In the fall of 2010, after a 14-year hiatus from the classroom, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I'd entered as a rookie 30 years before.
Almost from my first day, I was moved by the sight of what had always been a good school straining to be a better one. Multiple tutoring centers did a brisk business at every period and not infrequently after the buses had gone for the day. Hardly a week went by when teachers were not summoned to an early-morning meeting to discuss an individual student's progress. Study halls no longer functioned as de facto prep periods for their faculty minders or as down-time for sleepy kids. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the boy who woke at 2 in the morning to do his barn chores no longer had a place to lay his head.
By all official measures, the school was succeeding. Ranked as the state's poorest on the basis of the number of its students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, Lake Region Union High School was outperforming many of its more affluent competitors on standardized tests. The year before I returned, its writing scores were the highest in the state. The next year, the free-and-reduced-lunch students performed above the state average in reading, writing, math and science on the New England Common Assessment Program exams.
I threw myself into the mission with as much gusto as a man can summon in late middle age. I did my best to coach for the NECAPs — yes, we took time away from our lesson plans to do some teaching to the test — and resolved to keep my skepticism about the ultimate value of the tests to myself. There were good reasons for doing so. I knew that voters in the community were likelier to approve the school budget if the tests results were good. I also knew that some of the kids I coached and cajoled would go on to surmount the social conditions that stood in their way. I knew this because a few of them always had.
But I also knew the school's sincere efforts were in the service of a cynical agenda. The battle cry of the school reform movement, that "poverty should never be an excuse for poor academic achievement," all too often masks the blithe conviction that good academic achievement can serve as an excuse for poverty. As long as the test scores are at par, you see, we need not be overly concerned if the pantries are bare, the parents jobless or jailed, and the gap between rich and poor more appalling than it's been since 1928.
In the same county where Lake Region is achieving its impressive test results, an estimated 1 in 4 children is "food insecure." It's a phrase that tries the imaginations of those who have the luxury of spicing their security with complaint. "What to cook for dinner, always such a dilemma." Imagine waking up in a state of food insecurity and going to school to take a standardized test. Imagine how you'll feel if your school is judged to be failing because of you.
Not to worry, though, because the hunger goes away just as soon as you've performed at grade level or are enrolled in an Advanced Placement course. And within a few short years, you'll be getting the math right when you divvy up your unemployment check after your job at the furniture mill has been outsourced or the family farm auctioned off.
In one of my classes was a girl who'd been rescued the previous winter from an unheated trailer behind her grandparents' house. She was a tough and determined kid, intelligent, ready to seek extra help, not afraid to speak out in class, almost never behind in her homework. I happen not to know her standardized test scores, but it's reasonable to assume that her better-than-average application resulted in a performance that was at least on a par with the better-than-average test scores of her school. It is far less reasonable to assume that those test scores significantly improved her lot. They certainly didn't improve her grandparents' lot. They did nothing to allay the economic conditions that made her every achievement in school outrageously more difficult for her than it had to be.
No matter how dedicated, teachers alone cannot change conditions that will take nothing short of a revolution to change. I didn't have to teach for a year in a "high-performing" rural high school to recognize the obscenity of using "failing schools" to ignore the implications of a broken democracy. Or to recognize the moral futility of being charged with the task of creating "a level playing field" so that society can sort its winners and losers with a clearer conscience and a colder eye.
Of course, I can bear witness to the impressive academic achievements of students from impoverished backgrounds. So can many other teachers, and they should. To withhold one's applause for the sake of advocating broader social progress is to insult those students and their struggles. It is also to forfeit what may be our best challenge to a society of mounting inequality.
After all, if food-insecure 16-year-olds can master a prescribed curriculum, then what is the excuse of the richest nation in the world for failing to master the common core of a livable wage, a color-blind legal system and a society in which the word "class" refers to a course you take and not to chances you never had?
Garret Keizer is the author of Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. He wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.