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Monochromatic Butterfly: How Teaching for High-Stakes Testing Leads to Teacher Mediocrity

Texas Observer version:

          Before relocating to Austin, I had spent eight years teaching math and/or science in Egypt, Mexico and Honduras at elite private schools that used American textbooks, American curriculum and were accredited by American institutions.  The majority of my students were not Americans, but graduated with a combination of diplomas: local, American and/or IB (International Baccalaureate). After graduation, nearly all attended college, mostly in the US, Canada, England and a few remained in their own country for higher education.

            I proudly returned to the US, toting my international bag of creative, engaging teaching tricks, especially curriculum-based projects that I had created, ready to dazzle my American students. So, imagine my utter shock when resettling into American life, teaching at an Austin public high school, and discovering that the standards were actually lower. Moreover, my teaching creativity was all but stifled for the sake of “standardization” in the most controlling environment I had ever taught.   

            During the eight years that I had taught outside the US, a gradual yet educationally lethal trend, like a viral infection, had set in.  As a result, no longer were educators preoccupied with fostering such lofty ideals as stimulating students to become “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers” or “accepting personal responsibility.”  Instead, teachers were pressured to focus tremendously on preparing students for high-stakes standardized exams that tested basic knowledge.

            During fall semester, I remained at school for twelve hours a day, researching and writing lesson plans, marking papers, making parental contacts and doing a myriad of bureaucratic things. I was in “survival” mode although I had thirteen years of teaching experience. By mid-March, we science teachers stopped the regular teaching instruction, which was already geared toward the state standardized test, and did nothing but drill past standardized exam questions and review science objectives.  This was in addition to an eighty-question baseline exam, morning/lunch/afterschool science tutoring and horrendously punitive five-question quizzes where the students could make only a zero, eighty or one hundred. A “more rigorous” version of the five-question quiz was later implemented among Biology teachers: students could only make a zero or one hundred!

            In the end, our science students did well enough on their high-stakes standardized exams to receive “recognized” status.  The school was euphoric, but I was apprehensive.  I had never conceded that the end justified the means and I certainly did not think that doing recognizably well on any state-issued exam should be the aim of education, especially since we classroom teachers were allowed to do little else than standardized test preparation. 

Additionally, the standards, which were drilled into the students, had transformed themselves into being the ceiling of knowledge rather than the foundation. Anytime I attempted to go into a deeper level of understanding, some of my colleagues warned me that the “students don’t need to know that,” since the state standardized exam would not test them on it.

            I started my second school year refreshed and full of new ideas that I wanted to implement now that I knew how things worked at my high school.  How naïve I was! The powers that be had their own ideas. Since the administration trumps an individual teacher, my creative, fresh ideas were quickly edged out as the school year unfolded, not to resurface again until after the mighty state standardized exams were completed.

            The administration deemed that science teachers, who taught the same course, had to use the exact same lessons eighty percent of the time. With tighter control on teachers’ lesson plans, administrators easily compared electronic grade books online. The grade books “looked good” if majority of the assignments looked alike.  The grade books “looked bad” if there was more than twenty percent diversity among assignments.  As it turned out, we common subject teachers taught about ninety-five to a hundred percent of the exact same lessons since, given the challenge of teaching at a conducive pace for student comprehension, more time was necessary to sufficiently cover the learning objectives than we had previously allotted.  Most teachers sacrificed their twenty percent of creative lesson opportunity in order to “be on the same page.”

Whatever happened to effective teachers excelling in their classroom by presenting their own engaging standard-based lessons? Being handed scripted lessons to use in one’s classroom reduces a creative, experienced teacher to a robot. When administrators control lesson plans, they put outstanding teachers into a mediocre box.  Innovative teachers are chastised for thinking out of the box since individuality is only praised when a teacher provides the same instruction as every other teacher. Apparently teachers, with our eighty percent scripted lessons, would merely process the students through an educational factory, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” video.

Sound familiar? For those of us who have read Orwell’s 1984, “doublethink” and “doublespeak” come to mind. Without going into detail, I will just say that Big Brother caught me once being a freethinker. Fortunately I was not whisked off to Room 101 in the Ministry of Love!

             Could some of the reasons why the US has fallen behind globally in both math and science be due to the mediocrity that is being perpetuated by teaching to high-stakes tests and the practice of forcing teachers to use the exact same lesson plans? In all knowledge domains, we highly value the innovators—not the mediocre masses.  So why in the world would the powers that be squelch innovative teachers?  Answer: Quality control.

As one sympathetic administrator informed me, the quality of teaching instruction had been waning; so the administration had to strengthen it. As noble as that cause sounds, the “one size fits all” approach does not lead to stronger teaching; it lowers superior teaching and makes bad teachers lazier. Teacher enthusiasm for a lesson affects student enthusiasm. If teachers are estranged from the creative, personalizing process of lesson planning, then how well can they deliver those scripted lessons?

How far does the pendulum have to swing before the administration officially acknowledges that tightly controlling lesson plans only leads to overall mediocre teaching instruction? Or will they continue doublespeaking about how less instructional diversity is better? Public school teachers, who research, write and deliver their own standard-based lesson plans, are the last defense against the mechanization of mediocre public education. The US will only recapture its high academic glory through creative and innovative teaching—not cookie cutter scripted lessons presented by disenfranchised teachers.


After the first round of editing “Monochromatic Butterfly,” I emailed it to about thirty friends who were educators and/or parents. I requested their feedback and some responses equaled my passion and concern about the future of education. With their permission, I have copied and pasted their response below in its entirety.


      This essay describes what is fundamentally wrong with our education system. I also believe that stifling and snuffing out teacher creativity in the classroom effectively stifles students to the point of oppression.

     The one-size fits-all approach cleverly disguises the state’s ability to control what kind of information our students get. I know that you teach math and science but the best case in point is abstinence-only sex education. The Texas Freedom Network has been advocating for teaching the proper biological sexual health information to Texas students for several years. Yet the system keeps on teaching sex ed. in their perverse biblical fashion.

      You know as much as I that this kind of sex ed. ends up hurting, more often than not, our female students and their families – keeping girls at home, unable to finish their high school studies and possibly keeping them and their children economically dependent on their families and the state. The ramifications are far and wide. It was only until I worked at Akins did I see the consequences of this when female students dropped out of school like flies due to pregnancy and young motherhood.

      In my last year at Akins High School, the school had the second highest teen pregnancy rate in Austin Independent School District only after Travis High School. From my understanding, both high schools have students representing the 78744 zip code, but I believe more students from the Dove Springs neighborhood go to Akins.

      Did you know that the JROTC classroom at Akins was originally designed to actually be a nursery and daycare center for teen moms? Yup! And look what has been in place since Akins opened – the military! That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever seen! And you know I lived in Africa!

      To me, keeping basic sexual health information from our youth is one of the most sinister forms of oppression. It keeps students out of the real-world game by limiting their access to quality, life-saving education. In this paternalistic system, they will stay in their place, uneducated babies raising babies, and never ascending to their greatest potential, and thus, their greatest possible contribution to our society.

      I think you have great insight as a teacher in this essay. You could easily expand on this idea and explore all of the consequences of this education system, social, economic, etc. I see this as the beginning of a great contribution to the world.



     1)This is why I love teaching adults.  We have objectives, but complete freedom in how we meet them.

     2) Teaching to the test clearly isn’t helping our students on a local or global scale.  Why are we falling behind other countries?  I think a huge chunk of it is low expectations and lack of teaching critical thinking–exactly what you said.  But the deeper question is, WHY are our expectations lower?  I have decided that part of is due to compulsory education through age 16 (or whatever it is these days).  Other countries allow students who aren’t interested in completing HS internships, apprenticeships, etc.  We tell all of our students that they have to go to college, which is not only preposterous, but impossible.  Think of my students (developmental ed-the low, low courses before you can take college courses).  Some of them are headed towards academics, but others want a welding certificate and will be making twice what I make next year.  Calculus will not be part of their life.  And they will be fine.  We also need to have exit exams for high school.  I get students who can hardly read or put together a written sentence and they have hs diplomas.  They don’t know what the Civil War was about or who was involved.  As you know, hs teachers are not “allowed” to fail anyone because your admin and the parents will not support you.  I remember this from my 4th grade teaching days.  If everyone gets to graduate if they show up and breathe, then a diploma doesn’t have any value.  We need to aim higher and let people fail when it’s appropriate. 



     Thank you for sending me your essay. I was able to relate to what you wrote in many ways.

     For many years now it had been heartbreaking to me to be forced to teach a narrow curriculum and to only teach test preparation, no social studies, no critical thinking, no life lesson. One principal even told the staff in all seriousness that there were to be no smiles or fieldtrips until the state standardized exam in March.

      Then I switched schools two years ago and it was a whole new world. Nobody at my school talked about the exam. You were expected to teach in a loving and creative manner. But the reality is that it is the principal who sets that norm and he is an exception in a district that is increasingly moving toward charter schools with little accountability and toward greater accountability/punishment for public school teachers.

      I keep thinking about the seventies when teachers really had more freedom to be creative and the result of all the creative thinkers that came from that type of education. What will the results be from this type of education?

      My masters degree is in integrating the arts in the curriculum. But that does not happen often with the demands made by the district on curriculum, how your room should look, what rubrics need to be pasted on the wall and the new teacher evaluation system of a team walking in unannounced to check on you.

      The future I see is a move toward technology, toward even less teacher creativity and interaction with students. I see teachers becoming an endangered species. There is a wonderful short story by either Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov called The Way They Were. It is about students just learning from computers at home. It is old fashioned because the moms stay home to monitor but I see a move with online schools and a push for online testing for that possible future.

     It is disheartening and I don’t know that I would encourage anyone to go into this profession anymore.

I love being a teacher when the door is closed, but the politics the district plays just make my stomach and my jaw clench.

      On the brighter side, I keep thinking the pendulum has to start swinging back. Standardized tests aren’t having the intended results. There are movements out there pushing for a more holistic, diverse and creative learning environment.

      Keep up the good work, Teresa. Your students must love you and benefit from your efforts at creativity.



     Just read your piece and am almost in tears. Many things make sense to me in terms of my own experience teaching young people in this country. It makes me wanna gather my children and run. Yet I have always felt that as parents we have to be driving our children’s education and I can see that clearly now more than ever.

    Thank you this has been so insightful. 



     I loved your essay and agree 100%. I am lucky at this point that I still have no big brother looking over my shoulder or designing my lessons at the college, but EVERY day’s lesson is spoken for for the majority of the classes I teach, so I have to be creative within the boundaries of the content.

    Our country’s ed. system really is falling apart. I feel sorry for my kids. Maybe it will take their generation to turn things around.



     The two things that resonated with me were:
–your observation/feeling that the standards were the “ceiling” and that many teachers take the “they don’t have to know it” approach—-sooooo sad and true.
–your idea of what a rebellious teacher will (has) become.

     As far as why the US has “fallen behind”, my perspective is that the standards of competition between countries is bunk… and just a ploy by McGraw-Hill/Houghton Mifflin to peddle their expensive test prep programs to the schools. (Did you know that NCLB bolstered their profits somewhere around 300%!!!) sick!  Here is a quote from website.  They are a group here in Colorado that fights against the effects of NCLB/whateverthenewadmincallsit:
“Other countries especially Japan cover fewer concepts each year and cover them in depth so kids are building on a firm foundation of understanding as they move through school. US students who have teachers forced to focus on test scores cannot do what they are asked because they don’t have the in depth understanding that comes with teachers being allowed to focus on good teaching.”