This is part four 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.
Doubts about what made an effective teacher were again creeping into the alien’s four stomachs.
“Well,” said Duncan, “how invigorating was that? Great teaching in action!”
“I don’t know, Arne,” the alien replied. “If those students are spending so much time on practice tests, how are they learning critical thinking skills and civics and all that important stuff?”
Duncan smiled. “Let me be absolutely clear,” the Secretary replied, sounding as if he was tired of repeating it over and over. “The president has said many times teachers should not have to feel they must teach to the test. What you saw in there was a teacher preparing her students for the jobs of the 21st century.”
“I know that’s what Obama says, but you just told me that teacher, where the students were taking a practice test, is effective.”
“Correct. But again, let me stress, we don’t want our teachers teaching to the test. We want them developing in their students the collaboration skills and critical thinking skills that will prepare them for the 21st century job market.”
“Yes, understood. I get that. Then why are they taking these practice tests?”
Duncan looked perplexed, as if the question made no sense. “Well, just look at the test scores in that class!”
The alien replied, “Yes, they’re very good. But is it because the teacher is teaching to the test with practice tests or because he is teaching his students how to think and collaborate?”
“I’ll say it again,” said Duncan, this time pausing for emphasis and with his mouth betraying the slightest flustered annoyance. “No one. Wants. Teachers. Teaching. To. The. Test. When we measure effectiveness, though, we must place a major emphasis on test scores. Is there any other way?”
By now, feeling overwhelmed by the cyclical logic employed by his host, the alien excused himself to the staffroom. It was empty. Standing before the mirror, he noticed his skin had turned a lighter shade of green – not the grassy green it was when he arrived on Earth, but more like a minty green. He felt sick.
Sticking his hand in his pocket, he recovered the note pressed into his palm by the sad-eyed girl in the effective teacher’s class. “She looked so bored,” he thought to himself.
The alien unfolded the note. Reading it, he felt tears welling in his eyes. Scrawled on the post-it in unsteady manuscript was a simple 5-word request:
Get me out of here.
The alien stared at the words and allowed them to penetrate his mind. He repeated them slowly and quietly. “Get me out of here.”
Sadness, anger, confusion, and disappointment entered his three hearts. He remembered the engaged happiness that practically blew out the windows in the ineffective teacher’s room. He remembered the bored sadness that hunched the shoulders of everyone in the effective teacher’s room.
“Get me out of here.” The more times he read them, the louder he became. He was pounding his fists on the wall now, almost in a rage, screaming so loud he felt his throat was on fire. “GET ME OUT OF HERE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
When he was spent, he looked in the mirror and saw tears streaming down his face. Another face looked back at him, too. It was the ineffective teacher. She was smiling.
“I’m sorry,” said the alien. “This trip is not at all what I expected. Privately I was thinking to myself that you were the effective teacher – doing so much for your students, teaching them what they need to know. But, who am I to say? I’m only here to visit your country and bring back ideas for my own planet. And if our schools need to look like the classroom of the other teacher, and test practice is what we need to do, then so be it. I’m just surprised. Something just doesn’t…feel right”
The ineffective teacher, smiling, tilted her head to the right with an understanding nod. She took a pad from her pocket, clicked open her pen, and wrote something. She clicked her pen shut, folded the note, and passed it to the alien, saying, “Just remember.”
The alien opened the note. Tears welled in his eyes again. He looked back at the ineffective teacher, who was still smiling. He wondered how she could write such a note, how she could believe the words that came from her pen.
Returning to the note and whispering, he read the four words aloud, as if to confirm their validity or the truth of such an optimistic statement:
“It will get better.”
To be concluded…