THE BLOG
02/22/2011 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Politicians Need to Spend More Time in Classrooms

When President Obama used a Baltimore middle school last week as the setting to talk about his plans for education spending, his visit was short and sweet. He watched kids do a science experiment, delivered some prepared remarks, chatted with a few students, and headed for the exits. In and out in less than an hour.

This sort of quickie school visit is nothing new for elected officials. Politicians of all stripes, especially at the local level, like to take photos with smiling students in hopes of bolstering their education credentials. As with Obama's middle school appearance, their stays are typically brief and tightly choreographed.

To be fair, it's not just politicians who duck in and out of classrooms in a hurry. In recent years some school administrators have embraced the idea of short, focused observations of teachers. Three-minute "pop-ins" and "walk-throughs" are routinely used in some districts as a means of monitoring teacher effectiveness or engaging in conversations about classroom practice. Some administrators insist they are immensely useful. "You can see a lot in three minutes," an assistant principal once told me.

Maybe. But you can miss a lot, too -- especially if, as is the case with most elected officials, you have no background as an educator and little context in which to place what you see and hear. Pop your head into a room of first-graders for a few minutes and all may seem well. Stay awhile longer and your observations may paint a different picture -- one that reveals some of the pernicious ways that current test-and-punish policies distort teaching and learning.

Take the following fictionalized scenarios, for example, based on things I've seen firsthand or heard from teachers and student teachers in my classes:

Scenario 1
As understood via a "pop-in": A fourth grade teacher is meeting in a small group with seven students, working on comprehension skills. The teacher is enthusiastic about helping the students make "text to self" connections in order to better understand a passage from a short story. All is well.
As understood via sustained observations: The group of seven students gets additional time and attention from the teacher every day, along with small-group tutoring from a school aide, while other students in the classroom do not. Why? The seven are "bubble kids" -- or "strategic kids," as they're known in some districts -- those whose test results from the previous year are close to "meeting the standard" and could help the school make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) if they make modest improvements. The principal has directed all the school's teachers to make the bubble kids their primary focus. What about the other students -- those who scored well above or well below the standard the previous year? "I do my best to reach them, too," the teacher says. "I really do. But it's been made pretty clear to us who matters most."

Scenario 2
As understood via a "pop-in": Sixth graders at an urban elementary school are working individually on multiplying and dividing fractions. A student raises her hand and the teacher, who is attentively circulating around the room, goes to answer her question. The classroom is orderly and the students are well behaved. What more could we want in an "inner city" school? All is well.
As understood via sustained observations: Virtually the entire educational experience of these sixth graders consists of two subjects: reading and math. They have just 40 minutes of science and 40 minutes of social studies scheduled per week -- and even these sometimes get cancelled in favor of additional time with the Reading Mastery program. The rest of the class's day - except for a 20-minute lunch and a physical education or computer class -- is wholly devoted to math and reading. The school has no art teacher and no library. Still, the sixth-grade teacher says things could be worse: at a nearby school, the principal directed teachers to ditch science and social studies altogether until standardized testing is completed in March.

Scenario 3
As understood via a "pop-in": In a third-grade classroom, a teacher is guiding his students through a story from a reading series. Several kids volunteer to read aloud, even though the story itself seems rather dull and uninteresting. One wall of the classroom is lined with a collection of drawings -- students' representations of challenges their community faces, along with research about each issue and ideas about how it might be tackled. Their insights are impressive. All is well.
As understood via sustained observations: Two weeks of observations in this classroom reveal a certain mechanical quality to the day. Lots of workbooks and routine assignments. Why not try more projects like the one displayed on the wall? "I'll be honest," the young teacher says. "We did that at the beginning of the year. Those papers have been up there for months. Don't get me wrong -- I'd love to do more projects like that. I think that's how kids learn best. But with the way things are now, there's no space for creativity, there's no time for delving into issues. It's all I can do to get these kids ready for the test. Projects take lots of time -- and we don't have it."

For anyone who wonders why so many teachers are opposed to the test-driven, market-based reforms of the moment, it's at least in part because they bear witness on a daily basis to situations like these. They don't disagree with the democratic impulse of No Child Left Behind: that all children can learn, and that all -- especially those who have been historically ill-served by public schools -- deserve our best efforts. In fact, they roundly applaud it. But they also see the twisted ways that current policies play out at ground level. And they despair over the unintended consequences.

Most lawmakers who weigh in on education issues say they want to do right by children. Those who are serious might consider spending more time in real classrooms. They might begin modestly: a full day of observations -- including the 20-minute lunch -- in a single classroom at a school struggling to meet AYP. But no media, photo ops, or speeches. None of the hoopla that accompanies the yearly "Principal for a Day" visits. Just a pen, a notepad, and a chair at the back of the room.

It wouldn't be enough. But for some of our elected officials, it could be the beginning of a ground-level education on what's at stake in the reform debate, and what's really happening in test-crazy schools after the three-minute pop-ins are over.