Playing Smart

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

I became a teacher to change the world. I saw in teaching the opportunity to reach the toughest students, a way to tackle the enduring effects of poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression that continue to wrack so many of our communities.

In teaching I saw a powerful profession, one in which I could develop meaningful relationships with people. To me, teaching was work that would allow me to resist the rampant injustice I saw in the world and to avoid becoming just another cog in the machine. I still see teaching this way, and this vision continues to guide me as a teacher of teachers at the university level today.

I worry about the teachers, future and present, in my education courses. Most of them are young, in their mid-20s to early 30s. Although most are working on their credentials, I also have many who are already classroom teachers returning to get their master’s degrees.

No Child Left Behind and its draconian test regime started more than 10 years ago, and in many states the testing juggernaut was already well under way. My university students took high-stakes tests through elementary, middle, and high school. Most took high-stakes tests to get into college. They take tests to become credentialed teachers. Almost always good test takers by the time I see them, my students are members of the tested generation.

I worry about the toll that these high-stakes, standardized tests have taken on the educational consciousness of my students. The cumulative effect on their commonsense understanding of education and teaching is profound: Even if my students do question the tests and see the detrimental effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning, they often have a hard time envisioning classrooms that could be or should be any different. Their horizons are limited because they have mainly known and experienced high-stakes testing in their educational lives.

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that maybe this was the intention of the test pushers. Get one generation as the “tested generation,” and we’ll have a bunch of educators who cannot effectively imagine an alternative.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of their own constrained vision and current educational policy, in most cases my students have this testing-is-the-only-option pedagogy reinforced when they get into classrooms. Whether they are student teachers or classroom veterans, the refrain they hear from district, state, and federal officials has been maddeningly consistent these last years: more standards, more tests, more pacing guides, more scripted instruction, more administrative threats, and more students in the classes they teach—all with fewer resources, fewer rights, and fewer protections.

Playing Dumb to Fit the Script

The current state of teaching under high-stakes testing is obvious. In my own research, as well as the research of countless others, the findings support what many classroom teachers know from their day-to-day experiences: Regimes of high-stakes testing are pressuring teachers to change both their curriculum and teaching to match whatever is on the tests.

The control of teaching by test-based accountability schemes is perhaps best illustrated through the rise of scripted reading curricula. Under such programs, administrators mandate teachers use prepackaged curricular materials that require no creative input or decision-making on the part of the teachers. Teachers in many low-performing schools and districts have been required by school leaders to use commercially packaged reading instruction programs, such as Open Court, which tell teachers exactly which page to be on each day as well as every word and line they are allowed to say while teaching reading, all in preparation for the high-stakes testing.

We can see the stringent language of such scripted curricula by looking at the Houghton Mifflin Reading: A Legacy of Literacy (California teachers edition) textbook for grade 1 as an example. The script starts from the beginning; in the introduction Houghton Mifflin directs teachers to:

Read aloud the first page and stop before the last paragraph. Say: Your state is California. California has set standards for me and you to help you learn this year. Let’s learn more about these standards. Now read the last paragraph. . . . Explain that, for each story, the standards tell children what they are learning.

Say: When you come into school, you don’t get to your classroom all of a sudden. You walk there, one step at a time. Standards are the same way. You don’t have to know them all at once. You’ll learn them as you go.

From the start, not only does the Houghton Mifflin text take teachers on a scripted journey through literacy instruction, but it also embeds an ideological justification of such scripts as part of standards-based instruction.

The scripted direction continues throughout the text. In a section on phonics, Houghton Mifflin directs teachers to:

Say cat. Ask: What sound do you hear at the beginning of cat? What letter should I write in the first box? Write c.

Ask: What sound do you hear next in cat? Call on a child to come to the board and write a in the second box.

Ask: What sound do you hear at the end of cat? What letter should I write in the last box? Write t.

The textbook teems with similar examples of both highly scripted instruction and page-by-page directions for what each teacher must cover in what order and on what day.

Although it is true that teachers can and do resist this kind of scripting, sometimes under threat of losing their jobs, this example illustrates the assumed pedagogic incompetence of teachers today, who are considered by policy makers, administrators, and textbook manufacturers to be so unskilled and inept that they need to parrot the prewritten curriculum in order to be effective.

Such scripted curriculum programs have not been relegated to just reading and language arts instruction either. Julie Cwikla’s research describes a case where administrators mandated the implementation of a scripted direct instruction (SDI) mathematics program with the specific goals of raising test scores and providing easy evaluation of teaching. The script for this mathematics program was so rigid that, Cwikla explains, “If a student had a question, the SDI instructed teachers to repeat the script just previously read.”

Being handed such scripted curricula and pacing guides by the district, and then being told to teach to the tests, strikes deep at the heart of teachers and teaching. It stifles creativity and dynamism. It disregards professional content-area expertise and knowledge of students, communities, and cultures. It muffles the voices of teachers and students. It tells teachers not to think about their teaching: High-stakes test-based scripted curricula and teaching ask teachers to play dumb. As one math teacher summed up in class one evening: “There’s no actual teaching required. It’s like instant curriculum. You just add water.”

And here lies a central contradiction within a teaching profession shaped by high-stakes, standardized tests. Teachers are being held more and more “accountable” for test scores and student achievement while they are being required to take less and less responsibility for their curriculum, pedagogy, and what actually happens in their classrooms. Be tested, teach to the tests, give the tests, live and die by the tests. The powers that be will hold you accountable for teaching a lesson plan that wasn’t yours to begin with, and if you break from the script, then you have failed your students and will be disciplined appropriately. It is a system that encourages teachers’ submission instead of engagement, and pedagogic alienation instead of responsibility and connection to what happens in classrooms.

In this regard, policy makers’ agenda for teachers is transparent. They simultaneously take authority and judgment away from teachers, while structuring teacher pay schemes and pedagogies to hold people accountable for implementing plans (formerly called teaching) over which teachers had no say in the first place. Teachers thus bear huge amounts of responsibility for student test scores, but they aren’t being allowed to take responsibility for their teaching. Instead of treating teachers as professional, thinking agents of learning and change, our education policy assumes that teachers are incompetent and unqualified to engage children in learning about the world.

Playing Smart to Resist the Script

The high-stakes educational accountability movement in the United States may be forcing massive reshaping of teaching, but all is not lost. The bipartisan coalition that backed No Child Left Behind has functionally collapsed, and popular resistance to high-stakes testing continues to build among parents and teachers alike.

Research has lent credence to this discontent: For instance, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences looked at 10 years of data and concluded that high-stakes testing has utterly failed at increasing achievement anywhere close to the levels of other high-performing nations. Further, as chronicled in the pages of Rethinking Schools (“Neither Fair Nor Accurate,” January 2011), we know that research finds high-stakes tests are ineffective at accurately measuring both teaching and learning.

We also know better. We know that teachers are not mindless robots programmed simply to perform the next pedagogical task on the educational assembly line. We know that, despite wrongheaded policies that push teachers in wrong-headed directions, teachers can take creative control of their curricular lives—and they do so in powerful ways.

For instance, for more than 10 years, Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) in San Francisco—made up mostly of K-12 public school teachers—has run a fantastic one-day conference that now draws more than 1,000 participants locally and nationwide. It is a place where educators, students, and activists build connections, strategize for organizing, and share curriculum that is rooted in a politics of social justice and student engagement. Similar conferences and social justice curriculum fairs have since sprung up in Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and most recently in Boston, among other cities.

The Educators’ Network for Social Justice (ENSJ) provides another example. Not only do they organize an annual anti-racist/anti-bias teaching conference, but they also played a key role in shaping the textbook policy for Milwaukee Public Schools. Working with other community groups, lobbying school board members, and participating in a letter-writing campaign, the ENSJ helped halt the school district’s adoption of K-8 social studies textbooks that suffered from serious shortcomings in terms of race and multiculturalism; the group subsequently got involved in the negotiation process that decided which K-8 social studies texts the district purchased.

What these gatherings and examples of educational organizing show is that teachers do care about what they are teaching. Despite high-stakes test-based policies that squelch creativity and increase alienation from teaching, teachers want to be active participants in their own pedagogy. They want to be engaged in the development of curriculum that is meaningful and important. Instead of playing dumb to fit the test-induced scripts, teachers would rather “play smart” in their curriculum and instruction by engaging students in learning, paying attention to students’ communities and cultures, and teaching in ways that encourage students to take up pressing social and ecological issues.

I originally became a K-12 teacher to work for a more socially just world. I thought it was important to play smart with my curriculum and my students—so we all could be actively and intellectually involved. As I work with pre-service and in-service teachers today, I carry the same goals with me. I want my teachers and the untold numbers of students who will pass through their classrooms to play smart, to see themselves as activists, and to use education to call the world into question. Given the potential created by powerful curriculum, it is no wonder policy makers encourage just the opposite.

A former public high school teacher, Wayne Au ( is a Rethinking Schools editor and assistant professor at the University of Washington, Bothell Campus.