Each of us has had nightmares in our lifetimes.
Here is one nightmare that a fervent school reformer might have.
I am in a classroom. The doors are locked. The windows have wooden blinds and slats are pulled shut. There are close to 50 adults sitting in bolted-down desks arranged in eight rows of arm-chair desks facing a teacher and whiteboard. I am sitting at a graffiti-rich desk at the end of the third row. The teacher looks like Miss Bowler, my eighth grade English teacher who had required each of us to recite “Abou Ben Adhem” publicly. In my dream, the Miss Bowler look-alike is berating us for not listening to the report that each adult is giving. She wants us to fold our hands on our scarred desks and give each “student” our fullest attention or, she says, we will not be able to leave the room….ever.
Miss Bowler begins by calling upon the first adult sitting in the first row next to the door who had reported yesterday–yes, in this nightmare we have been locked in this classroom for two days. After the first report, she will call upon the second person in the same row, and then the third. Ordinarily, I would have been able to figure out how long it would take before she would call upon me to walk to the front of the room except the teacher had said that the report could be as long as each of us wanted it to be. Yesterday, only three “students” gave their reports; it took 24 hours for them to finish. We were not allowed to go to the bathroom or eat meals.
And what were these reports about? Miss Bowler required us to report on school reforms that would solve the problems of U.S. education in a competitive global economy. When we were all finished, she would unlock the door and we could leave the room. The class was made up of every stripe of school reformer from progressives who wanted to drop standardized testing and adopt project-based learning to centrists who believed that schools could be improved incrementally from inside the system to market-based entrepreneurs who ranged from charter school and voucher lovers to public school-haters and high-tech enthusiasts in love with remote instruction.
The first reformer reported on online schooling, giving the class example after example of lessons from online courses offered at top universities, state-sponsored cyber-academies, and for-profit companies. She described what had occurred after the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the expansion of online instruction. The reformer told us about such courses as “Artificial Intelligence for Dummies,” “Shakespeare’s Worst Plays,” “The History of Quantum Physics from Archimedes to Richard Feynman,” and “Skin Care for Boys and Girls.”
That presentation on a portable interactive white board took 10 hours.
The second reformer took six hours. He told the class about his new algorithm for evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores. The equation had 62 variables in it (appearing on a transparency he had made for the old overhead projector in the room). The reformer, gaining enthusiasm with every variable he introduced, proceeded to lecture on each one in the algorithm ending with a gush of words about how implementing this evaluation plan through 180 daily observations of teachers would determine which teachers were highly effective, which were just effective, those who were mediocre, and, finally, those who should be fired.
The third reformer got up and passed out a 40-page stapled copy of 152 slides for a PowerPoint presentation that she was going to give on what the research has shown thus far on how standardized testing had ruined public schools. She then proceeded to read each bullet-point on each slide as we followed her word-for-word on the printed copy. Each slide was a study of how tests had constricted the curriculum and forced teachers into test prep lessons. Slides detailed the research design, the methodology, the findings, and the outcomes for both students and teachers. That non-stop, unhurried presentation took eight hours.
That was yesterday. Now, Miss Bowler told us we would re-start the presentations on online instruction, teacher evaluation, and ending standardized tests since we had lagged in our attention yesterday. How long it would be before it was my turn, I did not know. Could Miss Bowler, after hearing the three presentations a second time, castigate all of us for insufficient attention and have the reformers repeat it the following day? I did not know.
But I feared–a cold sweat bathed me–how many more days I would have to sit at my desk with folded hands listening to reformer after reformer lecture on how best to solve the U.S.’s national problem of failing schools.
The reformer woke up screaming. It was his worst nightmare.