Commentary — September 2, 2008, 12:05 pm

Talking with Jeremy Miller, Author of “Tyranny of the Test”

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Jeremy Miller is the author of “Tyranny of the Test,” the September cover story. The article, which explains how No Child Left Behind has changed the structure of our schools–and how “teaching the test” takes more away from students than it gives–was based on his years of experience working as a test-prep “coach” for Kaplan, Inc. Associate Editor Benjamin Austen follows up with Jeremy Miller now that the issue is on newsstands.

1. At some point last year, you decided you wanted to write about working for Kaplan in New York City’s public schools. This kind of reporting, in which the participant’s journalistic intentions are not made explicit, is always complicated. But the issues here seemed to be compounded by your background as a full-time classroom teacher and by your desire to succeed at a job that you increasingly saw as problematic. What were some of the difficulties you faced in reporting this story?

I had to focus on doing a good job—which is to say the job of test-prep coach as defined by Kaplan. While in the schools, I conducted no official interviews. The questions I did pose were restricted to the natural queries that emerged during my day as a Kaplan coach.

Teachers at the schools where I worked expressed concern that corporate tutors like me might actually be working as spies for the Board of Education. This topic came up several times during Kaplan’s training sessions, and we were told to take care to avoid being perceived as such—for instance, we were instructed not to take conspicuous notes during teacher observations. We were also expected to dress in a benign, business-casual way—no suits and ties. The idea was to convey through our dress that we were “in it” with the teachers, that we were one of them, and that we weren’t there to report back to the Chancellor’s office. And there I was, writing about my experiences for publication, a kind of spy.

Do I write about a situation that might potentially embarrass a teacher I came to admire? Do I write candidly about a class I saw devolve into near chaos? How much do I reveal about my journalistic intentions to a background source? I agonized over these questions. In the end, I decided to limit myself to material emblematic of the problems facing underserved schools, especially the problems revealed or intensified by my presence as a Kaplan coach. Many of these moments occurred when I was most closely following the rubric of my job, when I was falling back on my training or angling to do the “right” thing as prescribed by Kaplan.

2. In the article you describe the George Washington High School’s alumni “Wall of Fame” and a letter that Henry Kissinger wrote to say he wouldn’t be able to attend his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I cut this detail about Kissinger’s letter when I edited the piece, but you were adamant that it be included. Why was it so important?

Of all the small, telling details I encountered in the schools, this one stood out to me. Here’s an American icon, a person who has devoted himself tirelessly to the projection of American power abroad but who has nothing but empty platitudes to offer the students of his alma mater. It seemed to crystallize perfectly the tendency of our leaders to look outward rather than inward. NCLB, which offers top-down, mostly ineffectual remedies for the nation’s ailing schools, is resonant with Kissinger’s letter. Alan Greenspan, another George Washington alum, was invited to participate in the ceremonies and also declined.

3. Is there any merit to the work that testing companies are doing in public schools? Are there conscientious testing companies out there that are using the mandates of NCLB to better serve schools with high-poverty populations?

As a Kaplan coach moving in and out of these underserved schools, I was painfully aware that the money I was being paid could have been spent in other ways. In most schools I visited, the clocks and the drinking fountains rarely worked—they seemed to me like barometers of neglect and decay. Children notice these broken-down things. From this evidence, they devise a reasonable hypothesis: This is what the people in charge think of me.

In a city where nearly half of all teachers leave the profession in five years, it was difficult not to imagine that the money I was being paid could have gone toward addressing this chronic problem. Could this money have been used to hire more teachers, equalizing pay scales between New York City and its affluent suburbs, or to fund intensive recruitment of experienced teachers, or to train much-needed special-education and ESL teachers?

I’m critical of the day-to-day work performed by test-prep companies in public schools. But I hope it is clear that I’m most critical of NCLB, the federal policy that has allowed private companies to perform expensive test prep that rarely addresses the systemic causes of failure in these schools.

4. What should happen with test-prep services in public schools?

If companies like Kaplan take a contract with a school, they should become accountable in a meaningful way for that school’s academic fate. Reporting of pre- and post-prep performance statistics should be mandatory and part of the public record, not locked away in corporate databases and released only when the data can be massaged into an attractive piece of PR. It would mean that schools and prep companies could work constructively in developing “real” customized curricula, designed to meet the needs of individual schools, not of states or districts. It would probably also mean the end of huge profit margins and the $100 per-hour coach.

5. What happened with Kaplan? What are you doing now?

I had worked on and off for Kaplan for nine years—as a private tutor, as a classroom teacher, even as a manager—and when I finally disclosed that I was writing this story, they had to do “research” to determine the length and nature of my tenure. And I still have not formally resigned. They’re a global, multibillion-dollar enterprise, and just as they don’t have a clear understanding of the public schools in which they do their work, they don’t seem to have a clear idea of who is working for them. So leaving the company often involves no more than ceasing to respond to the announcements for new school assignments.

I have moved with my wife to Denver and have taken a job as a biology teacher in a small charter school. The school works with a large population of at-risk students in what seems to be a productive learning environment. I’m excited about the upcoming school year. I’m trying my best to understand how I can use the school’s guiding principles to help students on the academic fringe. I’d almost forgotten how tiring teaching is supposed to be.

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More from Benjamin Austen:

From the February 2005 issue

The pen or the gun

Zakes Mda and the post-apartheid novel

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