Worth Mentioning: A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions

This article breaks my heart and makes my blood boil – is it possible for those things to happen simultaneously?

Joyce Irvine worked her tail off to develop a positive, stimulating, creative environment in which students – many of whom were refugees – flourished. But because of low test scores and the district’s desire to apply for 3 million dollars in federal assistance, Ms. Irvine was removed from her principalship.

This article is an apt, if unfortunate, follow-up to last week’s Worth Mentioning post. Here is an example of an educator who worked tirelessly to advance her students’ skills and creativity but, caught up in the accountability game, couldn’t continue her quest for excellence in her field. No doubt, the school’s budding arts program – violin lessons and playwriting – will be replaced by kill and drill to increase test scores. Kill creativity, drill testing procedures. Kill a love of learning, drill  facts and figures.

It is impossible to net good test scores when the students who are taking the tests arrived at your school yesterday from another country. Impossible. If the students are young enough upon entrance and remain at the school for several years, you might, over time, gross acceptable test scores. But we are impatient in education – we want results now.

Children are not sieves through which we can pour knowledge, expecting gold nuggets to appear magically. It takes time, perseverance, and imagination to extract the best from our students, time Ms. Irvine apparently did not have.

If she had taken a more “traditional” approach and focused on “basic skills”, hammering phonics, fact memorization, and test-taking tricks, eliminating art, music, and recess, as so many schools have done, the children might have spent more time on task and achieved higher test scores.  But at what price?

I am not arguing against accountability in our school systems. I am arguing against a one size fits all approach. Children who have had the foundation for learning right from the start should demonstrate a greater level of skill than children who have not had such an advantage. And children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds should have the opportunity – and the tools – to catch up to their peers. The problem is that children with advantages have so many; even simple experiences, like going to the zoo or playing in the park, having books in the home, and engaging in conversations with adults help children develop a strong vocabulary, which leads to increased reading, writing, and thinking skills.

Imagine the difference in experience between a child who recently emigrated from a war-torn country in Africa and a child who takes horseback riding lessons, goes to summer camp, and spends vacations with her family in Mexico. Now throw both of those children into a standardized testing situation – which one do you think will be more successful? I know this sounds crazy, but I wish we had separate but equal accountability systems, a process by which all schools could be fairly evaluated, according to the needs of the students they serve.

I am frustrated. I am frustrated because our education system seems to care more about test scores than about children. I am frustrated because due to No Child Left Behind, creativity often takes a back seat to productivity. I am frustrated because an educator who was passionate about children, innovative in her approach, and willing to work harder than expected is going to start the 2010-2011 school year behind a desk in a central admin building instead of in the hallways of an elementary school.

I hope the new principal of this elementary school will be as passionate, innovative, and hardworking as Ms. Irvine was. I hope the students reap benefits from a change in leadership – and the $3 million that comes with it. I also hope the children don’t lose opportunities to develop their own passion and creativity in the rat race to churn out higher test scores.


1 thought on “Worth Mentioning: A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions

  1. Oh, this makes my blood boil. NCLB and it’s inordinate amount of focus on standardized testing is doing SO MUCH HARM–to our students and to those teachers and administrators who are GOOD and effective. As a former educator who left the classroom because of the stress on “one size fits all” testing, I fear I’m about to get on my soapbox. But suffice it to say that I couldn’t agree more with your post, Kelly. The U.S. needs a massive overhaul in our education system… perhaps taking a page from other countries (those to whom we’re always compared and fall short?) who use ongoing assessments (portfolios) vs. our “one shot” assessments.

    SO glad to have found your blog, my Stella Sister!

    xo, melissa

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