By Mike Rose
There is no joy at our school,” the teacher tells me, “only admonishment.” She’s taught for 30 years at a school in a lower-middle-class community north of Los Angeles, and she pours out her story with urgency and exasperation.
Her school’s standardized test scores were not adequate last year, so her principal, under immense pressure from the district, mandated a “scripted” curriculum, that is, a regimented course of study focused on basic math and literacy skills that must be followed by all teachers. The principal also directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum, so the teacher cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven, extend, or individualize instruction. The principal has directed his staff to increase the time spent on literacy and math and to trim back on science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely.
The readers of this article are aware of inequality in education, of unequal funding, of re-segregation, of the threats to social services that affect schooling. Here, I want to address another kind of educational inequality, one we hear less about but that matters immensely and is reflected in the opening vignette—inequality in the very experience of education, what it feels like to be in school.
Inequality in funding and resources certainly can have an effect on students’ experience of school: the ratio of students to teachers; the number and quality of books, science artifacts, and instructional materials; the condition of the physical plant. A number of low-income schools are in bad shape, and their students suffer for it. But the sad thing is that many of the school reform policies meant to improve the lot of low-income children contribute to a diminishment of the experience of schooling as well.
Our veteran teacher describes the aftermath of the kinds of high-stakes standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and continued under Race to the Top: In many low-income schools, the curriculum is narrowed, teachers are under pressure to teach to the test, pedagogy is directed and routinized. It is true that some low-performing schools have been jolted to evaluate and redirect their inadequate curricula. The result has been a bump in test scores, but at what cost? The key issue is how teachers and administrators accomplish this revision: through a strictly functional and unimaginative curriculum or through a rich course of study that, as a by-product, affects test scores.
Students may get, on average, a few more items right on a reading or math test but not develop an appreciation of reading or a sense of how mathematics works. The end result is the replication, in the name of reform, of a troubling pattern in American schooling: poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a lower-tier education, while students in more affluent districts get a robust course of study.
Over the years, I have visited classrooms in low-income urban and rural communities where gifted teachers, typically relying heavily on their own money and networks, create remarkable environments for young people. To be sure, math and reading are hugely important in these classrooms. They are foundational skills. But students are exposed to so much else, for these teachers don’t see the mastery of basic skills and immersion in the arts and sciences as an either-or proposition.
These teachers try to create for their students the kind of education found in more affluent schools, the kind of education too few poor kids receive, even after 12 years of school reform—and sometimes because of it. Our teacher is right. Too much of current reform is built on a philosophy of compliance and regulation, test scores and metrics. You won’t hear talk of curiosity, reflection, imagination, aesthetics, or a willingness to take a chance. Inequality involves money and resources, but it also involves the quality of a young person’s experience in the classroom.
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us (revised 2014) and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Education of the American Worker. Visit him at mikerosebooks.com.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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