Article — From the September 2008 issue

Tyranny of the Test

One year as a Kaplan coach in the public schools

( 3 of 10 )

The assignments given to Kaplan coaches are doled out largely based on experience—and responsiveness. In order to get work with some frequency, coaches must stay in constant contact with Kaplan’s implementation staff and confirm assignments almost immediately. The work is also tied to the ebb and flow of the school year. In the early fall, when the sales team is busy pitching its services to principals and most schools have yet to decide how to integrate these (often mandated) materials into daily operations, coaches frequently find themselves leading professional-development seminars. The “P.D.” meetings are intended to give teachers a thorough tutorial in the Kaplan materials, including an overview of lesson structure, key strategies, and, most important, how the curriculum should be taught.

One of my first P.D. assignments was at Harry S. Truman, a high school beside the sprawling towers of Co-op City, in the Bronx. I was supposed to talk up the merits of Kaplan’s SAT Advantage to the school’s math department. But early in the delivery of my P.D. script, I was cut off after I asked the teachers what the SAT was designed to do. It was a lame question, I admit, but the vehemence it unleashed surprised me. “It’s designed to keep people in their places,” a teacher shouted from the back of the room. “It serves the status quo.” There were approving snickers. “Are you saying there are things in the Kaplan prep book we aren’t already doing with our classes?” asked a teacher who began to rise threateningly from his seat. (Although I saw other indications of this antagonism at Truman—e.g., in a flyer tacked up in the main office that announced a meeting with the headline students corporations first—this last teacher’s hostility came from a different source. He had worked for the Princeton Review. During a short break in my presentation, he apologized for seeming upset. “It’s not you,” he said. “But Kaplan’s materials are weak compared to Princeton’s.”)

I agreed with many of the standard criticisms leveled against Kaplan and the other for-profit companies peddling test-prep methods in schools. Because of an ill-conceived and poorly executed federal policy, they were able to function like so many private contractors operating amid chaos and disarray—benefiting from the crisis but doing nothing to change the nature of the problem. Yet as I came under attack at Truman, I found Kaplan’s training reflexively surging into my chest. We had been told in practice seminars to diffuse criticism by acknowledging complaints and then responding with an array of talking points intended to play on teachers’ anxiety over metrics and accountability. As a kind of disclaimer, we were to emphasize our transient and limited role in schools: We, Kaplan, could not ultimately be held accountable for whatever inadequate form of instruction was taking place at the school. Other seasoned presenters I had been required to observe used more creative and provocative methods to evade criticism. One Kaplan representative, a longtime teacher in New York City public schools, invoked the renegade geneticist and scientific entrepreneur J. Craig Venter as a way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory ideas of profit and public service. At the end of his presentation, he held up Venter’s autobiography, A Life Decoded, and urged teachers to get their hands on a copy.

“You guys are doing a great job in your classes,” I said calmly to the math teachers assembled before me. “But this book will help you translate the content and help your students bridge that knowledge-performance gap.” To another teacher who said he already taught SAT problems in his class, I asked if he used a “consistent methodology.” Do you teach your kids ways to seek out the right answer without actually knowing the answer? Do you use the results of diagnostic exams to customize your lesson plans? Do you have them practice in real test conditions? Do you track student progress in a uniform way? Is that data centralized and easily accessible to the entire staff?

A solemn, gray-haired teacher said, “with all due respect,” that the test prepping would surely take away from his already limited teaching time. Another teacher, a large stack of papers piled in front of her, cut him short. “I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” she said. “We can just pick and choose lessons, exercises, and questions from the book. We can work it in.”

“We’re not ‘just working it in,’” the head of the math department, Ms. DeSimone, said with finality. “We’re supposed to be teaching SAT curriculum once a week. We didn’t pay all this money for this program for it not to be done right.”

The math faculty of Truman High School was no easy mark. A tough sell. But it didn’t matter. They were already owners.

is a writer and high school science teacher living in Denver

More from Jeremy Miller:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content