This is part three 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.
As he walked alongside Arne Duncan on the way to the classroom of the effective teacher, the alien noticed stirrings of doubt in his four stomachs.
“Arne,” he said, turning to the Secretary but not breaking his stride. “That teacher we just visited looked like she was really working hard.”
“She looked like she cared.”
“Her students seemed to be working really hard and were on task, engaged in work that, while not typical for their age, was necessary for them to do well.”
“Is there a point?”
“No point. I just didn’t expect that before we walked in. I figured the students would be throwing things, cursing at the teacher, sleeping. I guess those test scores are really important, though.”
“They are,” said Duncan, finally turning to the alien. “They really are. Nothing can prepare our students for the 21st century job market more than the test scores. Keep that in mind as we enter this classroom. Now you’ll see what every teacher should be like, and what every classroom should look like. Alien, I present to you the highly effective teacher.”
Duncan opened the door and they stepped inside. The atmosphere was different from the room of the ineffective teacher. Quieter, for sure, but there was something else the alien couldn’t pinpoint just yet.
Students were seated in rows hunched over thin booklets.
“This,” Duncan beamed, “is a classroom where students are preparing for the workplace of the 21st century! The very epitome of American education!”
The students were all reading silently. Every so often a student would use his pencil to color in a small circle on a separate paper. “Earthling art,” the alien thought to himself.
The alien took the opportunity to approach the teacher seated at her desk.
“Ma’am,” he started. “I am so excited to see your students working on art. It’s so important for students to have art, don’t you think?”
The teacher was confused, but a timer rang and she excused herself from the conversation. Walking to front of the room and standing before the middle row, she spoke to the students. “The timer rang. You have one minute to stand up and stretch. When the timer rings again, sit down and get back to work.” She set the timer. Students stood up and twisted their backs, cracked their knuckles, touched their toes, and walked around their desks.
“Earthling physical education,” the alien thought to himself. “Art and physical education all at once. Simply genius.”
The timer rang. Students sat down and returned to coloring in the bubbles. The alien was so excited. He could hardly wait to talk to the effective teacher to learn more.
“Teacher,” said the alien, “I am truly amazed that you are teaching art and physical education all at once. I had heard on the Alien News Network that this country’s reforms were making teachers teach only to the test, but clearly that’s not the case!”
The teacher remained confused. Duncan stepped in.
“Would it surprise you to find out that this teacher consistently has the highest test scores in the building?” he asked the alien.
“Well, I can see why! Look at the well-rounded experiences she is giving her students!” the alien elatedly said.
“I have to be honest,” said the teacher. “I used to be a truly ineffective teacher. I used to think I was working hard, as hard as I could. I went home every night, wrote lesson plans, created materials, bought supplies, answered homework questions on my home phone. It never did anything for my students. My test scores were okay, but nothing special. Then my district told me, ‘If only you would work harder, your students would do better.”
She continued. “And we’ll pay you more.'”
The alien smiled, intrigued. Duncan’s smile was a mile wide.
“At first, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can work any harder than this.’ At the time I had no life outside of my career. But then I thought, ‘What if I gave it a try? How about instead of wasting all my time at home, I just make worksheets and practice tests?'”
The alien stopped smiling. “Practice tests?”
“Yes,” the teacher said. “That’s why when you said something about art, I was a little taken aback. This isn’t art. This is test prep. We don’t have time for art. We don’t have time for physical education, either.”
Here, Duncan spoke. “But the test scores have been amazing!”
“Exactly!” said the teacher. “Does anything else matter?”
The alien wasn’t smiling anymore.
He looked out at the sea of students dutifully coloring in their bubbles. They weren’t smiling, either. He realized here that that was the difference he couldn’t identify when he walked in.
“Thank you for your time, Teacher.” The alien turned to walk to the door.
The student in the corner seat closed to the exit looked at him with sad eyes, subtly holding out a folded piece of paper in her left hand. The alien took it and, sensing its importance – and perhaps danger – pocketed it. Together, he and the Secretary exited the classroom of the effective teacher.
To be continued…