As the city soon discovered and the country learned only belatedly, however, the belief that simply setting ambitious targets would catapult 100 percent of American students to rigorous, grade-level proficiency by 2014 — the original goal of No Child Left Behind — was always unfounded. Starting in 2008, the city’s schools came under scrutiny from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by a state probe assisted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The inquiries determined that some teachers and administrators in the school system, their livelihoods on the line, coached students during the 2009 test or tampered with students’ answers in response to a toxic “culture of fear” and retaliation in the district. More than 150 people who worked in or oversaw Atlanta’s schools, including Peyton Forest, were eventually implicated in the cheating and lost their jobs or voluntarily left.
“It was ugly and horrible for everyone whether you were accused of cheating or not,” says Gayle Burnett, who worked in the district’s central office at the time and is now executive director of the district’s office of innovation. “You were hearing horror stories about people being intimidated. You were crushed by what people were admitting they had done.”
Yet many teachers had also been put in a terrible bind. While teacher effectiveness may be the most salient in-school factor contributing to student academic outcomes, it contributes a relatively small slice — no more than 14 percent, according to a recent RAND Corporation analysis of teacher effectiveness — to the overall picture. A far bigger wedge is influenced by out-of-school variables over which teachers have little control: family educational background, the effects of poverty or segregation on children, exposure to stress from gun violence or abuse and how often students change schools, owing to homelessness or other upheavals.
In the eighties, there were no official video stores in Iran. Very few foreign films were shown on state TV, and even those were censored. My parents, along with everyone else who wished to see movies from around the world, relied on merchants who specialized in distributing illegal films. These dealers, or, as we called them, filmees, travelled across Tehran carrying poor-quality vhs and Betamax tapes in conspicuous rectangular bags. For the price of a sandwich, “subscribers” could choose a few cassettes from the dozen or so on offer. If my mom wanted something specific, like Gone with the Wind, all she could do was ask nicely and hope for the next week. If the movie actually arrived—a rare event—she’d invite her friends over and make a feast of it.
When I was a child, these often-glitchy tapes offered me a window into the outside world. I was able to see beautiful actors sing, kiss, and, in the case of the Indiana Jones series, crack whips. By the time I was in high school, in the late 1990s, the black market had grown thanks to dvds, which were easier to copy and distribute. If you enjoyed the work of Michael Haneke or were fixated on Juliette Binoche, there was now a good chance you could find their films, though it might take months of searching.
I look back sometimes and wonder how things could have been different if my manager had really talked to me, if he had leaned across his desk and said, “Wendy, you have always been an asset to my department; now it’s my turn to help you.” How much longer might I have been able to keep working? What else might I have gone on to achieve?
Had I been given a chance, my response to “How much time have you got?” would have been, “I’ve got as much time as you will give me.”
“The Silence of the Girls” is a novel that allows those who were dismissed as girls — the women trapped in a celebrated historical war — to speak, to be heard, to bear witness. In doing so, Barker has once again written something surprising and eloquent that speaks to our times while describing those long gone.