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John Thompson: A Hilarious Novel about Life in the Classroom Today

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Who knew that “adequate yearly progress” and “accountability” could be the subject of a comic novel? John Thompson just read that novel and he reviews it here.

Roxanna Elden’s Adequate Yearly Progress is a hilarious, satirical novel that nails the very serious truths about the real world effects of corporate school reform. Although Elden’s humor spectacularly illuminates the reformers’ often-absurd mindsets, she also reveals the good, bad, and the ugly of a diverse range of human beings.

Adequate Yearly Progress begins with Lena, a young, black, literature teacher returning to school at Brae Hill Valley High School in a high-challenge Texas neighborhood. The way she is greeted starts to reveal some of the flaws of the complex people who teach there. A colleague asked, “Don’t you read the news? Miss Phil-a-delphia?” She thus assumed that Lena comes from a city where everyone is in a hurry and no one attends church.

The news is that Nick Wallabee, a political celebrity without real-world experience in classrooms, but who had written a book on “easy fixes” to schools, has been hired as the district’s superintendent. Any discussion about Wallabee was likely to become a “morale-draining gripe session.”

The Wallabee administration starts by introducing a new accountability metric, the “Believer Score.” Stressing the positive, the administrator said the measure will “let you gain points by proving you believe all children can learn.” Teachers need to “just be ready to show that you fully embrace any new initiatives.”

The announcements caused “collective grumbling,” but hope was raised by the school’s principal, Dr. Barrios. He was known as “the superintendent whisperer,” who had always been able to buffer teachers from the ill-conceived quick fixes that are routinely dumped on schools.

Wallabee was a new type of micromanager, and even Barrios was unable to temper his new boss’ hubris. Wallabee asserted, “I know there are adults (spitting out the word adults) … who take issue with being held accountable.” He proclaimed the willingness to break eggs to make an omelette, and it became clear that Brae Hill Valley HS and Barrios were targeted.

The school was turned into a “Believers Make Achievers Zone.” A series of “three-ring binders, the highest level of the organizational hierarchy” would guide the process. Brae Hill Valley became a “Curriculum Standard of the Day Achievement Zone.” Teachers were given the first of a series of orders, and each Curriculum Standard of the Day must be written in its entirety on the board each day.

The next interventions were the “fearsome Office for Oversight of Binders and Evidence of Implementation,” the “Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear Assessment Data Chart” (PHCDMADC), and the “Cross-Disciplinary Compare-And-Contrast Holiday Review Packet,” as well as worksheets to identify what students don’t know in order to fortify instruction. A non-educator, Daren Grant of “Transformational Change Advocacy ConsultingPartners,” then distributed the folder, “Research-Based Best Practices That Work,” and made surprise visits to classrooms, as well as the football team’s locker room during halftime.

Two of those visits foreshadow climactic outcomes.  Hernan Hernandez was perhaps the school’s best teacher, even though he refused to join the teachers union. A student who was exited from the “Demographics Don’t Determine Destiny” or Destiny Charter School arrived unexpectedly, and disrupted Hernan’s class. This happened as Daren, the consultant, dropped in.

Second, in perhaps the only type of activity in the novel which I had never witnessed in schools, he spoke to Coach Ray and his players, using the same data-driven vocabulary and reality-free exhortations in the middle of a game, as Coach Ray was exhorting the team to put on their “inner game face.”  (I would have loved to witness such a scene.) It foreshadowed a positive outcome that offset the sad result of the consultant’s dropping-in to Hernan’s class.

Coach Ray, brought much of the negative baggage of his family in Huntsville, the infamous prison’s town, to coaching, but he had another side that made him the story’s silent hero.

Also foreshadowing a crucial realization at the end of the novel, Lena seemed to have mixed but mostly negative feelings about a scene with white people clapping off-key and rapping a poem with the line “I got ninety-nine problems , but a b____ ain’t one of them”

A young Teacher Corp history teacher, Kaytee, was understandably outraged by her mentor who offered the “QUIT” or “Quit Taking It Personally” advice. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a veteran teacher who didn’t oppose the data-driven accountability systems that were imposed by non-educators, Kayte would be right to resent the response of some of her colleagues to those metrics. They called for the “neck-tattoo statistic.” Students who wear those tattoos can’t be expected to meet outcome metrics as well as poor children of color who don’t wear them.

Then, Wallabee sought to ramp up the types of teaching methods that Kaytee was taught in her Teacher Corp classroom management principle professional development class. The consultant said, “I’d like to start by having everyone in here physically unpack their preconceptions and assumptions and put them in the assumption box.” Her call to “raise the roof!” was followed by pressed palms reaching up to imaginary roof beams.

Kaytee seemed destined to rise in the reformers’ world after her blog post went viral when it was endorsed by the filmmaker of Show Me You Care and I’ll Show You My Homework. That anti-teacher film was followed by How the Status Quo Stole Christmas, which, of course meant How Teachers Stole Christmas.  That foreshadowed the possibility of a different education film genre, The Mystery History Teacher.

Reality started to set in, for instance, after Kaytee’s effort to teach a culturally relevant lesson was undermined by the technology which was supposed to drive “transformational” change. Her video of Cesar Chavez “Fighting for Improved Hand Job Conditions” was blocked by the online autocorrect censor. Much worse, after being assaulted by a student and no disciplinary consequences were contemplated, she started having second thoughts about whether simplistic memes could really help students. 

Eventually, Kaytee found herself drafting a letter to a law school admissions office. She knew the best pitch would be something like how she had learned to “lead from the classroom and scale up her macro impact for low-income students.” But she wanted to write, “Dear Admissions Committee, I want to go to law school because I will do anything in this world to get out of being a teacher.”

As the “Crunch Time” which always proceeds high-stakes testing approached, even more test prep was mandated. During a faculty meeting, angry teachers asked whether the principal was “trying to tell us to teach nothing but test-taking skills?” Principal Barrios replied with the standard answer, “I don’t think that’s exactly what I said.” He thus stirred an “amiable laugh,” while exemplifying the culture of compliance that traditional teachers resent, and corporate reformers tried to exorcise. (To complicate things, those on all sides of the teacher wars complained that the principal hadn’t fired an obvious incompetent.  However, nobody else knew that Barrios was reluctant to fire the teacher in his late 6os because he  had cancer.)

As the year ended, reformers focused on the need to terminate teachers based on their “Believer Scores.” Because of their relationship with Global Schoolhouse’s test creation division, an administrator seeking to replace Barrios felt free to let favored teachers with high “Believer Scores” preview sample test questions, so that the two accountability metrics would line up with each other.

A scandal then leads reformers to shift gears and invest in a new virtual school charter network startup.

Another result was a great teacher was “selected out of the classroom.” On the other hand, these experiences help inform Lena’s growing enlightenment, inspiring the line in her poem, “Tapping their feet, shifting and creaking the seats, struggling students with ninety nine problems apiece.”

In a brilliant ending, that I don’t want to reveal too much about but which spoofs another test question meme, Elden asks, “What would an additional scene at the end of this story most likely be?”

Will an anxious principal be looking at the test scores, or will the new Global Schoolhouse School Choice Solutions be started? Will filmmakers shift from themes that demonize teachers, or will there be a happy ending for an excellent, unfairly fired teacher?

Or will the answer be, “All of the above.”

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