Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Warning

This article, written by a recently-retired high school teacher, has been making the rounds.  It doesn't contain any surprises (we knew we were dealing with the effects of NCLB), but it's still an interesting inside look at the effects of the testing culture, from the perspective of what sounds like a good, thoughtful teacher.

You are a college professor. 
I have just retired as a high school teacher. 
I have some bad news for you. In case you do not already see what is happening, I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.  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. . . .
Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education. 
Recognizing this, those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited. . . .
I suspect it might also at least partially answer Cynic's question on a recent post: "What is WITH the procrastination?"  Part of it's probably just human nature.  I procrastinated in college; I procrastinated while (not) working on my dissertation; I still procrastinate at times, though somewhat less so now that I have a bit more control over how I structure my time, and a bit more confidence in my ability to do what I need to do -- and I think that's the key. 

Students who are absolutely overwhelmed by the idea of writing a paper -- even a short, simple paper -- because they've done it only rarely, will procrastinate, and mentally squirm in various other ways that are basically the non-verbal equivalent of "do I hafta?  Do I really, really hafta?"  Students with more practice will still procrastinate, but probably not to the same extent, or for the same length of time (e.g. they might actually read the assignment in advance, and ask questions a week, or at least a class, before the due date).  


  1. Those students are already here.

  2. I've not seen much of a difference in my students in decades. I don't expect NCLB is making them worse.

    What's making them worse is how the educational system is set up in this country, with the bottom of the barrel going into K-12 education. Our schools should be flooded with the best and the brightest, like Finland. Like our universities.

    Instead we get dunderheads. Thank God for the few truly intellgent and dedicated ed majors that make it through.

    Mainstreaming hasn't helped. It has its advantages societally but it's also a millstone around the necks of the higher achievers.

    Yeah, we're screwed.

  3. The retired teacher makes a good point - the procrastination isn't anything new, I spent many a night-before-due-date busting my ass to finish an assignment on time that I should worked on the week before. The difference is, even though I had procrastinated, I knew what to do when crunch time finally came, as opposed to what we see now with students clueless until the last minute, and asking for help hours before the assignment is due on basic and elementary tasks that should have been learned long before entering uni.

    1. I think you've nailed it. I am not a procrastinator by nature (I'm too anxious to procrastinate), but if I do, for whatever reasons, I know I can pull out an end product that meets requirements and no one is the wiser, except me. I know I could have done better, but no one else can tell... or if they could tell, no one ever called me on it.

  4. Here's the simple and inexpensive secret to a great high school:

    Small class sizes, teachers with graduate degrees in their fields (not in education) who have real freedom to design their courses, choose their books, and teach as they see fit. Then add students and families who value education and want to be there and an administration that supports high intellectual and ethical standards within the community. Boom: awesomeness.

    That's it, and your main expense is faculty salaries. You don't need SmartBoards, 1:1 technology, a bloated and self-important, administrative class, a fancy "athletic center" or any other type of expensive window dressing.

    Hells, I work at Fancy Pants Expensive High School and I teach in a cramped building with no a/c. Every winter, chipmunks and groundhogs crawl into the heating vents to die and stink. It took 6 months to get screens put on my classroom windows. Our administrators are anti-intellectual boobs, but they don't interfere in the classroom, because we have a strong faculty culture. We have the resources to get whatever classroom supplies and technology we need, but a lot of infrastructure is pretty shabby. Our kids do well because they do their work conscientiously, they have awesome teachers who are experts in their fields, and they get a ton of constant feedback while being held to high standards.

    It's not magic, we just don't want to do this as a society. Throwing money at technology or creating meaningless standards and tests is much easier than hiring and paying talented people and then supporting their work.

    1. Oh, and a GIANT huzzah to the author for standing up against ridiculously inappropriate AP classes. The AP history courses I have taught and teach now are a mile wide and a centimeter deep. Every year we take our most promising young thinkers and shove them into AP classes where their love of history and passion for deep and sustained analysis is thoroughly beaten out of them by the content-bloated double-time death-march toward the May exam.

      The College Board and ETS are running an extortion racket wherein our most talented students fear that they won't get into college without an arbitrarily-assigned grade in a poorly-designed course. I worked as an exam reader for six years, and the depth of my disgust for ETS and the AP history exams and the intellectual damage it does to students is so vast as to be immeasurable.

    2. Fuck ETS, fuck the whole AP system. Most of the students in my upper-level class got out of taking the beginning-level class because they got AP credit. They're not prepared. They know absolutely nothing, have terrible writing skills, and are incapable of analysis. "I got AP credit" is now my least favorite phrase in the English language. It means I'm dealing with a student with an over-inflated ego who probably can't write.

      I worked a school system that was exposed for calling a class "AP Calculus" when it was mostly fractions and pre-algebra. Since high schools are now ranked according to how many AP classes they offer, there's major incentive to shove as many unprepared students in them as possible.

    3. Oh, Surly. Your account of the current state of AP classes makes me sad. I enjoyed all my AP classes, but I especially loved AP US History, and I'm pretty sure we focused on depth more than breadth (lots of work on thinking and writing in class, especially on DBQs, which probably influenced my idea of what a good writing assignment looks like more than anything else in my education). We certainly reviewed key facts, but I think we were mostly expected to do that on our own (using a couple of recommended review/practice books). I can't remember whether I got a 4 or a 5 on that one, but I know I got a lot out of the class. Of course, that was a long, long time ago (30+ years), though not so far away from where I am now (and my school closely resembled your description. It's gotten spiffier, and even more expensive, since, and the teaching seemed pretty good when I went back to a reunion, but I'm sure there's pressure to do whatever it takes to get the highest scores possible on multiple APs. I took a bunch, but that was somewhat unusual in my day, and I made no effort to get college credit. I was simply looking for the most interesting/challenging classes).

  5. "The College Board and ETS are running an extortion racket wherein our most talented students fear that they won't get into college without an arbitrarily-assigned grade in a poorly-designed course. "

    I strongly suspect those students are right, which only makes things worse.

  6. And everyone keeps forgetting another truth:

    Once upon a time, only the "best and brightest" (or richest) went to college.

    It used to be 15% (or so) of HS grads took higher ed classes. By my days in college, it apparently jumped to 25%. Recent stats suggest it's now closer to 75-80%.

    And all those new bodies have excellent minds? Unlikely.

  7. Some children just deserve to be left behind, preferably at the Gas 'n Subs on a lonely desert highway....

  8. I've written before about my starting teaching at the high and middle school level and lamenting the every lowering bar that was set. I came to the college level hoping (praying?) that the "no one complains when they pass" mentality hadn't infected higher ed ... alas it had.

    Now I even see it at the graduate level.

    I read this essay before it was posted here and had a similar reaction "nothing to see here ... nothing new."

    Yet, every few months some pundit will "sound the alarm" or some tea partying hugely fictionalized portrayal of a modestly successful educational undertaking will whip people into a frenzy over how terrible things are and how they must IMMEDIATELY be fixed.

    Then educators must spend the next couple of years dealing with the ridiculous edu-fads that are spawned. But, soon we are back to square one until everyone wakes up again.

    Just another day in grades 12 through K.

  9. I'm noticing, too, though, that even the brightest and most capable are procrastinating (perhaps b/c they overinflate their skills and abilities?). I have skilled writing majors waiting until the night before to start a major project that I expect would take ME at least two weeks to get into good shape (and it's not because they're not capable of doing the work or aren't sure how to start). Those who start earlier are teased as being 'nerds' or 'freaks,' and they even apologize to their peers for being early starters, using disclaimers like, "I have a test next week when this is due, so I'll start now," or "I'm really anxious about it, so I have to start now." Instead of it being the norm to start a project earlier than the night before, students seem incapable of planning ahead of time.

    Is that just a result of our cultural fast-food, instant gratification mentality?

  10. I reflected on that same article here: http://scholasticsnakeoil.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-nclb-generation.html


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