This is part two of a series in which I imagine what would happen if an alien visited the United States to understand school reform. You can read previous parts of the series here.
On the alien’s first day of visiting, Secretary Duncan said, “I thought we could take a look at two classrooms today. One will be the classroom of a highly effective teacher. The other will be a highly ineffective teacher. I want you to take note of the differences between the two. It should be quite clear to you what makes a good teacher and what makes a bad one. Any questions before we go in?”
“No, I’m just excited to get into the classrooms. I really can’t wait to see what the effective teacher is doing that we can replicate on our planet!”
“I think you’ll agree she is a truly exceptional teacher,” Duncan said. “But first, let’s go see her colleague who we consider to be ineffective. I should warn you, she is on the verge of losing her job, so you may find her to be taking out her disappointment on her students.” Duncan opened the door to the classroom and said, “Please, after you.”
The alien entered the room. The first thing he noticed was the noise. Students were talking to each other in loud tones. Some were out of their seats. They had books in their hands and some seemed to be engaged in arguments in heavily accented English. It was hard to tell what they argued about, but the alien took note of the words, “chapter,” “character,” and, “trait” coming from their mouths.
The teacher was sitting with a group of only four students. Together, they were working on reading words ending in -at. The alien took note of his surprise that the teacher was smiling. He also couldn’t help noticing the ragged appearance of the students’ clothes, like they hadn’t been washed in days. The students themselves looked tired, but were nevertheless engaged.
“You see,” started Duncan, “this is unacceptable. This is an eighth-grade class. Why should they be working on -at words? This teacher clearly isn’t preparing them for job market of the 21st century.”
The teacher continued teaching while the alien shook his head ruefully. The alien approached the teacher, intrigued by what the secretary pointed out.
“Miss, I’m sorry to interrupt,” began the alien. “I just wondered why these 13-year olds are learning something as simple as the words cat, bat, and fat. Surely this isn’t rigorous enough?”
The teacher looked up. The alien noticed that her smile remained, although her voice indicated this was not the first time she felt the need to defend her teaching.
“Well,” replied the teacher, “these four students just arrived to my class last week. They all came from a foreign country, and while you may find this hard to believe, they have had no formal schooling in their lives.”
Duncan chimed in. “Oh come now. You mean to tell me last week was the first time these students ever went to school in their lives? I find that hard to believe.”
Said the teacher, “Believe it. They haven’t been to school in their home country and now, here they are. On top of that, they’re all living together for now. There simply isn’t enough money for their parents to rent separately. There are 13 people living in a one bedroom apartment.”
The alien was shocked. “How can that be?”
“Well,” said the teacher. “We can’t imagine it, that’s for sure. But they’re living it. What’s it called? ‘The American Dream’? I bet you didn’t know The American Dream doesn’t come with a nutritional breakfast each morning. I’ve been buying them a bagel and juice each day or else they’ll come to school hopped up on soda and chips.”
Duncan’s face flushed. He collected himself and replied, “You are aware, I’m sure, that these students have a test to take this year. A reading test. And this is why you’re going to lose your job. You don’t give enough to these students and so they continue to fail.”
The alien watched as the teacher’s face reddened. “Mr. Secretary,” she started, “you tell me my students don’t progress, but it might shock you to know that these students already learned 12 of the letters in the alphabet in the short time they’ve been here. That is progress. But you want them to be able to write essays and read Greek mythological tales. Is that reasonable? They are scraping to survive.”
The alien, impressed by the challenge, waited for Duncan’s response.
“You have to understand me, Teacher,” said Duncan. “Your test scores have been awful. Your students are not making progress. You are not impacting their achievement in a positive way. You are failing these students and it is teachers like you that are destroying this country. All I can tell you is these students better pass the test.”
The teacher stared at the secretary for a good long while. Finally, she said with an exasperated sigh, “Thank you both for visiting. Allow me now to get back to ruining my students’ lives.” She returned to her students, smiling, proceeding to help them work through the -at words.
The alien felt his face turn red and watched Duncan’s do the same. They exited the room and Duncan retrieved his Blackberry from his pocket and began dialing a number. Soon, he spoke.
“Hello? Hello, Michelle. Hi, it’s Arne. Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Just touring some schools. Yeah, just got out of an awful classroom. The teacher tried to tell me that just because the students came to the country last week that teaching them -at words was appropriate. Hmm? Grade? It was eighth. I KNOW! And I told her that. Yes, this is the one we’ve talked about. I told her she has to improve her students’ test scores. Yep. The reason I’m calling is because I’d like your advice. I want to fire her and make sure everyone knows groundless excuses about poverty and lack of English language won’t be tolerated. How should I go about it? Bring her to my office? Okay. Get a camera crew? Okay, I can do that. Terminate her in front of the camera crew? Sounds good. Yeah, I can do that. Easy. Okay, Michelle. Thanks. You keep up your good work, will you? Yes, I’ll do the same, thanks. Okay. Be well.”
Duncan turned to the alien. “Well, she doesn’t deserve to have a job. I mean, come on. Her test scores are atrocious. Clearly she isn’t doing enough for her students. Shall we continue to the effective teacher?”
To be continued…