Ain’t No Stopping Us Now
You could not tell by looking that Tina McKnight was in pain. Her hair was perfectly curled and she sat up straight in her desk chair, underneath a series of watercolors of Taxco, the Mexican town she loved to visit. That morning Tina had chosen a pantsuit of salmon pink and pinned a matching silk flower to her lapel, as if she could will good news through cheerful attire. Her back throbbed, sore from hours of bending over the toilet, possibly from food poisoning but more likely from stress. It was a week and a half before the end of the school year, and McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland, had a lot on her mind.
She was worried about her sick mother, whom she could not care for the day before because she’d been stuck babysitting strangers who had appropriated the playground for an illicit soccer tournament. (Corona bottles and Pampers had been scattered all over the grass until Tina appeared with trash bags; god knows what was still left.) Today drops of water plopped rhythmically into strategically placed trash cans on the fifth-grade hall—trouble with the air conditioning, one more thing that needed to be fixed.
Other problems obsessing McKnight: It didn’t look like she’d get the school uniform plan in place by fall, as she’d wanted to. The discipline data had stopped improving, even with all the prizes given to students as behavior incentives, so McKnight hoped another principal in the district would call to chip in for the five-thousand-dollar consultant whose book promised “discipline without stress, punishment and rewards.” Then there was the secretary whose father had suffered a stroke, the assistant whose dad was headed to the hospital for his heart, and the kindergarten class that at the moment had neither teacher nor assistant nor substitute.
On top of all that, something far bigger was looming.
It was the first Monday in June 2005, a D-day of sorts for the principals of Anne Arundel County: They were about to receive their students’ scores on Maryland’s annual standardized test. For McKnight, and educators across the nation, test score day had accrued such monumental importance that it provoked more jitters than the first day of school, more emotions than fifth-grade graduation. Since McKnight’s arrival at 6:30 a.m., she had spent much of the time intensely drumming her hands on her prized Harvard desk blotter, a gift from her son. She had dug through the mailbag and found nothing. She kept looking out the window for deliveries but saw nothing.
“Good morning!” McKnight called to one little boy who came into the office to sign in. She greets every child she sees coming in tardy—and at Tyler Heights there are many, particularly in the last days of school. “Running late?” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.”
“Why is it so quiet?” the boy asked.
“Because everybody’s learning,” the principal told him.
She signed checks, one after the other, to keep up with the school’s bills. When the phone rang but no secretary picked up, she grabbed the receiver. “Hello, Tina McKnight, Tyler Heights.” Ms. McKnight—no longer Mrs., since her divorce had become final months before—dispatched the call and greeted another latecomer. “Good morning! Running late? We’re glad you’re here.” Then a man in a ball cap and khakis appeared in the outer office, holding a manila envelope.
McKnight walked over to greet him, and he handed her the envelope, marked maryland school assessment.
“Am I going to be happy after I open these?” she said.
“I have no idea. I’m just the delivery man.”
The principal shut her office door, bracing herself for the moment she had anticipated with anxiety pretty much every day for three months, ever since her third, fourth, and fifth graders took the state reading and math exams. McKnight pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope, columns and columns of numbers, and paged through them. What she saw just didn’t make sense—not for a school that so many middle-class parents had rejected, not for a school that mainly served the poor, not for children who had arrived in the building with so few skills and so many problems. Such was the school’s reputation that when McKnight was appointed principal five years back, colleagues had said, “Congratulations, I think.”
Baffled, McKnight flipped back and forth to assess the numbers. Her hand was at her chest.
“Oh, I have to be sure I’m digesting what I’m digesting, because I’m, like, really . . .” She couldn’t finish her sentence. She sniffed. Her brows scrunched behind her glasses, her dark brown eyes practically closed. “I don’t know if I’m really looking at the right numbers.”
Overall, according to the results, 86 percent of the students passed reading. Eighty percent passed math. Black fourth graders—91 percent passed reading! Hispanic third graders—100 percent passed math! McKnight compared the county numbers and the school numbers, side by side. Hers were higher in many categories. “I don’t believe this. It’s, like, what . . .”
Maybe, she wondered, she had been sent some other school’s results. Maybe this was a mistake.
Or maybe not. Definitely not.
McKnight screamed. The reading teacher came in, saw the numbers, and she screamed too. McKnight grabbed a compact disc from her desk and went to the PA system in the outer office. She was forbidden to officially reveal the results to teachers yet, but she couldn’t resist giving them a clue. She put the disc into the boom box and pointed the intercom mike at it. The whole building heard the song—fuzzy, but clear enough. “Ain’t no stopping us now, we’re on the move!”
In the classrooms, the students danced, not because they knew the song’s hidden meaning but because music, even a cheesy disco tune, meant dancing. The teachers had no problem understanding what the song signified: For them, it was a deliverance of sorts. Most came out of their rooms as McKnight raced down the hallway to high-five them, like she was finishing a marathon.
At the end of the hall, she let out a shocking, triumphant scream.
A person could live in Annapolis for a lifetime unaware of its poverty.
The city of forty thousand is best known as an exemplar of preppy, nautical affluence; it is home to the buttoned-up U.S. Naval Academy, the pristine, historic State House perched on a hill, and an array of yacht clubs. Those who visit from Washington or Baltimore, forty-five minutes away, or who head down Forest Drive to pick up a bushel of steamed crabs at the Seafood Market en route to million-dollar homes on the Chesapeake Bay, probably don’t know that tucked blocks away are rows of garden apartments that are modest at best, dilapidated at worst, and two glum housing projects known to few beyond their residents and the police.
Before Tina McKnight received the envelope that would tell the world that Tyler Heights Elementary School was a compelling example of educational accountability done right, it might have been possible to live in Annapolis and never know the school existed either. Located a curvy block off Forest Drive and announced by no sign on the main road, the low-slung brick building with its Mondrian wall of windows and red panels is, like most schoolhouses built in the early 1960s, neither attractive nor ugly. The houses closest to the school are new four-hundred-thousand-dollar colonials where Tyler Heights students are unlikely to live: Well-off families in the area have sought refuge in private education, at a rate triple the national average. The public middle school across from the Seafood Market has fewer than five hundred students in a building once crowded with two thousand.1 The U.S. Census says the area is about half white, but Tyler Heights counts only about one white child per classroom.
Tina McKnight had arrived at Tyler Heights in 2000 to find the front office crammed with misbehaving children, like emergency-room patients awaiting triage. The test results were so dismal—a schoolwide index suggested that only 17 percent of students performed satisfactorily on the state exam her first year—that at county principals’ meetings, McKnight had wanted to disappear. Adding to the distress, both her mother and son were ill; by the spring she would wind up in the hospital herself, from what had looked like a heart attack, though doctors couldn’t figure it out. Two years later, two-thirds of her students still failed the state reading test. The line chart of children who scored “advanced” looked like a dead man’s EKG.
In a 2006 poll, 70 percent of Americans said that society, rather than schools themselves, was to blame for problems like those found at Tyler Heights.2 But over the last decade, a dramatic transformation of American education has changed the way teachers teach and students learn—a revolution based on the idea that those 70 percent of respondents are wrong. By the time McKnight had taken over at Tyler Heights, education was being driven by a new expectation: Every school has the responsibility to bring every student up to par. “No excuses” is the mantra; test scores are the measure. No longer should children like those at Tyler Heights—mostly poor, mostly minority, deprived of the fundamentals commonly considered catalysts for a good future (educated parents, family stability)—be expected to score low. No longer should the benefits of high academic expectations accrue only to those born into advantage. The country, it is thought, can no longer afford to let any student slide.
This attitude has its genesis in the mid-1980s, when America’s political and business leaders decided that if employees weren’t as productive as their bosses liked, if the gross national product was faltering, if the future of science and industry lay not in this country but in Asia, schoolteachers were to blame. A Nation at Risk, a federally commissioned 1983 report, warned in stark prose that America was allowing its schools to bob along on “a rising tide of mediocrity.”3 In the 1990s, policymakers decided that the tide could be turned back, and the “achievement gap” between test scores in high-poverty districts and well-off ones could be narrowed, if educators were held accountable for their schools’ successes and failures. To make this happen, states were encouraged to create lists of what students should learn, specific ways to assess whether those standards were being met, and sanctions for schools that failed to prove progress.
Reforms adopted throughout the decade captured the spirit of the accountability movement, but they varied in content and impact, from negligible to sort-of-strong. Only when George W. Bush became president did the system begin to change significantly. From his first day in office, Bush pressed for a version of educational accountability that would force real reform in every state, in every school, in every classroom. A year later the No Child Left Behind Act, which had been passed overwhelmingly by both parties of Congress, was signed into law. The act set up a tangible set of criteria and consequences. All American public school students must be tested in reading and math each year from third through eighth grade and once in high school. Not only must scores increase overall each year, they must also rise for every “subgroup” of children in a school: minorities, the poor, students who receive services such as special education. By 2014, the law states, 100 percent of students must pass the tests.
For schools with populations affluent enough to be funded only by state and local money, failure to meet test-score targets might mean no more than public embarrassment—inclusion in the local newspaper’s “Failing Schools” list, for example—and community hand-wringing. Schools like Tyler, on the other hand, which receive federal funding because of their large numbers of children in poverty, face many more consequences. In 2002, because of its low test scores, Tyler Heights had to allow students to transfer to other schools. In 2003, the school had to fund a specific kind of after-school tutoring because too few black children passed the reading test. In 2004, Tyler Heights did well enough so that it didn’t move to the next level of reform. But barely half the students had passed the state test, and the school was still not off the hook. Steps backward could have resulted in a number of changes down the line: a longer school day or year, the firing of teachers, a new curriculum, a new leadership team that might or might not have included the principal.
Tina McKnight often presents herself as the ultimate optimist, somebody who could see the silver lining in a mushroom cloud. Even if she has to fake it, McKnight would never let on that goals are unattainable. With this sort of energy, and well aware of the stakes, McKnight wasted little time at Tyler before introducing what she called a “laser-sharp focus” on improvement. Her changes, as well as those imposed by the county’s new highly paid, hard-charging superintendent, looked a lot like those taking place across America. Students at Tyler Heights now got at least two and a half hours of reading and ninety minutes of math instruction each day. Floundering children who once might have been allowed to flop undetected from grade to grade were pulled aside daily for special attention. Kindergartners learned to write not just words but paragraphs. Students were taught strategies for taking tests, including a formula for crafting written responses, and given all manner of rewards for good answers and good behavior.
Anything seen as irrelevant to the Maryland School Assessment—field trips, talent shows, Career Day—got pushed back until after the March testing dates. Under pressure to cover all the state standards before the exam but often short on time, teachers were not allowed to just close their classroom doors and choose what they taught. When Eric Smith became superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools in 2002, he mandated new reading and math programs that laid out exactly what to teach and how, hour by hour and day by day. While McKnight couldn’t simply fire teachers she felt were not up to the challenge, she “encouraged them to hang their hat elsewhere,” as she put it.
In the new world of education, school systems have sought salvation in business strategies that emphasize continually increasing returns. At Tyler Heights, the progress of children as young as five was monitored by regular, formal tests and laid out in spreadsheets. On orders of the county, McKnight hired consultants to help her shape her goals, missions, and objectives. (In this newly jargon-filled world, these are all different things.) Her supervisor visited constantly, checking classrooms to make sure everybody stayed on track. A dry-erase board markered in different colors with past test scores and future targets was brought out at every opportunity.
McKnight, a workaholic even before the laser-sharp focus, usually stayed at school until 10:30 p.m. on weeknights, when the custodians went home, and until dark on Saturdays. (She used to stay later, until a bullet zinged through the office window.) Breakfast was often supermarket-brand Rice Squares out of the box, lunch an apple she may or may not finish. Since she arrived at Tyler Heights her social life disappeared, as did her season tickets to the theater. Tina, who was fifty-six, never used up her vacation time; it vanished at the end of each calendar year with the Christmas trash.
It was worth it to her when she thought of how much Tyler Heights had accomplished on her watch. The place was no longer as dangerous as during her early years, when the police were a regular presence. Students by now had been taught new rules, a new school culture, a new vocabulary for learning. But in this era of provable results in education, where “increasing achievement,” “improving student learning,” and “demonstrating progress” are just synonyms for upping test scores, McKnight knew that little of that would matter if the numbers didn’t come down in her favor.
On the day in 2005 when they did, some county principals—the ones with good scores—gathered at a press conference in the Anne Arundel County school board chambers. They greeted one another, sharing their numbers and hugging, then took their seats. Superintendent Smith approached the lectern, two television cameras pointed at him. McKnight looked up from her score sheets, which she was marking with a highlighter.
Like principals, superintendents these days focus more than anything on bringing up the abilities, and scores, of poor and minority children. Smith, named the nation’s best urban educator while in Charlotte, North Carolina, and lured to Maryland for more than three hundred thousand dollars a year, had staked his claim in one of the nation’s largest and most visible school districts on narrowing the achievement gap. To read one of the three newspapers that covered him was to see the archetype of today’s big-district chief. Dogmatic and evangelical, dynamic and bossy, Smith was as much politician as educator, prone to exclamations like “All children can learn!” and “All children can succeed!”
At the lectern he announced the “tremendous success of our educators and certainly our children.” He used the word exceptional. He told the cameras, “It’s a very significant day in Anne Arundel County.”
For the first time, at least three-quarters of the county’s students had passed the reading test and three-quarters had passed in math. Giant charts, with bars in the shape of extremely lanky children, showed score increases for black students, for poor students, for students in special education. As Smith mentioned each increase, the audience applauded. “We have gains that moms and dads, elected officials, business leaders, community members should and will be proud of,” the superintendent said. “To all of you, thank you very much.”
Later that day, bouquets of flowers arrived at Tyler Heights. The marquee out front was changed to read:
OUR MSA SCORES
In a few months, the scores would secure Tina McKnight a place as one of five finalists for county principal of the year. Smith would tell an aide, “We should nominate Tyler Heights for Blue Ribbon School,” a national honor. More immediately, the school’s improvement merited attention in articles in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and both the editorial and news pages of the Annapolis paper. “In some troubled schools,” the Capital editorial said, meaning Tyler Heights, “teachers and staff have performed minor miracles—and set an example for others.”
“Miracle” was exactly the word Alia Johnson thought of when she heard how her third graders had scored on the Maryland School Assessment. “An example for others,” though? She wasn’t so sure.
As McKnight had waited for the results in her office that Monday, Johnson had been sitting on the rocking chair in her classroom, teaching a math lesson. While she looked put-together as always, her curly dark hair pulled back tight, she, too, had been sick to her stomach waiting for the results. MSA, MSA—sometimes it felt like that was all she was supposed to think about. McKnight had been in and out of her room almost weekly until the test. McKnight’s supervisor had also been a regular presence. Johnson had drilled her students in the proper written response to any reading question they might encounter, taught them the process of elimination, given practice test after practice test, talked about stamina (demonstrating the lack of it by falling out of her chair). She felt like she’d done all she could to prepare her class.
But in March, when Johnson had looked over her students’ shoulders as they took the MSA, she grew scared—it didn’t seem like they knew much. Their answers betrayed their nerves. A lot rode on these scores, Johnson knew. Vindication for the school. A bonus to teachers of $1,500 apiece, to add to a forty-thousand-dollar paycheck in a county with the lowest salaries around. A degree of autonomy. The way things worked now, the higher the test scores, the more freedom a teacher was given to choose how she taught. Johnson already had to adjust to the superintendent’s new reading and math curricula, and she knew that if Tyler Heights didn’t make what the law called “adequate yearly progress” she could expect a whole new slate of programs and meddlers, a burden that might push her out of her job, if the state didn’t first.
So when Johnson heard “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” she was bathed in relief. (Her students carried on with math instead of dancing; she was strict that way.)
The next day, at a staff meeting in the library, McKnight put on the music again.
“Was our reading score sixty-five? No way! Seventy-five? We left it in the dust. Eighty-five? Higher! Off your feet!” The principal sang along, working herself up to a pant.
The scores were put on the overhead projector, grade by grade, and Johnson was stunned to see that 90 percent of the third graders passed the reading test—compared to 35 percent just two years before. As much as the results pleased her, though, they frightened her, as they raised the stakes. Rumor had it lots of teachers were going to quit over the summer, and she wondered if her new teammates would be up to the challenge. The children that Johnson would have for third grade in the fall, whom she had taught as first graders, were very low in skills, and No Child Left Behind wouldn’t count their improvement so much as how they compared to this year’s group. Johnson, who was twenty-seven, had been at the school four years and had hoped to quit by the time they caught up to her in third grade. But those plans fell through. She knew that come August she’d be back in Room 18 at Tyler Heights.
Alia Johnson had wanted to make a difference for poor children. But she wasn’t sure how much she was, 90 percent proficiency notwithstanding. The “no excuses” thing bothered her: No matter how little help students got from parents, no matter if they came to school hungry or abused, lead-poisoned or learning disabled, they had to pass that test. But did the test really tell anyone all they needed to know about the children? Throughout the year, so much was sacrificed to achieve that score. Was it worth it? This revolution had begun with students like Alia Johnson’s in mind. But teachers like her wondered: Were they doing the best by their children?
“I don’t know what to say, except it’s been a really, really long journey to get Tyler Heights to where it is,” McKnight told her teachers at the staff meeting. Alia listened as the principal went on to talk about the $1,500 bonuses, and about next year: where she stood in hiring new teachers, where to submit school-supply lists, and, of course, next year’s test.
“We can see the kids who almost made it,” McKnight said. “We have names and faces, and they’re not going to get away.”
No amount of relief could erase the fact that the clock had restarted that day. The staff of Tyler Heights felt the pressure. They had exactly one year to prove that this was not a fluke.
Copyright © 2007 by Linda Perlstein. All rights reserved.