There is really nothing surprising about William Johnson’s op ed in The New York Times Sunday Review. Mr. Johnson eloquently describes the plight of many teachers in contemporary urban American schools under the peculiar and confused pressure of state and national efforts to reform education through reliance on high stakes testing. Mr. Johnson has the courage and patience to work with some of the most difficult students encountered in a public high school. These students do not receive high marks, nor do classes with difficult students conform to anyone’s vision of the ideal classroom. That is what makes them difficult.
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But under the influence of a limited vision of education that requires that standards be met without exception, there is little comprehension or recognition of the type of diversity of skills, interests, and motivation that teachers encounter every day. As a result, Mr. Johnson and others like him are continually at risk of being labeled “bad teachers” and their students, “bad students.”
According to the mandates of education reform under No Child Left Behind, Mr. Johnson, along with the administrators who evaluate him, is to be held accountable for his students’ failure to measure up to mandated standards. From a student-centered educator’s perspective, what is sacrificed in this largely political and power driven landscape is nothing less than the heart and soul of education, namely, the appreciation of the unique challenge presented by each student, the unique qualities brought to the venture by each individual teacher, and the critical relationship between the two.
Mr. Johnson’s job and reputation are at risk, to be sure, but what is also at risk is his love of teaching, his inspiration, and his essential relationships with his students. In place of these, the wonder of learning is reduced to the lowest common denominator: the test score.
Before we begin to label teachers as either bad or good, we need a clearer and more elevated vision of what education is, how it works, and what resources it requires. As long as our collective vision is limited to the improving of test scores, the scope of our evaluation of students, teachers, school systems, and the national educational agenda will be impoverished.
Contributed by Mark Dix, Director of Dearborn Academy, one of New England’s leading state-approved special education day schools located in Arlington, Massachusetts.