I WAS A TEACHER, NOT A NUMBER.
Education Week/ March 2, 2012
Clearly, I was a superb teacher. Probably one of the best. That’s what the numbers show, and numbers don’t lie.
Before I retired after 35-years as a high school teacher, almost none of my school’s students failed the state standardized tests mandated by the 1993 Education Reform Act in Massachusetts. How about a passing rate of 97%! True, I taught in an affluent district where most students were so enriched even before they entered my classroom that sometimes I thought their heads would explode. Mostly their parents were professionals. College? Not an issue. The real question: Would it have a little ivy hanging from its name?
If truth be told, the students generally thought the state exams were a joke, and one that they greatly enjoyed. On the ever-proliferating exam days, upperclassmen could sleep in and then needed to attend only an abbreviated class schedule. Gosh, they made me look good, those kids, and negligible test prep was required. My colleagues and I were that great.
Not long ago, I finally made it to Paris, no doubt years after many of my students had lounged in its cafes. Naturally, I went to the Louvre to view the Mona Lisa. Standing in front of it, beguiled by that mysterious smile, my suspicion was confirmed: da Vinci did not paint by the numbers. Moreover, there was apparently no accountability system in place to ensure he would succeed in this artistic endeavor. He might have failed, and no doubt did many times. Those canvasses do not hang in museums. I also tried not to paint by the numbers in my history classes, a good thing since it’s tough for me to stay within the lines. Besides, during most of my career, there were few state mandates to encumber my efforts. Ah, state mandates and standardized tests! Let it be generously said, they are not known for facilitating imaginative teaching.
Instead of painting by the numbers, I tried to breath life into my courses by presenting history not as a straight avenue of multiple-choice answers but as a crooked alley of enduring arguments. I needed tons of time to transport students to back then. Yes, there was note-taking, but we also sang songs, debated, discussed, argued, and played roles in elaborate simulations. There were poems to be written along with essays and research papers. There were murals to paint and a Thoreau’s Cabin to build. There were trips. I mean, we did have to watch the sun rise over Walden Pond, no? I could swear that was state rubric. I did have to stand with my students before James Chaney’s grave in the countryside near Meridian, Mississippi, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Otherwise, how would they have felt the “freedom spirit” they had taken notes on? And when we read Catcher in the Rye while studying postwar America, we had to go to Central Park to wonder where the ducks had gone. The carousel? Were we not supposed to ride it? Come on!
Albert Einstein supposedly said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” This quotation came to mind when I saw that the New York Times had reported the “ratings” for the city’s teachers. Sadly, the real news went unreported: We have now redefined education into something much narrower than I received from my NYC public school teachers at DeWitt Clinton H.S. I am ashamed to admit that I have forgotten all my trigonometry, even if my old Regents scores suggest otherwise, but I can never forget the passion of Mrs. Isaacs in my math classes! Mr. Roberts, I know you couldn’t teach us much about slavery or the Japanese-American internment because of the rubrics at that time, and I’ve forgotten most of your questions, but I do remember you telling us to always ask questions! That stuck. Mr. Simon, I came away with a love for Shakespeare even though there was no state test to certify that, and thanks for teaching me how to write on the school newspaper.
Well, I guess this is progress. Now we can measure how well students have been taught. With data. With precision. Carried out to the 1000th place–and beyond. These numbers radiate scientific certainty in a world where chaotic chance too often seems to reign. They tell us everything we need to know–what one New York Times reader praised as, “The Truth, finally!”–everything, that is, except perhaps what we have lost or might have had.
No one ever misses what they didn’t know existed–or what some can still purchase for their children at expensive private schools in Riverdale or Manhattan.
Bill Schechter was a high school teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S., in Sudbury, Mass. He attended Cornell University, Harvard University, and U.C.- Berkeley, but nothing made him prouder than graduating from DeWitt Clinton H.S. in the Bronx.