Editor’s note: Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA.  The grandson of Italian immigrants, his path to college professor took many twists and turns.  Along the way he taught in inner-city Los Angeles, taught everything from kindergarten to adult literacy courses.  He was especially attuned to the struggles of blue collar families and their children, no doubt because of his own background.

One of his many books, written in 1995, was Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America.  He traveled thousands of miles visiting schools throughout the country.  Twenty years later, as “education reform” continued to sweep the U.S., he returned to many of these schools. 

Here are excerpts from his observations, the most striking of which is this sentence, Life inside a classroom is profoundly affected by the immediate life outside it.  This powerful statement should be on the wall of every Alabama educator, starting with the state superintendent.

To update Possible Lives, I spoke to each of these teachers again about 10 years after my visit and found that all of them shared a deep concern about the potential effect of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on the classrooms they had worked so hard to create. No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative are built on the assumption that our public schools are in crisis, and that the best way to improve them is by using standardized tests (up to now only in reading and math) to rate student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Learning is defined as a rise in a standardized test score and teaching as the set of activities that lead to that score, with the curriculum tightly linked to the tests. This system demonstrates a technocratic neatness, but it doesn’t measure what goes on in the classrooms I visited. A teacher can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, and yet not be providing a very good education.

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have dramatically increased the influence of the federal government on public schools. Both programs require states to establish standardized testing programs, and federal funding often depends on the test results. If schools don’t meet certain performance criteria, they are subject to sanction and even closure. Race to the Top added a competitive grant program to the federal effort, requiring states to lift limits on charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores in order to be eligible for a significant one-time award of federal funds.

A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable—there can be no excuses for a student’s poor performance.

The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished—what a friend of mine calls the caveman theory of motivation.

But the use of such tests and the high stakes attached to them also led to other results that any student of organizational behavior could have predicted. A number of education officials manipulated the system by lowering the cutoff test scores for proficiency, or withheld from testing students who would perform poorly, or occasionally fudged the results.

Studies of what went on in classrooms are equally troubling and predictable. The high-stakes tests led many administrators and teachers to increase math and reading test preparation and reduce time spent on science, history, and geography. The arts were, in some cases, drastically reduced or eliminated. Aspects of math and reading that didn’t directly relate to the tests were also eliminated, even though they could have led to broader understanding and appreciation of these subjects.

Not long ago, a teacher I’ll call Priscilla contacted me with a typical story. She has been teaching for 30 years in an elementary school in a low-income community north of Los Angeles. The school’s test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure from the school district, mandated for all teachers a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills. The principal directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So now Priscilla cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven or individualize instruction. The time spent on the new curriculum has meant trims in science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. “There is no joy here,” she told me, “only admonishment.”

When the standardized test score is the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, other indicators of competence are discounted. One factor is seniority—which reformers believe, not without reason, overly constrains an administrator’s hiring decisions. Another is post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in education, a field many reformers hold in contempt. Several studies do report low correlation between experience (defined as years in the profession) and students’ test scores. Other studies find a similarly low correlation between students’ scores and teachers’ post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications. These studies lead to an absolute claim that neither experience nor schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree makes any difference.

What a remarkable assertion. Can you think of any other kind of work—from hair styling to neurosurgery—where we don’t value experience and training? If reformers had a better understanding of teaching, they might wonder whether something was amiss with the studies, which tend to deal in simple averages and define experience or training in crude ways. Experience, for example, is typically defined as years on the job, yet years in service, considered alone, don’t mean that much. A dictionary definition of experience—“activity that includes training, observation of practice, and personal participation and knowledge gained from this”—indicates the connection to competence. The teachers in Possible Lives had attended workshops and conferences, participated in professional networks, or taken classes. They experimented with their curricula and searched out ideas and materials to incorporate into their work. What people do with their time on the job becomes the foundation of expertise.

What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high-stakes testing-—from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site—if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project, by university summer programs in literature or science or history, by teams of expert teachers themselves.

Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies. If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided, some of which could be done by volunteers and interns from nearby colleges. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.