It’s Time to Kill High-Stakes Testing


Elizabeth Warren made some news in education circles this past week when she sat for an interview with NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. Garcia read a question from a retired teacher who wanted to know what Warren would do to end high-stakes testing. Warren said, in part:

“This notion that it’s all about testing — that it’s all about what somebody far off in the state capital or far off in the national capital says, here’s what constitutes success and worse yet, here’s what constitutes failure — no, that’s not what education is about,” Warren said.

“Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.”

While I put almost zero stock in what Presidential candidates say while trying to woo voters with transparent pandering, there is the potential that sound clips like the one above can generate interesting conversations. Warren’s rhetorical stand against high-stakes testing certainly did that.

Peter Greene, who writes one of the best education policy blogs from the perspective of a public school supporter, wrote:

“Nothing in the last twenty years of education has done more far-reaching and pervasive damage than high stakes testing. If the candidates want a bandwagon to jump on, I recommend this one.”

As someone who will be starting his 20th year in the classroom this fall, I think Greene is right about the damage caused. But he’s probably wrong about this being a fruitful bandwagon, an opinion shared by USC School of Education Professor Morgan Polikoff:



Alas, he’s likely right.

No candidate is going to tilt the electability scale in their favor by opposing high-stakes testing. On the other hand, they probably won’t hurt their electability, either. As much as education people wish it wasn’t so, not many people care about education issues when it comes to picking a President. If you don’t believe me, go back and count the number of education questions asked of the Democratic candidates during the first debates.

It’s also interesting to ask why people support testing to such a degree. I think Jennifer Binis touches on the reason in this tweet:


Binis frames the persistent existence of testing as the result of demand, but I’m not so sure. I think the culprit is likely tradition and inertia. Every generation has indeed had some form of high-stakes testing, which serves to perpetuate high-stakes testing. People cannot separate testing from schooling; they go together like peanut butter and chocolate. But that doesn’t mean that people actually like testing, just that they’re too complacent to do much about it.

You can see this status quo bias everywhere you look. My dentist and doctor’s office still has a stack of magazines in the waiting room even though everyone who enters it has a phone with as much reading material as they could ever want at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean people want the magazines there; it means the people who put them there are just doing what dentists and doctors have done for a long time.  Class reunions still exist in spite of the existence of Facebook and the fact that hardly anyone gets excited about attending their class reunion. We still force kids to blow out candles on birthday cakes even though it means everyone will be ingesting the birthday boy’s germs, and why do we do it? So they can make a wish (which they must keep secret). Nonsense, clearly, and yet we persist.

Just because people continue to do things doesn’t mean it makes sense to keep doing those things. 

But even if the continued use of high-stakes tests does represent the sincere and intentional will of the people, the people regularly want stupid things like fast food, Walmart, and interest-only mortgages. We have, in our past, permitted slavery, opposed women’s right to vote, and favored a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military. Just 15 years ago, 60% of Americans opposed gay marriage.   As Henry Ford once said:



It’s a leader’s job to lead, and sometimes that means ignoring the polls and doing the smart thing. The smart thing right now is to kill high-stakes testing.

Of course, there are some who think such a move is foolish:





The argument here seems to be that we need high-stakes testing because kids don’t know and can’t do what we want them to know and be able to do. But such an argument ignores the fact that we’ve had high-stakes testing since No Child Left Behind and standardized testing for much longer than that. Those who believe testing will lead to improved scores have had, at minimum, 17 years to prove their case.

Since critics of education so often believe schools would be better if they were run more like businesses, one has to wonder what they would make of a business that doubled down on a policy that had never, in at least 17 years, led to the kind of improvement it was designed to.

But even if testing hasn’t led to greatly improved academic outcomes for our students, it’s not like we were knocking the ball out of the park before all the high-stakes testing started. That’s what Fordham Institute’s senior fellow Robert Pondiscio appears to be saying here:



If that’s the best argument for testing then we should stop testing. That’s like defending Prohibition by saying, “Sure it’s an abject failure with a ton of awful unintended consequences, but what we were doing before wasn’t working. Let’s just stick with the obviously crappy policy.”

 As for the equity argument, high-stakes testing has had 17 years to help children in Providence and Detroit. So how’s that going?

 Some in the discussion staked out the middle ground. They argued that it’s not the testing that’s the problem; it’s how the tests are being used.





I’m sympathetic if for no other reason than finding the compromise position is usually my go-to move. But it’s wrong in this case.

Yes, the tests by themselves are not the problem; the way people use the tests are. But this is a little like saying it’s not the gun that kills people but the person holding it. Technically true, but guns are made to shoot things just as tests are made to compare things. And once people start comparing, there will be winners, losers, and people trying very hard to turn the losers into winners while other people try very hard to remain winners.

 In other words, the way some people use the tests is as inevitable as the way some people use guns.

 Here is what we know:


High-stakes testing has not given us what its proponents hoped it would give us. It’s had time to work and it just hasn’t.

High-stakes testing, while failing, has also given us lots of nasty unintended consequences, not the least of which includes fewer high-performing students wanting to become teachers. (For other consequences see here, here, here, and here.)

High-stakes testing will always be used to compare nations, communities, districts, schools, principals, teachers, parents, and students. There is no reason to think the tests will ever be de-weaponized. For this reason, we should take them away. It’s time to kill high-stakes testing.

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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.

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

For as long as I can remember, education has been accused of being stuck in the stone age and resistant to change. You can’t spend a day on the socials without someone lamenting that schools haven’t adapted to the new world and still operate like 20th-century factories. One way out of our morass, these critics say, is for education to work more like medicine. We should be more scientific, and only do things that have been proven effective through rigorous research.

As teachers, we’ve been inundated with this message. A cottage industry has grown up around studying and reporting on what works in education. Whole libraries have been written. Our evaluations are mostly based on whether and how well we implement research-based practices in our classrooms, with principals ticking them off on checklists. It’s no longer acceptable to use the instructional methods our teachers used with us. Professional development focuses on recent research. Educators shame each other on Twitter over what they perceive to be dated and harmful teaching methods. My school has a poster of John Hattie’s effect sizes hanging – of all places – in the teachers’ lounge; we can’t even escape the guy when we’re eating. There’s a What Works Clearinghouse and the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, two resources whose sole purpose is to provide educators with evidence of effective practices.

The message is clear: Teachers make a big difference, and it’s what teachers do that makes the biggest difference. Teachers who use the most effective practices are going to get better results than those who don’t. Just as you would never take a drug that hadn’t been proven effective through rigorous study, we shouldn’t put teachers in classrooms unless they know and will follow the evidence.

Many teachers have understandably jumped onto the evidence-based bandwagon. They want to do best by their students. They want to be effective. They want to make a difference.

But one thing that may be holding teachers back is the rampant hypocrisy practiced by those in power. Hypocrisy, it should be noted, is not an effective practice, and I don’t need John Hattie to do a meta-analysis to tell me so.

If education is going to be evidence-based, then every time those in charge ignore research because it conflicts with their beliefs, or the way things have always been done, or because it costs too much, or it’s politically risky, the whole notion of evidence-based education is undermined and teachers have every reason to ask why they’re being held to a standard that their bosses ignore.

Benchmark assessments

Robert Slavin recently wrote this: Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?

Here’s an excerpt:

High-quality, large scale randomized evaluations of benchmark assessments are relatively easy to do. Many have in fact been done. Uses of benchmark assessments have been evaluated in elementary reading and math (see Here is a summary of the findings.

Number of StudiesMean Effect Size
Elementary Reading6-0.02
Elementary Math4   .00
Study-weighted mean10-0.01

In a rational world, these findings would put an end to benchmark assessments, at least as they are used now. The average outcomes are not just small, they are zero. They use up a lot of student time and district money.”

Despite the lack of evidence supporting these assessments, almost every school district gives them and many states mandate their use. How can you claim to be evidence-based when you do such a thing? How can you expect your teachers to follow the research when you so willfully ignore it?

Start Times

Those who want education to operate more like medicine might be interested to know that the Centers for Disease Control recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am so that adolescent bodies can get the sleep they need to function at their best. But according to a 2014 study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools started before 8:30.

If, in the face of clear evidence and a recommendation from as venerable an organization as you’ll find, you can’t do something as simple as swap the starting times of your elementary and high schools because of tradition, or football practices, or after-school jobs, or busing schedules, then your teachers are going to wonder why they should upend their comfortable teaching practices. Leaders who want evidence-based teaching in their classrooms must lead by example by following the evidence even when they’d rather not, because that’s exactly what they’re asking teachers to do.


It’s abundantly clear that recess is good for kids’ wellbeing and their academic performance (some of the research is referenced in this article from Time) and yet even today, many states and schools put strict limits on it. If you’re a teacher who works for a district that doesn’t allow kids recess, then you work for a district that isn’t serious about using evidence. You’d be well within your rights to ask, “If you’re not going to follow the research in your district policies, then why should it in my classroom?”

Of course, maybe school boards and superintendents who ignore evidence are simply following the lead of government officials. When the folks who are running your state ignore evidence, it shouldn’t be a surprise when those who run school districts feel they can do the same. Take retention.


The effect size for retention, John Hattie found, is negative .32. In his book, Visible Learning, he wrote:

“The effects of flunking are immediately traumatic to the children and the retained children do worse academically in the future, with many of them dropping out of school altogether. Incredibly, being retained
has as much to do with children dropping out as does their academic achievement. It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative.”

Despite the one-sided research, 16 states require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Another eight allow for retention but don’t require it. Two more are currently considering legislation that would require retention. 

Evidence-based education may, in fact, be the solution we’ve been waiting for. It might lead to better teaching and learning. By doing what the research says, education might make the sort of progress seen in the medical world.

But evidence-based education has no chance to make a difference if the people who make education policies at the state and local level continually ignore the research.

Until they do, evidence-based teaching feels like just another example of people telling teachers to do something they themselves are unwilling to.



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.