The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test

The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test

The good classroom is rich in small moments of intelligence and care. There is the big stuff of course—the week-long science experiment, the dramalogue, the reporting of one’s research—but important as well are the spontaneous question, the inviting gesture, the tone in a voice. They reveal the cognitive and philosophical intimacy of a room.

In the border town of Calexico, California, third-grade teacher Elena Castro is working with a group of students when a boy who is still learning English comes over from a book he’s reading to ask what the word “admire” means. She turns and gives him a definition, and, as he is walking away, she calls after him to ask if he admires the farmer in a story the class had read that morning.

In a combined middle-school classroom in Chicago, Kim Day and Dianna Shulla begin class by listening to their students’ distress about a new bus schedule that is getting some kids home late and missing other stops entirely. The teachers suggest that the class discuss the problem and try to develop some strategies to solve it. Several students raise their hands. Dianna walks close to them, leans in slightly, and says, “Talk to me.”

In a one-room schoolhouse in Polaris, Montana, Andy Bayliss is having his students keep a journal on the willows in the creek behind the school. He is working with one of the older students; both are bent over the boy’s sketches and measurements. Andy points to one nicely detailed drawing and asks his student why he thinks the willows grow in these dense clusters, rather than long and snaky up a tree. The boy has fished in these creeks for years, Andy later explains, and “I just wanted him to take a little different look at what he already knows.”

Back in Chicago, high school mathematics teacher Michelle Smith is calling her class to order and sees that a young man who plays the class clown is sitting way in the back. She calls him by name, then, with a flourish says, “My young gentleman, I’d like you to sit up here where I can see you.” The student groans, uncurls himself from his desk, and walks to the front, sauntering for the benefit of his peers. “C’mon darlin’,” Smith adds, head tilted, hand on hip, “humor me.” She watches; he sits. “Thank you, sir. I feel better.” Then “O.K., people. We have work to do today. Let’s go!”

Stephanie Terry’s first-grade classroom in Baltimore, Maryland, is packed with books, botanical experiments, children’s drawings and writing. There are areas in the room for students to read, to do science, to write and read their writing aloud. On this day, she introduces a visiting writer to the class. “We’re going to have an author stay with us.” “Ooooo, Miss Terry,” one of the students exclaims, waving his hand, “We’re authors, too!”

These vignettes are drawn from my book Possible Lives, an account of a cross-country journey observing good teacher...

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