Parent-teacher conferences can be jarring. Not because of supposed helicopter parents who want nothing more than to guarantee a successful future for their child. Not because of the families who are too busy working multiple jobs to come in. Parent-teacher conferences are frightening because of what they reveal how our culture views education and the purpose of schooling.
What are my child’s weaknesses?
What can he/she do better?
What does he/she need to practice more at home?
What can we do?
The last question, while perhaps not always explicitly mentioned, permeates the atmosphere of almost every parent-teacher conversation I’ve had. Fueled by legitimate class anxiety, families hurl themselves at teachers, feverish to extrapolate any piece of information that might benefit their children. The fear is palpable. How is his writing compared to his peers? Do you have any summer programs to recommend? I noticed she isn’t studying enough when she gets home; how can we remedy that?
And we are too eager to comply. We come equipped with gradebooks open and lexile charts at the ready. We measure and diagnose and prescribe and remediate. We dissect children, cutting them into hunks of meat to be weighed on the scales of achievement. Scales that are designed to validate and propagate a singular vision of achievement. This vision denigrates anything that does not conform to the logic of production and instrumentalism, the belief that education is concerned with nothing more than means and ends. Means and ends that we accept acritically.
I have children who are witty, generous, and kind. Kids who move quickly and kids who take five minutes just to take out a sheet of paper from their disheveled, overstuffed binders. Most of my students are in varying states of hormonal and neurochemical flux. They test boundaries, they try on new identities, and they struggle to develop a sense of values within a culture that either demonizes or fetishizes them. On any given day, getting most of them to read or write a few meaningful sentences is no small victory. Some are academically gifted. Most aren’t. And that’s okay. Because we all have different selves, different modes of existing in this world that cannot and should not be devalued by an ideology of technical knowledge.
This brief post is neither anti-parent nor anti-teacher. It is about trying to figure out why parent-teacher conferences feel like so much wasted potential. About why I leave conference day feeling cheated and hoodwinked by the ecology I’ve devoted the majority of my adult life to.
Discussions about quiz grades and late homework and how many zeroes a certain child has train our attention to only the most superficial aspects of a democratic education. The necessarily difficult conversations about why we’re doing what we’re doing in schools cannot occur under our current system. We should be able to meet and debate knowledge and purpose and what it means to exist within a community of others. I want to celebrate and value the ridiculously complex spectrum of human cognition, not willingly truncate what it means to be a dynamic living thing.
A Brief Examination into the No Excuses Philosophy of Education
I spent years demanding that children walk in a silent, straight line exactly twelve inches from the wall. “Stay in your child’s box and know your place,” I told them whenever they sucked their teeth or rolled their eyes. I woke up at 3 a.m. to check to see if their most recent test scores had been posted online yet. Only now am I beginning to make sense of my time at Scholar Academy, a charter school following the No Excuses movement. No Excuses schools are characterized by extended school days, extra blocks of reading and writing, strict obedience, and a routinized schedule of testing. What follows is an exploration into how this proliferating movement handles data, standardization, and behaviorism to create a school environment where numbers rule and teachers and students suffer.
A Myopic Obsession with Data
Public schools rely upon data to justify their continued existence. Even as lawmakers work to re-tool No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, schools across the country grapple with a federal legacy of obsession over data. Nowhere is the drive towards quantification greater than in No Excuses schools, where high-stakes, norm-referenced assessments are the be all/end all of education. Private companies and psychometricians design norm-referenced tests to produce bell curve results. The very nature of norm-referenced tests require a significant percentage of participants to fail. If test scores look too promising then test-makers adjust the assessment to be more “rigorous.” The same thing happens on the other side of the curve; the same technocrats deem a test too difficult of not enough people score well on it. As a teacher, this has grave consequences. It means that no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many hours you’ve spent pouring over spreadsheets of data, how many electives you replace with test-prep classes, many of the children you teach will fail.
In a vacuum, such assessments are neither positive nor negative. No Excuses schools, however, worship at the altar of testing, insisting upon data as the raison d’etre of education. Knowledge becomes valuable only if teachers can use it to increase test scores. Reducing learning to passing a test is a fairly cynical view of education. To combat this, the private entities behind No Excuses-style reforms push a narrative linking test skills to civil rights and national economic imperatives. An imagined school-to-prosperity pipeline where test scores can somehow take the place of real, systemic structural reforms. The difference between succeeding and failing becomes a matter of effort.
Meritocracy, the distinctly American notion that good things come to those who work hard enough, therefore plays a key role in the No Excuses philosophy. How hard has each student worked to master the testing material? School and teacher become error hunters consumed with ferreting out perceived student weaknesses. This deficit gaze is an integral component of the instructional model, where successes and failures are measured by a relentless push towards the perfect score.
In order to teach to the test, the No Excuses model approaches curricula through the lens of standardization. My old school, just like many of the “successful” charter schools I visited throughout the nation’s capital and New York teach children according to level and skill. Instruction begins with the testing blueprint, a document telling teachers exactly which standards will be on the end-of-year exam and the amount of questions per standard. The mere existence of such a document, much less its widespread usage throughout K-12 schools, removes any illusion that a No Excuses-style education is anything other than teaching to the test. Test blueprints are products of a technocratic regime predicated upon the fundamentally flawed notion that curriculum and instruction are best created by non-teachers in an environment outside the classroom.
Since high-stakes exams typically take place at the end of the year, No Excuses schools pay large sums of money to outside companies to create and administer benchmark exams. These quarterly assessments provide teachers with data on how every child in every grade (and every school in the company’s network) answered a set of multiple-choice questions. Let’s play this out with an example. So, every student takes the beginning of the year benchmark to help teachers pinpoint deficits and plan remediation. Malik’s data sheet shows he missed two out of the three cause and effect questions on the benchmark exam. I would then sort Malik into a group of children who had also missed either one or two cause and effect questions. Then, I would prepare a test prep packet highlighting the skills I deem necessary to solving these types of questions. This packet would include every cause and effect question stem provided to me by whichever company we hired out to create the tests. After demonstrating the particular strategy on a test-prep passage, Malik and the other students would practice the skill on similar 1-3 page passages. This approach is then repeated with every “struggling” student throughout the entire school year. Knowledge has no part of a No Excuses pedagogy. Neither does authentic learning nor encouraging student interest. Just strategies. Strategies to be used only in niche situations using inauthentic literature in a highly controlled and scripted environment.
The No Excuses movement uses two main justifications for this type of instruction. The first reason is that if the test is well-designed, then teaching to it helps students learn critical thinking and literacy skills. Such specious reasoning was popular during the mental discipline movement from the early 1800’s, when many educators and politicians believed learning was transferrable. This logic says that teaching a child how to answer multiple-choice questions correctly also helps the child read, write, and reason things out. The second reason this model gives for relying on rationalized instruction is akin to, “Well, this is how the world works. These numbers will define these children.” This circular logic legitimizes disastrous education policy while undermining any attempt at something different.
Inculcation of Capitalist Values and the Replication of Social Hierarchies
Such an unnatural and regimented system requires a byzantine system of behavioral control to keep children and teachers in line. This often means instating a token economy, a behaviorist system where “good behavior” earns tokens and “bad behavior” earns demerits. At my old school, the heart of the extrinsic reward system was the individual student paycheck. Every teacher carried around a behavior tracking sheet.
Tracking sheets were full-page grids with spaces for teachers to mark down deductions, detentions, and scholar dollars. At the bottom of each tracking sheet was a chart which linked observable student behaviors to numbers. It’s worth noting here that the behavior tracking sheet offered nine specific reasons to reward a scholar (many so-called soft skills such as being organized, showing initiative, and displaying enthusiasm), thirty specific reasons to punish a scholar (calling someone by his or her wrong name, grooming during class, or simply not being enthusiastic enough), and eleven specific ways for a child to earn an automatic detention (sleeping, sucking teeth, or ignoring an adult).
Teachers handed out paychecks every Wednesday. The school designed these pay checks to resemble actual pay stubs, making sure every child understood that the end goal of every class was to maximize individual profit. The idea was to familiarize children with the trappings of a capitalist society. Different paycheck totals resulted in various privileges or punishments. Students who struggled to follow rules had to attend Wednesday Extension, a three-hour block of detention spent copying down the school’s code of conduct by hand. Since flimsy extrinsic rewards and punishments are ineffective in shaping behavior, the same students ended up in Wednesday Extension week after week. Learning nothing but estrangement from a system bent on punishment. Middle-level paychecks guaranteed a trip to the scholar store, a room full of cheap trinkets and unhealthy junk food available for purchase using each week’s earnings. Students could even bank their scholar dollars for bigger purchases.
Children earning 100 dollars or more joined the Century Club. Weekly membership in Century Club meant you were allowed to leave class one minute early and walk to your next period unaccompanied in the hallway. You also received a bright orange lanyard to wear around your neck at all times. Although Century Club membership was meant to last a full paycheck week, many students had their privilege stripped away by teachers. While wearing a lanyard was supposed to be a marker of pride, in reality it made you an easy target for teachers looking to ‘make an example.’ A good percentage of Century Club scholars would lose their status by the end of the next school day. Forget to bring your two non-mechanical pencils? Whisper to your friend while waiting silently in line before heading out to recess? Being pretty much anything except for perfect meant students could expect to lose their lanyard. Taking students’ lanyards came to be a status marker for teachers, a symbol meaning you weren’t to be trifled with.
This system replicates the income gaps in larger society. Students who know how to play the game are the same students who earn Century Club every week. They are the same scholars who enjoy favoritism from the staff. The kids who struggle at the beginning of the year, on the other hand, get the short end of the stick. They go to every Wednesday extension. They routinely spend lunch and after school time in detention away from their peers and ostracized from the school community. These children have come to learn that there is no place for them in school. They have been disenfranchised by the very system claiming to serve them.
Using extrinsic rewards to control behavior only works in a minority of settings. School isn’t one of them. Yet without training and assistance to deal with the cornucopia of emotional and mental health problems plaguing children from poverty, teachers often grasp onto whatever they can to help students find success, even if that success is ephemeral and fleeting. We were told that the paycheck system was set up “to help the weakest teacher.” Such a system ignores the weighty work of working through value systems for the sake of surface-level purchasing power.
“No one opens up a school hoping to fail,” my old head of school would often tell us. “No one wakes up and makes up his or her mind to let down children.” Ms. Jones, like many of the individuals pushing the No Excuses model, combined 19th century beliefs in quantification and rationalization with the zeal of a religious missionary. Who would disagree that education has the power to truly transform someone’s life? She demanded that we “drink the kool-aid.” I don’t think she understood how the tacky metaphor equated success at the school with suicide and mindless cult-like devotion. As more and more U.S. children fall below the poverty line, my fear is that public schools will turn to the privatized charter world for guidance on “best practices” for dealing with children from impoverished backgrounds. Now is the time to repudiate No Excuses methodology and dismantle the corporate reform apparatus.
The Golden Age of Routine
Every single thing in my life requires automation. My alarm goes off every morning at 5:00 AM EST. I’m always up a few minutes before that, however, sitting up over the covers and watching the clock. My brain needs those five minutes to boot up and compile a list of the day’s events. By 4:59 my hand hovers an inch above the ALRM – ON/OFF button, waiting to tamp it down as soon as the clock’s morning ululation hits my auditory nerve. The alternative requires me to remember turning the actual alarm itself off and back on every night, which, let’s be honest here, just isn’t going to cut it. From that point on, my morning practically runs itself. I pad quietly out of the bedroom and make a beeline towards the kitchen. Every action seamlessly flows into the next. Open the cabinet to pull out the coffee with the right hand while reaching for the skillet in the left. Scoop coffee grounds while pivoting to apply non-stick coating to the skillet. Ideally, I could do this blindfolded. My wife, however, tends to throw up a few roadblocks to my perfect routinized synchronicity. Being a relatively normal human being, she puts items back in their generalized location. Her taxonomy of locations stratifies something like this: Kitchen Cabinet -> R/L Side -> 1st/2nd/3rd Shelf. Mine, on the other hand, reaches a level of anality best left to the imagination. My shower routine is equally methodical. The confined space of the bathroom, however, mandates a level of balletic grace unrequired during breakfast preparation. I floss while pirouetting into opening the shower curtains and etc. You get the point.
My severe ADHD makes this level of routine necessary. My brain struggles to pick out what’s important from my perceptual field of awareness. It’s not that I can’t pay attention; it’s that I pay attention to everything. For instance, when most people peruse the aisles in a grocery store, their brains adequately filter out what’s needed and what’s not. Looking for a particular brand of spaghetti sauce? No problem! Simply head to the proper section of the store and grab the Ragu from where it always sits. Even if the grocery gods have cruelly temporarily relocated their entire Ragu stock to a random end-cap, the non-ADHD brain quickly adapts. For people with attention problems, however, a trip to the supermarket is more akin to a Virgil-less stroll through the underworld. No matter how many times I’ve been to that particular store, every trip feels like the first time. Objects and people of every size, shape, and color of the ROYGBIV spectrum coalesce into a deafening synaptic overload. So I do what I can to make food shopping as painless as possible. This is where routine comes in. Routine cleaves out a safe space for my attention to stretch its legs.
So every week I go to the same store. I buy the same amount of the same items. After a while, people start to notice. Comments ranging from the innocuous, “Hey, got enough baked ziti?” to the slightly more suspect, “Man, you gotta try something new.” Occasionally things pop up. For instance, last Sunday brought an unexpected trip to the dog park. As a result, I wasn’t able to keep my weekly appointment with Trader Joes. Upon entering the store a few hours late, I was immediately greeted with exaggerated cries of holes in the space-time continuum and Chicken Little-esque portents of doom.
I’ve always been this way. Andrea loves to tell the story of our first official date. After wining and dining her with the winning combination of food court Mexican food and an abysmal movie, we headed back to my place. The way she tells it, as soon as the clock hit 10:00 PM, I detached myself from her face, stood up, and told her it was bedtime and she had to go. We were both in various stages of undress when I delivered the coitus interruptus, leading to a pretty uncomfortable next few minutes. My mind had already ventured a full sixty minutes beyond its historically immutable 9:00 PM bedtime, I told her. She should feel privileged!, I said. I must have overpowered her doubts, as she head-scratchingly agreed to a second date