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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


No Child Left Standing

An award-winning high school teacher wants to make sure we know what's to blame for unprepared college students. He's asked college teachers to spread the word.

February 11, 2013

This past weekend the Facebook feeds of some of my friends with school-aged children lit up with a guest post on Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post education blog, “The Answer Sheet,” from a retired school teacher, Kenneth Bernstein, titled “A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher.”

Bernstein believes that the testing requirements born out of the No Child Left Behind laws (now having been in effect for ten years, or essentially the entire educational lives of today’s college students) have perverted the educational practices in schools across the country.

By focusing on multiple-choice tests and essay questions that require responses utilizing rubrics that don’t actually reflect effective writing practices, Bernstein worries that high schools have largely abandoned the higher order skills that colleges are hoping to find in their students upon arrival.  

In speaking about his A.P. U.S. Government course, Bernstein says, “I would like to believe that I prepared them to think more critically and to present cogent arguments, but I could not simultaneously prepare them to do well on that portion of the test and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.”

To the extent that college professors are finding unprepared students in their classrooms, he wants to make sure that we know that teachers are not to blame.

He speaks to the professoriate directly:

“If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.”


I am sympathetic to Kenneth Bernstein’s argument. To the extent schools need reform, I believe it’s rooted in clearing away high-stakes testing and letting teachers teach. My best high school teachers were the most creative ones. I also think that freedom begets happiness, which begets greater motivation, which begets better work. To the extent we are dissatisfied with the work teachers are doing, I believe much of it is because we aren’t actually allowing them to practice their craft.

That said, I don’t find myself in a higher state of concern about the “qualities” of my students now than any other time during my teaching career. If students arrived already knowing what I have to teach, then the exercise would be kind of pointless.

My students actually have many fine qualities. I both like and admire them, for example their attitudes that they can effect change. This is a marked difference from my generation, (X), where…I don’t know what we were for, nothing particular, I guess.

But I have recently come off of a week of individual conferences where far too many of my students told me that in high school English, they weren’t asked to do much writing. I’m not sure who was more disappointed in this, me or them. I think during high school, they maybe didn’t mind so much because it was, in their own words, “easy.” Now, though, they realize that this has come at a price, a price they will be paying in my course this semester.

Because they are high quality people, they seem, if not eager, at least willing to meet the challenge, but it seems clear that the curricular perversions wrought by No Child are taking their toll.

I actually think the damage goes well beyond students spending time learning things for the sole purpose of passing a standardized test, things that hold little relevance to the “higher order thinking” college will hopefully demand of them.

The bigger problem is what all these “high stakes” tests do to how they view the very purpose of learning, namely it being a process that involves memorizing a series of small, discrete bits of information that are then offloaded permanently onto a Scantron, and then forgotten forever.

We have turned school into a series of hoops to jump through, perhaps hoops of increasing difficulty – the later ones involving fire – but hoops nonetheless.

Mostly what this gets is students who don’t see learning as an ongoing process, and who also exist in a perpetual state of anxiety over the next test that is going to determine their fates for the rest of their lives.

What I see is a generation of students who worry too much.

They worry that they’re “falling behind” if they get less than A’s or don’t know what to major in, or what kind of job they want when they graduate based on the major they chose at age 18, despite having no idea what they wanted to major in, let alone do with the rest of their lives.

They’re terrified that the next slip-up will be their last. They genuinely think they might be ruining their lives if they earn a sub-standard grade. It’s why there’s an epidemic of off-label use of study drugs like Adderall. It’s why students report “record high levels of stress.” It’s why every semester some non-trivial number of my students will leave college not because they aren’t smart enough or prepared enough for its academic rigors, but because they have simply run out of the ability to cope.

Whatever deficiencies in knowledge or skills my students arrive with are relatively easily remedied. That’s why they’re in the course, after all.

What I can’t fix is a culture that tells them that “success” looks like a good grade on a test, regardless of how that grade was earned.

I think we should get rid of the high stakes testing not just because it hamstrings teachers from doing their jobs (though it does), but because it’s freaking students out, which makes it awfully hard to live, let alone learn.


If you, like me, agree with Kenneth Bernstein, we should Tweet about it.


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