Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Message from a former teacher to a high school teacher

I just stumbled across an article from last February's WaPo, the contents of  Kenneth Bernstein's  Warning to college profs from a high school teacher.

Having lived in the household of one college professor, and having served in education in several different capacities, I wholly understand the complaint he makes, that teaching to the tests is not an optimal method for preparing children for the next stage of education, or for life in general:

No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.
 Bernstein does his best to describe the bleak situation

From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use what content knowledge they had.

Further, he asks

As a retired public school teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to offer a caution to college professors, or perhaps to make a plea.
Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are. We have very little say in what is happening to public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. The National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be the representative of America’s teachers—if he or she cannot get teachers’ voices included, imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us. That is why, if you have not seen it, I strongly urge you to read 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen’s famous blog post, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.”

When you get right down to it, then, Bernstein's "apology" is more of a complaint, that government policies are what prevented him from being a good teacher, and now he's sending his problem upstairs, to the colleges.

The funny thing is, many of what he labels as "mindless and destructive patterns of misuse of tests"  have their roots in the establishment of standardized tests created, to begin with, so that parents, teachers, and students would all know what is to be expected of them by a certain point in their educations. Further, No Child Left Behind was developed as a policy because so very very many students were not meeting those simple expectations by middle school and high school, that parents  pleaded with the government to come in and fix their broken school systems.

Toward the end of the last century, schools – especially those in strongly rural and densely urban regions – suffered from increasingly high failure and dropout rates. In answer to that, there had been attempts to negotiate with teachers' unions, to work a solution to the problem, by rewarding the more successful teachers and removing those who could not teach. Unfortunately, there was some difficulty with that plan: by what metric to we choose to keep or to clean house? It's entirely too easy to allow politics or personal feelings interfere in a performance evaluation, especially if a teacher is persistent in challenging the little hothouse flowers, and they whine that he's "picking on them," or something comparable. We needed an objective means of assessment, in order to decide which teachers should be promoted, which should be advised to find new careers… We needed, they said, a standardized testing system.

We had a problem, we asked for solutions – including allowing for the firing of those who can't teach – the unions balked, the failing teachers stayed, the problem got worse, largely due to lack of accountability on all sides, so we invited the federal government in. What could possibly go wrong, when Big Labor and Big Government collude to decide what the rules in the tax-funded classroom will be?

Yeah, that went well.

In other words, this didn't start with No Child Left Behind, and it won't end with any program imposed on a grand scale, regardless of how much the parents, teachers, and everybody else may whine.

The entire of the American public school system is now at a crossroads. Not only do we need to reassess what we expect of the students at each level, and of the teachers, as well. We need to decide what we expect of the system itself. Do we truly still believe that it is possible to mass-produce intelligent thought by government fiat and multiple-guess tests? Or do we look at each district, each school, each classroom, each teacher and each student as independent and dynamic? Do we continue to sell the notion that every child, whatever his field, must suffer years of  boredom and crippling debt to acquire a doctorate or perish, or do we reshape our own views so that those whose gifts lie in their hands are respected and treated as well as those who read Latin or calculate pi to the umpteenth decimal? The mindset shapes the system.

Those parents who are able, have sent their children to private schools, parochial schools, or have even home-schooled rather than allow their children to fall through the cracks which are the system. Theirs are the children who grow to shape the next generation of innovation and industry.

So, some families have adapted, either by financial advantage or by sheer will. Will the public schools learn to adapt, or will they and their employees go the way of the spinster school marm?

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