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Everything You've Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong

Attendance: up. Dropout rates: plummeting. College acceptance: through the roof. My mind-blowing year inside a "low-performing" school.

It's not that reporters are blind to the other factors. Just like overworked school administrators, they simply use the data everyone talks about. And while the perspective of actual teachers and students might provide more nuance, there are few opportunities for exploring them. Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi noted in an essay for the American Journalism Review that access to schools has been greatly constrained as administrators, fearful of sanctions, increasingly seek to control the message. It doesn't help that most of today's newsrooms simply can't afford to let a reporter spend time in a school for a month, let alone a year, as I did for Mother Jones. It's more efficient to look up scores online and make a few phone calls.

Given all that, it's no surprise that much of the debate is reduced to stereotypes. Waiting for "Superman" is a perfect distillation of education clichés, pitting charter schools run by enthusiastic reformers against sclerotic unions and incompetent administrators.

Just like overworked school administrators, education reporters simply use the data everyone talks about. Most newsrooms simply can't afford to let a reporter spend time in a school for a month, let alone a year, as I did for Mother Jones. It's more efficient to look up scores online and make a few phone calls.

"I have seen about 20 rounds of classroom reform in my teaching career," Roth told me recently. "You know what I haven't seen? Serious dialogue with teachers, students, and parents. They can identify successful teaching, but they are rarely a part of the discussion."

Seeking alternatives to high-stakes testing doesn't mean giving ineffective teachers a pass, Roth added. "With all of that testing money floating around, I hope education reformers can spend some of it on finding a more holistic instrument"—one that would include a wide range of hard data as well as a deep look at student work.

ONE DAY AS WE SAT ON A CURB NEAR her mother's apartment, Maria told me she'd learned more in her years at Mission than ever before. "I'm shy," she said. "I don't speak that much in other classes, but Mr. Roth teaches me how to do it. He taught me that it's okay to argue even when I still have a lot of questions. As long as I give examples, support my point, and stay with it. Before, I would give up easily and not defend my point of view." Beaming, she added, "Now I argue, and I love winning."

But while debating was one of Maria's favorite things about school, she spent most of her time in Roth's class researching and writing papers. "That's how I prepare for the debates and learn how to express myself clearly."

"Mr. Roth tells me that I will get an A, if I am dedicated to working on my weaknesses," she told me. "What I really like is that he shows me exactly how I improve each time. In the past two years, I've seen Mr. Roth probably a thousand times to discuss each written assignment."

Maria told me that she used the textbooks to make an outline of important dates, names, and events, and to look up definitions of new words like "laissez-faire." She used the outlines to write papers. But Maria didn't remember many of these facts from year to year. What she did recall were her research papers, presentations, and art posters.

She plugged a small memory card into my laptop to show me what she'd learned.

"Oh, I really liked this one," she exclaimed, opening a paper titled "Latinos in the 1920s." As her class focused on the Roaring '20s, Maria found that Latino dances like the bolero, rumba, and tango were entering mainstream American culture. This led her to research Hollywood, where she made her favorite discovery. "Dolores del Río was the first Mexican movie star to gain interest to white audiences," she wrote in her paper. "Dolores showed the world that height does not matter at all if you want to be an actor, because she was very famous and beautiful even though she was very short like me!"

Teaching to the Formula

Wonder how test scores are used to figure out if a teacher is any good? This equation, put together by Mathematica Policy Research for the Washington, DC, public schools, might terrify or reassure you, depending on your faith in multiple-regression models. It estimates a teacher's "value added"—the difference between test scores predicted on the basis of students' characteristics (such as poverty, special-ed status, or attendance) and how kids actually perform in a particular class. —Erika Eichelberger


"Last year, I became really interested in African American history and their struggles," she explained, clicking through presentation files on Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Ella Baker, and W.E.B. Du Bois. "Learning about this motivates me not to give up." She opened a "Reconstruction Defeated" paper from the previous year. "I wanted to find out how did government justify treating African Americans unfairly with Jim Crow even though the Constitution said that all men and women were equal," she told me. "Through this paper, I became really interested in the 14th and 15th Amendment."

As I handed the memory card back to her, Maria said that as a sophomore she'd been determined to go back to her middle school to find the woman who'd told her that she'd never go to college. With her senior year under way, there was simply no time for that. She'd soon be filling out college applications and had recently been elected Latino student club president. She helped new immigrants at school. She also volunteered at a senior housing project through the Latino club, helping older neighbors. "And in my free time, I babysit my little cousins," she told me. "From now on, I only have time to talk with you over lunch at school."

ONE DAY THIS PAST SPRING AS I lingered in Roth's room after class, a young teacher rushed in. "Robert, I've been teaching for years, but I'm really struggling this semester." Her students' grades were not showing any progress, she said, and they seemed to be losing interest. As the two looked over her grading book together, they realized she was attaching most of the grade to homework assignments and wasn't giving significant points on the work students did in her class. Those assignments showed that they were learning, but since her struggling students only saw the Fs on their homework, their engagement was dropping.

"I'm a history teacher. I believe in systemic change and macro-level conversations. But what most people don't realize is that biggest reform at schools lives at the micro level, and it has to do with improving the craft of teaching."

Roth's colleague, Pirette McKamey, has been teaching English and history for 24 years and is now the instructional reform facilitator at Mission High. She calls this kind of one-on-one mentoring "mucking in the dirt." "Every day, there are hundreds of small intellectual conversations all over the school about student work," explains McKamey. Along with Roth, she also co-leads a committee focused on improving achievement for kids of color, in which faculty review student work and grading policies and read the latest research. "What did the kid write? What did the kid produce?" McKamey says. "That's all that should matter."

An ample body of research shows that this kind of mentoring and peer review helps teachers figure out ways for struggling students to improve. But it doesn't show up in standardized tests—and for many, it's pushed aside by the constant battle to ratchet up scores.

Before NCLB there was a movement in many states, including California, to come up with reliable, unified rubrics for using classroom work to measure achievement—to move toward a mix of standardized tests and teacher assessments, something shared by most of the world's top-performing school systems, from Finland to Hong Kong. But that effort got largely steamrolled by NCLB's focus on high-stakes testing.

"I'm a history teacher," Roth says. "I believe in systemic change and macro-level conversations. But when it comes to schools, what most people don't realize is that it's about work at the micro level. The biggest reform at schools lives at the micro level, and it has to do with improving the craft of teaching."

There are some signs of a shift at the macro level. In 2009, President Obama asked states to "develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st-century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity." The federal government has allocated $330 million for developing tests for a new set of standards, known as Common Core, that will hit classrooms in 2015. Supporters say that while the new tests will still include multiple-choice questions, they will also offer some opportunities for writing, and the lists of standards will be shorter, leaving teachers more freedom.

But many education experts are skeptical. A recent Brookings Institution study finds no correlation at all between the testing standards and student achievement. Even Common Core advocates such as Ramanathan concede that there's a disconnect. "California has long been considered to have some of the best standards in the nation," he says, "but we also have some of the worst student outcomes."

Roth, who has been coaching fellow teachers for two decades, told me that standards can act as a "political security blanket" and a general guideline, but they can't help teachers with the more important tasks: figuring out how to apply the material in the classroom and gathering evidence to measure real understanding. Roth's filing cabinets are filled with different lesson plans. But every year, he creates another folder for each class, and approximately 50 percent of the material is new. He then adjusts everything throughout the year based on what works with his students.

I observed the same in other successful classrooms at Mission. "I adjust my lessons and tests every day," says a popular young math teacher named Taica Hsu. "The student body changes every semester, and what worked last year most likely won't work next year."

The Obama administration has softened some of NCLB's impact, granting waivers to more than half of the states from the law's most punitive section, which calls for all students to score "proficient" in math and English by 2014. But even in the waiver states, standardized tests remain the dominant measure for schools.

MIDWAY THROUGH MARIA'S SENIOR year in 2012, she was watching Waiting for "Superman" in Mr. Velez's college expository writing class. They were learning about achievement gaps, test scores, teacher unions, charter schools, and different solutions offered to "fix" schools like Mission. In one scene, DC's Michelle Rhee was shown firing the principal of a low-scoring school, and then the film cut to scenes of teachers and parents protesting school closures.

"Which facts in the movie shocked you?" Velez probed as the movie ended.

"What we spend on prison inmates," one student called out.

"Why is it so hard to fire a bad teacher?" said another, visibly upset.

"I was shocked how low test scores are in California and DC," added a student with big headphones around his neck.

"California test scores are low, but the movie didn't mention we have the most immigrants here," countered a classmate. "Our English scores are bad, but that doesn't mean our school is bad."

"What would you do to fix schools?" Velez asked. Students took turns calling out responses as Velez wrote down their suggestions on a whiteboard: Make the tests more meaningful…Allow our teachers to write these tests…Don't test immigrant students in the first two years…Give more money to public schools in California…Make it easier to fire bad teachers…Ask students which schools are good and bad…

"Will they close Mission like those schools in DC?" Maria asked.

The shouting stopped.

"We won't let them," another kid responded, and the class burst out laughing. Velez kept writing.

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