The social impact of high stakes testing in poor urban schools has grown particularly acute over the past 10 years. For beyond the shrinkage of school curriculums to fit the narrow boundaries of annual tests, along with the disappearance of recess and play, research in poorer schools has uncovered another most tragic outcome to high stakes testing: the effective elimination of care as the ethos that has bound together teacher and child for longer than there have been schools in America. Sadly, many of the teachers 10 years ago who were the protectors of and the advocates for children, who often served to help children bear their burdens that result from poverty, neglect, and racism, have left the field or have since suffered a relentless erosion of that close teacher-student bond that historically characterized the relation between educators and children in urban elementary schools.
Ironically, that erosion has been due to a desperate effort among teachers to emphasize the positive and to avoid the negative in the face of the ever-present threat of failure and the reality of failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB. For as teachers quickly learned during the past decade to focus on the promised improvements under NCLB’s standards and accountability framework, rather than on the tangible failures of many and sometimes most of the children in their classes, the needs of children as fragile human beings was supplanted in many teachers viewfinders by an image born of disembodied data and graphs and achievement scales. Avoiding failure seemed to require the full embrace of the ideology of testing and accountability, and the advocacy for children that at was the core of teaching began to be rooted out by the false promise and a failed effort to leave no child behind.
As sanctions have become stiffer, including the likelihood of staff replacement and school closure, the utterly impossible AYP demands have escalated even as poor schools grow poorer. Those early positive attitudes by teachers, then, became impossible to sustain, even as heroic teaching efforts continued in many schools. Not surprisingly, negativity began to fill the void as even wishful thinking drained away, and clenched fists began to replace open hands. Disappearance of hope becomes accompanied by a detached bitterness that expanded and spilled over into teachers’ attitudes toward themselves and toward the brothers and sisters of children who just a few years back were viewed so differently. The sweetness teachers once felt about their students, their children, their “babies,” began to sour and curdle. In the process, nurturance gave way to looking to place blame, and blaming, then, degenerated quickly to the most dangerous of excuses of all for ignoring children’s needs, the excuse known infamously as “No Excuses.”
And so situations that may have been touching before are now viewed with toughness. Poverty is not going to go away, boys and girls, so it is time to “man up” and pretend as if it had. No excuses. Never mind that roughly 7 of every 28 of America’s invisible poor children in our classrooms, whether in New Orleans or New Bedford, live in households where the annual income is less than $23,000 for a family of four. No Excuses. And so the new pedagogy for the poor requires enforcement and moves into a penal phase. Any resistance by children to increasing pressures to perform in the new boot camps is quickly countered by teachers whose every move is now monitored and written up if it departs from the scripted curricular catechisms that have replaced lesson planning and humane teaching in most urban schools.
And now waiting in the wings to be implemented by states and cities that sold their souls for Race to the Top cash is, yet, another indignity and assault on the teacher-pupil relationship. For inasmuch as that special bond between teachers and children is surely on life support after 10 years of an enforced failure strategy devised for the benefit of poor children, the creation of a teacher evaluation scheme accompanied by merit pay, both based on student test scores, amounts to pulling the plug.
With teachers already squeezed to focus on the curricular shards that are tested at the expense of a rich and relevant curriculum, teachers who are evaluated based on test scores will begin to focus on student groups whose scores could be boosted to whatever number or category is deemed worthy of enhancing a paycheck or avoiding a sacking. In some classrooms, students on the lowest and highest ends of ability and achievement may be neglected, as they would provide less “bang for the buck.” One teacher recently spoke facetiously or cynically (it is hard to tell the difference these days) of how students entering her classroom may be labeled as “pay cut” or “bonus.” This is harsh, but the reality is that a model that explicitly ties children’s scores to monetary worth creates such an atmosphere. Even caring, effective, and empathetic teachers to some degree would be aware of how individual students may influence their pay.
High-achieving students could be left behind as well if teachers believe that effort is better spent on students whose scores can be edged up more easily. And even though most teachers still take seriously, or want to take seriously, their responsibility for the academic and emotional progress for every student in their class, tying job security or pay raises to test score promises to further damage one of the most important relationships with adults that children have outside of family.
Relationships among teachers would also suffer if career status and pay were linked to test scores. Ideally, colleagues support, inspire, collaborate with, empathize with, and mentor one another. Teacher collaboration at grade level and on vertical teams is an integral area of support and creativity within which teachers create, implement, and fine tune curriculum and instruction. If standardized test scores become part of the evaluation of teacher quality, collaborative relationships will transform into competitive ones. Within schools and districts, teachers would explicit or implicitly be set against rather one another as they competed to teach the most remunerative or status-linked student groups. Even if unconsciously, favoritism and “who you know” would become factors (more than they currently may be) when deciding teacher placement. Some teachers would request and even campaign for transfers to wealthier schools within districts. Teachers would inevitably be pitted against other teachers in assuring that their classes are “stacked” with high achieving students, with students likely to earn low standardized test scores (students with special educational needs, English language learners and student in poverty) unwanted before they ever appear at the classroom door.
It is difficult to see how tying pay raises to standardized test scores would serve as an incentive for teachers to design stronger, engaging and comprehensive curriculum, or to give effective and empathetic instruction. Caring educators choose to teach for many reasons, but bonus pay or grinding out test scores are not among them. There is a perception that teachers and their unions represent a group of entitled whiners, but that is far from the case. Teachers take seriously the job of educating the students in their charge, and they consider themselves accountable for student achievement. Teachers, parents and administrators value and measure this achievement in ways far more comprehensively than can be measured by standardized tests. Tying teacher pay or job security to scores will not make teachers more accountable for student achievement, but it will have a deadly impact on the now tenuous relationships at the heart of student learning and growth.
Summing up what happened to her school after the high stakes hurricane hit in 2000, a retired principal from a Title I school in Louisiana concluded, “caring went out the window.” It was sucked away by the endless swirl of stress and the anxiety of testing and never-ending test prep in a school where half the children regularly failed 4th grade. Left in the wake of that continuing catastrophe across Louisiana remains a sense of helpless loss and a corrosive aggression among both teachers and children, as they pick through the remains to see what can be salvaged of their human dignity and hope after this ten-year blow.
This new teacher accountability storm that is now brewing promises once more to devastate areas already ravaged, but this time moving deep into the heartland to bring ruination to relationships that heretofore have defined the lives of children, teachers, and parents in and around America’s once-treasured public schools.
Jim Horn is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matterand has published widely on issues related to social justice in education.