Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools (Part II)

Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools (Part II)

this article is a continuation of a research entry from the July 30, 2019 edition:

The last two decades of the twentieth century brought greater influence from the federal government, along with greater potential for teachers to become more involved in decisions that might positively affect student outcomes. The Coleman Report, A Nation at Risk, as well as subsequent federal interventions in schools have led to further reform and legislation, but not until Public Law 107 – 110, commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind, did the federal government establish such a dominant presence and focused concern with measurable outcomes. In 2001, the law was introduced to Congress as, “an act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind” (NCLB, 2002, p. 1). The legislation was in effect until a bipartisan congress stripped away the federal requirements in 2015. This law focused on standards- based reforms in education, based on the belief that by setting high standards, making outcomes for students ambitious and clear, creating and monitoring measurable goals, schools and the students within them would experience greater, more consistent achievement (NCLB, 2002). All of these improvements are based on an understanding that the role of teachers would be a primary driver for positive change. In fact, the bill requires schools to attract, retain, and develop, “highly qualified” teachers. This phrase is used more than 60 times throughout the document (NCLB, 2002).

What was most promising about this legislation was the intent to open pathways for creative, innovative, and inspired teacher practices to promote learning outcomes. Thoughtful critics of the law such as Darling-Hammond (2007) acknowledge the potential in NCLB:

While recent studies have found that teacher quality is a critical influence on student achievement, teachers are the most inequitably distributed school resource. This first-time-ever recognition of students’ right to qualified teachers is historically significant. (p. 2)

Highly qualified teachers were the intended change-agents of the hoped-for successes in NCLB, with districts being charged with,

teacher mentoring from exemplary teachers, [...] induction and support for teachers, [...] incentives, including financial incentives, [...] innovative professional development programs, [...] tenure reform, merit-based pay programs, and testing of elementary school and secondary school teachers in the academic subjects that the teachers teach. (p. 1632)

However, where federal measures aimed to reverse negative trends and improve student outcomes, the emphasis on quality teachers and teaching quality still did not receive the attention necessary to dramatically increase student achievement and narrow the achievement gap in American schools. Generally speaking, critics have pointed out that the implementation of the law was in many respects counterproductive because it (a) did not adequately account for accumulated effects of mismanaged or underfunded schools, (b) narrowed the curriculum, precisely the opposite of what sensitive and nimble teaching practices ought to do when adjusting to students in their particular situations, and (c) brought too much focus upon testing and other measurement mechanisms. The most explicit feature of the law were the unpopular standardized tests, along with tactics like “drill and kill” for test preparation, which displaced creative attempts to nurture student learning and cognitive potential (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Dee & Jacob, 201; Hanushek & Raymond, 2005; Ladd & Lauen, 2010; Rustique-Forrester, 2005; Sunderman, Tracey, Kim & Orfield 2004).

Instead of placing teachers at the center of processes for better informing learning outcomes, and placing greater emphasis on surface, deep, and transfer-appropriate thinking strategies, schools and the teachers within them succumbed to the symptoms of surface processing, short-term memorization prioritization, and the hostile environment of overtaxing students with tests (Darling-Hammond, 2007). Rather than removing barriers that continue to obstruct learning potential in schools and open more opportunities for creative thinking, more frequent Aha! experiences, as well as more holistic means of supporting the development of a child’s full potential, the American education system remained unchanged from its former industrial model of generalized goals accompanied by generalized processes.

Aha! in Action: Mr. McLaughlin (#1)

Mr. McLaughlin has 25 years of professional teaching experience in public and private high schools, beginning in a rural northern city in Texas, and now in Houston, Texas. Mr. McLaughlin describes Aha! moments as, “an exclamation point” that happens when teaching, coaching, and directing reach their fullest potential. Mr. McLaughlin recalled having many throughout his career, but offered a remarkable story of a particular student that changed the course of her life (and Mr. McLaughlin’s), based on an intense Aha! experience:

Virginia, who came [with] a reputation of being an average student, with marginal athletic ability, and quite reserved. As the years progressed, she became known as a plodder in the classroom, a good teammate in softball, and her personality began to blossom. In the spring of her senior year, however, one event seemed to have an everlasting impact on who she was and the timing was perfect. In the conference championship game, we were behind by one run in the top of the seventh inning with two outs and runners on first and second. Virginia, who always batted ninth in the batting order, looked overmatched facing a pitcher who would eventually play for the University of Arkansas. Another strike and the count was now 3 and 2. From the third base coaching box, I started moving toward Virginia and started to motion for her to meet me halfway up the baseline, but before I got my hand up to my waist, she put her hand up, palm out and mouthed the words, “I got this, coach.” She confidently repositioned herself into the batter's box . . . windup and the pitch, and the ball left her bat with a crack, a line drive perfectly over the second base bag. The first run scored and the throw to home plate dribbled away from the catcher, and before the pitcher could retrieve the ball, the second run scored. We held on in the bottom of the inning and won the championship!


Mr. McLaughlin noted that this seminal moment in his career formed the basis of a belief (his own Aha!) that, “sometimes it is the most unlikely member of a team who makes the most important contribution.” This noticeable change in Virginia’s behavior is a testimony to the extreme effect of her Aha! experience. McLaughlin describes Virginia at first as someone who was reserved, marginal athletic ability, and most notably, “a plodder in the classroom.” Over the course of their career, every teacher has this student. In fact, teachers might often dismiss a student who is both average in ability and does not seem to express a great disposition for future achievement, but that is exactly where McLaughlin’s relationship with this student, understanding how to push and pull with her abilities, became the necessary ingredient for igniting her potential, and for Mr. McLaughlin to revise his assessments. In this way, Virginia’s Aha! moment became a turning point for the teacher as well.

The Aha! moment allowed Mr. McLaughlin to understand that Virginia’s thinking had changed. But more than this, the shared Aha! experiences of Mr. McLaughlin and Virginia combine to create a life-changing moment that set a new foundation for them both to flourish now at new, previously unanticipated levels. In fact, McLaughlin changed his entire belief about what is possible with students from this experience, subsequently benefiting thousands of students over his nearly 25 years of teaching. In this situation, the winning moment can be seen as a manifestation of the Aha!, but it is also in understanding the subtle nuance between the coach and the athlete where one can fully see how the learning transcended the game. “I got this,” was perhaps an even greater breakthrough because it signified a shift in relationship, not just forms of the thinking and understanding within an individual. Virginia now connected with Mr. McLaughlin in a way previously unattainable and in a way that could not have been deduced from previous experience. This Aha! is one of enlightened human interconnectivity. Congratulations, coach!

What’s your Aha!?!

What’s your Aha!?!