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Chaos in Our Schools

by T.L. Zempel,
veteran teacher and
modern truth-teller

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The best way to get people, en masse, to accept a bad situation is to sugar-coat it with feel-good language.
Policies that sound benign on the surface have led to a misleading and convoluted deployment of public education.

The Failure of Modern American Education

One Veteran Teacher's Account of Life in the Trenches


FOREWORD from the book:

Most of us agree that education is in trouble in our country.  What we can’t sort out is how to fix it.  The experts have propagated numerous theories over the years, each promising to provide the last, best hope.  One stand-out expert weighs in on the efficacy of these theories in the first paragraph of his op-ed that appeared in Education Week in 2015:


Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for universal excellence. Sadly, though, the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes has remained, well, elusive. [1]


This is from Dr. James Delisle, a noted Gifted and Talented specialist whose books appear prominently on Prufrock Press’s webpages. When I read this op-ed in 2016, I thought, ‘Amazing!  Someone of note finally speaks the truth about teaching.’                

From a teacher’s perspective, there is a disconnect between the messages routinely delivered by administration and the reality we experience in the classroom.  We are continually told that if we would just latch on to ‘this best practice’ or ‘that best practice’, all our students will respond positively, and every issue in our classroom will be resolved. This fad driven professional development creates havoc in schools and cynicism among teachers.  No strategy touted by their principal is given much credence because teachers know that next year, something new will take its place.

The education elites have become fond of thrusting cutting-edge programs at us – I have manuals for many of these sitting on my shelves at home, distant memories of their tried-and-failed implementation clouding my mind.  I also remember my introduction to some pretty major requirements: Differentiation, Visible Learning, and Common Core, back in the school years 2012 and 2013. 

In truth, teachers want to believe there is a cure-all for the malaise they see in their classrooms.  But we know something the experts don’t: the reality of classroom teaching.


Where did all these education game-changers come from?  Why have we been assailed over the last twenty years by what has become a cottage industry of re-inventing learning? 

I believe we can trace it to our lawmakers.


In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a piece of legislation that addresses the disparities in achievement between impoverished populations and everyone else.  It is where we get programs that begin with the word Title:


  • Title I:  mandated programs in low-income schools.

  • Title II:  funding for school libraries, textbooks, and preschool programs.

  • Title III:  mandates and funding for adult education.

  • Title IV:  $100 million over five years to fund research and training.

  • Title V: grants under Public Law 874 (for Title I, to address operating costs in low-income schools).

  • Title VI:  definitions and limitations to the law.[2]

Every five years, this Act has been reviewed by Congress, with new legislation added periodically, such as Title IX in 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in any program receiving Federal funds.  There are numerous other education reform laws on the Federal books.  To summarize and analyze them all would require writing a separate book. That is not my purpose.   I will, however, address two of the more recent adjuncts to the original ESEA.

In 2001, Congress worked in a bipartisan way to write a new extension of ESEA, naming it No Child Left Behind (NCLB)[3].  One of its major provisions is called Adequate Yearly Progress.  AYP “allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine how every public school and school district in the country is performing academically according to results on standardized tests.”[4]

 The very name No Child Left Behind promises positive change.  Unfortunately, the bill contained enough improbable-to-achieve mandates that Congress had to establish flexibility in its implementation and waivers for its requirements.[5]  The ultimate waiver came in 2009, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bill that places measuring growth in students above grade-level achievement as the arbiter of success.  This is a flawed proposition on two fronts: it requires teachers to focus on activities other than teaching, and it provides false security to students and guardians regarding learning.

When Congress passes laws without considering the domino effect of policies that surely must ensue, chaos jumps in.  What we have now are well-intended but ineffective multiple layers of requirements.  Federal mandates mean that states must also enact their own measures.  Circular bureaucracy is the result.


In 2010, Colorado’s legislature created a bill they coined The Educator Effectiveness Act.  From the moment it passed, districts across the state developed and continue to hone teacher evaluation systems that reward compliance with mandated documentation and data collection. We’re talking massive amounts of paperwork as well as people employed merely to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.  Genuine concern about students is pushed to the back of the stage as a façade of competence jumps into the center.

I endured one of these district evaluation schemes for five years; it seemed to have no purpose other than appeasing people in suits who sit around mahogany tables discussing how they can keep teachers on edge and the money train on schedule.  I have no reason to believe every district in Colorado and any other state with similar legislation is evaluating its teachers very differently. 

The Educator Effectiveness Act portends to be a performance-based doctrine.[6] 


However, half of the evaluation system mandated by it comes from one person’s unaudited subjective notes about a teacher’s performance. 

A third comes from the teacher’s own reporting on her activities and supposed classroom data.  Around 15 percent comes from a convoluted algorithm that applies a school’s overall test performance to each of its teachers.  If you think that is a good idea, consider this:  What if you weren’t working in that school last year?  And what if the algorithm is not applied with fidelity?  Would anyone know?

Complex systems require complex paperwork and lots of money.  They also allow for the very real possibility of subterfuge among participants.


  Chaos appears to reign in our schools: 


  • Poor policies couched in pleasant language.

  • Websites filled with near-worthless information.

  • Growth, whether authentic or not, considered more important than achievement.

  • Administrators and teachers participating in appearance-based protocols.

  • Requirements for teachers becoming more important than actual teaching.

  • Students seen more as subjects of data collection than as learners.


I address each of these in this book.  My own plan for improvement appears at the end.  If you are tempted to jump ahead, don’t feel bad.  Just as students are coached to look at the questions prior to reading nonfiction to get the gist of what they must know, you, dear reader, may get benefit from seeing the endpoint I propose prior to reading the expose that supports it.  But that’s your choice.

Our public schools are tax-supported institutions.  How much do you really know about them?  What can you share about the curriculum your child is studying and the tests he is taking, right now?  Ultimately, it is the students who are the most important part of a classroom.  That idea has been diluted in modern attempts to improve the quality of education delivered in this country.


This book is written from the perspective of a teacher who has worked in the classroom for thirty years.  I am not a self-professed expert, just a regular person sharing how education research and mandates were implemented in my school, along with the pitfalls of addressing technique while ignoring setting.  I am sure plenty of actual experts will weigh in on my claims.  It is up to the reader to discern what to accept and what to consider with suspicion.          




1 Dr. James Delisle, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work”. Education Week, 2015.

2 Paul, Catherine A. Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

3 U.S. Department of Education: No Child Left Behind

4 Wikipedia: Adequate Yearly Progress

5 U.S. Department of Education: ESEA Flexibility

6 Colorado Dept. of Education: State Model Evaluation System. 2019


A Publication of the
School Matters Foundation

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