s single phone.

But the time with the children is revitalizing, especially compared to the paperwork and after-school training sessions that “teacher accountability” measures require. It is in describing these Kafka-esque requirements that the Johnsons are at their best. That poor children face high-stakes tests with aching teeth and abysmal attendance rates is unjust and indefensible. But the Jonathan Kozols and Alex Kotlowitzes of this world have already vividly painted this picture. What has more rarely been described with such flair in a general-interest book is the effect of accountability measures on two teachers with as much experience and insight as the Johnsons. These effects are doubtless nothing new to those who have recently taught at a high-poverty school, but they are eye-opening to those of us more distanced from the classroom.

The Johnsons first observe the effects of accountability during a district meeting in August, where they learn that they must include in their weekly lesson plans 44 different codes describing “activities to be undertaken, the modifications to be made for individual students, and assessment” (p. 15). “The task of completing a single lesson plan with all the codes and abbreviations seemed senseless and mind-boggling—and we hold PhD’s in the field,” they write (p. 15). At an after school meeting the following month, they receive a packet containing 326 English/language arts objectives that they are expected to teach. They find themselves spending entire Sundays not on planning their lessons, but on figuring out which numbers and codes they are required to record on their lesson plan forms. “The message is clear,” Bonnie Johnson writes. “Someone doesn’t trust teachers to do their job. They must document everything” (p. 40).

As the LEAP tests near, the mistrust escalates. A desperate colleague begs for help because she is not allowed to leave the Iowa tests she has been instructed to watch and she can’t squeeze the cart that holds them into the ladies room. A witness watches over Bonnie Johnson’s shoulder as she re-does the answer sheet of a child who mistakenly used pen instead of pencil. An Iowa test goes missing and a teacher dons latex gloves and examines the contents of the Dumpsters, piece by piece. “We have never seen anything like this in all our years in education,” the Johnsons write (p. 137).

Redbud obviously needs help. But help, when it arrives, is little more than a waste of money and time. It is in describing this “help” that the authors come closest to fulfilling the description of the book offered by Forward author, Carl Grant. Grant, a University of Wisconsin professor, compares the Johnsons to “Washington Post investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein” (p. ix). The Johnson’s descriptions of the educational consultants and trainers who descend upon high poverty schools come closer than anything else in the book to investigative journalism in that they reveal the ways in which public money is misspent on inept trainers and worthless materials. One consultant begins a session by “reading a dry story book to us” (p. 20). She then tells “endless tales about her teenage son,” remarks that she knows “nothing about technology” and “whine(s) that she want(s) bigger closets at home” (p. 20). Another consultant, hired to train teachers to use an $85,500 test-preparation software package, crams into four hours a workshop meant to take more than twice that long, then advises teachers that she never gives out her phone number. Before driving off in her new Lincoln, she offers this profound piece of advice for making the bug-plagued software function: “Sometimes the best thing you can do is just turn the computer off and start over again” (p. 51).

Faced with yet another useless workshop, the Johnsons ask the consultant-du-jour what research base supports using faculty time this way. “They’ve been using it in St. Charles Parish for two years, and their test scores are soaring,” she breezily replies (p. 63).

“We are struck by how the decisions of teachers—those who work with the children 176 days (1,232 hours) during the course of a school year—are ignored,” the Johnsons write. “We teachers are the experts but our expertise is brushed aside by the accountability processes” (p. 168).

The Johnsons provide many brief passages like this in the body of their journal. Such commentary does a good job at providing context and explaining the couple’s interpretations of the events they relate. In the concluding chapters of the book, however, the Johnsons are less successful when they abandon the journal format entirely to provide three sections devoted entirely to context. The recommendations in chapter 11 are compelling, but many others have suggested solutions such as equalizing school funding and raising teacher salaries. Chapter 12 and the Epilogue, new to the second edition, provide relevant summaries of recent developments in the accountability movement nationwide and in Louisiana but they do so in a superficial manner, drawing mostly upon newspapers and other general-interest periodicals. I would have been more interested in hearing a longer, more specific update on teachers and students at Redbud Elementary. The journals are the heart of this heartbreaking book. The voices of the teachers and the students of Redbud Elementary speak louder than any set of recommendations ever could.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 19, 2006
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12491, Date Accessed: 5/23/2006 7:30:34 PM

— Holly Yettick
Teachers College Record
2006-04-19


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