I retired last year – three years earlier than I’d planned – after teaching in an urban high school in Providence, Rhode Island for almost two decades. The faculty had been working hard since the mid-90s to create a positive educational environment and we were making real progress. But that began to change when the federal government issued its mandates based on No Child Left Behind. Slowly support for real school improvement was withdrawn and all activity was subsumed under the massive burden of standardized testing and record-keeping.
Our intimate small learning communities were disbanded. All teacher meetings on curriculum, literacy, etc. came to a screeching halt. Instead of common planning time for improving teaching practices, teachers were summoned to after-school meetings where they were instructed on how to fill out the multitudinous forms to show that progress was being made. Students were actually referred to as data points! Teachers became data-enterers whose major purpose was to prove that they could raise the test scores on whatever standardized test was thrown at them.
It is hard to imagine a more toxic environment for urban students. Instead of a positive community and classrooms rich with learning activities, they were now spending almost a week every quarter taking on the alphabet soup of standardized testing (NECAP, GRADE, etc.). The tests were completely unrelated to any curriculum; they were boring and repetitive, and they did not recognize the inherent challenges of the various urban populations. When the results eventually filtered back, students were harangued in grade-wide assemblies with threats of not being able to graduate, regardless of how well they were doing otherwise, if their scores were low. Our students, under extraordinary stress from so many different quarters, now had this added to their burden.
As a teacher who cared about my students, as most teachers do, watching this was painful. After spending years refining strategies for getting my students to become enthusiastic readers and writers, I watched those strategies being undercut by testing that moved students nowhere. After years of working on thoughtful, relevant curriculum, I was being forced to teach canned curriculum purchased for millions of dollars from textbook publishers who knew nothing about urban teaching. Watchers – school and district administrators – roamed the halls and classrooms, taking notes on your shiny new iPads, to make sure teachers were on the same page every day as every other teacher of our grade and subject in the district. Field trips that opened the students to a world beyond the narrow constraints of their neighborhoods were no longer permitted; time taken away from the mandated plan was seen as time wasted. When I saw that every path to good teaching was effectively blocked, I left.
Teacher attrition is a nationwide crisis. Nationally, the average turnover for teachers in urban school districts is 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Experienced teachers are being replaced by recent graduates who in most cases cannot manage urban classrooms and in many cases leave before their first year is over. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave within the first three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years. Teacher attrition costs roughly $7 billion a year, for recruiting, hiring, and trying to retain new teachers.
I have always thought I could do more to help underprivileged teenagers from within the system, but I no longer believe that. Shamefully, in recent history we have engineered segregated schools for our urban youth and deprived them of equal resources for education. With No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top we are removing their final hope of an equal education: experienced teachers.