President Barack Obama explained his signature education program Race To The Top in a 2009 interview with the Washington Post. He said:
We want to challenge all the stakeholders parents, teachers, unions, school administrators to not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure that there’s a focus on low performing schools, by making sure that the standards that have been set are ones that mean a kid who graduates can compete at the international level.
Let me translate Obama’s education reformer language into plain English. The words data, achievement and standards are all synonyms for high stakes tests. And low performing schools are really schools where there is a high rate of poverty, special education students and students who are learning English as a second language. Suburban schools’ test scores are just fine.
This big statement raises many questions including:
1. Can data really measure academic success and teacher excellence?
2. Can achievement really save low performing schools?
3. What are the standards that will prepare kids to compete at the international level?
Here is a story that answers these troubling questions. Last year one of my sixth grade students was preparing to go to the zoo with her family. Her nine-year-old brother ran into his bedroom to put his glasses away when a stray bullet passed through the wall. Punks running past his Dorchester triple-decker were engaged in street warfare. The bullet never even grazed the little boy’s slender body as it passed through the front of his over-sized Celtics jersey. In one side and out the other. He stared at the two holes that were smoking and wondered if he was dead.
This family eats well, lives in a sparkling clean apartment and the kids always complete their homework. But the trauma they experience trumps data and makes achievement on tests grossly irrelevant. Low performing indeed! These children are courageous survivors.
Obama doesn’t understand that academic achievement will never happen until our children can be safe in their homes. When all of our children are safe and healthy then we can talk about the difference between excellent teachers and test preparation technicians.
Post by Nancy Bloom, a teacher in Massachusetts.