Q & A: Jane Owens

In the most recent EdWeek, Jane Owens calls us to “take back our profession, our integrity, and the education of our children.” Naturally, this demands the end of high stakes testing. Otherwise (under high stakes testing, that is) we forfeit our profession, forsake our integrity, and abandon the education of our children. Right? Who’s with me!?

Other Unnatural Consequences of High-Stakes Testing

When high school seniors with the required number of credits cannot receive diplomas because they are not good test-takers despite repeated attempts, do we rail against the powers that be who are holding our community’s children hostage by a series of inflexible hoops that must be navigated to graduate?

To clarify for any confused Californians, by “inflexible hoops” Owens refers to an untimed test that asks for tenth-grade proficiency in English and eighth-grade proficiency in math.

When high school seniors have the required number of credits but cannot pass the California High School Exit Exam, no, we don’t rail against the powers that be. Neither do we dub our students poor test-takers, effectively absolving them of any responsibility for their own success and failure; we don’t write overly florid essays packed with rabblerousing descriptors like “hostages.” We remediate. We remediate and we go to their teachers and question the value of the credits they’re handing out.

There is no time to explore the intricacies of a compelling piece of literature, delve into the fascinating complexities of science, or follow a child’s train of thought across continents in social studies. There is no time to teach the love of learning, and no earthly reason to love the learning we are forced to provide.

In the ongoing back-and-forth over NCLB and high-stakes testing, nothing gets me quite as incensed as this lie. It’s cheaply and easily proferred and, as exemplified here, almost always unjustified. It cracks the surface of every anti-NCLB tract, though, because it’s such a gimme. It guarantees acceptance from our growing ranks of teachers who weren’t trained under this system of accountability and who’d rather clutch a wormy chestnut than put the time in to adapt. Or retire.

Worse, that lie, which comes standard in all anti-NCLB argumentation, puts me squarely on the outside of any anti-NCLB camp, despite my abundant reservations with the law’s current form. I’m out here shiv’rin’ because, in there, they’re advancing the notion that you can’t educate kids in great and satisfying ways while still demanding state-measured results, and, frankly, my instruction (which is nowhere near top tier yet) is state’s evidence that this isn’t remotely a given. Worse, Owens claims I have no reason to love my job when, also by fact of my own practice, that isn’t true.Saturdays, Jer-ry! Jer-ry!, and Somebody’s Tío,” TMAO
Half Plus Seven, Me

When national and state-level education bureaucracies and legislatures threaten the local school district with sanctions if certain levels of test scores are not achieved in a specified number of years, where is the outrage, the fury, the calls to unseat those who are threatening us?


We have been disempowered, disenfranchised, and deprived of our professional status and our voice because we have allowed this to happen.

Hold … hold on. I must’ve missed something there. Gimme a second.

Nope, nope, still confused. So results have been demanded of us, consequences imposed if we can’t produce them, and Owens asks for outrage and fury?


So if that lousy umpire keeps calling strikes against our batters, we should get furious, get rid of him, and get an umpire in there who’ll call the game the way we want?

Never once does Owens suggest we learn how to hit a breaking ball.

But she does wonder, only one paragraph later and without even a hint of irony, where our professional status wandered off to? I mean, you do know how it looks when you say things like this, right?It Shocks Me Still, TMAO

We have been pressured by accountability until we have violated our own integrity and the integrity of our profession by hurting children.

May as well just mash-up my stupefied responses to the last two:

A professional without accountability is a little kid in stirrups and a fitted cap running around the house with a whiffle bat, hollering about how he’s starting for the Yankees.

Any argument that links scripted curriculum, “teaching to the test” (the ever-ready agitator), or diminishing electives directly to accountability measures while leapfrogging right over any district or administrative culpability, will find zero traction with me. Any movement of teachers that demands professional treatment but eschews any professional standards and tells me my own instruction is hurting my kids (“No, it is! It really is! You just don’t realize it!”) will have to get on without me.

The Rhetorical Question Answered

When did public educators become the bad guys?

We became the bad guys when we circled the wagons around the mediocre among us, those who grew increasingly mediocre as our student populations grew increasingly diverse, technologically inclined, and understimulated. We became the bad guys when we refused to differentiate between our good and lousy, even if only implicitly, by fighting for some standard of professionalism.

Our tenure system and union are too good at what they do, which is to preserve our job security, but which in practice and absent any peer review (a judicial body which nurses, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals tend to volunteer) is to let the lousy teach longer.

These essays don’t get me down like they used to, though. It’s been a process, but I now write their poor connection with reality, their faulty syllogisms, the straw men they set ablaze, their hypocritical demand for professional treatment without professional standards, and my nigh-monastic tolerance of the foregoing, into my job description.

Essays like these go alongside 60-hour work weeks, peanuts for paychecks, diminishing health benefits, and sketchy job security, as just another bummer part of what is otherwise an absolutely glorious grind.

[via Chris, whose closing question I’d echo exactly, though in a rather different context.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Quote: We became the bad guys when we circled the wagons around the mediocre among us, those who grew increasingly mediocre as our student populations grew increasingly diverse, technologically inclined, and understimulated.

    Well-said. I often feel mediocre (by my own standards), and always want the opportunity to improve when I feel that way, but that’s not the same as plugging my ears against the demand to improve or insist that people stop demanding.

    My only caveat, repeatedly, is that the (hopefully various forms of) assessments must be valid and appropriate to what they measure.

  2. Right, and I appreciate your caveat. Personally, I’m extremely contented with the depth and breadth demanded by the Cali Geometry standards. If they were inaccurate, too demanding, or demanding in the wrong ways (as you seem to think yours are) I’d be pushing back, though for standards improvement, not extinction.

    Incidentally, it kinda seems like a lot of us are shaking down into our specific peeves, likes, and dislikes on the NCLB issue. Even more than pro- or con-, I feel like I have a handle on how everyone on my blogroll specifically feels.