The Fear Factor: What is happening in today’s schools- driving teachers out of the profession and increasing mental health concerns for students?
An Editorial Opinion by A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.
Back in December of 2018, I posted on Facebook a request for information about what parents were experiencing with their children’s anxiety levels, and what teachers were experiencing in their schools when it came to the element of fear.
What I was searching for was the presence of fear, in any form, being used to lead either the children or the teachers, in a certain direction regarding the STAAR test. I was hearing stories from parents and teachers alike, about what they were experiencing, and these testimonies represented what I considered a marked change in operating procedures. The results of this informal and very unscientific survey were very eye-opening. Since I am still in contact with many teachers and parents involved in public education, the responses confirmed what I expected. I had been hearing horror stories of intimidation and fear tactics being used by some overzealous administrators, so I needed more information about this phenomenon in order to draw any form of accurate conclusions. My intention, from the beginning, was to put my conclusions down in written form to share with everyone in hopes that we all can learn how to deal with these emotions, either personally or for the children having these emotions themselves. I didn’t anticipate it would take this long to get this article written, but life got in the way, as it so often does.
One of the reports I kept getting was that the climate within the schoolhouse had really changed. There was something about the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year that seemed to be different. Leadership seemed to have changed from a more welcoming, supportive dynamic to one of threats and intimidation. To a much smaller degree, I had experienced this myself right at the end of my career in education, as federal requirements to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) were becoming more problematic. Now, however, the tone has changed even more. There seems to be much more of “my way or the highway” attitude exhibited by leadership on those they are attempting to lead.
Please keep in mind this article is an editorial opinion. It is in no way meant to be a piece of scholarly writing that can be used for formal research. It is, though, meant to be helpful for those who may need assistance and insight, to know they are not alone with their emotions. I will cite some examples of testimony from those who were kind enough to contribute. First, however, there needs to be some historical background.
Most people who are familiar with my work and advocacy know that I tend to focus on the Accountability System, and this stifling system being the root cause of all that is wrong with public education today. By Accountability System I mean the testing, drill and kill mentality, teach for an evaluation mentality, teach to the test for a rating mentality, and make everything a school does academically relate to the outcomes of the students on the test, type of mentality. Note: Remember, this is an editorial opinion, so you will see my bias. If you are pro-test, pro drill and kill, pro teach to the test, pro make everything about the testing outcomes, well, you may want to just move on.
I have been closely involved with monitoring what the Reform movement in education has done to the profession, and what it has done to the parents and children. I have monitored the Texas Legislature’s education-related bills, and especially the two education committees in the House and Senate. I have given public testimony before both houses of Congress. Trust me when I say, they have an agenda. When a person gives public testimony, they are the uninvited guests who care enough to share their thoughts and their research to the committee. Uninvited guests usually get 2-3 minutes to speak. If a person happens to be an invited guest, who is speaking on behalf of the bill being considered, that individual gets unlimited time to speak. It is painful to be on the receiving end of their dismissal of all recommendations and research that I and others, have shared. When testifying in front of their committees, they listen, maybe ask a question or two, and then dismiss. I have never witnessed, or heard of, anyone being asked to come back, or meet with them at another time, to discuss the information we have brought to them as a collective body. Crickets! It is obvious that these politicians have their marching orders and they are not deviating from the agenda that has been given to them by whoever is holding the puppet strings. The notion that they work for us, as our representatives, is a long-removed myth. Yes, they can be voted out, but whoever replaces these cogs in the wheel, get absorbed into the matrix that is our supposed representative government. Radical changes are needed and needed soon.
In Texas House Bill 1842, the rating system of letter grades was placed into law. This was in 2015. This law also solidified the tough sanctions that were put in place that, in many respects, mirrored the No Child Left Behind sanctions that Texas had fought to get rid of. In this article from 2015 in the Houston Chronicle, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that legislators really do not understand the complexity of what goes into a child’s ability to perform on a test. The fact that these tests are not developed by the student’s teacher, but by a testing company far removed from the everyday classroom and teacher instruction, seems to be lost on the politicians who are supposed to be our representatives.
Prior to this latest version of the school rating system, schools and districts passed through a couple of revisions and changes in an attempt to rate the worth of a school by the outcomes of the students on the standardized test. Labels like Unacceptable, Acceptable, Recognized, and Exemplary, were used in the ’90s and early 2000s. With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the labels changed, and it was simply Met Standards or Failed to Meet Standards. When we moved into the STAAR era, in Texas, the ratings were modified to, Met Standards or Improvement Required. Now, let me comment for a minute on these labels. When these labels began to be applied in the ’90s, principals would place the rating on the outside of their building on a wall that was prominently displayed to the public and the cars going by. Of course, no principal ever put, Unacceptable or even Acceptable on the outside wall of their school. No, the only thing the public would see is Recognized or Exemplary. Let me tell you what this labeling did. It began to place in the public’s mind that there were good schools and bad schools. This new belief that there were good schools and bad schools based on testing outcomes, then got transposed to the leadership and the faculty in the schools. Over and over again, the news media would talk about the low-test scores in a particular school and correlate it to the worth of the school. Good schools and bad schools began to be related almost exclusively to the outcomes of the students on the state test, without explaining why the scores from this school happened to not be as high as another school. This, over time, cemented in the parent’s mind that we had good schools and bad schools based on a false sense of academics being taught in the school. The blame for this apparent, perceived, low performance by the school was placed squarely on the leadership and faculty of the schools with the low-performance rating.
For those of you who have followed some of my other writings, you know that I have made it a point to emphasize that the main factors affecting perceived low performance by a school are related to three demographic groups that the principal or teachers have no control over. These three demographics are, (1) the percentage of low socio-economic students attending the school, (2) the percentage of English Language Learners (those whose primary language is something other than English), and (3) the percentage of mobility of the student body. In other words, what percentage of the school’s student body enrolled after school began in the fall, and what percentage withdrew before the state test was given in the spring. This demographic category is called the Mobility Rate. Mobility rates always tend to be higher in extreme poverty areas where a large percentage of students live in apartment complexes.
Add to the complex reasons why a school has “low performance” ratings, the fact that the dependability of the STAAR as an accurate measurement of what a child knows, has never been more under scrutiny. In the February 20, 2019 article in the Texas Monthly online, Are Texas Kids Failing or Are the Tests Rigged, we read that two different studies were performed, each measuring the difficulty level of the STAAR reading test and discovering it was developmentally too advanced. The research showed the reading portion of the test was as much as two years ahead of where the teachers were in the classroom. One test was done in 2012, just as the STAAR was beginning in its administration as the test of record for Texas school children. This report was ignored and the failures began to mount. Another test was performed in 2016 on the reading levels and the developmentally appropriate standards, with the same results. The fact that no action has been taken by the TEA (Texas Education Agency) officials to remedy or halt the administration of the STAAR test, at least until a study could be performed to address the issues, is tantamount to malpractice by the TEA. This has only served to add to the frustration teachers feel when they get test results back on their students and they are not what the students are exhibiting in the classroom.
The heavy-handed pressure that is being applied, either directly or indirectly, on children as young as eight years old, has led to the increased anxiety levels and depression experienced by today’s school children. The ramifications for children who are subjected to the pressures discussed here in the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, are significant. From this
article from their on-line journal, we see the impact on young minds subjected to pressure they were never intended to endure at such a young age. Fear of failure can be devastating to those children who normally make good grades, but because of test anxiety, they find that on the big state test, they demonstrate poor test results and live to hate the time of year devoted to state tests. This variable then becomes another factor that influences how a school’s accountability rating is determined. The pressure placed on the child to perform, so that the adults at the school can demonstrate their worth as a teacher, principal, or superintendent is unconscionable. Children are not widgets that can be placed on an assembly line and tweaked and prodded then spit out at the end with noticeably improved testing results. No, the learning of a child doesn’t work that way. There is currently a legislative bill in the Texas House that proposes placing mental health workers directly in the school. How strange it is that one of the contributors to poor mental health for children is the state test the school is in charge of administering.
So, with it established that a school’s main drivers of outcome results that determine its rating are out of the control of the faculty and the principal, we can make the declarative statement that the rating of the school is not determined by the quality of the teachers or the principal. Now, saying that, are there at times teachers that need to be developed to raise their teaching abilities? Of course, there are. Conversely, are their principals that at times need extra attention from the superintendent? Of course, there are. These are issues, however, that can be solved, the majority of the time, through good leadership in the school or school district. In all the school TEA school report cards I have reviewed, I have never seen a school that had high percentages in the three demographic categories I outlined, whose outcomes on the state test resulted in a school rating in the 90th percentile, or an A by the new A-F rating system. I have also never seen a school that had very low percentages in the three demographic areas highlighted, that has not had outcome results in the high ’80s or ’90s.
Let me be clearer:
High percentage of Low Socio-Economic student population
High percentage of English Language Learners =. Low testing outcomes
High percentage of Mobility in the student population
Low percentage of Low Socio-economic student population
Low percentage of English Language Learners = High testing outcomes
Low percentage of Mobility in the student population
With the outcomes of the state test being determined to be essentially out of the principal’s hands to influence, the leadership of the school needs to re-evaluate the one thing that is becoming more and more a reason why teachers are discouraged and many are leaving the profession; that is the Fear Factor. Schools have become extremely toxic environments to work in within the past two years. The culture has gone from one of nurturing and encouraging, to one of intimidation and fear. In my opinion, this has been a result of the new accountability system imposed by the TEA that labels each school and school district with a letter grade. The phrase, “it’s time to get on the bus”, or “it’s a new day”, or “this is the way it is, get used to it”, have become standard themes in most schools. The fear of the superintendent or principal to have his or her district or school labeled in such a horrible, demeaning way, has transferred over to extremely overbearing leadership being imposed on the principals by the superintendent, and the teachers by the principal. This in turn sometimes get transferred to the students and the results for students can be frustration, depression, and a general dread of going to school each day, and especially testing day.
Back in December of 2018, I asked for feedback from teachers and administrators about the fear factor and what they were experiencing in their school that was a change from past years where there was pressure but not the extreme pressure we are seeing lately. The testimonies I received were very enlightening. Every single reply to this informal request for information was negative; none were positive. Now, I know that conclusions cannot be drawn from this informal request for information, but I do believe it was representative of a dramatic shift in leadership styles and approaches by the leadership in schools and school districts.
Here is but a small representation of the feedback I received. These comments, however, are representative of the tenor of the comments in total that I received. Of course, names are withheld to protect jobs and reputations. The intimidation placed on teachers to be a team player is formidable, and no teacher wants the label of malcontent. So many, many teachers suffer in silence, afraid to speak up, afraid to voice an opinion that runs contrary to the leadership in their school. As for the parents, they are trying as best they can to strike a balance with their child who is obviously under tremendous pressure.
Here is some of the feedback.
A veteran teacher had this to say, “I’m in my 31st year, and I don’t remember being fearful until the last few years. I don’t like walking in each morning not knowing what to expect. I’m a planner, and changing things every week (and sometimes every day) is driving me crazy. I don’t feel like there’s a true plan. It’s like everyone is flying by the seat of their pants every day. We lost some really good teachers last year with no explanation. We’re going to lose some more this year because it’s just too stressful now. It’s no longer about the kids. It’s about the numbers and having perfectly written documents whether they can be implemented with fidelity or not. The high school students I work with are extremely fearful. They know they aren’t prepared to enter the real world. We are no longer teaching “life skills” because we have to make sure we address the high stakes testing objectives. It makes me sad. I had numerous teachers that taught me about “life” and I’m extremely grateful for those lessons. I wish we had time to continue those important conversations with students.”
An elementary teacher and an LSSP (Licensed Specialist in School Psychology) wrote, “I believe a certain amount of fear can be healthy BUT when expectations far outweigh the resources provided, it makes teachers desperate. Desperate to keep up with the curriculum, desperate to get grades in, desperate when dealing with behaviors… the list goes on. Keeping up with very fast-moving curriculum causes teachers to scrape the tip of the iceberg instead of going in depth with their teaching. This results in children lacking very important understanding and application of concepts needed to progress through the rest of the curriculum. When I went from being a general education teacher (only being aware of what was going on within my 4 walls) to being an LSSP, it was very eye-opening. Our sped babies, who need us the most, are suffering terribly. In some cases, I believe they’d be better off not being identified. It causes some teachers to focus on their “bubble kids” and depend on the special ed “label” to allow a sense of something to fall back on or use as an excuse as to why they don’t pass. The lack of special education teachers and support staff make it very difficult, even for teachers with good intentions and work ethic, to REALLY individualize instruction and target weaknesses. In my experience, the majority of these kiddos are just being “passed through” and we are failing to teach them with intentions to close the gaps. I also want to add that when TEKS were moved to a lower grade level (5th-grade math TEKS to 4th grade) (oh and the level at which kindergarteners are “supposed” to read), it caused an all-new kind of desperate! This is developmentally inappropriate. Children are still developing at the same rate as they were 50 years ago! Why are we expecting more of their brains than physiologically possible? The results of this movement include extreme behaviors, whether it is to avoid tasks they can’t be successful with or when frustrations reach its max. These students are not learning to be social either, because teachers are too worried about curriculum… I won’t even go down that rabbit hole. I want to add the dependency on technology to “teach” our kids is not beneficial either. There are appropriate times for technology but teaching a concept is not necessarily one of them. Technology can be helpful when a student is practicing a concept that has already been taught (or mastered for the most part) and fluency is the end goal.”
A secondary veteran teacher expressed, “When all this nonsense first came out, I mostly ignored it and continued to seek out new and creative methods for involving my students and pointing them toward the love of learning. Those were my best teaching years. Then as administrations changed at my original school in Texas (not naming names) the shaming began from principals and district officials. Weekly Department chair meetings where we were expected to present weekly statistics on how well the students mastered weekly objectives. Each teacher had to administer weekly quizzes measuring mastery of objectives. I then had to compile the data and report it to the principal and other department chairs. Then came the district 6 weeks assessments which were reported to the principal, district coordinators, and eventually the superintendent. Out went the creativity and joy of learning. Out went the fun learning experiences that stayed in the minds of students forever. By that time, I was fed up with the paranoia and changed school districts. I even took a pay cut to do so. For a while things were great and teachers shared creative techniques with their peers. But eventually, the almighty State reached its tentacles to even the more successful districts. Once again, the creativity and exciting learning experiences disappeared and teachers were forced into daily meetings about assessment strategies. Campus and district assessments increased. As one of my former students told me, “The most exciting thing in class now is when the PowerPoint has a sound effect!” As more of the same continued, I decided it was time to retire, partially from fear, but more from disgust. Education just wasn’t fun anymore for me and my students.”
This testimony is from a parent: “My daughter goes to (name withheld) and overall it’s a really good school and the teachers (at least the ones my daughter has) are really good and encouraging. But that STAAR test mess has just got to go. It stresses everyone out and to what end? It’s like telling the kids that no matter what they did or the grades they got all can go down the drain with that test. Awful. I will say that my daughter seems less stressed since she saw how I handled a prior STAAR test debacle while she had straight A’s.”
“Always an elementary teacher, no matter what other role I’ve held on my campus, unfortunately, the fear of how a campus performs or underperforms affects the instruction of all students. Far too much time is spent teaching test-taking strategies vs core curriculum. Depending on the grade level in which content is assessed…other content is pushed aside, not taught or crammed in after testing season ends…which is a huge disservice to our children…we seem to assess and assess and assess, some more to see how students are performing…but not leaving time to provide deep teaching and learning to take place. Fortunately, many of my teachers feel comfortable enough to talk to me without fear of being ridiculed…. they are frustrated. The education world is very frustrating today.”
Finally, this gut-wrenching testimony from a mom who was desperate to help her child.
“My son is now 23.
Background: He has always scored off the charts on all tests. We moved here from SD, which has one of the best school systems we have ever seen. My oldest son was one of four National Merit Scholarship Finalist in his high school there. His graduating class had 101 kids. Four NM scholarship finalists are HUGE. My younger son was always in GT classes and was placed in AP and honors courses based on his abilities.
As the new kid at WCJH he was bullied, and NOTHING WAS DONE! We were told that is “just how some people are,” and he needed to learn to deal with it. He was on FB, someone had sent him a page that was set up to talk about how everyone hated a particular student. The principal said there was nothing she could do. A dedicated hate page by her students and she was not going to even talk to the kids about it. (I went with him to report it. He was so nervous!) After moving up to SLHS, he found a safe haven with his band and the directors. But the fear-mongering in his classes caused severe anxiety. We started counseling and my son was diagnosed with severe anxiety and major depressive disorder with suicidal ideation. I guess not being exposed to this earlier in life made him more susceptible??? It was a shock to his system to not be encouraged to explore all his interests and LEARN and told to focus only on those classes that would give him a “competitive” GPA and encouraged to be result oriented vs. process oriented.
His Drs both advised it was the educational environment that created this ridiculous sense of fear of failure and we should consider different placements. For a formerly confident and extremely successful student, it was a hard diagnosis to accept. The constant “grade whoring” (NOT sexual, but the terms the students used to describe the tactics to get a “bump” in their grade) and his unwillingness to be a part of that, was what led to the depression. He had absolutely no reason to have any fear of failure but that is literally all that he heard.
Fear was created to control the students. I started volunteering more (outside of band) at the high school to get even more involved and actually see what was going on 1st hand. I was shocked (and frankly disgusted) to hear other parents discuss how to get any edge they could for their children. Hours of how a student should not take certain classes (even if it was their passion) because it would not benefit the all mighty GPA. A few weeks of listening to this nonstop, I was developing anxiety and actually had a panic attack trying to explain what was going on to my husband. One day I just got up and walked out of the portable we parents were working in. I went to the counselor’s office and had my son brought in. I offered to pull him out and either find a private school or home school. Although he was conflicted about having to leave the band, he did not hesitate. He cried he was so thankful to even think about getting away from the craziness. We unenrolled and found an excellent private school that focused on developing the “whole” child and allowing them to find their passion, with no negative consequences.
To this day, if we have to attend an event at one of the public schools in Katy, his anxiety rears its ugly head. (They all look like SLHS.) we even left a concert without going in because it was just too stressful. When I drive anywhere near SLHS I start feeling anxiety creep in. It makes me sick what happened to my child there and I waited 18 months to pull him out.”
Again, I would like to thank those who agreed to share their experiences. Of course, these comments are not representative of all schools, but it is a trend that is occurring more frequently. What can we do to help, and how can we make sure the pressure felt by the teacher is not passed on to the student. With the growing increase in student depression, high stakes testing and the pressure associated with the high stakes has not helped the students who are sensitive to increases in high pressure at young ages. It is incumbent on all educators to be cognizant of the tactics being used in the attempt to achieve higher outcomes and higher school ratings from the state. The state and the TEA have done a huge disservice to all educators and students by moving to the A-F grading system. It demonstrates the lack of respect that legislators have for the education profession. They actually think that more shaming is what is needed to produce higher outcomes on the state test. The shaming and sanctioning are always done on Title I schools located in areas of high poverty. The politicians who make sweeping statements about the need for increased accountability are contributing to the death of a profession. With vast numbers of teachers leaving their jobs due to unhealthy working conditions, the void that is left will need to be filled by those less qualified and less trained in good teaching pedagogy. Students will depend more and more on technology to be their teacher. Is this what the politicians want? Sometimes, I think it is.
It is my sincere hope that those in leadership positions will take stock of what tactics they are using in their effort to achieve higher student outcomes. It is my hope that school leadership will consider the effect on the health and well-being of the teachers and students they have been charged with leading and educating. The results of overzealous school leaders, fearful of low ratings, can have devastating results. Instead, realize and understand that there is only so much that can be done to raise test scores when certain demographics, like high socio-economic levels, high English Language Learners, and a high mobility rate, make certain school ratings next to impossible. It is my hope that superintendents and principals will realize this reality and work to make the environments of their schools more conducive for students and teachers. The future of the teaching profession and the health of all concerned, teachers and students, is at stake.
Patrick Huff is a retired educator of thirty-four years, with experience as a middle school and high school principal. He has a Bachelors of Science in Education from Texas Christian University, a Masters of Education from Sam Houston State University, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Prairie View A&M University. His awareness and insight into the domination of testing in today’s public schools and the unrealistic mandates of No Child Left Behind law led him to write The Takeover of Public Education in America: The Agenda to Control Information and Knowledge Through the Accountability System (Published through Authorhouse, 2015). He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas located in Houston, Texas. His book and other articles can be found at www.aphuff.com. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.