A former public school teacher who left because of test-driven accountability and started her own private school in Athens says she has mixed views on vouchers in Georgia. Vouchers have become a dividing line in American education.

She left public schools to start a private school. But she’s torn on vouchers in Georgia.

Test-driven accountability has made public school tougher on kids and teachers

Karen Sweeney Gerow is the founding director of a private school in Athens. Today, she explains why she did not take a public stand on vouchers when the bill was under consideration in the Legislature this year.

Gerow also explains why she left public education five years ago to open the Double Helix School, an intermediate school. 

Prior to founding the school, Gerow worked in public schools as a classroom teacher, math consultant, and instructional coach. Her husband is an 8th grade public school teacher. Their two children attend Double Helix.

Her contention: Public school students and teachers suffered when test-driven accountability gave control of the classroom to people in board offices who made decisions based solely on spreadsheets of scores.

By Karen Sweeney Gerow 

As the founder of a private school, I should be very vocal about the voucher initiatives in the Legislature. Instead, I’ve been silent. I’ve been silent because I am in the awkward position of agreeing with both sides. Yes, we desperately need alternatives for students who can’t afford a private school option, and, yes, I fear that vouchers will hurt public schools.

Five years ago, I left public education to open my own school. After more than a decade in public education, I had seen more than enough of what the test-driven standards and accountability movement had wrought. The deprofessionalization of teachers was a side effect of the trend toward accountability via No Child Left BehindRace to the Top, and other initiatives. It has done palpable harm to our students. 

When I began teaching, teachers had the professional respect of their administration and control of what was taught in their classrooms. When a child I taught was below grade level, it was expected that I would know what to do to bring them up to grade level. Sometimes I was given the resources; sometimes I had to invent them. Administrators would offer varying levels of support, but ultimately it was clear that the school official who knew best how to serve the student was the one who would spend 1,260 hours with them over the course of a school year, not the person in a board office who looked at spreadsheets of test scores.

Now, teachers are told that they must teach the standards of their grade level regardless of whether that child has the necessary background knowledge. If a child doesn’t fit that framework, then teachers have to spend months collecting data to prove what they already know. Then an intervention can start, but only the pre-approved interventions, and only with more data to support.

If you’re a math teacher, you can’t teach grade level standards to someone with significant gaps in number sense. You have to go back to the standards of earlier grades and build understanding of major concepts that will underpin their mathematical knowledge for as long as they’re in school. That makes sense, right? You can’t learn to borrow if you can’t make a ten. You can’t understand unit rates if you don’t understand fractions. 

Teachers know this. They know this on day one, not on the 60th day of collecting data to show that the child is not where they should be. The authors of the standards know this. The Common Core authors even wrote an article about the need to view the standards as a progression and not as being locked in to specific grade levels. The people who do not seem to understand it are those who live and die by testing data. Unfortunately, those are the ones in charge of education these days. 

What does this look like in a classroom? A teacher I know asked how to teach eighth grade standards to a child functioning on a fourth grade level. She was told, “Teach the eighth grade standards but at a fourth grade level.” What does that even mean? How do you teach systems of equations to a child who can’t master multiplication yet? 

The answer is that it doesn’t matter. The administrator who said it checked “adheres to language of the standards” off on an evaluation sheet and moved on about his day. The teacher was left to figure out how to actually serve the child, but now it was clear it had to be done behind the backs of administrators rather than with their support. 

This is a broken system. Developmentally appropriate instruction only exists in the classrooms of teachers still willing to buck the system. The same is true for the opposite end of the spectrum. We were told to challenge gifted students, but only within the appropriate grade level standards. Under no circumstances were we to go above the grade level standards. 

This takes a toll on children’s mental health. We’ve all seen articles about the mental health crisis facing our youth today. Doesn’t it make sense to explore the crisis in the context of changes in education? Children spend 180 days, seven hours a day, at school. If they are constantly working on things for which they are not developmentally prepared, it stands to reason that their mental well-being would be negatively impacted. 

Karen Sweeney Gerow
Photo: Holly Brown

In the month before I left the public education sphere, I was happy to open a playroom to a group of kindergarteners. The blocks and play stoves that used to be cornerstones of kindergarten classrooms had been surplussed long ago as academics supplanted play.

I presented research that supported “standards based play” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) so that we could return these to kindergarten rooms. The school agreed to one playroom for eight kindergarten classes to share. The first class that entered was a collaborative classroom known for challenging behaviors. It was full of students who were frequent visitors to the “opportunity room” for behavior problems that included throwing chairs, running away from school, and other disruptions. 

Administrators voiced concerns that this group was just going to throw the blocks at each other. I held my breath as the teachers introduced them to the various play areas. One of the students started a block tower. It was near the door (bad location choice), and he chose a triangular block as the base of the tower. This was bound to fail, I thought. Instead, he drew a crowd who wanted to help him with his tower. 

These “out of control” kids carefully tiptoed around the tower to make sure they didn’t knock it over. These kids famous throughout the school for their behavior issues successfully built a 6-foot tower on a sloped base by cooperating with each other and working together. In the play kitchen corner, a child who was in the principal’s office almost every day for anti-social behavior was playing successfully with her peers because the work was developmentally appropriate. I had never seen the child smile before that day. She was only in kindergarten and the relentless testing and seatwork had already impacted her mental health. The teacher looked relaxed for the first time all year. She knew this was what the students needed, yet she was not allowed do this kind of thing in her own classroom. 

Children are guaranteed by law a “free and appropriate” education. We have lost sight of the appropriate part of that provision. I had to open a private school simply to be able to teach students on the level at which they are ready to learn. I can teach the fourth grader who works on a seventh grade level seventh grade concepts. I’m not forced to teach division of fractions to students who are still mastering subtraction. I can accelerate and remediate according to what I, the professional in the situation, sees is needed. 

We still test. We still look at that data to inform instruction. We look for grade level growth rather than measuring against a cut score that separates proficient from non-proficient. The vast majority of our students show more than one year’s growth simply because we are allowed to remediate and accelerate according to student needs. More importantly, many parents tell me that the depression they had witnessed disappeared. They see their children visibly relax once removed from the rat race of testing, data, responses to intervention, and tiers. “You gave me my child back” is the most frequent feedback I hear. 

Do I want that for every student? I certainly do. If vouchers are the ticket for students to escape a developmentally inappropriate education, yes, I will wholeheartedly support them. I hate that tuition is a barrier to my school and I would love the opportunity for the state money to follow the child right to our door. 

Vouchers, it seems, will keep popping up each legislative session. Educators fear that this will hurt public education. I share that fear. I’ve stayed silent because I believe both sides are right. 

I believe every child has the opportunity to an education that values the child, regardless of their economic circumstances. I also believe there will be many children left behind who are not able to seize this opportunity for vouchers and the thought that there would be fewer resources to serve those children scares me.

Will vouchers hurt schools? I don’t know. The proposed program is so small, it is hard to believe it will do any harm. It is clearly the first step toward a major shift in resources, though, and it is hard to believe that would not harm public schools. The question is how much more our children and the system can be harmed as long as data is valued more than students. 

Whether pro-voucher or anti-voucher, the best thing we can do for education at this point is to return to treating teachers as professionals. They are the ones most capable of determining what is best for their students. Once teachers are given a voice again, I’ll join the many shouting down the voucher movement.

Until then, I’m going to continue to look for ways to remove tuition as a barrier to those who desperately need an alternative education.

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