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Defined by a test score
Ohanian Comment: If I had three wishes, number one would be that John Young replace Brent Staples in New York Times editorial. Staples only repeats numbers shipped in from the corporate-politicos. Young sees how these numbers have destroyed any semblance of teaching as a profession, not to mention ruining young lives.

John Young

In their school, all the children had names. But all the school board had Thursday night was numbers.

Trustees couldn’t agree on the numbers, just as they couldn’t agree on the equation: What best for the names involved?

In the end, they retired the name G.L. Wiley Middle School, for decades a beacon of hope and pride in a hurting part of town.

I understand how people in Waco could react, “Beacon of hope? Whadya mean?”

After all, for five years in a row Wiley has been rated “unacceptable” by the Texas Education Agency. Hey, Bud, what part of “failure” don’t you understand?

But, you see, even the numbers — those on which the state is transfixed — were pointing up for this “failing” school.

Math scores. Reading scores. Social studies.

Wiley in fact had achieved the second highest math average in the Waco Independent School District based on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Ah, but Wiley also had dismal science scores. So when the ratings hammer came down, it was still “unacceptable.”

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott gave Wiley one more year to meet acceptable ratings, with the prospect of alternative management if it didn’t.

So why did the district pull the plug? Numbers. Wiley’s dropping enrollment made it difficult to offer what other larger schools do. And the enrollment, dipping below 250 if transfer requests bore out, included about 100 students bused out of another middle school’s attendance zone.

Smaller margin for error

Trustees voting to close the school said they weren’t reacting to test scores. But TAKS still loomed as a factor.

With so small a student body, a few low test scores have great impact under the state system. Even with academic signs pointed up, dwindling enrollment provided Wiley scant margin for error in avoiding TEA sanction and alternative management.

Now we see the fruits of treating students like numbers and making school accountability a “gotcha” exercise as Texas and the federal No Child Left Behind have done.

We see what happens when a system is geared more toward punishment than reward, more on the lowest common denominator than setting higher sights. Ours is a system focused on failure.

“It’s so tragic to have a child defined by a test,” said Pastor Jimmy Hunter of Toliver Chapel Baptist Church, who pleaded with the WISD board to keep Wiley open.

That’s true whether the child is considered a failure or considered proficient. Either way, it reduces nourishment to food pellets.

And to classify a school as a failure regardless of improvement is the worst kind of burden to assign. It is certain to cause onerous overreactions which carve away at the normalcy of a learning environment. It causes a narrowing of the curriculum and an overemphasis on the sorest subject. It results in more tests, more drills.

It results in the “de-skilling” of teachers, who put aside their knowledge and intuition and yield to “proven” means of teaching to the test, like teaching from scripts.

That might result in higher test scores, but it’s not how learning works best. It works best when a child is challenged and inspired, not when subjugated.

Classifying a school as a failure also guarantees that good teachers will balk at working there so as not to be caught in these traps or those of unrealistic expectations.

Lastly, the stigma of failure, as trumpeted by the state and by we the non-discerning media, causes parents to look elsewhere, seek transfers, move away from the “failing” school, even one that’s showing improvement.

We have one less school in Waco today. Though the state didn’t force Waco’s hand, the end result was preordained by state and national policies that accentuate the negative and wouldn’t be bothered by the positive.

Voila. Self-fulfilling failure, by the numbers.

— John Young
Waco Tribune-Herald


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