I've finally been going through the pile of old BusinessWeek magazines at my house, and came across a Second Careers pull-out section from the Dec. 17 issue. The lead article, "Mr. P Learns His Lesson" was about a former BusinessWeek communications director, Robert Pondiscio, who had become an NYC Teaching Fellow. Basically an alternative certification program for mid-career types, the NYC Teaching Fellowship program aims to put these folks in jobs in hard-t0-fill schools. Pondiscio wound up teaching fifth graders in a South Bronx elementary school. In general, "parents loved me," he says. He was strict, gave a lot of homework, and enforced standards.
The article is mostly about how Pondiscio still managed to get burned out after five years of teaching, and wound up transitioning back to communications and non-profit work. But I thought that his observations about working in an urban school in the era of No Child Left Behind were most prescient. I quote:
"I was especially frustrated for my highest-achieving students. I have nothing but admiration for high-minded education reformers, teachers, and administrators who want to make sure every child goes to a great school. But one of the unintended consequences of the accountability movement in schools is that virtually all of a teacher's time and attention goes to the lowest-performing students. We lie to ourselves that we're educating high-performing kids because they test at or above grade level on dumbed-down state tests. In reality we're neglecting our brightest low-income kids virtually as a matter of policy, all but guaranteeing their future struggles in college and the workplace."
Eventually, Pondiscio decided he should start a non-profit that would focus on high-achieving low-income children -- on challenging them, and finding opportunities for them. And actually, New York City is embarking on a new era of gifted education -- in which all children will be screened, and all children who score in the 95th percentile will be offered a spot in the city's gifted programs. Up until now, admission to the various gifted programs has been a complicated patchwork of systems which, not surprisingly, better-off and better-connected parents were better able to navigate (we'll do another longer post on this topic later).
But I think that Pondiscio is on to something. There is a lot to like about the accountability movement. For too many years, too many educators have assumed that as long as there was a teacher in a classroom, and textbooks, and adequate funding, schools were doing their job. This is how a lot of jobs have worked in the past -- show up, you get a paycheck. No one demands a connection to the business bottom line. Now, we as a society are asking about outcomes. Are kids actually learning to read? Are they gaining the math skills necessary to get anywhere in life?
Yet...Savvy parents can deal with schools that focus on lower-performing students to the exclusion of their brightest pupils. They can notice that their children aren't being challenged, demand accommodations, or enroll their children in extra-curricular activities, make sure the kids get to the library a lot, read a lot, or else even pull their children out and put them in private schools. Children whose parents are not so savvy are simply stuck with the schools and teachers they get. T
his is a shame and needs to be addressed -- not by dumping the accountability movement's new standards, which would be a disaster -- but by judging schools and teachers based on individual students' progress. Give a high-scoring third grader a fifth grade achievement test. If she scores at the 79th percentile in the fall, and the 79th percentile in the spring, there should be consequences. What gets measured and rewarded gets attention. It's just that sometimes, we're measuring the wrong things.