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School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade

In Mayer’s book, there is quite a lot of kissing and hugging: she often kisses her students, and they kiss her back. There is also a lot of crying, a lot of tears, shared freely by Mayer and her students. Their lives are hard, and she gives them whatever help she can. She never pries into their home lives unless they bring their problems to her, but she teaches them to read and selects articles and books for each student that will encourage them to read on their own. She creates a multicultural literature curriculum so that each one can see how people just like them succeeded. She tells them they must never give up, never stop trying. Her students, she insists, are heroes.

But there are scoundrels in her book, among them businessmen like Mayor Bloomberg who think they can run schools by numbers and mandates. There are also the distant policy-makers who insist that all students must meet one high standard to get a high school diploma, a goal that is beyond reach for many of Mayer’s students. Knowing that the new mandate would cause many students to give up and drop out, teachers were not surprised when the city’s Department of Education offered a dumbed-down retest for those who failed the Regents examinations. Anything to get those numbers up. Now the schools offer “credit recovery,” a dubious scheme that enables students to make up a failed year with a week or so of ersatz classes. The goal of these shabby manipulations is to hit the phony targets and make the leadership look good, even as they ignore the daily tribulations of students and teachers.

When test scores become the goal of education by which students and schools are measured, then students in the bottom half—who will inevitably include disproportionate numbers of children who are poor, children with disabilities, children who barely speak English—will be left far behind, stigmatized by their low scores. If we were to focus on the needs of children, we would make sure that every pregnant woman got good medical care and nutrition, since many children born to women without them tend to have learning disabilities. We would make sure that children in poor communities have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school ready to learn. We would insist that their teachers be trained to support their social, emotional, and intellectual development and to engage local communities on behalf of their children, as Dr. James Comer of Yale University has insisted for many years. And we would have national policies whose goal is to reduce poverty by expanding economic opportunity.

In these two books, we have two versions of school reform. One is devised by Wall Street financiers and politicians who believe in rigidly defined numerical goals and return on investment; they blame lazy teachers and self-interested unions when test scores are low. The other draws on the deep experience of a compassionate teacher who finds fault not with teachers, unions, or students, but with a society that refuses to take responsibility for the conditions in which its children live and learn—and who has demonstrated through her own efforts how one dedicated teacher has improved the education of poor young people.

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