Frantic attempts to improve America’s test scores have resulted in new strategies meant to be implemented by teachers who often have neither the resources nor the time to add one more well-meaning program to the school day. Many of these strategies have never been tried in the classroom by those responsible for mandating and/or implementing them. Do they work? No one knows. As Thomas Sowell, a much-lauded economist once said, “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
I’ve tried a number of new educational strategies now that I am certain do not work, but I don’t see any fix for this waste of my time or my students time. If I don’t do as I am told, I risk censure or even dismissal. This is no time to voice dissent in the teaching ranks.
I feel as if I am living that old fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
In this tale, two weavers promise a vain emperor that they will make him a special new, royal outfit with a unique characteristic: This outfit will be invisible to anyone unfit for his position. The weavers ask for money, silk and gold thread, pretending to spin and weave their nonexistent fabric. Ministers and officials exclaim over its magnificent colors and workmanship, oohing and ahhing over the outfit, for fear of being seen as incompetent or stupid. The Emperor himself gushes enthusiastically over his new outfit.
In the end, a parade is held to show off the gorgeous garment. The Emperor parades down the streets of his kingdom, wearing nothing except (hopefully) some underwear. Chamberlains hold their arms aloft, pretending to carry the train, hoping no one will realize they can’t feel the magic cloth. As the Emperor’s subjects all share their enthusiasm about the magnificent new garments, though, a young child in the crowd blurts out the truth:
“But he doesn’t have anything on!” the child says.
The crowd picks up the chant: “The child says that he doesn’t have anything on!” until everyone is repeating, “He doesn’t have anything on!”
The emperor shudders, and knows that they are right, nevertheless carrying himself proudly down the street in his nonexistent clothes, as the chamberlains walk behind him, holding aloft the train that isn’t there.
The truth is that many people saw that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was empty of promise, despite all the promises made on its behalf. These teachers, educational leaders and laypeople understood the dangers posed by America’s high-stakes testing regime quickly or even immediately. Those of us who teach in academically-disadvantaged schools understand that NCLB is not only documenting the difference between zip codes thoroughly – but also contributing to that difference. Tests suck up time and resources, and force standardization of instruction, preventing desperately needed remedial instruction. As schools prepare for test after test, hurtle towards a national Common Core Curriulum, and meet ever more onerous government paperwork demands, we often feel as if we have no time left for our raison d’etre: teaching. The time demands needed to satisfy all the latest legislation can just be managed — if you take out all those pesky student needs for actual instruction and learning.
NCLB is the Emperor, wandering naked through the streets, as educational bureaucrats and ersatz leaders trumpet the beauty of a new approach to education that has all the texture, pattern and elegance of the Emperor’s new clothes.