2002 was a big year. I became a teacher and a parent the same year No Child Left Behind was implemented. Over the next few years I experienced increasingly punitive measures that pitted students, parents, teachers, and schools, against each other. Between my oldest daughter’s kindergarten year in 2008-2009 and her 4th grade year in 2012-2013, I grew increasingly frustrated with the public school system because of my conflicting views as a teacher and a parent. As both, I realized that parents and teachers have the same goals for their children and students. However, I also realized that student, school, and teacher scoring practices lead to blame and resentment instead of collaboration between parents, students, and teachers.
For example, my oldest daughter was in 4th grade in 2012-2013. She often had hours of homework per night in preparation for LEAP. She put so much pressure on herself to do it all and to do it well; some nights my 9 year old would cry from the sheer stress of upcoming Benchmark tests and seemingly endless amounts of homework. She clearly received the message that was all around her: failure is not an option. As a parent I want my child to do well on the test, but I also want my child to be a child. With only one 15 minute recess all day during school and often 2 hours or more of homework per night, I would force my child to take breaks to relieve her stress. Sometimes, I was resentful of the pressure and demands put on her, but then I would also see through my teacher’s perspective.
Teachers are constantly pressured to produce data proving they are teaching and students are learning, and that pressure starts from the very top. Hence, Race to the Top’s policy says tells states that they can only get federal money if they create innovative ways to not fail. So states say to schools, “You can only get money—and consequently stay open—if you do not fail.” So schools say to teachers, “Prove you are doing everything possible to make sure this school doesn’t fail.” So then teachers say to the students, “You have to do all this to make sure you don’t fail.”
“Failure is an opportunity to start again, only more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
What kind of thinking are we supporting? Is success really measured only by how much you don’t fail? Haven’t your best lessons occurred because you failed? Yet, we are telling these kids, teachers, schools, and parents that, to be successful, we never fail. I see the consequences of these policies in my students and my children: they fear thinking for themselves because they are scared that they will be wrong. They resist problem solving because standardized testing reinforces that the only answer is the “right” one. These policies teach them that education is some right answer outside of themselves. But doesn’t true education teach the process of learning how to think about the world instead of only what to think about the world?
This no-win situation sets us up for blame and resentment. In the most extreme cases, teachers could blame parents and students for not receiving a raise; if their students did not do “well” on tests, then teachers did not receive monetary increases. Parents and students could blame teachers if their neighborhood school closed; the state closed or absorbed schools into the Recovery School District if teachers did not help students to do “well” on tests. No one questioned how “well” was determined or who determined what “well” really meant. No one questioned the validity of these policies or that the sole accountability for their results rested on the shoulders of teachers, students, and parents—not the people who created the policies. We all just took for granted that “A” stood for something as valid as “F,” whether assigned to a school, child, or teacher. And we all took for granted that these policies would make education better.
Frustrated by results of these policies, I considered leaving the profession completely. Instead, I am currently taking a year-long sabbatical to earn my master’s degree in education. As a student I am able to see the intricacies of my profession so much more clearly. Also, I can be a more involved parent at my children’s school. Ironically, teachers often cannot be as involved in their children’s schools as they desire their students’ parents to be. There has to be a better way.
I cannot tell you what that better way is. Instead of claiming to have the silver bullet like so many others do, I invite you to join us in questioning how we—parents, students, and teachers—can more productively collaborate. We have the same goals. Each one of us wants our children to learn how to solve problems, interact socially, and positively contribute to our community—as young people and as adults. Each of us wants a good public school system that nurtures our children’s strengths and talents—even those that cannot be measured by a multiple choice tests. Instead of offering solutions, I invite you to help create solutions. I invite you to see that our current system dehumanizes our children and our teachers, turning them into numbers instead of people who can learn from and nurture each other. I invite you and your children to share your stories as Dawn, Ian, and I have shared ours with you so that we will come to see each other not as the system defines us, but instead as invested citizens with common goals who can contribute to creating a satisfactory educational system.
Destiny Cooper, Parent and National Board Certified Teacher
Founding Member of Parents Across America Baton Rouge