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Thompson: Real Talk and True Confessions about Teaching

BadRafe Esquith’s Real Talk for Real Teachers and James Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher both become more powerful when read next to each other. 

Esquith, the superstar author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, starts with lessons for new teachers.

The first third of his book just about matches Owen’s in terms of anecdotes that show how test driven reform is killing public education and, at the end, Esquith doubles back to conclude that our educational system is so dysfunctional that it would take an Orwell to describe it.

During Owens’ rookie year, he faced outrage after outrage prompted by accountability-driven “reform.”  His fate, like the careers of highly-paid senior teachers, rests in the hands of a tyrant armed with a loathsome teacher evaluation system.  Owens entered the profession as New York was creating a perfect storm where a flawed value-added system would be used inappropriately, where the principal has the means and motives to use a 66 point teacher observation list to settle scores, and where the system is clearly designed to blame teachers for any and all failures. The result was that educational malpractice was mandated in Owens’ school, albeit under the name of “best practices.”

For instance, consider an evaluation system where a dedicated English teacher is graded down because her class had “too many books.”

Ooops! That story came from Esquith! 

Seriously, this is just one example of how reading Esquith and Owens together gives a deeper understanding of how test-driven “reform” is wrecking so many schools.

The real best practices described by Esquith may not be under attack in all schools but they are definitely under siege in many, especially in low-income schools. Esquith cites a teacher’s complaint about a professional development “brainwashing boot camp,” and then explains how his classes operate under the system of “Be Nice, Work Hard!” In contrast to behaviorism of “No Excuses!,” Esquith describes in detail how he teaches responsibility when preparing students for going to the restroom. Esquith advocates the opposite of “sweat the small stuff.” In contrast to today’s obsession with curriculum pacing, he describes the individual teacher’s sense of timing as a key skill.

In a time where the teacher’s job is supposedly to teach course standards but where it often is to teach to the test, Esquith concludes with today’s ultimate heresy.  His job is teaching the student. 

Above all, Esquith stresses honesty.  “We’re trying to teach kids to be honorable,” writes Esquith, “in a world where dishonor stares them in the face constantly.

Similarly, Owens protests this world where cheating and similar forms of dishonesty is pervasive. Data-driven “reform” has created a “cheater’s paradise.” Owens punches holes in the intellectually dishonest claim that New York’s value-added models, as a part of multiple measures, are a reliable measure of “effectiveness.” He shows how the 66-point observation expectations list can be twisted to create any preordained conclusions.  In Owens’ Latinate,  a team player who volunteers for “the Pageant of Today’s Successful School,” or someone who is certified in an area where there are shortages, is guaranteed a passing evaluation.  A teacher with a big salary or who speaks his mind, regardless of how effective he is, will always be under threat of an “Unsatisfactory.”

And, that brings us back to the big way that Rafe Esquith and James Owens document the destructiveness of school reform.  Education is supposed to be an act of love.  By continually going the extra mile, Esquith carved out a space where he can teach and teach well.  Not all schools have been as damaged by “reform” as Owens’ school, but the danger is real. If we cannot defeat high-stakes testing, career teachers like Esquith may go the way of the dinosaur, and the capacity to engage in high-quality instruction may follow.-JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.   


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Maybe we better figure out what a good or bad teacher is http://savingstudents-caplee.blogspot.com/

What an interesting article! I never thought School Reform would ever be considered as 'cheating' amongst the Education System! If this type situation is happening around the Nation then we as educators ought to be ashamed. We teach our students honesty, and integrity. Why are we as educators 'practice what we teach'? I am appalled, to say the least.

I enjoyed this article and thanks for the resources. This is certainly an eye-opener.


This is real! I’ve been in a class where the entire semester was about one test. Every single day was focus on this one test. How can you judge a teacher on her students score? Can she take the test? Most of the test consist of skills a child has learning throughout their time in school not just one grade. Should you go back grades and score other teacher her taught that same student. What about the parents are they being judge also. Teachers are so afraid that they have put their career on the line by cheating.
I’m a future teacher and I must say when I read articles like this it is a little discerning

well this is interesting, i think this happens in the less fortunate schools (urban schools). the teachers sont want to look bad so they teach or try to focus on a particular test, but they are not really taching the student. i dont think teachers should be afraid to teach how they want to teach or have to teach . they should be preparing the the student along with teaching the student not just for the test but life skills in general.
i see why alot of parents homeschool is because people are soo fucused on wrong thing that they are actually handycapping the child ... i also agree on the first comment. can these teacher take and passed the test .?

It seems like a lot of these articles are about test taking reform. It appears to pose a problem for people and students who say that "taking a test doesn't teach kids anything." This is true. It is also not the purpose of tests. Tests are used to show teachers and other people looking for data about how well a student can perform, what a kid was already supposed to have learned. If there were better, equally accurate methods for finding this information, it would swiftly be implemented.

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