A Matter of Conviction

Dr. Maria Cohen, principal of Elmwood High School, runs headlong into a conflict of professional values over the use of tests to measure and guide instruction. How can she foster a vision of student learning and staff professional growth that is shared and supported by the school community?

Dr. Maria Cohen, principal of Elmwood High School, closes the faculty meeting with reminders about upcoming tests.

Maria glanced quickly around the crowded cafeteria as she spoke. “The final item on today’s agenda is just a reminder that the state-mandated tests are scheduled for three weeks from now. This directly affects those of you teaching tenth graders, but everyone needs to be aware of the special schedule for testing that week. It will be in your mailboxes on Monday. Tenth-grade teachers, you’ll get our new practice tests as well. We’ll give them in all tenth grade classes a week from Monday with additional time built in on Tuesday. That places the practice tests a full week before the actual test dates and should allow for plenty of time for review.”

Maria raised her voice to give extra emphasis to her next point. “The superintendent has repeatedly emphasized how crucial the state-mandated tests are for our students and our school; all 10th graders must pass all four sections of the test to graduate on time. Last year, our scores in the district slipped some, and he wants to be sure that doesn’t happen this year. That’s the primary reason that these practice tests have been purchased. They were not cheap, and we need to make maximum use of them. Let’s make sure we encourage students to take both sets of tests seriously, but at the same time let’s not get the kids too uptight about them.”

Maria briefly thought of how contradictory that last statement must have sounded, but she didn’t change her facial expression. This was her first year as principal, and she needed to follow the superintendent’s direction—and he’d been very clear that the focus was on improving test scores.

Hal Perkins, who’d been principal of Elmwood for nearly 20 years before Maria, had a laissez-faire relationship with the school faculty, most of whom he had hired. He handled everything having to do with budgets and the community and relied on the faculty for curriculum work, student-faculty relationships, and governance.

The superintendent told Maria he expected a little more direct management of the faculty than Hal had shown. Maria, who had just finished her doctoral degree in educational administration in a program that stressed leadership, was well-qualified to fulfill this role. She had come to the high school after four years as an assistant principal in a middle school and several years as a high school mathematics teacher. She believed in assessment, but she was worried about overemphasizing testing.

Maria and Brad Williams, an English teacher, chat briefly about the tests.

As Maria walked toward her office, Brad Williams caught up with her. “Dr. Cohen,” Brad began, “I want to talk with you about the tests. I don’t know if you know it or not, but I didn’t proctor the tests with my class last year. Janet Kilgore covered for me. I’d like to do the same thing again this year.”

Maria was well aware of Brad’s exemption from proctoring the previous year. In fact, the superintendent had used Brad as an example of Hal’s somewhat lax style of leadership. The superintendent was concerned that Brad’s vocal opposition to testing affected his students’ attitudes. “I’m not sure we can do that again,” Maria said. ” I certainly know how you feel about the tests, Brad, but central administration has concerns about such requests. Why don’t you schedule a time for us to talk about it?”

They stopped at the secretary’s desk as they entered the office area and scheduled a meeting during Brad’s planning period on the following Wednesday morning.

Maria entered her office and reflected on the faculty meeting. She thought again about Brad’s comments and sighed. It seemed as if almost every discussion lately connected to tests in one way or another. At last month’s administrators’ meeting most of the sessions focused on how to improve test scores. And at the recent district administrative meeting, the superintendent distributed the practice tests while again making clear that principals were accountable for test scores in their buildings.

Maria respected Brad’s position. He had worked on committees in the state’s Council of Teachers of English to prepare position papers, testified at the state legislature’s hearings when the bill was being proposed, and written about the testing program in the local paper. Interestingly, Brad’s students had scored well during previous testing administrations.

See Brad’s most recent op-ed piece in the Elmwood Star-Journal below:

Brad and his wife, Sarah, talk about Brad’s dilemma.

Brad jotted a couple of notes in the margin of Cindy Jensen’s paper and placed it on the stack of compositions from his third-period English class. “Cindy’s writing is so much better,” he thought. “It’s hard to know for sure, but the weekly telecollaborative project seems to be working.”

The previous year, Brad had developed a collaborative project on transcendentalism with three other AP English teachers he had met at a Thoreau Institute workshop. This year he had expanded the activity to weekly e-mail collaboration between his tenth-grade classes and high school classes in Michigan. On Mondays, the students wrote to their “e-pals,” exchanging comments on common assignments that the two teachers had developed. Sometimes the students would e-mail each other their papers for on-line revision and editing. Collaborative group discussions, web-quests, and web journaling had also been incorporated into the project.

Because the two states had different content standards for the tenth-grade, however, the material covered by the classes was an eclectic collection of works by a wide variety of authors. The most recent unit had used The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Earlier in the year, the classes had covered transcendentalism and the Harlem Renaissance. The decidedly alternative orientation of the readings had resulted in some mild criticism from some teachers in the English department, but Brad covered the standards and ignored the sniping. Besides, the students clearly enjoyed the e-project.

Brad put the stack of compositions in his backpack and went into the kitchen to share a cup of coffee with his wife, Sarah.

See Video transcript below:

Maria and Brad meet.

Maria heard a light knock on the door. “Come in, Brad. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“No thanks, Dr. Cohen,” said Brad as he sat down. “I’ve already had my share.” Brad was holding the stack of practice tests Dr. Cohen’s secretary had put in his box the previous day.

Maria began, “I continue to hear good things about your classes, Brad. Your students certainly are enthusiastic about your teaching. I know I’ve only been in your classroom once this year, but I was impressed.”

Brad smiled politely. He had hoped that Dr. Cohen would visit his classes when they were collaborating with the classes in Michigan. He wanted her to see how confident his students were in their use of technology and how impressive the quality of their work had become. That might soften some of the criticism from some of the other English teachers who were adhering strictly to the mandated curriculum.

Maria smiled as she continued, “Now let’s talk about these upcoming tests. I know last year that you absented yourself from proctoring and…”

Brad interrupted. “Not exactly. Janet Kilgore covered for me and I very carefully planned what she needed to do. Hal Perkins approved of the arrangement.”

Maria paused as she chose her words carefully. “I don’t want to offend you here Brad, but all teachers need to be in the testing rooms this year.”

“But Hal didn’t object! I had my kids prepared, and they did fine. Now this year you’re talking about taking even more instructional time to administer these practice tests. Have you looked at these?” Brad waved the tests dramatically. “They run totally counter to best practices! I don’t believe in them and I won’t give them.” He slapped them dramatically on her desk.

This was going worse than Maria had expected. “I’m sorry, Brad, but I was hired to bring some consistency to policies and practices—and you need to give these tests.”

“Dr. Cohen, you must understand that this is a matter of conscience with me,” Brad said. “I’ve prepared my students as well as I can, but this testing is bad for students and grossly distorts the educational process. Hinging graduation on passing poorly made tests is inexcusable.”

Maria leaned forward. “I think everybody knows how you feel about the tests, Brad. I’ve read several of your pieces in the paper and heard you speak to the school board and the faculty. Truthfully, I can’t say that I disagree with you. However, I don’t think anyone will think that you support the tests just because you fulfill your professional responsibilities as an Elmwood teacher.”

Brad shook his head. “Dr. Cohen, I don’t mean to be difficult, but I guess I haven’t made my point clearly enough. For me, this is about my integrity as an educator.”

Maria could tell that Brad was not going to back down from his position. “I understand what you’re saying Brad, but I hope you’ll give some thought to this. You do realize that your pay can be docked if you deliberately disregard your professional duties. This is in your contract!”

“Docked pay?” Brad was angry and paused to regain his composure. “With all due respect, I think we both need to consider what we’re saying here.” The bell rang. “I have to get back to class.” He grabbed the tests and left.

“Let’s meet again next week,” Maria called after him.

Brad has lunch with two colleagues.

Brad sat in the crowded teachers’ lounge with math teacher Jon Freeman and school counselor Anne Truescott.

Brad smiled, unwrapped his sandwich, and began. “The boss had me in her office today.”

Jon looked up. “I’ll bet I can guess what it was about. Let’s see…did it have anything to do with those pesky tests?”

“You got it.”

Anne smiled at Brad. “Did she tell you to behave yourself?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” said Brad with a halfhearted chuckle, “but I guess that’s more or less what she did. She wants to talk some more, but I’m sticking to my guns.”

Anne spoke. “Oh, come on, Brad. You can give a little here. If she’s telling you to do it, she has her reasons.”

“I thought you would be more supportive!” said Brad. “Hal worked with me on this proctoring thing, and I’m sure he would have realized how ridiculous these practice tests are.”

“Brad, don’t play the martyr !” said Jon. “You know I despise these tests as much as you do. I just happen to believe that policies are policies and orders are orders. As far as Hal is concerned, as much as I loved the man, he just didn’t want any waves last year as he was moving into retirement.”

Anne added. “I’m not crazy about the tests, but I agree with Jon. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to help the kids do well, cuz if they don’t, like it or not, they won’t graduate. And kids pick up on your opinion.” Anne softened her tone and smiled. “Brad, you have no idea how much these kids idolize you.”

“Are you saying some of them thought about not taking the tests seriously because of what I think?” Brad shook his head. “Sometimes there is just a need to march to a different drummer…”

“That’s the point,” interrupted Anne. “For a lot of these kids, you are their different drummer. They even memorized that line of Thoreau’s that you use when referring to the tests. Something about ignoring the scenery?”

“Yeah, Thoreau said, ‘To attend chiefly to the desk or school-house, while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed, is absurd.'” Brad shook his head more forcefully now. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I may not be cut out to be in a traditional public school. Things like this really get to me. Rich still calls asking me to make the move to his charter school. Maybe next time…” Brad shrugged. “Or maybe I should just leave teaching altogether. I don’t know. But I don’t want to get in the way of kids’ chances for success.”

Jon leaned back in his chair. “Don’t overreact, Brad. You love teaching, you love English, and you love your students. This is just something that happens once a year. Don’t let it get you down and try not to make a federal case of it.”

Maria and school counselor Anne Truescott meet.

“It was a relief to see you on my calendar, Anne,” said Maria. “This whole week has been about the budget and testing. I just haven’t had time for the people things I really like to do.”

Anne smiled. “Thanks for making room for me on your calendar. I think I have a people thing for you.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I had lunch with Brad Williams yesterday,” Anne paused. “I’m not violating any confidences with him because I told him that I would be talking with you, but I’m worried.”

Maria nodded. “So am I, Anne. I met with him briefly on the issue yesterday.”

“Yes, Brad mentioned that. That’s how our conversation started.” Anne’s tone changed as she continued, “Just so you’ll know where I’m coming from, I must tell you that I’m an immense fan of Brad’s. I’ve been here 21 years and I know of no teacher who is more beloved by his students, who has worked harder for the good of the school, and who cares more deeply about this place. He taught both of my older children, and they were also involved in forensics with him. They absolutely adored him. He is in line to teach my youngest next year, and I want to be sure that that happens. He’s a wonderful teacher and person, and that’s why I’m worried.”

“What’s up?” asked Maria.

Anne spoke slowly. “Maria, we may be at a crisis point here. At lunch yesterday, Brad was as down as I have ever seen him. He was even talking about leaving.”

“Leaving?” asked Maria in a concerned tone. “He’s been here, how long now, 10 years? What else would he do?”

“Oh, he could get hired pretty much anywhere,” said Anne. “But probably he’d end up at the charter school Rich Childress started two years ago. I know for a fact that Rich would love to have him there. Honestly, though, I don’t think what he’d do is the issue. The issue is that he’s even thinking about leaving. I don’t think I have to tell you what a loss that would be to the school.”

“I thought he was just trying to make a point. Do you really think he would leave?”

“I don’t really know,” Anne said. “But he certainly seemed serious to me.”

Maria shook her head and paused before continuing. “I’m glad you came in. Tell me Anne, do you think Brad’s views on high-stakes testing are openly expressed to his students in a way that is…coercive?” Maria was thinking about the concerns that the superintendent had expressed.

“Openly, no. But they know where he stands.” Anne thought for a moment. “I really don’t know, though. Brad knows that there need to be limits to that, I think. Most of his references in class seem to be somewhat oblique and more consistent with his view for a broader and deeper curriculum in general.” Anne got up to leave with a rather grim look on her face.

Maria sat for a moment in her chair thinking about the conversation. She looked at her calendar and saw that a follow-up meeting had been scheduled with Brad for Tuesday morning. How was she going to get out of this one? If she backed down, she’d look weak, just when she was establishing herself as principal.

After the administration of the practice tests, Brad and Maria meet.

The following Monday tenth grade teachers were scheduled to administer the practice tests to their classes. Dr. Cohen held a brief meeting that morning and visited each of the classes to give the students a quick pep talk. When she got to Brad’s classroom, it was empty. She checked with the teacher across the hall and learned that Brad was in the computer lab. She looked in the lab and saw Brad working with a pair of students while the rest of the class typed busily. Just then, her walkie-talkie buzzed; it was a call from the superintendent, and Maria hustled back to her office.

Maria had been unable to catch Brad that day. She considered calling him at home, but decided to bring it up the following morning when they met. Early Tuesday morning, Brad was waiting in the main office when Maria arrived.

“Come in, Brad,” said Dr. Cohen as she unlocked her door. “Have a seat. I suppose you’ve had your coffee?”

Brad raised his travel mug. “Thanks anyway.”

Maria continued, “Well, Brad, there are a few things I need to discuss with you this morning, but let’s start with what you’ve decided about the proctoring.”

Brad replied calmly enough, “I don’t mean to be impertinent, Dr. Cohen, but I really didn’t have anything to decide. As I told you last week, I simply am not going to proctor those tests. As for the practice tests, you should know that I have used them differently than was suggested. I looked through them and pulled out about 25 questions that I felt the students could use some review on. We went over these in class together last week. I just didn’t see the sense of taking more instructional time to test these kids.”

Maria was not surprised that Brad offered an explanation of the practice test activity. She suspected he had seen her about to enter the lab the previous morning. “Brad,” she said, “you’re really forcing my hand. I know I made myself clear at both the faculty meeting and when you and I met. Teachers simply must proctor these exams or face the consequences. As for the practice tests, the superintendent was quite explicit about how they were to be used.”

“I’m a professional, Dr, Cohen, and using the practice tests like I did was a sound instructional decision. The e-project you saw the students doing is instructionally important too. Monday is the day I have the lab and besides, the classes in Michigan rely on us.” Brad looked directly at her. “I am certainly prepared to “face the consequences.” You said I’d be docked a day’s pay if I didn’t proctor. I believe that’s a small price to pay for standing up for my convictions.”

Maria was somewhat flustered by Brad’s unwavering position, and she had trouble looking him in the eye.

Students meet with Dr. Cohen.

It was a few minutes after school on the day of Maria’s most recent meeting with Brad. Her secretary, Mary Wilson, entered Maria’s office to give her the typed copy of the incident report that Maria had hand-written following her meeting with Brad.

See the incident report below:

“Dr. Cohen, there are two students waiting to see you,” Mary said. “Tom and Maureen, from Brad’s Honors 10 class.” Mary raised her eyebrows significantly. Like most secretaries, she knew everything that went on.

“Might as well send them in,” Maria said. She smiled as they entered. “Welcome, Tom and Maureen. Come in and have a seat.”

“Thanks, Dr. Cohen.” Tom spoke first. “We’re glad you could see us.”

Maria realized that despite the importance she placed on being a principal who was accessible to students, that wasn’t always the case. “I’m always glad to see students. You’re why I’m here. What can I do for you?”

Maureen spoke, “We’re not really sure. We’re here about our English class. It’s just that there have been rumors that you are not going to let Mr. Williams be absent when we take our state tests next week. He’s a really good teacher and has prepared us for the tests, but he shouldn’t get in trouble just because he doesn’t believe in them.”

“It’s not that I won’t let him not proctor; it’s just that there are consequences for not performing professional duties,” Dr. Cohen explained. “Proctoring exams is one of the duties all Elmwood High School teachers have.”

“But this is something special,” said Tom. “We know Mr. Williams doesn’t just blow off his duties. This is a matter of conscience for him. We’ve been studying great American writers like Thoreau and Emerson and they tell us that we should follow our conscience, even if it costs us to do so. Mr. Williams talks about Thoreau all the time.”

Maria’s earlier conversation with Anne came to mind immediately. She was getting a bit concerned that Brad’s criticism of the tests was starting to permeate his teaching. “Yes, I remember studying transcendentalism as well. As I recall, they also had a great deal to say about duty. You know, I think it’s wonderful that students like you are willing to come and talk with me about this. It takes real courage. You can be sure that I’ll keep your concerns in mind. I assume that you are going to put forth your best efforts on your exams?”

“Absolutely!” said Maureen. “That’s one thing that Mr. Williams says. He doesn’t like the tests, but we have to take them and do as well as we can.”

Maria was relieved by Maureen’s response. After they left, she wondered. “What do I do now? This man must be an extraordinary teacher. First I had Anne in here pleading his case, and now I’ve got students.” Maria took the incident report out of the folder and reviewed it again. As she read, she leaned over to her intercom system. “Mary could you page Brad Williams to my office please?”

See The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Focus Questions below: