A Warning from the Trenches
This morning I ran across a remarkable essay. I had heard it mentioned briefly in the Chronicle Review but had not seen the actual essay at AAUP site until today. Written by Ken Bernstein, a former high school teacher from Maryland who retired much earlier than he had planned, his “Warning from the Trenches” seeks to alert those of us in higher education to a pattern that many of us have long suspected - that the students coming to us from the high stakes test driven pedagogy of No Child Left Behind are largely unprepared for higher education.
I was not only moved by the passion Bernstein clearly holds for education, a passion I also share in the trenches of factories producing degrees that have in Florida replaced higher education, I was struck by his ability to zero in on the metaproblem of NCLB – a reductionism and minimalism that reduces the educational process to little more than a mechanical memorization of unnuanced data in pursuit of success in a standardized test game.
A Critique Right on Target
Bernstein’s essay moved me to write this response left on the AAUP site. I reproduce it here:
I am the fifth generation of educators in my family and I have taught at every level of education from elementary school to doctoral candidates. Over the past 31 years, I've taught many undergraduates in community colleges, private universities and state universities. I left a lucrative practice in law to return to the classroom knowing I would never be paid what my hard work was worth but believing the sacrifice was worth the opportunity to serve the state that had permitted me to become an educated human being.
Sadly, not only is Mr. Bernstein on target here but the evidence of the accuracy of his observations has already arrived at our colleges and universities. Over the past 30 years, I observe that my entering students have become more and more limited in their capabilities, both in writing but more importantly in thinking. NCLB has produced students who can perform admirably within the limited parameters of the test game for which they've been trained. But they are not only largely incapable of translating those limited skills to anything outside the testing context ("Will this be on the test?"), they are inveterately resistant to doing so. NCLB has taught them many things. Perhaps the most damaging has been a lack of curiosity and an impoverishing reductionism in their approach to becoming educated human beings.
Avoiding the Easy Out of Scapegoating
I do not blame Mr. Bernstein or any of his colleagues in public education today for this situation. This is the result of public policy which has produced a whole generation left behind. No doubt the sense of dismay Mr. Bernstein so obviously experiences here is compounded by the sense of frustration that the inability to impact or even critically assess the very pedagogical procedures one is required to administer as a condition of employment must be terribly painful.
N.B. Bernstein’s article referenced another essay, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard,” by Anthony Mullen, the National Teacher of the Year in 2009 who relates his experience of attending a national conference on education and standing “like a fly on the wall” at a reception while policy makers engaged in mutually affirming truisms about education, all the while ignoring the only teacher in the room. Finally asked his opinion, he relates his response in this essay, a portion of which is instructive here:
Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”
The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.
“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
I have also observed the wisdom of the National Teacher of the Year quoted above who echoed the observation of my own teacher father years ago: "The problem with education is that everyone thinks they're an expert." As I often tell my own students, I did not let my clients tell me how to make objections or closing arguments at trial when I practiced law and I do not let my students tell me how to create and execute my pedagogy as a college instructor. Even as I readily listen to their suggestions regarding both content as well as process, for the most part students too readily confuse what they actually want to do - which is increasingly less and less - with what an actual learning process actually requires.
We No Longer Have the Luxury of Naiveté
However, there is a day of reckoning for all of the parties identified here. Like the alcoholic who wakes up the next morning for the first time and does not remember what happened the night before (including how they got home), there is no longer a luxury of naiveté. There is a problem that may be denied but it will never simply go away.
For the policy makers, it's precisely articles like this which illustrate problems already statistically documented by publications such as Academically Adrift which suggest their policies are at best a mixed success if not an abject failure in many aspects. For the general public which elects those policy makers, it's confronting the reality that quick fixes such as NCLB do not produce the instant gratification they have been trained to value as consumers. For public school educators, it is the recognition that silent acquiescence to what could readily be seen as educational malpractice through dutiful tailoring of pedagogy to NCLB minimalism demands an outcry, perhaps even a revolt. For the products of NCLB, the students who come to the universities seeking the easy path to a profitable career but rarely to become the educated human beings our society will require, the luxury of naivete ends when they are confronted with not only their ignorance about the world but their sense of entitlement to minimal effort and maximal grades. And for those of us in the academy, it comes when our own silent retreat into the trenches of research to avoid the devolving reality we encounter in our classrooms becomes a form of denial and enabling a destructive paradigm to continue unchallenged.
The bishop of Verona in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet pronounces judgment on an entire community at the end of that tragedy: "All are punish-ed." The problems that Mr. Bernstein has so eloquently elaborated here are not the problems of any segment of our culture, it is an indictment of an entire society which has sought the easy way out of a problem that simply requires much more engagement, investment and delayed gratification in observing and assessing results. The question that we must now address is what, if anything, will we do about it. In answering that question, we would do well to bear in mind Albert Einstein's warning that the definition of insanity is continue to do the same things (operating out of the same presumptions) and expecting a different result.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++