Forget the Standard: Teaching in the Time of Testing

It is now five years since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, the newest […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.16.14


It is now five years since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, the newest governmental answer to educational plight in America, and still it seems that no one really knows what they are—and if they do know what they are, chances are they don’t like them. It has been called (critically) a “one size fits all” policy, a nation-wide rubric for assessing whether America’s public school kids are learning what they ought to be learning. As Andrew Ferguson wrote this week in the Standard Weekly, it is one more reform scientifically stamped by the Gates Foundation’s “technocrats” and “educationists”, hoping to find a reproducible answer (however abstractly) to a reproducing problem.

Once the states fell into line, the department paid another $330 million for two state consortiums to hire educationists to devise Common Core tests. These will measure how well students are rising to the Standards, and those results, in turn, will be used to evaluate how well individual teachers are teaching them. The new tests will replace tests that each state had to develop over the last few years in response to [No Child Left Behind]. Those tests cost a lot of money too—money down the drain. In fact, many school districts were still introducing the NCLB tests when word came down that Common Core would require new tests to replace the old tests. Educationists are always on the go.

The Common Core is supposed to be the answer to No Child Left Behind (2001). No Child Left Behind the answer to Goals 2000 (1994). Goals 2000, the answer to America 2000 (1990). America 2000, the answer to what Reagan called “A Nation at Risk” (1983). All of them have been or are data-driven, assessable solutions to the muddled and thorny landscape of nationwide educational inequity. And, as Ferguson writes, “The logic of education reform always points to more education reform.”

Are the “educationists” just not getting the memo? Is something awry in education policy when more government money is spent on an American public school child than any other in the world, and the biggest payoff is more reform? What gives?


Rachel Aviv’s piece in the most recent New Yorker points to yes, the greater issue at hand being that it’s not the reform, but the assessability of that reform that proves counterproductive. Telling the story of an Atlanta area public school (now defunct), and one of their beloved (now defunct) teachers, Aviv shows how assessable, high-stakes success can be the death of an education, and of a teacher.

Damany Lewis taught math at Parks Middle School, a struggling school in a poor suburb of Atlanta, and was seen by the faculty and student body as a “star teacher” and an inspirational presence with the kids and their community. When he came on as a teacher, the school was in bad shape, but as years went on, it began to see a lot of improvement—and Lewis’ kind of love was seen as a shining example of that. He was showcased in a documentary on the school, doing laundry for kids, running them home after practices, even letting a student live with him because his home life was too unstable for any kind of support or care. Slowly, Parks Middle School was becoming a center for community support again.

Reform moved quicker, though. Beverly Hall, who was hired in 1999 as Atlanta’s school superintendent, began pushing for proven performance.

Hall belonged to a movement of reformers who believed that the values of the marketplace could resuscitate public education. She approached the job like a business executive: she courted philanthropists, set accountability measures, and created performance objectives that were more rigorous than those required by No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002. When a school met its targets, all employees, including bus drivers and cafeteria staff, received up to two thousand dollars. She linked teacher evaluations to test scores and warned principals that they’d be fired if they didn’t meet targets within three years. Eventually, ninety per cent were replaced. She repeated the mantra “No exceptions and no excuses.”

One of the principals replaced was Parks’ principal, who was replaced by Christopher Waller:

Rhee Time CoverWaller was burly and freckled, and, at thirty-one, he was the youngest principal in the district. After a week of introductory meetings he saw that the district prioritized testing results more than any other place he’d ever worked did. “All decisions have to be made by data—you have to be baptized in it,” he told me. “I lived it, slept it, ate it.”

In other words, the school moved from the organic practice of meeting needs and supporting the community, to the targeted action towards planned results. The patient and mysterious work of educating middle schoolers became the relentless pursuit of an achievable (and accountable) result. Waller’s disposition changed, though, when the school foundered at the impossible expectations:

Waller (said) that the targets—set by the district’s Department of Research, Planning, and Accountability—were unrealistic. It took a quarter of the year just to gain students’ trust. Two students, he said, were raped in the neighborhood that year. Others lived alone, with neither parent at home, or were on the verge of being placed in juvenile detention. When a student was arrested for stealing cars, Waller went to court and asked the judge not to send him to jail. Waller told me, “The administration wanted to move kids out of poverty—I do believe that. But test scores could not be the only means.” When Waller expressed his concerns, [the administration] reiterated that Hall accepted no excuses, and told him, “The way principals keep their jobs in Atlanta is they make targets.”

It was here that the question—and pressure—opened the door to cheating. In a system by which you are kept alive only by reaching an unreachable standard, what are your options? And what if it is obvious that those under the same kind of pressure are choosing to disregard the standard? Waller and Lewis, out of regard for their students and community, chose to disregard the power the Test, in order to keep their jobs. In order that the school could continue being what it was for the community, Lewis said he felt that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.”

Jesus says it: “If one of you has a child (or a school) that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And similarly “those (teachers and administrators) who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.”

The inevitable scandal broke. Every teacher at Parks that had decided to cheat, confessed they had, and were fired. But it wasn’t just Parks Middle School; it was an entire ring of APS educators, all bypassing the standards for the sake of their jobs and their students.

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.” They wrote that data had been “used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.” Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make the targets or be placed on Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.


A spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators said, “Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.”

If you’re hearing the law-versus-Spirit conundrum here, good. This is a modern-day parable to the Galatians. It’s hard not to do a bit of self-promotion here, especially since the first issue of The Mockingbird had not one, but two essays that find allegiance with these teachers, not because their cheating was excusable, but because, as Goodhart’s Law states, “As soon as a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Will McDavid writes:

How do you measure holiness in a person, in yourself? The problem is almost impossible to solve…I would say that Goodhart’s Law is amplified in church. Where are we, as human beings, more invested than in the righteousness offered by our own religions? And whether it’s the church, the synagogue, the family, the gym, what occupies our minds more than freedom from guilt, moral satisfaction, even the desire to be good people? And if this is true, then we will tend to make spiritual measures into targets to an almost absurd extent.

And I can’t help but continue the education-based visual aid by quoting from my Teach For America story, the whole of which you can read in that issue of the magazine. In that experience I found the same pressure, maybe not to cheat necessarily, but certainly to exchange an indecipherable problem into a decipherable one, to turn teaching into a measurable (and therefore defendable) string of tests passed. To make it make sense. I certainly wanted that when one of my students (who I re-named Marvin) came back to school after his dad was murdered:

(In Teach For America) there is also something called “Kind-Hearted Prejudice” which must be avoided at all costs. Kind-Hearted Prejudice is the tendency, out of sympathy with a child’s experience or home life or academic history, to pre-judge the child as incapable of handling the challenge. TFA’s DCA Workbook says this:

Recognize that problems that are outside your control do not necessarily mean a lack of achievement-related solutions…Maintain your convictions about the value of academic achievement despite your (possible) unfamiliarity with students’ lives and lifestyles.

I certainly did not have familiarity with this situation, and I certainly did not have any insights into Marvin’s “Cultural Learning Styles” when it came to a father’s homicide. But there seemed to me something foolishly un-kind in prancing on about my expectations for him and his achievement in my class. My class didn’t mean anything to him right then, and the kid may not have known it, but he was doing exactly what he needed to be doing, and probably all he could have been doing. This moment showed me two things: first, that the solutions I was hired to provide were completely incompatible to the solution needed at that moment and, second, that the solution needed there had to do with what I had thought teaching was going to be about.

Maybe this means I was a bad candidate for TFA all along. Maybe so. It certainly became apparent that, as my time in the classroom went on, I saw their metrics for “achievement” to have been far too shallow to deal with such things. What is achievement at the expense of a wasted, mournful afternoon? What is achievement but a classroom learning to recognize and empathize with a kid in the depths of tragedy? But there’s no Big Idea substandard there, no rubricked qualifiers to align our responses to. Perhaps it’s better that way—mercy defies being relegated to the corner of an End-of-Year Growth Chart (Standard M-3: Mercy, Beginning Proficiency), and it never will lend dependable data. But it made the teaching of children a handmaiden to the metric.