Not a Failing School but a Failing System – An Essay by Allison Kaye


Standardized tests are necessary to make sure that kids are being taught what they are supposed to. We need them to check up on the failing schools. It helps keep teachers accountable.

These are some of the comments you may have heard regarding why standardized testing, such as the kind that began to increase after the passing of No Child Left Behind, is so vital. As a pre-service elementary school teacher I try to push aside my disdain for standardized testing and think openly and critically. That is why when I learned I would be immersing myself for one semester in not just a Title I school, but a school labeled as failing due to not meeting accreditation, I thought maybe I would understand the importance of standardized testing to help make sure these kids have an equal shot. However, what I learned is not quite that simple. It is messy and complicated. In order to explain what my realization and understanding is, I will first paint a picture of this place, calling it Green Road Elementary and using altered names. Then I will go on to talk about evidence-based practices that I think could help fix the “failing school” conundrum more adequately than the “band-aid” fixes of data and matrices. Lastly, I will explain why we as educators choose to enter into this world despite its current state.

Walking into Green Road Elementary school, it looks simply like any other school. There is no scarlet A affixed to the door proclaiming its accreditation issue. Teachers smile and students trot down the hallway as they do at the 15 or so elementary schools I have spent time working, volunteering, or subbing at. My classroom at Green Road was even blessed with its own laptop cart, where each student has a personal laptop to keep at school and use for work. I was welcomed by the the Ms. Roades, teacher whose class I would spend the semester in. She is a woman whose smile not only made me feel at ease, but made me want to get to know her more. She is beautiful I remember thinking while she greeted each student as they walked through the door. I have learned so much from her about teaching, children, and working for American public schools. The children in her classroom were so kind, and yet the feel of the classroom was different than most I have ever been in. It took me time to understand the reason for this – the elephant in the building. It was the fact that many of these students were coming from environments full of disadvantage, poverty, institutionalized racism, and loneliness. All students received free breakfast through an incredible initiative that certainly helped. However, having a carton of milk, a pop-tart, and clementine can only mask the deep rooted pain some of these children are dealing with for so long.

“Do you know that Ms. Roades and I love you?” I said to Shavon one day at recess. I had been sitting with her for about ten minutes. She still was not talking after the incident. This “incident” to most children would not have even been an incident. Shavon had tried to get the teacher’s attention to say something and she was told it was not an okay time. She was not yelled at, she was not ignored. However it triggered something. Shavon seemed to be trembling. I knew her background and it took me a while but I realized she personalized the comment as rejection. I still don’t know if telling her that her teacher and I loved her was “kosher.” I was never told not to say to children at this school that you love them. However in that moment, she needed to hear just that. That her teacher loved her. She slowly looked at me with longing eyes almost as if she had never been told that. My heart ached. “Ms. Roades knows just how smart you are. She is always interested to hear what you have to say but sometimes teachers have to work on keeping the class all ready and on schedule. It was not that she did not want to talk with you.”

Foster care. Sexual abuse. No insurance for medication. Incarcerated parents. Overcrowded housing. Little food. Abuse. Yelling. Beatings. Manipulation. I don’t know each child’s story, but I know many stories of children from this school. One of my university professors taught us about working memory. He explained that if a student’s working memory is focused on certain things – it could be anything, but in this case: hunger, fear of abuse, fear of being moved from their home, etc. – cognitive learning in the classroom is less likely to occur. It makes simple sense, really. But it is not something we often think about. It is these students, with such complicated and sometimes horrific lives, that need the most interesting and engaging instruction to help them overcome the working memory issue.

Sadly, what instead often happens at schools that are failing is the implied need for teachers to document that they are teaching the materials on the tests. So, rather than doing a creative simulation or invigorating inquiry project, notes are copied down. That way the required material is in each child’s notebooks. The facts they need to know for the standardized test. I must make myself clear: this is not a dig at the teacher I worked with or any of the other teachers. My teacher employed many incredible instructional strategies to engage her students. However, what was occurring was systematic and beyond her control. She worked hard, with every fiber of her tired body, filling out matrices of student data during lunch and engaging her students in class. But there are only so many hours in the day, and in non-accredited schools, teachers have to spend many more hours providing numerical data and proof of their efforts. This time could be much better spent employing creative teaching practices and interacting with students. Making a graph of test scores for a governing body does nothing to help teach students. Yet often teachers have to spend their time on this type of task, making it implausible to find yet more time for creating new and unique lessons.

Later, my professor explained to me that this is called Proof of Teaching. It is the opposite of what should be happening- Proof of Learning. Most of the children are not going to learn from copying down notes. Especially students with learning disabilities that cause just the act of copying down notes to be stressful. And why should they care about a mundane fact when what is really on their mind is whether they will have dinner that night? It is vital that students be challenged in a hands-on, minds-on way that engages them.

So now my question is- is this school really failing? Before the state got involved, teachers had more time and more freedom for creative, research-driven instruction. But a high enough percentage of students did not pass the required tests. They failed. After grave calculations it was decided that this percentage is not adequate and the school as whole was labeled failing. My answer? No, this school is not failing. These students are not failing. These teachers are not failing. The system is failing. We, as a society are failing these students. The problem does not lie in instruction. The problem lies much deeper than anything the teachers have control of. It lies in social services, our culture, our healthcare and mental health resources. How is a student supposed to answer questions on seemingly irrelevant topics when all her young mind can focus on is praying that the man she is supposed to called dad will pass out drunk so that he won’t sneak into her room that night? How is a student supposed to solve math problems for a test when his stomach is growling? How is a student with ADHD supposed to focus when he has been off his medication because insurance ran out? How is a student supposed to fill in a bubble with a number two pencil when she is wondering if she will have to move foster homes after school?

The answer is clear: these students, these children should not have to go through what they are dealing with. Our job as educators is to make school the safest place for all children, and especially those whose homes are not safe. How are we supposed to do that in an environment turned cold and sterile by distant institutions that claim our efforts are failing? You may be wondering why, knowing all this, I still dream of the day in less than two years when I will open up the door to an inviting room I decorated that reads, “Ms. Kaye’s Class”? Sometimes I wonder that. I won’t be able to fix the system… I won’t be able to hand ADHD medicine to the child whose health insurance won’t cover it. I won’t be able to stop a father from molesting his child. I won’t be able to provide enough food for all the hungry stomachs when they are not in my classroom. However, I can be the one person to tell a child who needs to hear it, “I love you” every day. I can be the teacher who opens communication with parents and is a resource to them. Us teachers, we don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it for the glory. We do it for those little ones with gleaming eyes and curiosity in life. Our education system right now is broken, but our children are not broken, and they need us. An education system may try to refer to my students as numbers in a chart, but to me they will be individuals who I will nurture, challenge, respect, love and believe in.

I wish I could end this with an answer to all the societal problems that dramatically affect education. I do not know how to solve racism, poverty, social services, health insurance, pedophilia, domestic abuse, and child abuse. However, I know how to help a child overcome adversity and trauma. That is why I am entering the world of education. To all the teachers working at a school labeled as failing, please know that you are not failing. Your children are not failing. The system is what is failing. All you can do is keep on loving your children and teaching them.


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