Published November 03. 2013 4:00AM
Erika Dietz was overwhelmed when she started teaching English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., two years ago. Not because the 24-year-old struggled to connect with students or to handle the workload. Relentless, yet also patient and charming, she quickly became one of the most popular teachers at the school, and in June 2012 she received a state-funded award for "outstanding work toward the goal of transformation" of T.C.
What bothered her was everything that went along with that goal: the consultants, the jargon, the endless stream of new reform initiatives. "It felt like every buzzword or trend in education was being thrown at us at once," she told me over the summer, shortly after moving to Texas. "When something didn't work right away, it was discarded the next year or even midyear."
Her frustrations echo those of other teachers across the country caught up in the politics of education reform. Those politics played out last month in Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced that his state would no longer take a leading role in implementing Common Core tests - a shift prompted by tea party opposition and applauded by many teachers.
But the tug of war over standardized tests is just the latest round of a struggle I've watched many times before. In the four decades between when I started teaching English at T.C. in 1970 and my retirement this year, I saw countless reforms come and go; some even returned years later disguised in new education lingo. Some that were touted as "best practices" couldn't work, given Alexandria's demographics. Others were nothing but common-sense bromides hyped as revolutionary epiphanies. All of them failed to do what I believe to be key to teaching: to make students care about what they're studying and understand how it's relevant to their lives.
The 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," commissioned by Reagan Education Secretary Terrel Bell, warned that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."
I didn't buy it. If schools were in such horrible shape, how was it possible that immigrant students - from Korea, Vietnam, Iran and other trouble spots around the globe - could enter T.C. Williams speaking little or no English and end up at top universities? Granted, there was then, as there is now, a crisis of poverty among children, and schools struggled to make headway against a persistent achievement gap. But that didn't warrant an indictment of the entire American education system.
The "Effective Schools" concept, propounded by Harvard School of Education guru Ron Edmonds, was one of the first quick fixes to hit Alexandria. An oversize banner reading "EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS" decked the T.C. Williams auditorium for convocation in the fall of 1984. Teachers received a single-page handout on the seven qualities of effective schools: nuggets such as "the climate of an effective school is NOT OPPRESSIVE" and "the principal acts as an instructional leader." There was nothing about how we were supposed to integrate those ideas into our classrooms.
The 1990s ushered in the era of standards-based education (SBE). One of the more laughable moments I recall came in 1999, when T.C. teachers were corralled for two days of SBE presentations. We were told that we could raise student achievement if we just understood what was "absolutely essential for all students to know and be able to do" and never strayed from the "drive-train sequence" (a metaphor taken from the way power is transmitted in motors) of the SBE classroom, which, we were informed, was different from the traditional classroom. Just before a lunch break, one of my more mercurial colleagues stormed out, yelling that anyone with an IQ over 100 should not return for the afternoon session.
Reform efforts went into overdrive after federal education officials added T.C. Williams to a list of "persistently lowest achieving" schools in March 2010. Although T.C. offers more than two dozen AP courses and more than 80 percent of its graduates go on to college, it has never figured out how to meet the needs of its most underprivileged and least prepared students.
The "lowest achieving" designation made T.C. eligible for new federal grants designed to help underperforming schools undergo a "transformation."
That wasn't what happened.
Instead, we entered an era of diminished expectations. Under the regime imposed by Superintendent Morton Sherman (formerly of Norwich Free Academy), students couldn't score below 50 on homework or an exam, unless they failed to do any work, in which case they could get a 40. They had until the end of each quarter to hand in late assignments. And they were allowed to retake exams on which they didn't do well. When teachers distributed tough tests, kids took a quick look and asked, "When's the make-up?"
Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his "seven C's" survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again.
More than four decades of education reforms didn't make me a better teacher and haven't made T.C. Williams a better school. Rather, the quick fixes promulgated by headline-seeking politicians, school administrators and self-styled education gurus have in some cases done more harm than good.
I found that the most helpful professional-development experiences involved fellow teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms - always with the caveat: "This works for me; it may not work for you."
A passion for communicating one's subject matter to the next generation isn't among the 74 items on Alexandria's Curriculum Implementation Walk-Through Data Collection list, which Sherman, who left Alexandria schools this year, used to evaluate faculty. But it's what all great teachers have in abundance. And it's what will keep them going when the next wave of reforms comes rolling through.
Patrick Welsh retired in June after 43 years teaching English at T.C. Williams High School. He wrote this for The Washington Post.