Fault-lines of American Educational Policy & Practice

When I read about how students at Stuyvesant High School and Harvard University, to name only two recent prominent examples, used everything from notes on scraps of paper to texting answers on cell phones to help each other out on exams, I shake my head—not at the students’ behavior, but at the institutional culture to which they were responding.

I am fortunate to be teaching at an institution that values collaboration rather than competition, and thoughtfully constructed arguments over right-or-wrong multiple choice tests.

Granted, I teach in the humanities, where memorization is less important than in the hard sciences.

But even in the sciences, given the ready accessibility of our collective auxiliary internet brain trust, do we really need to be forcing students to memorize the periodical table anymore?

Isn’t it more important that give them assignments and challenges that will develop their teamwork skills and encourage them to think creatively, rather than spit back knowledge that has already been established?

Nearly fifty years ago, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he described “the banking system of education,” whereby students are treated as repositories for information that will be deposited into them by teachers.  Teachers are then able to “withdraw” the information from the students by means of tests.

Notice that it’s the teachers who are the active ones in this scenario; the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge.

In contrast, Freire proposed a dialogic form of education, where students’ ideas are valued by their teachers, and the pedagogical method is more of a conversation than a one-way lecture.

While still popular in some theoretical educational circles, it’s clear that Freire’s ideas are not in ascendancy in current American educational policy, which, in the No Child Left Behind era, has turned education into a process of leaping through the hoops of a long series of standardized tests.

I see this in my 14-year-old son’s current schooling in our local public school, which is in many ways about as good as a small-town American public school gets.  But nevertheless, even the best teachers there are forced to spend a lot of their time coaching the kids on passing the MCAS standardized tests that will be administered next May.

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Back in the 1970s, I went to a selective New York City public school, Hunter College High School.  When I took the entry test, in sixth grade, I had no test prep whatsoever.  My parents were very nonchalant about the whole thing, so I wasn’t nervous about it—it was just something I had to do, so I went in and did my best.  I got in, along with five others from my elementary school, P.S. 6.

Hunter College High School

What I remember from my four years at Hunter is earnest, thoughtful discussion classes in English and Social Studies and even Spanish, with teachers who treated us like budding intellectuals.  When I left Hunter after 10th grade to transfer to Simon’s Rock College, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the classroom conversations got even livelier and more compelling, and the written assignments more challenging.  We were asked to write analytic essays, persuasive essays and informed opinion pieces…over and over, at ever-higher standards of rigor.

The process culminated in the required year-long senior thesis project, which for me, as an English major, was an in-depth study of the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf.  There is no doubt in my mind that the joy I got out of reading everything Woolf wrote, and all the literary criticism and proto-queer theory I could find, led me to eventually choose to return to graduate school for a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

My point in relating this personal trajectory is to reflect that if I had only been asked, at each stage of my schooling, to memorize information and spit it back out to a teacher (or worse, a robo-grader) on standardized tests, I don’t know that I would have chosen, in my time, to undertake the hard work of earning a doctorate and becoming a professor myself.

I would have had a very different idea of what education was all about.

And sadly, competitive, test-taking does pass for education in too many scholastic and even academic environments these days.  Given this reality, who can fault students for trying to game a system that so clearly disrespects them as intellectuals and original thinkers?

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Last week, The New York Times reported that “a coalition of educational and civil rights groups filed a federal complaint…saying that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s most selective high schools because of a single-test admittance policy they say is racially discriminatory.

Stuy HS students, 2007. Photo by Annie Tritt for The New York Times

“Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic,” the article continued, “a far smaller percentage have scored high enough to receive offers from one of the schools. According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.”

These are demographics I recognize from my memories of my time at Hunter College High School, back in the 1970s.  There were hardly any Black or Latino students there then; Asian students accounted for most of whatever ethnic diversity the school could claim.

Why aren’t the city’s African American and Latino students doing well on the admission tests?

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An article from the current issue of The Atlantic provides a window of insight into this question.  In “The Writing Revolution,” author Peg Tyre takes us inside one of New York City’s failing public high schools, New Dorp in Staten Island, and shows how student performance dramatically improved once school principal Deirdre DeAngelis began demanding a greater focus on essay-writing in the classrooms.

In this, DeAngelis was bucking the national trend observed by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany, who, Tyre says, “found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. ‘Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,’ says Applebee, ‘has become increasingly rare.’”

At New Dorp High School, it turned out that the students simply did not know how to construct the kinds of good sentences that would enable them to build a logical, well-thought-out argument. They weren’t used to talking in such sentences, they didn’t do much reading, and they didn’t come from a home environment where the adults spoke in the way the students were being asked to write in school.

For someone like me, an avid reader with parents who were also educated, enthusiastic conversationalists and readers, learning to write came very naturally. But for kids coming out of underprivileged backgrounds, more has to be done in school to make up for what they’re not getting at home.

So I’m glad to see that the new Common Core standards that will be adopted by 46 states in the next two years do require the teaching of expository writing from elementary school on.

“For the first time,” writes Tyre, “elementary-school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.”

Tyre predicts that it is likely that “the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.”

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Maybe a high-voltage shock is what America’s public education system needs to move it from teaching to multiple-choice tests to teaching kids how to think creatively and write eloquently.

As a writing teacher myself, I know how hard it is to “teach” good writing.  When I grade a paper, I know what I’m looking for, but I can’t always tell a student exactly how to get there.

More than anything else, it takes practice. Lots of reading good writing, and lots of writing, rewriting, and writing again.

At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, our orientation workshop for entering freshman is actually a writing boot camp, the Writing & Thinking Workshop, in which we have students reading, discussing, writing and workshopping writing for five hours a day during their first week at school.  We follow this up with three semesters of a required general education seminar, in which students are reading, discussing and writing almost constantly.

As a graduate of Simon’s Rock, the parent of a recent graduate, and a veteran of nearly 20 years as a Simon’s Rock professor of literature and general education, I know this approach works.

Sure, once in a while we have a student who tries to get away with plagiarizing a paper.  They are generally caught easily, because of all the draft stages we require students to go through on the way to turning in their final paper.

Relatively few students try cheating at Simon’s Rock, though, because they know we professors really want to know what they think about a given topic.  For us, learning is truly a dialogic process, and students quickly respond to the seriousness with which we take them as creative, original thinkers and writers.

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Fundamentally, American educational policy needs to start treating students with the respect they deserve, whether they are at elite private schools or underperforming public schools.

It’s not the kid’s fault if he doesn’t know how to construct an expository argument in good English, any more than it’s the kid’s fault if she decides to cheat on a test she knows doesn’t measure her accurately as a thinker.  It’s the school’s fault, and ultimately the nation’s fault.

Given the multiple crises today’s young people will be facing as they become adults on our overpopulated, environmentally damaged, violent planet, we need to be educating a generation of creative, collaborative problem-solvers for whom spoken and written eloquence is a necessary leadership tool.

This is not a matter of policy or even ethics.  It’s a matter of survival.

Education at the crossroads: cookie cutter or cutting edge?

“Education has to be at the forefront of restoring this country,” said Bard College President Leon Botstein today, at a ceremony formally welcoming incoming Simon’s Rock provost Peter Laipson to his new post.

“The problem with America is an absence of discipline and an unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths,” Leon continued, elegantly making the case for liberal arts education as a crucial piece of the on-going struggle to bring our country back to its core values of democracy, tolerance and creativity.

Most importantly, he said, “young people need the tools to be able to think for themselves.”

So true–and yet this kind of active learning has to start long before the college level!  I contrast Leon’s remarks today with the parents’ open house I attended last week at my son’s middle school, where all of the teachers made reference to how their lesson plans included preparation for the MCAS exams (the Massachusetts version of the No Child Left Behind federally mandated standardized tests), which the 7th graders will be taking next spring.

The middle school principal, in his welcoming remarks, talked about school as a place to ignite students’ passions, but once the teachers took the stage there wasn’t much talk of passion, nor of the kind of student-centered learning that helps kids find out what they’re interested in.

In today’s networked world, kids don’t need to memorize information or formulas.  They need to be turned on to the excitement of learning; they need to be encouraged to develop their creativity, to take the risk of venturing into unexplored conceptual territory, to become the innovators our society so desperately needs.

It was good to hear Leon Botstein and Peter Laipson affirm Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, the founder of Simon’s Rock, as a social entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and who dreamed big and had the staying power to manifest her vision of an early college–a completely new idea back in 1966, and still quite unorthodox today.

Betty Hall realized that some high school students have the intellectual and social maturity to start college after the 10th grade, and she took the risk of actually trying it out.  The rest is history–the history of Simon’s Rock, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

As a Simon’s Rock alum (I earned my B.A. in English and journalism there in 1982) I can attest to the excitement of switching from the dull routine of high school to the much more intense small-group discussions that characterized Simon’s Rock classes then, and still do today.

I went to an excellent high school, Hunter College High School–and yet once I got to Simon’s Rock, in part because of the interesting, stimulating peer group, I was clearly in a whole new ballgame.  I was indeed encouraged to explore my passions, which at the time were reading and writing.  Under the guidance of outstanding mentors, I wrote a B.A. thesis on androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, while working part-time as a reporter for The Berkshire Courier, the Great Barrington weekly newspaper.  I credit those two experiences with the whole unfolding of my subsequent career, from the Ph.D. in literature to the on-going interest in and practice of journalism and media studies.

Leon is right that education has a key role to play in turning our country around.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in an earlier post, even at the college level things are not what they used to be, as the tenured faculty gives way to legions of adjuncts–freelancers with Ph.Ds–who now are frequently not even on campus, but rather teaching through distance learning platforms from their homes.

It’s too soon to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning.  It has the potential to be emancipatory, accessible to far more students, including those who could not afford the luxury of a four-year residential liberal arts education of the kind Leon Botstein was talking about today.  It could also turn into the worst kind of cookie-cutter education, MCAS on steroids.

One of the tasks of educators today has to be to enter with spirit into the unfolding of the distance learning revolution, making sure the technology is being used to promote active learning and critical thinking, not rote learning or multiple choice testing.  We also have to make sure that networked computer technology actually connects young people, rather than alienating them from each other and from potential mentors.

As Leon said, it’s not a question of teaching students to believe any particular truths or ways of seeing the world, it’s a question of enabling them to make their own informed observations, and giving them the tools to act on what they see and know.  We’re not talking about education as indoctrination, but about education as the constant opening of new doors to further understanding–a never-ending process that should not, and cannot be confined merely to the classroom.

Communicating the excitement of learning is the single most important role of a teacher at any grade level.  Once we teachers become jaded or bored with what we’re offering, it’s all over.  We have to find ways of making it new, by constantly leaving ourselves open to new ideas and viewpoints.  Often for me, it’s the students themselves who lead the way into new ways of seeing familiar texts or concepts.

It can be hard for a teacher to give up the powerful illusion of being the one who knows all the answers.   The truth is, we’re here to enable the next generation of thinkers to imagine questions that have not yet been asked or even thought of.

What could be more exciting than that?

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