Politicians, administrators, philanthropists, and teachers have all weighed in on what to do about American education. What do college students think? One of my students recently wrote:
I think teachers know what to teach and how to teach it. Administrators come in and try to tell teachers what and how to teach and how to measure what children learn, and they don’t know what they are doing.
The teachers that have been teaching for years have a variety of ways to teach their students, which may help with students that learn differently than others. We need administrators to look at what causes children to want to learn, other than just using the rubric. I think it is hard for some teachers to teach because of the way they are being told to teach.
These comments come from an essay assigned in a college composition course, English 100A, at Adirondack Community College. English 100A is the first half of a freshman composition course taught over two semesters instead of the usual one, so the students have a solid foundation in basic composition, grammar, and reading before beginning a second semester of traditional English composition. (The college has a mandated lower-level developmental composition class for students who place into it.) The final assignment of the semester in my section of this course was to write a paper responding to two recent essays by high school teachers. One was Kenneth Bernstein’s “Warnings from the Trenches,” published in Academe (January–February 2013); the other, referred to in Bernstein’s essay, is Anthony Mullen’s “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard,” posted on the Education Week Teacher blog (January 7, 2010). The students spent three or four hours of class time over a week discussing the points these teachers raise and asking questions about the assessment of teachers and students, the development of curricula, and other pertinent issues before developing and focusing on individual paper topics in response to the articles. Paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting material from these articles, as well as using the students’ personal experiences and class discussion, were essential parts of the assignment. This work would prepare them to find and use supplemental research in English 100B the following semester.
Some of the class discussion focused on the difficulty of moving from high school to college. Subsequently, one frustrated student wrote:
High schools do not properly prepare students for what is to come in the college world. Students in high school get taught how to do tasks step-by-step, but once they get to college, things are thrown at them and the students are expected to get the assignment done right away. Because of this, college professors expect too much from new students coming out of high school. They expect the students to know exactly what they want and when they want it.
This student agreed with Bernstein, noting that “students coming from high school do not have the basic needs of what to know to be properly prepared for college. . . . Teachers only teach what is going to be on the test, but what they really need to do is teach everything because this will prepare the students for what is to come later in their education.”
The students came from a range of backgrounds. Two had come directly from high school; two had taken time off and were parents; one had a GED. Two had been required to take the previous developmental writing class, and two had failed English 100A the previous semester. Few felt they had been adequately prepared for college writing. One commented,
My final paper [in high school] was to write at least a 12 page research paper. We were never prepared or taught how to look up as much information that we needed. A lot of my class struggled, which means most likely we were not the only ones in this situation. Just like Bernstein said, “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.”
None of the students found much worth in standardized testing. “In the essay ‘Warnings from the Trenches,’” wrote a student, “Bernstein says that ‘scores serve as a primary or sole measurement of students’ performance.’ Since I have an issue with taking tests, it puts me at a disadvantage to have my knowledge evaluated solely on an exam. Many of the exams were multiple choice and instead of getting a passing grade for understanding the materials, I was able to pass mostly by guessing.”
Similarly, another student wrote, “My opinion on the state tests is that they were pointless. I feel they did nothing to help students at all. The tests didn’t make us think enough. They were mostly multiple choice, so most kids probably guessed. There was usually an essay, but the essay question always seemed irrelevant and had nothing to do with what we learned.”
The students were scornful of some of the solutions experts presented to address issues in American education, including the recent trend toward acceleration. Some felt that even those high school students in honors or advanced placement classes are ill prepared for college. One student commented,
Most kids that obtain the college credit or AP classes are not ready for the classes they place into in college. My girlfriend took two college level English classes in high school and because of that, was placed in a higher English class. She ended up having to reteach herself the different writing style that was being taught to her and was in over her head at the start of the class because she got to bypass the first class she needed that would show her the correct way to write for a college level paper.
Another student agreed: “Anthony Mullen writes about the problems that exist in education today. Sometimes teachers are not heard, especially about testing, No Child Left Behind, and the fact that teachers have to go too fast without review and cannot allow for students to get more feedback from instant in-person contact. If I was a teacher, I would rather the student know the previous information before they enter a grade.”
Nor did they see technology as a panacea for education’s ills.
Anthony Mullen thinks that it’s ludicrous that senators and politicians think that technology is making the traditional classroom teachers less needed and soon students will learn everything from online classes. I hope this will never happen, because I find it easier to sit in a classroom and have the teacher teach me than have to learn on the computer and not be able to have the contact with the teacher that I would have with a computer. . . . Most teachers answer my questions right away in class, but I feel that it would take longer to understand if the teacher was not in front of me.
A politician’s comment, reported by Mullin, that “schools should be set up so they are focused on testing and run like a business” stunned another student.
My little cousin is now doing old exams to prepare one of these tests. This reminded me of how we would take two weeks before an exam to practice. In history, we went over the time a king ruled just to get it right on the test and never learned any more about him. This time to study from and look at the questions that have been on prior tests is a waste. Most teachers are devastated when you miss school for a snow day, and I can’t imagine how it must feel when they now need to use two weeks to study for tests. All this testing makes it impossible to teach a subject and now every teacher must teach for the test.
According to this student, this approach diminished rather than enhanced students’ ability to express themselves in writing.
The testing makes you think you can only answer a question one way when in fact there are multiple ways. I remember in high school my math teacher expressed his dislike of the testing because he never ended up with enough time to cover trouble topics because he had to do test prep. When I came out of high school I thought all essays have to be at least three paragraphs, every paragraph has to be five sentences long, with a topic paragraph, example paragraph, and a conclusion paragraph. I feel like the type of essay you need to write for the test sometimes make it harder to express what you want to say because you are worried about the structure.
Two of these students noted that they had disabilities and had received extra help in elementary and high school. Another was probably dyslexic, although he had never been formally diagnosed. All of them had clear career goals, although when they began the semester, not all of them understood why college was required for those goals. One student, in fact, was angry at being required to take writing classes “when all I want to do is cook.” As a result of classroom conversations, this student now realizes that a college degree is not the only path to working in “culinary arts,” but the student has made a well-considered decision to continue pursuing an associate of applied arts degree, rather than working toward a certificate in commercial cooking or going directly into the workforce.
The students also suggested solutions for the problems they noted:
Not only are these problems occurring with the transition from high school to college but it is also happening in lower grades such as elementary to middle school. I failed my 7th grade year due to being unprepared by my sixth grade teacher. I believe there is a big difference between sixth and seventh grade and I struggled a lot with it. . . .
Something that I thought of that may help fix this problem is to have a class that revolves around preparing you for the next grade. This class would start teaching you, at a higher level, writing skills, math skills, and even time management skills. I believe this class would really fix the problem and prevent students from being unprepared because they will know what they are getting into instead of having things thrown at them.
Another wrote simply, “Teachers need to stop teaching to the test and start teaching all the information that each child deserves to know.”
I tried to listen to these students and to think about how best to prepare them for subsequent work in the semester that would finish their first level of college composition. When I saw the solid work on the drafts of their final papers, I told them that if they wanted I would send copies of the papers to the college’s board of trustees and administration, as well as to any people they designated from their local school districts. I said that the papers could be sent with or without their names.
During the final exam period, I returned the final papers with a list of grammatical and technical errors for each student to find, correct, and explain, and instructions to list ideas for how to further develop the papers so they could reach the required length. Because most students were dubious about my suggestion to send their papers to school officials, I asked the students’ permission to write an essay incorporating their ideas. I checked with each student on the sections I wanted to excerpt and obtained permission to quote them without attribution. (The excerpts in this article are from the papers after they were corrected by the students themselves.)
Too many good teachers I know are retiring early because they are no longer allowed to teach. One of these, a high school teacher, was present in my classroom during a discussion of the Bernstein and Mullen articles. She was there because she can no longer cope with what is happening in public education, but she very much wants to go on teaching and hopes to teach as an adjunct at my college. She wanted to observe classes so she would understand what she was applying to do. I think she would agree with this student’s sentiment:
I feel that the state tests are pointless. Students are given these tests and their scores are a big part of what determines if they pass or fail. I don’t think this is fair because not everything that the kids were taught is on this test and just like it was mentioned before, social studies doesn’t even count in the tests. The state tests should disappear and instead have the teachers make up their own tests based on everything that was taught during the school year. This way the students are being graded on the important stuff. This will cause the teachers to teach more because they won’t be teaching to the state tests, they will be teaching to their own tests of whatever they need to prepare their students for the next level up.
Another wrote, “I think that if the administrators looked deeper into what is not being learned than how to teach the material it may help students learn more.” This student gave specific examples of how a second-grade teacher used creative teaching methods and said that now “I love to read books; she opened a new avenue of reading for me.”
Just imagine: Teachers basing their curriculum on preparing students to continue learning. Teachers developing their own assessments to determine whether their students have mastered that material and are ready to progress to the next level. What novel ideas these students have! I appreciate their hard work, their challenges to the curriculum I presented, their ideas, and their permission to quote their papers in this essay. I wish them well in mastering the material in English 100B, where, for the time being at least, teachers still have the freedom to develop their own curriculum to meet common goals developed by the Adirondack Community College English Division and to assess their own students’ work using methods they feel are effective.
Nathan Breault, Avaughn Buchino, Ashlee Hitchcock, and Nichole Terrio contributed to this essay.
Jane Arnold has taught college reading, composition, and literature for twenty-five years, primarily at community colleges. She is currently professor of English and reading specialist at Adirondack Community College, part of the State University of New York. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.