Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Bathroom Monitor

"I am the very model of a modern bathroom guardian.

I've information…um…something…something…Edwardian?"

Okay, so the chances of turning my current predicament into a light opera patter song are slim—but it's worth the respite from boredom that even such a ridiculous effort brings.

For the past three days, I've been spending 4 ½ to 5 hours sitting in front of a high school Men's room while the smell of stale urine wafts through the open door. The sounds of flatulence and other things echoing on the tiles declaratively punctuate my thoughts: My college degree is being wasted *FLUSH* This job stinks *FLUSH* High-stakes standardized testing is excrement *FLUSH*

Yes, the general atmosphere in which I'm writing this is having a definite impact on my thoughts. So? There are worse things in the air: it's testing time in Texas.

The reason a college graduate with fifteen years' experience in his profession is harassing adolescents outside the restroom is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, standardized testing—once merely very important—has become DO OR DIE for American students and their schools.

Before we moved to our current location, I had no worries when it came to testing. I used to teach in a school that was "recognized" for its high test scores, which were nearly "exemplary." We teachers spent most of the year teaching, the weeks before the TAKS test reviewing, and the week of the test itself basking in the knowledge that our mostly-white, middle- to upper-middle-class students would make us and our school look good with their scores.

Since arriving in here, however, my TAKS-based experience has undergone a significant change for the worse.

I joined the faculty of a low-performing school and what a difference it has been. If you've never had the experience of working in a place where everyone is afraid the government will step in and fire all the employees (teachers) and all of the management (principals), you really cannot know what you've been missing. The fear and paranoia become endemic. The attempts to motivate students (who are usually of a different race and socio-economic class than most of their teachers) become frenzied. The whole idea of 'teaching to the test' becomes the expectation, not the exception.

Common sense and rational thought are thrown out of the window, replaced by fear-motivated new initiatives and changes in personnel and administration. New school- and district-wide attempts to motivate students, new tutoring programs, and new initiatives to motivate students to attend new tutoring programs all whizz by, one after another.

The extremely high stakes of the testing also inspires the uglier side of human nature. Any human activity with rewards or penalties as high as those presented by the TAKS test under NCLB is going to inspire some folks, both students and teachers, to cheat. To combat this schools become lock-down zones when TAKS time arrives. The tests are kept under lock and key—even from the teachers. Cell phone possession by anyone on campus is an anathema. Even students' bathroom usage must be closely monitored—which is why the soundtrack of my life for the past three days has been filled with the flushing of porcelain fixtures.

TAKS regulations state that no more than one unsupervised student may enter a restroom. Other students with restroom passes must wait in line outside the bathroom. No talking or whispering is allowed in the line. If a restroom monitor is willing to stand inside the restroom itself, instead of outside the door, two students may enter the restroom simultaneously, but still may not talk, and another monitor must remain outside to ensure no talking or whispering is taking place among those waiting to enter.

When there are no 'customers,' I sit on a hard plastic chair and read a book (or write an essay like this one).

Despite the ambiance and intellectual rigor of my assignment, many of my colleagues consider me lucky precisely because I get to sit down and read for a few minutes out of every hour. Those 'lucky' enough to be test administrators have a different sort of fun. They are responsible for "actively monitoring" students for the duration of the test. Students are allowed unlimited time in which to take the test, so this can stretch to four or five hours at a stretch of doing nothing but walking about the classroom, watching students take the test. They may not read, write lesson plans, grade papers, or even sit in a chair. If asked about one of the test questions, they must fight against the very urge that made them a teacher, and refuse to help any student better understand the question. If any 'irregularities' occur, from someone suspected of cheating to a student's coughing too much to the mere ringing of a telephone in the classroom, that teacher must fill out 'incident forms.'

Looming over their heads is the repeated threat that if they somehow make any serious mistake in following the almost-Byzantine rules of TAKS administration their teaching license will be revoked by the state.

Logically, this all makes perfect sense. Common-sensically, there's little logic to it at all. If, as NCLB mandates, standardized tests like TAKS are (and should be) the end-all/be-all of public education, then everything described above, every rule, regulation, procedure, and penalty, follows logically from that fact.

If, however, using only a single criterion to conclude whether or not a student (or school) has succeeded at so complicated a game as education defies common sense, then no premise that follows from that part of NCLB is reasonable.

I've got one more day to sit by this bathroom and ponder these things. There's a chance that I'll reflect on the good ideas embodied in NCLB or the positive aspects of the TAKS test. There's also a chance that the smell or roses will waft through the door and I'll discover that a beautiful garden has sprung up through the cracks in the dingy bathroom tiles. Let's wait and see.*

* No. Sadly this did not happen. On my fourth and final day of sitting like Janus at the bathroom door, we had no fewer than three students decide that their tests could wait, but their nausea could not. The smell of fresh vomit really puts things into perspective when you've been complaining about the smell of urine.