How Michigan School Districts Should Handle the Third Grade Reading Law

In October of 2016, after about three years of debate, then governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, signed a third grade reading bill into law that called for the retention of any third grader who scored more than one year behind grade level on the state test. The law required all K-3 students to be tested three times each year and students with reading deficiencies had to be given an Individual Reading Plan. Third grade students would not be retained until the 2019-2020 school year.

Which, in case you missed it, is this year.

Now that the time has come to implement the most objectionable part of the law and start forcing kids to repeat a grade, the state is getting cold feet. The new governor publicly stated that she wants to get rid of the law, and The Department of Education approved new cut scores that will dramatically reduce the number of retained students from what critics first feared. While more than 55% of Michigan third graders fell short of the proficiency standard in 2018, the new scores are expected to identify just 5% of students for retention this year.

These are the actions of people who realize they’re dealing with a steaming turd.

You can avoid most steaming turns. If you’re out for a walk, you cross to the other side of the road should you see one in your path. More problematic is when the turd is incontrovertibly your problem, like when your dog has an accident on the living room rug or the neighbor’s mutt makes a deposit on your front lawn. In these cases, you throw the turd away.

But when the state legislature passes a law like the third grade reading law it’s as if they’ve deposited a steaming turd right on your front porch and made it illegal for you to dispose of it. Your only choice is to figure out how to mitigate its damaging effects. You don’t want to see it. You certainly don’t want to smell it. And since you can’t get rid of it, you do what you can to make it less offensive. Perhaps you spray the turd with some odor neutralizer. Even better, you cover it up with something.

That’s essentially what the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has done. They’ve tried to make the turd less offensive by selecting a different cut score. Their justification is telling. MDE deputy superintendent Vanessa A. Keesler explained:

“A performance level of ‘not proficient’ on the ELA test does not necessarily tell us if the student is a grade level behind in terms of their reading.”

There’s plenty of evidence that the legislature knew this was a steaming turd when they passed it. First, they wrote language that limited retention to at least one grade level behind, even though they didn’t have a way of determining such a thing (the state test measures student performance against the standards; it does not report grade level performance).

Second, students can only repeat third grade once. But why? If your position is that you don’t want students going to fourth grade unless they’re able to read at near a fourth grade level, then what difference does it make how old the students are? Why is passing them after a second try at third grade okay but passing them after one try not?

It’s almost as if legislators recognized that retaining students is a bad thing to do, so instead of not doing it at all, they compromised by only hurting kids for one year.

Third, the state included a number of exemptions, including a revelatory one: the “good cause” exemption, which allows parents and teachers to request that a superintendent ignore the dumb test score and pass the kid on to fourth grade anyway.

These are the actions of a group of people who didn’t really want to do what they were doing but who wanted to look like they were doing something meaningful and tough. They gave us a steaming turd, but they thankfully left an air freshener nearby.

Districts should make liberal use of that air freshener. They should use the good cause exemption to avoid retaining any students. It’s both easy and legal to do. Here’s the law in its entirety and here is the relevant good cause exemption language:

“The pupil’s parent or legal guardian has requested a good cause exemption within the time period provided under subsection (10)(d) and the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, determines that the good cause exemption is in the best interests of the pupil.”

The key words here are “in the best interests of the pupil,” a phrase vague enough to cover just about anything, including the fact that retention has been found over and over again to be ineffective. (You can read a good summary of the research here.) Districts could and should use this phrase to exempt every student on the basis that retention is more likely to harm the student’s education (and well-being) than aid it.

Teachers who are concerned that parents might not request a good cause exemption need not worry because the law allows them to make the request themselves:

“10) The superintendent of a school district or chief administrator of a public school academy, or his or her designee, shall grant a good cause exemption under subsection (8) only through the following procedure:  (a) For a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d), at the request of the pupil’s parent or legal guardian or upon the teacher’s own initiative, the pupil’s grade 3 teacher submits to the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, a recommendation for a good cause exemption along with documentation that indicates that a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d) applies to the pupil.”

So here is what districts who don’t want their students harmed by the law should do:

  • Make it clear that they will honor good cause exemption requests every single time by communicating this message to parents throughout the third grade year.
  • Provide a summary of the research on retention to parents so they understand why they should seek the good cause exemption.
  • Make the process for applying for a good cause exemption easy by including a short form that is sent home with student report cards at the end of the year. Follow up with robocalls and/or emails within the 30-day window parents have to seek the exemption.
  • Provide a similarly simple form to all third grade teachers and require them to fill one out for each student the state identifies for retention before they leave for the summer.

Such actions raise a question: Is it ethical to skirt a law because you don’t like it? After all, the law was passed by a majority of Michigan’s representatives and that is how our system works. If you don’t like a law, you can’t ignore it; you’re supposed to work to change it.

A few points to consider:

First, the law lacks legitimacy because of the legislature’s egregious gerrymandering. A three-judge federal court panel describes it as being of “historic proportions” and last year Michigan voters approved a proposal that amended the state Constitution to create a redistricting commission.

Also, the law itself was hardly the result of a grassroots movement by the people of Michigan. Citizens were not clamoring for more accountability for third graders. Laws like these are typically the result of model legislation written by outside special interest groups, many of which favor education reforms not supported by a majority of a state’s citizenry.

Second, it codifies bad practice into law. Retention is not supported by the research. Indeed, the research on retention is clear.  Researcher John Hattie wrote back in 2009 that retention is “one of the few areas in education where it is difficult to find students with a positive (d > 0.0) effect, and the few that do exist still hover close to a zero effect.” (Source)  If you as a teacher were doing something this damaging to students in your classroom, you’d be engaging in educational malpractice.

Third, we should consider the motives of the people who passed the law. These were the same people who sought to exact revenge on teachers and their unions by passing right-to-work legislation, have still not restored education funding to pre-recession levels, allowed unfettered expansion of charter schools with minimal oversight, promoted emergency manager laws that stripped control away from communities and placed it in the hands of individuals, many of whom lacked any experience in education, and have presided over Michigan’s precipitous drop in student achievement relative to other states. In short, they either don’t know what the hell they’re doing or they do know what they’re doing and they’re intentionally not acting in the best interest of Michigan’s children.

Finally, I’m not advocating that districts violate the law. Everything districts should do to avoid retaining students is legally permissible.

All of which means that districts should do everything they can to protect students from this steaming turd of a law and use the good cause exemption to pass every third grade student to fourth grade.

You Might Be a Petty Tyrant If

A couple of years ago I was written up for wearing a red shirt to school. It was one of those national “Wear Red for Ed” days and the union had sent an email telling everyone to wear shirts that had been designed during a previous round of negotiations. They bore the words “Support Charlotte Teachers As We Support Your Students.” Administration caught wind of it and issued a memo telling teachers that such an act would be considered political and could result in discipline (because I guess suggesting that the public support teachers and students is political now – nice time we live in). Some teachers switched to other red shirts. I altered mine a bit:

The Superintendent directed the principals to go around and record the names of all the teachers who wore red shirts. I guess it’s in my permanent file now, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

This episode was one of many that teachers in my former district endured under the “leadership” of petty tyrants, and even it, silly as it was, doesn’t come close to how bad some teachers have it.

When I started this blog two and a half years ago, I didn’t think I was being brave. Still don’t. But apparently, that’s because I work for sane people. I’ve had readers email me things like, “Thanks for saying what we can’t” and “Thank you for being a voice for those of us too afraid to speak up.” Teachers have left anonymous comments on blog posts with arguments far more persuasive than anything I’ve written but then declined an opportunity to write a guest article because they were afraid someone in their district office would see it and deduce its author.  One Amazon reviewer left the following review for my book The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO:

“Every teacher should read this book, subscribe to his page, follow him on Facebook! He and his guest writers say exactly what we would say if we could.”

Others have flat out said that if they wrote what I wrote, they’d be out of a job.

Some of this is likely fear on the part of teachers. While they may indeed work for contemptible, officious prats, they’re probably exaggerating the limits those prats want to place on their speech.

But some of this fear to speak up — far too much of it — is the fact that we have too many petty tyrants in positions of educational leadership. Offered a sip of power for the first time in their lives, they slam down the entire goblet and prance around like Nero. 

These leaders cause harm to our education system. They make improvement impossible by shutting down any possibility of debate that could make things better. The culture of fear and silence they cultivate drive good teachers from the classroom and destroy the morale of those who stay. It’s hard to pour your heart and soul into a job when the people who are in charge show so little respect for the work you do and focus instead on the color of shirt you’re wearing. Leaders who stand in front of teachers and tell them that it’s all about the kids but then act in ways that discourage candid criticism and snuff out pointed questions are not actually interested in improving their schools or districts; they’re interested in doing what’s easiest for them.

They say that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. In my experience, this is true. I know many teachers who left their previous schools, not because of pay, or parents, or student behavior, or the physical condition of the building they worked in but because they were sick and tired of working for people who were more concerned with silencing teachers, squelching dissent, and promoting a false image of harmony to the community than they were about improving the teaching and learning in their schools.


If you won’t allow your teachers to speak to the media

If no teacher in your employ ever speaks critically at a school board meeting

If your instinct after having one of your decisions criticized is to get revenge on those doing the criticizing

If you’re more concerned with your image than the performance of the school or district you run

If you’re spending any time at all looking at your teachers’ social media pages

If you ask teachers to fill out surveys and there are no criticisms because the teachers suspect you’ll be able to identify them

If you never ask teachers to provide feedback on your performance as a leader

Then you might be a petty tyrant.

If you are, KNOCK IT OFF.  Do better. Be better. See if you can find a little humility and maybe learn something that will make your district or building a better place to work and learn.

And if you can’t do that, then please find something else to do.

Fiddle, perhaps.

The folks over at My Morning Routine interviewed me about – you guessed it – my morning routine, such as it is. You can read that here.

I received a shout out on a fun new education podcast, Teacher Talk with Mr. Teachwell, during their episode “The Teachwell Teacher Greets Summer.” Listen here. 

A Lie All Teachers Should Believe

What is the most empowering belief a teacher can have? 

That’s a question I was recently asked. A few answers came quickly to mind:

All students can learn.

I make a difference.

The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I believe the most empowering belief a teacher can have is a lie.

How, you might wonder, can teachers be expected to believe a lie when they know it’s a lie?

The same way we walk around believing all sorts of lies in spite of knowing the truth.

For example, we believe we’re better than others in all sorts of ways, even though our logical brains know how unlikely that is. Researchers have found that we rate ourselves above average on everything from our driving ability to our academic performance to the quality of our personal relationships.

We persist in the belief that more money will make us happier, even though increased happiness has not followed previous pay raises and despite the fact that we’re aware of the research showing the happiest people on the planet do not live in the richest nations and that after about $75,000 per year, money doesn’t increase happiness. 

Many of us still believe in the American Dream, that if you work hard enough you can be anything you want, even though we’re also aware that opportunities aren’t equal and the data show that fewer than 8 out of every 100 kids born into the lowest economic quintile will ever earn enough to place them in the uppermost quintile.

We believe that having children makes us happy. But when Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman asked working women in Texas to reconstruct their days and rank each of the activities on a happiness scale, they ranked spending time with their kids about the same as vacuuming. (Source) And then there’s the below graph, which shows how happy we are throughout our lives. It speaks for itself.

So there’s a pretty good precedent when it comes to believing stuff that just isn’t true.

Why do we do it?

I believe it’s because we have a choice between internalizing the truth or the lie, and internalizing the lie is often more likely to improve our circumstances.

There’s research to back up such a belief. Research by Carol Graham (and subsequently confirmed by others) found that individuals who were optimistic about their futures tended to have better health and employment outcomes. Graham writes:

“Those who believe in their futures tend to invest in those futures, while those who are consumed with stress, daily struggles, and a lack of hope, not only have less means to make such investments, but also have much less confidence that they will pay off.”

Read more here: Is The American Dream Really Dead?

The American Dream might be a fantasy, but believing in it makes it more likely you’ll achieve it.

Consider a child who dreams of becoming the next Tom Brady. For that matter, consider a six-year-old Tom Brady. Young Tom, as he was growing up, surely became aware, somewhere along the line, of the long odds of becoming an NFL player. The odds of him becoming an NFL quarterback were even slimmer. The odds of becoming the greatest quarterback of all time were so infinitesimally small that they could legitimately be considered impossible. Had Brady internalized those odds, he would have quit. None of us would know his name. Instead, Brady chose to believe the fantasy that a relatively unathletic mop-headed California kid could grow up to be the greatest signal caller in history.

We believe those lies that have the potential to benefit us. We lie to ourselves to protect our egos, to provide us with a sense of volition, to enable the illusion of control and self-determination.

Which is why the most empowering belief any teacher can have is this:

Everything that happens in my classroom is my responsibility.

Teachers who believe that lie believe that when things go poorly, it’s their fault.

When their students don’t get along, it’s because of the culture they’ve built.

When a routine isn’t followed, it’s on them.

When students don’t learn, it’s because they didn’t teach well enough.

Everything that happens in their classroom is their responsibility.

It’s a lie, as easily disproven as the American Dream.

In truth, things go poorly for many reasons outside the control of the teacher. Students sometimes act like jerks because all people sometimes act like jerks. Routines don’t get followed because humans are forgetful and easily distracted. Sometimes a student doesn’t learn because she hasn’t eaten, or he broke up with his boyfriend the night before, or she didn’t get any sleep because her baby sister cried all night, or because he just doesn’t give a damn about the Reconstruction Era (and really, can you blame him?).

But just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it. Like the American Dream, you’ll do better if you buy the lie.

Believing that everything that happens in your room is your responsibility makes you a better teacher, just like equating more money with greater happiness makes you a better American (can you imagine what would happen to our economy if everyone actually acted on the fact that more money doesn’t make us happier?)

Believing the lie makes you a better teacher because it compels you to try to solve problems. By attempting to solve problems, you might actually solve some of them. Things will improve for the simple reason that you believe you can improve things.

The Other Side of the Coin

The problem, of course, is the same as the lies about wealth, parenthood, and the American Dream. The lie, while it benefits each of us to believe it and act accordingly, can be used by others to harm us.

If the American Dream is possible, then people born into challenging circumstances have no one to blame but themselves for not making it.

If we believe that wealth ought to make us happier, then we assume there’s something wrong with wealthy people who are miserable.

If we believe that parenthood is the best thing that can happen to a person, then postpartum depression becomes an existential threat rather than a rational response.

Teachers should believe the lie that everything that happens in their classrooms is their responsibility. Such a belief will make them better teachers.

But the rest of us should show more understanding and recognize the truth: There are a number of things teachers can’t control, and failures in their classroom are as likely a result of those things as they are anything the teacher has or hasn’t done.

5 Things Teachers Should No Longer Have to Do

Of all the nonsense today’s educators must endure, perhaps the most galling is the mixed messages we regularly receive about how to perform our jobs. Teachers, once upon a time, were essentially independent practitioners, trusted to choose their own topics of study, craft their own lessons, design their own tests (or not give any at all), enforce their own grading policies, and shepherd their students through whatever year they happened to have them in the manner they best saw fit.

In such a system, it made sense for teachers to always be learning. They needed lesson plans. They had to know why they were teaching what they were teaching. They were always on the lookout for more interesting ways to reach students. The success or failure of their lessons rested on their shoulders.

The legacy of such a model of teaching still exists, even though the reality is far different. Many school leaders act as though teachers are making decisions because teachers used to make decisions. As a result, these leaders still expect teachers to behave as though they are working in a system that simply no longer exists in many places.

When we started striving for “guaranteed and viable curriculums,” we began the process of standardizing classrooms. The adoption of common standards across many states accelerated this movement because it allowed publishing companies to sell to most of the nation. That resulted in the same programs being taught in thousands of schools. Finally, district leaders’ demands that such programs be implemented with “fidelity” drove the final nail in the coffin of autonomous teaching.

In many schools today, teachers are no longer expected to make curricular decisions. They’re told what to teach and often how to teach it. They merely deliver the content someone else created. It’s a bad model that’s led to disillusionment and ineffective instruction, but what makes it worse is that reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they’re still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are.

Reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they're still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are. Click To Tweet

As I wrote in At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?, reformers occupy an enviable position where they get to greatly influence how teachers do their jobs but accept no responsibility for the failure of their ideas. In spite of disappearing autonomy, it is often the teacher who is blamed when other people’s ideas, programs, or “research-based” practices fall short in the real world.

Outdated Assumptions


My school is doing a book study on this:

It took nine pages to realize the authors were operating under the assumption that teachers have a level of autonomy they simply no longer have. I was ready to throw the book across the room when I read this sentence:

“The most effective teaching and most meaningful student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding.”

First, duh. Second, such a sentence, and indeed the entire first chapter (and the remaining eight chapters that follow) rests on the authors’ beliefs that it is the teachers who are still designing learning targets and lessons. How quaint.

Of course, this is just one of many examples. If you work in a district that expects you to be little more than a loyal soldier who does as she’s told, then it’s contradictory for those same district leaders to also expect you to take on the responsibilities of a general. The education world has moved on, and the generals are no longer in the classroom. That reality means there are things that teachers who labor in low-autonomy environments should no longer be expected to do. Here are five:

Determine Learning Goals

All of the hubbub about knowing (and posting) student learning goals for each lesson assumes that teachers have the authority to make decisions about what their students should learn. If you work in a state that has adopted standards (that’s all of them), and if you work for a district that has adopted programs that are supposed to address those standards (a lot of them), and if district leaders have told you that you should be teaching said programs with fidelity (way too many of them), then your learning goals for every lesson are already decided. They’re probably printed at the top of each student workbook lesson. You don’t need to know them.

And if district leaders tell you, “Well, no program is perfect. You still need to look at the lessons and determine what’s most important,” then it’s reasonable to ask them why in the hell they’ve put all their eggs in the program’s basket and point out that monkeying with imperfect lessons is the opposite of “fidelity.” They might have saved a lot of hassle by empowering you to make curricular decisions in the first place.

Write Detailed Lesson Plans

If you’re being handed a curriculum and told to teach it, then your lesson plans need to consist of nothing more than “Pages 131 – 135,” or “Lesson 4.1.” Everything else can be seen in your teacher’s guide or online portal. If you have a principal who demands you teach a program as it’s written but is still requiring lesson plans, then he’s just giving you busywork. Teachers in compliance-driven schools should never have to write down lesson plans; at most, they should simply be asked to photocopy the pages out of their district-mandated curriculum. But of course, if the principal is such a believer in whatever curriculum he’s mandating, he should already know the thing like the back of his hand and shouldn’t require any lesson plans at all.

Know the Standards

The state adopts a set of standards for each subject. The district chooses a curriculum for teachers to use to teach those standards. If it’s chosen well, then the teacher needs only to teach the lessons in the program and students will have been taught the standards. That is, theoretically, how it’s supposed to work. That is, in fact, the very reason districts adopt programs. Why, then, do teachers need to know the standards at all? If the expectation is that the board-adopted curriculum is better than anything teachers will decide to do on their own, then teachers need only to follow directions and students will learn what they’re supposed to.

Supplement the Curriculum

You have your standards. You have your curriculum. You’re teaching it the way it’s designed. But it’s not working for some kids. It’s at this point that leaders, coaches, colleagues, and your own brain might tell you that it’s time to try something else. So you ask other teachers what works for them. You Google. You head over to TeachersPayTeachers. If you’re lucky, you bail out the program you weren’t supposed to deviate from, the kids learn something, and nobody finds out. If not, get ready for a slap on the wrist, you incorrigible rebel.

If district leaders trust the programs they adopt so much more than they trust the decision-making of their teachers, then they should have to live with the consequences. One of those consequences is that the program won’t always work. When that happens, it shouldn’t be teachers who are on the hook, but those who chose the programs.

Grow Professionally

Consider a pizza joint. If it’s my pizza joint, it’s in my business’s best interest that I continually educate myself about toppings, cooking techniques, ovens, and whatever else people who own pizza joints must concern themselves. I want to serve the best pizza possible so that my business succeeds.

But if I’m a delivery driver who has nothing to do with the product being served, I don’t need to know about any of the stuff the owner does. I just have to know how to drive my car and follow my GPS.

This is the problem with asking teachers to do little more than deliver other people’s products. Where’s the motivation to learn and grow? If all I’m going to do for the next 20 years is open up a teacher’s guide and read scripted lessons, why do I need to know how to engage students, or identify learning targets, or design rigorous assignments?

Why do I need to behave like a professional when no one expects me to do the work of a professional?


All of the above, of course, is a terrible way to teach. Much of the disillusionment teachers feel doesn’t come from where many assume it comes. While pay could be improved, especially in some areas and especially for younger teachers, pay raises alone won’t restore meaning to teachers’ work. Better discipline and more supportive administrators would help. Mentoring is proven to help keep young teachers in the classroom.

But when districts strip away the agency of teachers, they destroy teachers’ motivation to do their jobs well. This is what teachers are talking about when they say they’re not listened to, not respected, and not trusted. If teachers can’t be trusted to decide what, or at least how, to teach, then what can they be trusted with?

Teachers who create lessons are more invested in those lessons. They will, therefore, be more invested in their students’ learning. Teachers who are asked to be nothing more than deliverers of others’ work will rightly question why they need to be any good at all. Schools that take away every reason for teachers to be motivated should not be surprised when they have unmotivated teachers. 

Let’s allow teachers to pursue the meaning that their jobs inherently have. We can start by allowing them to make more decisions about what goes on in their classrooms.

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I write books for overworked teachers. My latest, The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO, is now available on Amazon.

At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?

At the beginning of this school year, TNTP released a report called The Opportunity Myth, in which they repeated a golden oldie from the reform agenda’s playlist:  Public schools suck and it’s mostly because public school teachers suck. They didn’t come right out and say that, of course, but it’s hard to interpret the report’s introduction any other way. Judge for yourself:

Far too many students graduate from high school still unprepared for the lives they want to lead. They enroll in college and land in remedial courses, or start jobs and discover they’re missing skills they need. We wanted to understand why.

To do this, we followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems to learn more about their experiences. What we found was unnerving: classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives are slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families—not because they can’t master challenging material, but because they’re rarely given a real chance to try.

In fact, most students—and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations. Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And middle and high school students reported that their school experiences were engaging less than half the time.

The report is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been in public education for any length of time, and if you’d like to read why you can safely ignore it, check out Peter Greene’s criticism here and Matt Barnum’s here.

What strikes me is how reformers continue to shamelessly want it both ways.

They have, for the most part, won. They rammed through the standards they wanted. Tenure protections have been decimated in many states. Schools are more “data-driven” than ever. School choice continues to expand. Teachers can now be held accountable for their students’ performance on a standardized test. Reformers have managed to convince 7 out of every 10 Americans that our public schools deserve a C or D rating, even though most believe their children’s own schools are just fine.

School leaders, in their quest to take individual teacher differences out of the equation and standardize lessons just as much as we’ve standardized tests, have adopted Common Core-aligned programs and required strict fidelity to them. They’ve done everything they can to take teacher judgment out of education, going so far as to forbid educators from using anything that hasn’t received prior approval from central office administrators. Some of these programs literally have scripts for teachers to read, and many districts require teachers to follow pacing guides to make sure they cover all the material before the big exam and to ensure continuity across the district. Because I guess that’s important.

The way schools are run today is different than they used to be run, and it isn’t because schools decided they needed to change or parents demanded it; it’s because those changes were forced on them by people with the same ideology as those who write reports criticizing teachers for their weak instruction, below-grade-level assignments, inability to engage students, and low expectations.

It’s the same thing that infuriates me whenever teacher effectiveness is discussed at a district level.

As a teacher who has been told to teach a program as it’s written, how the hell is it my fault if the assignments students get are not challenging enough? I’m not the one who designed the assignments.

If you’re requiring me to read from some stupid script written by publishers who’ve never met my students, then how can you fairly evaluate my instruction? It’s not my instruction.

Should we be surprised that students aren’t engaged during a lesson that’s delivered by a teacher who had no hand in creating it and who sees it as the contrived lump that it is? I’m not a terrible actor, but hand me a lemon and I’m going to have trouble convincing even the most eager-to-learn student that I’m giving them lemonade.

Why would we expect students to be engaged when they’re walked through standard after standard with the goal of preparing them for a test? Last week, my third graders read an article (out of the district-mandated curriculum) on the transcontinental railroad. They were interested and asked lots of questions. I went rogue and showed an unapproved video of how it was built. They had more questions. I could envision us spending the next two weeks learning about westward expansion. We could discuss Manifest Destiny and investigate why certain large western cities are located where they are today. We could read about how the railroad affected the environment and how it upset Native American hunting grounds and led to the taking of their land.

Instead, I had to move on. I had to teach about sequence and cause and effect because I had a test to give on those skills and a new topic (completely unrelated to the American west or even American history) to start on Monday.

I had to do those things because that’s what’s in the standards these reformers so badly wanted and because my district needs data to make decisions and because I can’t be trusted to make decisions about how to best prepare my students for those tests, much less for anything more important than tests.

But TNTP wants to tell me it’s my fault students aren’t engaged?

If I’m doing what I’ve been told to do, then how do you evaluate my effectiveness? Shouldn’t you really evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum you’ve forced me to use?

This is the educational world the reformers have wrought, and the one they still have the temerity to criticize. They created this mess, and now they’re pointing at it, holding their noses, and telling teachers to do better.


The reformers’ agenda has had a chance to work. If it isn’t — if kids aren’t being given grade-level tasks, if instruction is weak, if students aren’t engaged, if teachers aren’t expecting enough of them — then it’s long past time for the reform crowd to own their failures and stop scapegoating teachers, many of whom are doing nothing more than exactly what they’ve been told to do with the materials they’ve been told to do it with.

If students aren’t able to pursue their goals, it’s not because teachers have failed them. It’s because reformers have.

If you want to blame teachers, then you need to allow them to make some decisions. You need to give them some power. Blaming teachers for the state of education today, when teachers have lost nearly every skirmish with the well-financed reform movement, is straight from the reformer playbook, where all the plays are designed wonderfully, but the damn players don’t know how to run them. If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don’t get to blame them when your plans don’t work out.

If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don't get to blame them when your plans don't work out. Click To Tweet

The army doesn’t fire soldiers when the general’s plan is a disaster.

NFL teams don’t swap out their entire rosters when the coach’s gameplans result in multiple losing seasons.

And reformers should no longer get to blame teachers when teachers are working under conditions created by those reformers.