Warnings from the Trenches

A high school teacher tells college educators what they can expect in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
By Kenneth Bernstein

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. While it is true that the US Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.

Troubling Assessments

My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) US Government and Politics. My students, mostly tenth-graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills.

In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.

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. Remember, high schools also have tests—No Child Left Behind and its progeny (such as Race to the Top) require testing at least once in high school in reading and math. In Maryland, where I taught, those tests were the state’s High School Assessments in tenth-grade English and algebra (which some of our more gifted pupils had taken as early as eighth grade). High schools are also forced to focus on preparing students for tests, and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms.

I mentioned that at least half my students were in AP classes. The explosive growth of these classes, driven in part by high school rankings like the yearly Challenge Index created by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, is also responsible for some of the problems you will encounter with students entering your institutions. The College Board did recognize that not everything being labeled as AP met the standards of a college-level course, so it required teachers to submit syllabi for approval to ensure a minimal degree of rigor, at least on paper. But many of the courses still focus on the AP exam, and that focus can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed under No Child Left Behind.

Let me use as an example my own AP course, US Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.

First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP US Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.

My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.

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.

Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.

Further, the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level. I learned to balance these seemingly contradictory requirements. For much of the content I would give students summary information, sufficient to answer multiple-choice questions and to get some of the points on rubrics for the free response questions. That allowed me more time for class discussions and for relating events in the news to what we learned in class, making the class more engaging for the students and resulting in deeper learning because the discussions were relevant to their lives.

From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use what content knowledge they had.

The structure of testing has led to students arriving at our school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge in social studies, but the problem is not limited to this field. Students often do not get exposure to art or music or other nontested subjects. In high-need schools, resources not directly related to testing are eliminated: at the time of the teachers’ strike last fall, 160 Chicago public schools had no libraries. Class sizes exceeded forty students—in elementary school.

A Teacher’s Plea

As a retired public school teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to offer a caution to college professors, or perhaps to make a plea.

Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are. We have very little say in what is happening to public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. The National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be the representative of America’s teachers—if he or she cannot get teachers’ voices included, imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us. That is why, if you have not seen it, I strongly urge you to read 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen’s famous blog post, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” After listening to noneducators bloviate about schools and teaching without once asking for his opinion, he was finally asked what he thought. He offered the following:

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.”

During my years in the classroom I tried to educate other adults about the realities of schools and students and teaching. I tried to help them understand the deleterious impact of policies that were being imposed on our public schools. I blogged, I wrote letters and op-eds for newspapers, and I spent a great deal of time speaking with and lobbying those in a position to influence policy, up to and including sitting members of the US House of Representatives and Senate and relevant members of their staffs. Ultimately, it was to little avail, because the drivers of the policies that are changing our schools—and thus increasingly presenting you with students ever less prepared for postsecondary academic work—are the wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage.

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.

You should have a further selfish motivation. Those who have imposed the mindless and destructive patterns of misuse of tests to drive policy in K–12 education are already moving to impose it on higher education, at least in the case of the departments and schools of education that prepare teachers: they want to “rate” those departments by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates.

If you, as someone who teaches in the liberal arts or engineering or business, think that this development does not concern you, think again. It is not just that schools and colleges of education are major sources of revenue for colleges and universities—they are in fact often cash cows, which is why so many institutions lobby to be able initially to certify teachers and then to offer the courses (and degrees) required for continuing certification. If strictures like these can be imposed on schools and colleges of education, the time will be short before similar kinds of measure are imposed on other schools, including liberal arts, engineering, business, and conceivably even professional schools like medicine and law. If you teach either in a medical school or in programs that offer courses required as part of the pre-med curriculum, do you want the fatality rates of patients treated by the doctors whom you have taught to be used to judge your performance? If you think that won’t happen because you work at a private institution, remember that it is the rare private university that does not receive some form of funding from governments, local to national. Research grants are one example; the scholarships and loans used by students to attend your institution are another.

Let me end by offering my deepest apologies, not because I may have offended some of you by what I have written, but because even those of us who understood the problems that were being created were unable to do more to stop the damage to the education of our young people. Many of us tried. We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.

Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.


Kenneth Bernstein is a retired, award-winning social studies teacher who lives near Washington, DC. He serves as a peer reviewer for educational journals and publishers, and he is nationally known as the blogger “teacherken.” His e-mail address is [email protected].



I want to thank Aaron Barlow for suggesting that I write on this topic. I am honored that Academe found my piece worthy of publication. I am already receiving some emails from readers of this piece. As time allows, I will be happy to engage in dialog.

One small note. At the time I submitted the piece I was retired. Shortly before Thanksgiving I got a call from a small non-profit school serving high-needs kids that needed a social studies teacher for the rest of the year, so I am temporarily unretired as I fill in.


We discovered my wife had a blood cancer. I had to miss 2 weeks, and was then going to be out 1-2 days a week to take her to her various treatment appointments, and those students needed continuity, so I stepped aside.

My son, who attended a Mass. public school, is now a college freshman, and I spent 10 years teaching freshman composition in universities. I also have a child 7 years younger, so I have comparative experience with how public education has changed since 1999.

I think here in Mass., while I hate the MCAS test, the essay component of the test HAS actually helped students to write better. However, as Mr. Bernstein notes, the focus in K-10 has been relentlessly on making sure kids can read, write, and do math. Anything that is not tested by a standardized test that must be passed for graduation falls by the wayside. Science is now being counted as a grad requirement, so it is also receiving more attention now. However, creative and critical THINKING are not being developed.

As for the AP classes, I agree that the AP curriculum needs to be overhauled. I've heard that the science AP classes have begun to go for depth over breadth, which is a good sign. Meanwhile, students in AP History classes are being "death-marched" through every detail of American (or world!) history, guaranteeing that any kid who goes into that class loving the topic will not exit it wanting to take a college course in it.

Hey, I went through the death-march, and I will be graduating in May with a history degree. While the AP system isn't perfect, entering college with a reasonable grasp of the chain of events allowed me to spend more time thinking about "the why" of history without worrying about getting my facts straight.

Thank you, thank you for your clear explanation of the tragedy that has befallen our educational system. I am a retired high school English teacher (1997) who left with 30 years experience partly because the administration made it clear that it did not respect or value the expertise of experienced teachers. We weren't malleable enough for them to believe their shallow and irrelevant policies. I am stunned that any teacher was assigned four AP classes. While I was still teaching, only two could be assigned per semester because of the workload required of the teacher and students. I really appreciated the comments about the suggestions from people who had NO expertise in education being so readily accepted. I am sad and angry about the current condition our educational system , and even angrier that part of the "solution" being proposed is a worthless evaluation procedure!

because what had been happening is that some students who wanted to sign up were being prevented from doing so because by the time their classes went up to registration the previous year the 3 sections were filled. My friend the AP World History teacher had had 4 sections and found it doable, so I volunteered to do so my last year

Your essay is on the mark. I am a 31-year veteran of the college classroom. I have taught across the curriculum, and I have seen the stunning decline in the quality and the character of students coming into college. Most of this downward spiral has come in the past decade, and I know very well that it is not the teachers in high school who are at fault. The workloads and mandates on you are crushing, and hardly anyone not in the professional has even the slightest clue about the burden that has been imposed upon teachers, much less do parents and preening members of boards of education grasp the permanent learning and intellectual damage that has been done to kids.

"Critical thinking skills" and "writing across the curriculum" are the latest higher education fads are being flogged by academic administrators vying for higher positions and activist faculty members working to get their names recognized and their papers published. More and more, the content of my lectures is being pushed aside in favor of what publishers want, what committees deem best, and what IT (information technology) sorts are absolutely certain I need. I have seen higher education become that hand maiden of corporate giving in the wake of the collapse of public funding. I have seen old-guard professors driven out by the power-hungry administrators and faculty members who claim the high mountain in the "scholarship of teaching" (another pop-fad, the refined-looking stillborn of the "assessment and evaluation" craze).

It has gotten to the point now where all manner of tactics, including intimidation and not-particularly-subtle threats are part of what I face in the academy. (My department chairman is old school and does what he can to trust his professors to bring their own teaching skills to bear in their classrooms, but there is only so much he can do when committees and administrators walk right around him to get in the teachers' faces.)

Does this sound like sour grapes, or does it sound something like what you've been going through for years? I'll bet it's the latter, and I'll bet you didn't know how far it's already gone in higher education.

What can we do about it?

For my part, I'll find somewhere to teach until I hit the Highway to Heaven (okay, I probably have the bearing wrong, there), at which time it won't be my problem anymore. Perhaps I will be lucky and be safely in my grave before these new generations figure out all the different ways they were wronged.

My hope is that at least some of the self-serving politicians, academic experts, and corporate backroom dealers will still be around to face the consequences of what they did.

In 2002, I was 34 years old. I had not been a student in over 15 years.
I had three children, and I was educating them at home - they were 14, 7 and 3 years old.
I was separated from my husband and living in a homeless shelter and I went back to college.
I knew that the local schools had failed my son, but I assumed at the time that he had unique challenges and after numerous attempts to get help for him, I chose to focus on his education rather than a system that wasn't working for him.

And I went back to college as a homeless mother of three kids who were not in state sponsored free daycare behind a desk all day.

I attended day classes, unlike my other single parent peers who worked days and went to school at night. I was 'lucky' to be in the shelter. I was enrolled full time, in required undergrad courses and I was appalled.

My 18-20 year old classmates did not have a grasp of basic maths - could not add nor subtract 2 digits without a calculator. They could not write a simple sentence without spelling and grammatical errors. They used - even then - Internet and text slang in written papers and did not understand why 'lol' was not acceptable. American History was completely off the radar - they had no concept of the basic legal principles challenged and decided by the Civil War, and were unsure of who Lee or Grant might have been.

In short - in every class I took I encountered the course work that I had covered in high school in the 80's and these students were largely unfamiliar with the 'complicated' , 'unnecessary', 'boring' and 'meaningless' information they were only now, apparently, being asked to learn.

This was in 2002.
The year No Child Left Behind began.
Did educators forget why?

Do you, Mr. Bernstein, forget why?
And do you understand that in your 'warning' you are addressing the root cause of the problem?

A degree in education is not picked up at the plant - it's earned at university.
You and your fellow educators were taught by the colleges you attended that teaching was about self esteem, about making every child feel valued, and they - and YOU - let real education - a real chance at self worth and value gained through knowledge and achievement - go right down the drain.

And you may feel that NCLB has ruined the schools.
And you may feel that educators were left out of a policy discussion that has impacted their careers and the youth with whom they work.

But educators had the reins for most of this nations' history.
And *your* generation of educators flushed this nation's youth and our once highly valued education system down the tubes.

And you have the gall to blame the folks who got together and said HEY, something's WRONG, we have got to try to fix it!?!

Don't warn the college professors - they've been receiving your students for far longer than NCLB has been in effect and they have seen the deteriorating standard of education for several decades now. But they - and you - continue to hold fast to an ideology that celebrates ignorance over education, self-esteem over self worth, and idealism over honest effort.

Oh Teacher - Educate thyself.

I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Kit's or Mr. Bernstein's position but I do not see where in his article Mr. Bernstein expressed an ideology "that celebrates ignorance over education, self-esteem over self worth, and idealism over honest effort." Certainly some teachers, indeed some people, have such an ideology but in reading I am unable to locate where Mr. Bernstein expressed it. There is nothing the matter with having a position on an issue but you don't do much to persuade others of its viability when you make an unsupported, irrelevant claim such as this. Given that schooling is one experience almost every American will have it is no surprise there is wide disagreement on what its aims should be. Luckily some of those Americans also become educated. It would seem to me neither many of Mr. Bernstein's students nor Kit herself we're fortunate enough to enjoy that outcome.

What is interesting is how many of my former students, most of whom I taught as 10th graders, ask me to write their college recommendations. What is interesting is the now almost 2 dozen former students (out of 17 years of teaching) who are themselves now teacher, many of whom thank me for inspiring them to make a difference. What is interesting is how often students reach out to me when they hit college, even some who used to resent how demanding I was of them, to thank me for how well I prepared them for further learning. What is interesting is how many parents when I had taught one child insisted on their younger children signing up for AP Government so they could have me as a teacher.

Sorry, but you are very much off on what my students experienced and learned from being in my presence.

Are you a teacher? Otherwise, STFU. (This acronym is another example of internet vernacular that younger students predominantly use when they encounter irrelevance).

If you are a teacher, I hope you do not teach English because your response was incoherent.

which is not what I do in writing about this subject, since I have been in active communication with educators in public schools and in higher education for a number of years, and I read the professional literature as well.

Your assumptions of how I was trained are also very much off target, and bespeak a prejudice that is sad to see. If you asked any student who had ever been in my classes, I was considered a very demanding teacher, but also supportive. Whatever you knew and could do when you entered my class would pale along side comparisons made at the end of the semester (for some elective courses) or school year.

What is interesting is to see the comments not only here, but the almost 2700 comments posted on the version of this cross-posted at the Washington Post, and the now more than 200 direct communications I have received about this piece via email, Twitter and Facebook. They come from parents, from students (including some of my former students), from secondary school educators, from primary school educators, from administrators, from educators in post-secondary institutions. What is clear is that this piece touched a chord, and resonated with many across all those groups, even if you did not like it.

Perhaps you should step back and consider why so many in education, who have dedicated their lives to improving the knowledge and skills of their students, find it on target and you do no?

Re: Kit's response, it was already too late in he 1980's! My freshman year roommate and I, both Education majors in 1983, exchanged papers to proofread. My jaw dropped when I read hers. I knew there were kids in my high school who couldn't write properly, but I'd been under the impression those kids didn't apply, much less get admitted to, to the top University in our state system. The paper was so badly written I could not understand it. Subject / verb disagreements, misspellings, sentence fragments, everything you ever were supposed to know not to do, she had done. After a few minutes of silence, we swapped back. She commented, 'Wow! You write like a teacher!' I resisted pointing out that she should by now as well. That she at least recognized proper grammar and sentence structure when she saw it was a point in her favor.

The sad part! I dropped out. Within 5 years she was teaching, and still is 30 years later. I hope she somehow finally learned in college what she hadn't before.

And even then, it was unusual for a high school senior to write on a college-entry level. At least according to *my* English teacher who was 1) Head of the English department and 2) 25 years into her career. I was told that "high schoolers can't possibly write like this" when I presented my papers. The expectation even back then - a full 12 years BEFORE NCLB - was that it was impossible for someone about to graduated and headed for college could string together coherent sentences with excellent grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Has NCLB helped? I think not. My cousins who are a good 20+ years younger than I, can neither read nor write in cursive. They both attended schools in the same district in which my own children are enrolled. However, my children actually learn cursive in elementary school. My oldest child is 10 and in 5th Grade and has read the following this year: The Hobbit and Pygmalion along with selected works of Edgar Allan Poe and another work set in Puritan-era America. The main difference? My childrens' school is an Artful Learning School, not a typical school. They still get the core subjects and are tested on them (the dreaded FCAT) but the material is given in a way that is very different than every other school in the district. (http://www.leonardbernstein.com/artful_learning.htm)

I don't believe that there is any one reason why things are the way they are. It's a combination of underfunded schools, overworked teachers, overzealous legislators, jacked up lobbyists, parents who can't or won't be involved in their children's education - yes even into high school, and children who have been conditioned by society that they are special snowflakes and everyone is a winner. These things create a perfect storm environment.

and some appreciation of the complexity of the world is exactly what the ruling class doesn't want to deal with. It may look like a tragedy to some of us, but to them, I suspect they are looking forward to a generation of docile, incurious people who are too afraid to think for themselves and too easily distracted by shiny objects to care. Mission accomplished, NCLB.

In Texas, high schoolers take 16 standardized tests (known as STAAR tests). Six. TEEN. The first three years of high school are ALL ABOUT passing the end of course exams, and the last year is all about retaking the tests they failed. We have effectively turned high school into four years of testing for many students.

I just wanted to point out that this article has been linked on Daily Kos, a liberal political blog. On behalf of the Kossacks, I would like to apologize for the influx of readers impacting the availability of this website in anyway.

One of the biggest mistakes being made by public school administrators and politician­s is the push to pressure educators to "teach to the test". NCLB fully embraced this simplistic and one-dimensional method of educational assessment­. However, there are far too many important aspects of learning and cognitive growth -- hands-on laboratory techniques and skills, data processing and analysis, deductive reasoning and analytical thinking -- that do not lend themselves to assessment via these types of standardized multiple choice tests.

In addition, these tests are often administered one to two months before the end of the school year, yet they are designed to evaluate student achievement and conceptual understanding of the entire year's curriculum in that subject area. So teachers are being pressured to restructure the curricular content, eliminating or postponing until late in the school year coverage of those skills and topics that are not emphasized on the standardized test.

But politician­­s (and many administrators) love simple, objective measuring sticks -- even if what they measure has little value. So we invest millions of taxpayer dollars and valuable days of instructional time administer­­ing these tests to students, and essential judgements about the quality of education and critical decisions regarding education­­al practice and policy are made based on this single metric.

Sounds like being a teacher is tough and getting tougher. That said, I would like to play devil's advocate here. The writer states that he was responsible for 129 students in four AP classes and also had another 46 students in two other classes. I understand that it would be difficult to provide the quality education with this quantity of students. One item not discussed …. why weren't more teachers hired to teach the classes? Answer: Budgets.

In the school district that I live in, we had science teachers average pay around $55K and the music teacher and library staff average pay $125K. The librarian was making $145K and the physics teacher, also responsible for AP Physics, was making $45K. Something is not right here. It just so happened that the music teacher and librarian have, over the last 30 plus years, been collecting automatic pay raises and when that wasn't enough, the teacher received a masters degree to get a 20% bump in salary and the corresponding annual adjustments. The teacher still taught the same classes but now received 20% more for the doing the same work - along with the compounded annual increases.

Why can't some schools hire more teachers to spend more quality time with students? In many cases there are far too many teachers with well padded salaries providing no real additional value over the years. After a while, the teacher settles into the understanding that there is a nice retirement with a secure pension with health care paid for until going to that great teacher's lounge in the sky as long as I go along with the union. As a teacher, I would look forward to having my salary bump up those last few years to make sure that my pension is “maxed out”.

I won't even start discussing the fact that it is those very unions providing support to legislators that are imposing those very NCLB rules that teachers so despise.

It's not solely because NCLB and the need to test, test and more standardize test.

The system is broke in more ways than one

Why couldn't I have found that "cushy" $125K music job? Sheesh, and I'd only need to have earned my MA or MEd? Those darn fat-cat teachers. I say we take Francisco's idea and cap all teacher pay. If $45K is too much after years of service and work... how about capping it at a cool $30K... they won't even need to be college educated... just hire enough to keep the children in constant 24/7 daycare until they're 18... Better yet, throw those teachers out of the system after they've been there for 10 years, you wouldn't want them having any security. :)

Ugh. Seeing this sort of comment on the AAUP is just absurd. On the CHE, sure... but here? This is just one more comment in a thread that adds support to Anthony Mullen's 2009 argument.

The best way to improve K-12 education in my opinion? Let teachers teach.

Francisco's commentary reeks of unsupported generalizations of the sort that degrade public discourse on this important topic. I have been a university professor since 1995. I worked my way through eight years of grad school earning a master's and a PhD in order to join academia and, I hoped, make a small difference in the lives of young people coming through a public university.

In my 14th year of university teaching, I make $63,000 per year and can't remember the last time I had a raise. This is because politicians in my state of Wisconsin have succeeded in framing the issue as Francisco has characterized it -- educators are overpaid, lazy whiners. The very idea of serious academic thought -- and rewarding those who work at public universities -- has been made to seem extreme.

Francisco's emotionally wrought screed exemplifies the facile and shallow rants that pass for serious argument today.

I was a student in Maryland that grew up with No Child Left Behind, which was implemented when I was in about 4th grade. I took a heavily AP course load in high school, and have been subjugated to the rigorous testing of the modern day American classroom. Now I am a Sophmore history major at the University of Maryland. I remember my teachers in high school (the passionate ones who truly cared and were good at their job) becoming increasingly frustrated with the way their curriculums were being laid out for them. My AP World history teacher was especially vocal about how much he hated "teaching to the test" and often apologized to the class for not being able to teach us the interesting parts of history that are often overlooked in the examination process. My AP American literature teacher expressed to us his desire to teach us college level writing, but due to time restraints under the policies of NCLB he was instead restricted to teaching us to pass the exam.
I have first hand knowledge of this repugnant legislature. And I would just like to say that high school did NOT prepare me for the rigors of college in any way. The so called "college level course" did not teach me how to succeed in my classes. They did not prepare me to write 8, 10 or 20 page research papers (or even how to write a research paper at all). They did not prepare me to take a 2 hour exam that consists of no multiple choice. They did not warn me that I would actually need to crack open my book to succeed. They taught me how to get by. How to take a test. How to regurgitate information that had been fed to me all year. They did not teach me how to analyze information, how to look at evidence and draw my own conclusions and then explain them coherently in an essay. These skills had to be taught to me my first semester in 100 level course, mostly by grad students who often get stuck with these classes. My experience may be different than some given I am a student of the social sciences, but it is certainly not unique. I know that the teachers that care do what they can to make school a productive and engaging experience for their students, and I not only applaud the efforts of these teachers, but I thank them (like I never got to thank my high school teachers that inspired me). You are amazing, and I beg you - do not give up the fight. I know it is discouraging, but you get through to some of us. It is teachers like you who make it possible for students like me to succeed once we leave high school. You prepare us for the world of college in ways the basic course taught by a teacher who could care less never can. You will never know how much we truly appreciate you.

Mr. Bernstein offers a rather succinct assessment of the state of our public school system. I am a former high school teacher, currently a research scientist and I left the public schools for the reasons he elucidated - not to mention the poor pay and the fact that the blame for a child's failure or underperformance usually lays at the feet of the teacher. In addition to the system setting up our children to fail, there is also a generational lack of support at home. A lot of these children only eat at school. Some are there because they are court ordered to be there as a term of their probation. Others count down the days until they can legally drop out. Many times, my calls to a student's home to speak with a parent about their child's lack of performance were met with indifference or even hostility towards me for making "accusations" when I was only holding them accountable. Indeed there is a stigma in some communities associated with being educated. My students would rarely do homework assignments. I was often told that they would be beaten up if they were seen with notebooks or textbooks outside of school. So, the system is fatally flawed, but students these days have been enabled to avoid accountability. They have learned how to be helpless and feckless. It's a one-two punch. I've seen this creeping slowly into university settings in recent years too - this lack of accountability and reduced ability to think critically or write. This whole situation is a ticking time bomb. In another generation, we will be a nation of ignorant fools. This is a national security issue just as much as it is anything else.

I'm a college instructor, age 34. I've been doing this for six years, and every year I see the quality of writing diminish. Students have no idea how to even do basic research anymore; they don't know how to use the library to find solid source material. When I reject papers citing Wikipedia and tabloid blogs as journalistic sources, I get fights, arguments, and attempted reasoning for a higher grade. I know this went on when I was in college, but we were trained how to do proper research in my public, underfunded rural high school. The panic over grades has steadily risen, as well. If a student doesn't get an A when they really deserve a C, it nearly sends them over the brink. NCLB might have served well for some schools, but I fail to see exactly how. My mother is a junior high teacher and struggles every day with her curriculum director and the constant testing, when she sees bright 7th graders writing at a 3rd grade level. There's something very wrong with this system, when it churns out a whole generation of kids who can't communicate beyond a basic level. You even hear it in their speech patterns, but I'm partly blaming that on the drugs they're pumped full of to function. Hot drug of this current crop of college kids? Adderol.

In Washington we teach to the test. Just to be helpful (this is sarcasm if you didn't pick that up), the state changes standards and testing methods every 4-5 years. We've had the WASL, EARLS, GLEs, Core Content, EOCs, and now the National Standards (I'm forgetting several others). The emphasis is purely reading, writing and mathematics.

I feel like a lot of kids are left behind in this environment. The system brands them as failures. Many of these kids learn to hate school and drop out.

Not every kid will go to college. We need an educational system that recognizes kids strengths and teaches to those strengths.

However, this will never happen in our current political environment.

I have two adult children who went to public school. My son was enrolled in many AP classes. He constantly complained about no t being challenged. He felt he was only required to regurgitate what was being taught in class. He is now 28 and very supportive of our decision to homeschool our youngest. She is 8 years old. She can diagram sentences, has many poems memorized, reads for pleasure everyday....I could go on and on! This year we read the Anne of Green Gables series and she understood many of the historic allusions in the story's because we have already studied ancient history and most of the history of the Middle Ages. She is independently reading The Chronicles of Narnia. We have gone over DNA and of her own initiative she made a story board and wrote a presentation about DNA and Punnett squares! There was not one fragmented sentence in her report. There is an old saying...what you feed, grows...our children are starving for meaningful work! They are capable of so much more than our government dictates. My child is no brighter than any other child I know and I am certainly no more qualified than any other parent to teach...resources are plentiful and I care deeply. That is all the motivation I need.

I put the subject as coming from the other side simply because I am not a teacher. After reading the comments here, it seems that most are either from teachers supporting what Mr. Bernstein says, or non'teachers that want to blame the NEA or other educational unions on the poor education that the schools are giving.

I, on the other hand am first and formost, a parent. I did everything I could to help my children get the best education possible at a public school. After getting as involved in the schools and classrooms, I finally took it one step further. I served 9 years as a member of the Board of Education. Believe me, I learned a lot in that area, and as such spent much time fighting against NCLB. This is one of the worst educational policies that could have ever been created. I know personally that state school board associations, the NEA, state teacher associations, and school administrator associations have been lobbying vigorously AGAINST NCLB. They know it doesn't work. They know that they are teaching to the test. They know that NCLB lumps ALL students together, no matter what their background, or learning abilities. It treats special needs students the same as the students in the regular classroom.

There was one particularly scathing comment blaming the teacher unions for the failure of the schools. This person obviously has no concept of what a union, especially a teacher union is there for. As a school board member, we were supposed to look at the teacher unions as the enemy. I never saw that as the case. The teacher unions that I worked with had one purpose in their creation: To make sure that the teachers had the best resources possible to teach the students in their care. Did they push for a pay scale that was enhanced as a teacher achieved more education on their own? Of course. Why shouldn't a teacher with a Masters+30 be making significantly more than a first year teacher with a bachelors degree? But for someone to make the accusation that a teacher furthered their own education simply because of the bump in pay totally negates the concept of further education.

Teachers get into the education business because of their love of teaching and creating a better future for out students. They are in a constant battle with parents that do not get involved with their on children, health and safety issues at the school because there is not the funds to fully guard against violence in the schools, a transient rate that has students moving in and out of a school so fast they have no control over what the student has learned previously, and of course as this original essay states, dealing with NCLB.

Of course the politicians don't want to stand up against NCLB. On the surface, NCLB sounds like the educational panacea to all of our educational problems. Who wants to be the politician that says "Yes, it is OK if a child gets left behind"? But the reality is that not all students learn the same way, or at the same level. If NCLB is truely going to work, it needs to be a program that treats EACH and EVERY student as an individual, not as a mass blob of flesh in the school system. In its present state, NCLB can not do that.

I, too, am a retired educator and must agree with comments made by others who are no longer in the profession. In my district, experience was not valued by administrators or staff members. One veteran teacher was told to hurry up and retire by the supt., because he could pay 2 new teachers what he had to pay her. New wave teachers are more interested in being friends with their students rather than getting down and dirty and teaching them. Administrators are afraid of parents and lawsuits, teachers are afraid for their jobs, and students are afraid of nothing. My entire philosophy of education differed so from the school's platform I could only stand 23 years, and bought 2 years to leave early. I have friends who would lay down their lives for their students, but they are rarely appreciated for their efforts. It is a sad, sad state of affairs and I am now considering brushing up my teaching techniques for tutoring my grandchildren so they don't wind up mindless robots who can't spell, write, do basic math, know what city or state they live in, or think for themselves, but yet make the A Honor Roll every quarter and receive medals for their proficient test-taking skills.

Thank you for writing this. I'm the daughter and sister of teachers, and I hate seeing how little respect they get. I can also attest to being a well prepared student with highly engaged parents and still not being engaged with anything I was learning until the end of college; I think these effects you are talking about not only contribute to frustrated college professors and underprepared students, but they are also trickling into colleges as they are expected to enroll ever higher numbers of students and pass them regardless of performance or evidence of learning. It's only since I started graduate school that I feel like I'm learning real things and that I am being expected to demonstrate good writing and arguments (and even that in only half of my program and not the other half). "Standards" do so much more to ruin education and the spirit of learning for learning's sake than they do to ensure educated people.

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.

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. I have also observed the wisdom of the National Teacher of the Year quote above who echoed the observation of my own teacher father: "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.

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 naivete. There is a problem that may be denied but it will never 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 Reduction in Breadth of Content in High School Social Studies courses
Submitted by Jim Buxton: URI Political Science Dept./ Salve Regina Education Dept.

Before I begin with my arguments regarding my concerns in relation to breadth of content covered in high school Social Studies classes, let me apprise you of my background, which will help you appreciate the perspective I feel that I have on this topic.
For 32 years, I was a Social Studies teacher at South Kingstown High School. I taught Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, “American Citizen in a Changing World,” AP Comparative Politics, Honors International Relations, 2 levels of US History and 2 levels of Global Studies.
(No, not all at the same time!)
Since retiring in 2009, I have taught as an Adjunct in the URI Political Science Department, and as an Adjunct in the Education Department of Salve Regina University. In this capacity, I have supervised Social Studies student teachers, and through this experience I have been exposed to Social Studies teaching at 6 different RI high schools. Hence, I feel like I have a good sense for what Social Studies student teachers are learning, what high school teachers are teaching and what college professors are expecting.
The crux of my argument is that there is a major disconnect between what high school Social Studies students are being exposed to and what URI History and Poly. Sci. professors may be expecting in their incoming students, and that this disconnect shows itself in many ways. The area I will be focusing on is the breadth of content disconnect, that would lead URI professors to be shocked by the reduction in prior knowledge in their 2012 students as compared to their 2002 students. As I am primarily an International Politics teacher at URI, I will be focusing on Global Studies / International Politics illiteracy.
For the past two years, I have done a polling of my URI students and my Salve Regina students. I polled 102 URI students and 55 Salve students. They ranged from Freshman to Juniors, and approximately a third of them were Political Science or History majors. I teach a 100 level course in International Politics at URI, and I was curious as to their prior knowledge in this area. The poll was simple. It was a list of 36 historical figures or locations. The students had to write in what country they were from.

The results were alarming. I’ll share a bit of the results. Hopefully, you are as alarmed
as I was.

54% correctly answered that Nelson Mandela was from South Africa.
11% correctly answered that Mecca was in Saudi Arabia.
59% Baghdad 52% Mao Zedong 13% Ayatollah Khomeini
53% Vladimir Lenin 60% the Taliban (either Afghanistan or Pakistan were correct answers)
11% Yasser Arafat 4% Mohammed (a variety of answers were acceptable for the last 2)
18% Ahmadinejad 68% Fidel Castro 62% Joseph Stalin
32% apartheid 13% Kabul or Hamid Karzai 16% Hutus and Tutsis
75% Gandhi 37% Kim il Sung 3% Ho Chi Minh
83% Cairo 10% the Sandinistas 50% where Osama was killed
14% Darfur 47% Saddam Hussein – most common miss was Afghanistan

Now, I cannot contend that the sample size was sufficient. The poll would not pass validity and reliability expectations. However, I hope it brings up some serious questions, and perhaps a more official polling might be initiated.
A separate section of the polling asked students to approximate how many class periods they had learned about topics such as S African apartheid, Indian independence, Islam or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Predictably, there was not very much coverage of global topics.
Does this matter?

Following are some of the campaign gaffes made by a variety of candidates for the Presidency in 2012. My concern is in regard to whether or not most American college students would pick up the mistakes.

The question I would ask is whether there is a certain amount of historic literacy expected in our citizenry if we are to have a functioning democracy. The assertion I would make is that the breadth of content covered in high school Social Studies is diminishing, and this reduction has significant implications for our democracy. I will focus, however, on the implications for University of Rhode Island professors of History and Political Science.

The following is a list of 13 reasons why URI History and Political Science professors might be seeing a reduction in the relevant prior knowledge of their students.

1) In high schools, generally, there is less lecturing /less teacher presentations /less direct instruction
Benefits: The old days of lecturing from bell to bell are thankfully over. Research studies have found that the attention spans of most students are out of synch with 45 minute lectures.
There are many alternatives to the old presentation method. Cooperative learning, problem based learning, classroom discussions and more can enhance the student’s interest in the subject being taught.

Costs: As much as the above is true, the question we must ask is “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” Have we reduced presentation time so much that we have significantly reduced attention span. Add to that the instant gratification of computers, smart phones, Facebook, twittering and more, and is there any surprise that after 5 minutes of instruction, the eyes of the students are glazing over.
High school teachers then accommodate this phenomenon, massively reducing their lecture time and one of the results is less content coverage.

2) Cooperative learning is being used to a much greater extent.
Benefits: The cooperative learning model involves student cooperation and interdependence to promote tolerance, acceptance of diversity, development of social skills, as well as academic achievement.

Costs: Certainly, we all would support the benefits listed above. However, one could argue that the more students teach each other in small groups, the less content you will inevitably cover. Also, there is much less quality control in regard to cooperative learning; the group you are in may be very dysfunctional.

3) Alternative assessments are being used more frequently
Benefits: Students can demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of non-traditional ways. They can create a poster, write a poem, do a power point or create a skit, as opposed to taking a test or writing an essay.

Costs: Certainly, we would all support the above, but if it’s done too much, does the student get the impression that specific factual information is unimportant. Does it matter who’s in the opposing trenches, or is the only thing that matters the idea that World War 1 fighting was hell? Also, is it OK if the student does a power point on one aspect of World War 1, for example trench warfare, as opposed to being asked to know alliances, causes, Versailles Treaty, etc on an objective test? If this is OK, will he attend fully when we review the causes of World War 2?

4) Graduation by Proficiency in many schools involves the production of a Portfolio
Benefits: In many RI school districts, students are asked to produce a portfolio to fulfill one of their diploma requirements. According to the RI Department of Education (RIDE), the portfolio would be a “collection of work that documents a student’s academic performance over time and demonstrates deep content knowledge and applied learning skills.” For many students who are poor test takers, the portfolio affords them the option of showing their proficiency on Science labs, Math projects or persuasive essays. This process also ensures that every student will, at some point, produce a lab report that met the standard. Falling through the cracks would theoretically be less likely.

Costs: For a significant amount of students, more or less depending on the school system, portfolio is seen as a time consuming, mindless task which does not promote significant learning. At one RI high school, students take a semester course in portfolio during each of their 4 years in high school. That amount of time may be needed for some, but for others it is a study hall. For the successful student it may be a lost educational opportunity. Additionally, one might question the degree to which the portfolio represents “deep content knowledge” considering that the assessment is supposedly the same for all levels of students in the school.

5) Re-writes
Benefits: There is a greater emphasis on allowing the student re-write opportunities. Additionally, 50% of the end of course exam involves applied learning, and students must be afforded re-writes. The first effort is considered a first draft.

Costs: The time spent doing a second draft is time lost from other educational opportunities. Perhaps this is needed for some students, however is it needed by all students?

6) Student presentations are more common
Benefits: The ability to communicate is crucial in this information age.

Costs: If you have 25 students in class, and each one of them does a ten minute presentation (including processing time), that’s over 4 hours of content that has been forfeited. Please don’t tell me that students will learn equally well from the content presented by their classmates,
vis-à-vis that of their teachers. If this is true, then why do we pay teachers?

7) The introduction of Advisory period into the school day.
Benefits: The idea of Advisory period took off after the Columbine massacre. In the attempt to help certain students to feel less anonymous, it was decided that students would spend a certain amount of time each week in an Advisory period with the same teacher and students for their 4 years of high school. There would be lots of discussion and bonding. There would be no grades. It would provide a haven for the lost child. Advisories might be every day for 20 minutes, or three times a week for 30 minutes each or twice a week for 45 minutes each time. According to RIDE, there would be “time and opportunity to support student achievement in the academic, career and personal/social domains.”

Costs: We can all appreciate the need for more personalization in high school, especially in schools of 4000 students. However, anything you add must be taken from somewhere else. Clearly, for better or for worse, advisory reduces classroom time and therefore the breadth of content delivered.

8) Less is more!!?????
Benefits: When too much content is presented to students, they often learn it for the test, and forget it immediately afterwards. Immersing in a topic provides a much better learning environment. There is so much to know about World War 1. Wouldn’t it be better if students delved into some aspect which they were interested in, for example trench warfare, chemical weapons or the sinking of the Lusitania. Some argue that it doesn’t matter what you learn, the important thing is that you learn how to learn. It’s not important that high school students learn about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, if they learn how to research, they can learn about the Arab-Israeli Conflict when they want to know about it.

Costs: When students immerse too much, they are deprived of crucial content because they don’t get to many other topics. (Ex: They spend 3 weeks on the War of 1812, but they never study the Civil Rights Movement in US History class.) They also don’t get enough context to fully appreciate the topic they are immersing in. For example, can a student really understand an article they might read about Israel, if they don’t know what Zionism, the West Bank or the 1947 Partition mean?

9) Heterogeneous grouping
Benefits: Homogeneous grouping implies dividing students up by ability, such that you might have 4 levels of US History. Each level of USH would be taught differently. One of the major problems with that is that the lowest group is stigmatized. They feel they are labeled as stupid, and as a result they may not try very hard. Often, the major behavior problems would be all grouped together, increasing the levels of distraction in these classrooms. By creating heterogeneous classrooms, you spread out the educationally and behaviorally challenged. These students are then in classrooms with students who will more likely pay attention, do their homework and are generally respectful, responsible and curious.

Costs: If the teacher teaches all 25 kids, with very diverse ability levels, with the same lesson plan, then she will either leave some students behind, or she will be going too slowly for the more advanced students. Defenders of heterogeneous grouping, will often say that the more advanced can help the less advanced which will help the leadership skills of the more advanced.
Concern # 1: If this happens frequently, will the more advanced student be exposed to less content than he would be in a US History A class?
Concern # 2: If this happens frequently, should the student “tutor” be paid?

Some argue that heterogeneous classes are a benefit for all students. If tat is true, then why do we have Honors and AP classes?

10) Differentiated instruction: Teachers are learning to differentiate instruction in order to teach students with diverse learning styles in the same classroom.
Benefits: The goal of differentiation is to challenge students of all abilities in the same classroom. If possible, this would enable the educationally challenged student to be in the same classroom with gifted students, while at the same time challenging the gifted students to attain their highest levels.

Costs: This would involve many different lesson plans for each class, and would necessitate a considerable amount of independent and cooperative learning, and would involve much less teacher presentation. See above for concerns about this. There may be considerable learning experiences using these methods, however the amount of content covered would logically be reduced.

Important note: The trend toward heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction does not affect Honors and AP classes. AP classes, in particular, have externally imposed curricula, and student success is measured by national standardized tests. Any attempt to fully move toward heterogeneous groupings across the board, thereby eliminating AP classes, would be met headlong by the parents of AP eligible students, who would provide the necessary political pressure to head off that movement. The students who are more likely to be compromised by many of these educational reforms are the “upper middle” students who are not quite capable of success in AP courses. They are mixed in with the “educationally challenged,” but the AP students are not.

11) For a variety of reasons, there are no national or state content standards that have been approved by Rhode Island.
Benefits: Instead, the Common Core has actually already released skills standards for Social Studies. There are a set of 10 literacy standards and 10 writing standards that all involve higher-order thinking skills and college and career readiness skills in Social Studies. (Examples include being able to analyze primary sources, construct arguments when presented with conflicting viewpoints, etc.) Some argue that these standards will serve as a major push for Social Studies teachers to transcend basic-level facts instruction and embrace a skills-based pedagogy
Costs: As a result of the focus on skills, teachers will be assessed on their transmission of these skills, and not on their transmission of content. Certainly, critical analysis skills are absolutely important, but can you critically analyze the gaffes of Michele Bachmann if you don’t have the background knowledge to do so?

12) Common Planning Time
Benefits: According to RIDE, common planning time shall be used by teams of teachers, administrators and other educators for the substantive planning of instruction, looking at student work, addressing student needs, and group professional development. By the year, 2011-2012, there must be one hour per week of common planning time at the high school level.

Costs: One hour less of student-teacher contact time

13) As a result of the increasing emphasis on testing, there is a reduction in teaching periods available.
Benefits: There are many obvious benefits which have been discussed fully.

Costs: As is commonly heard, “we’re testing more and more, and teaching less and less!”


Having reviewed the reasons for content reduction in high school in non-AP Social Studies courses, I’d like to make a variety of clarifying statements.

1) I taught AP Comparative Politics for 10 years. My students performed well on the AP test, but I eventually cancelled the program because I thought that the content requirements of the course were too expansive. Instead, I created an Honors International Relations course where I had more control over the content taught.

2) It can certainly be argued that there have been a lot of benefits getting away from the lecture and fact-based history teaching of the 1950s, for example.

3) It can be argued that just because a student may have been exposed to more content in the past doesn’t necessarily mean they truly learned more information. Indeed, some would argue that techniques such as cooperative learning, student presentations and alternative assessments may create more internalized learning than the teacher centered approaches of the past.

4) My comments are focused on the kind of students that go to URI. Therefore, my comments may not apply to Honors level students or to “educationally disadvantaged students.”

Whether the reforms are mostly positive or mostly negative, I believe that there are significant implications for college History and Poly. Sci. professors:

1) Students will not have as much note-taking experience as students of the past.

2) Students will have shorter attention spans. If professors employ a good amount of lecturing, they may have to reduce the length, or make some adjustments in the way that they lecture.

3) Students may have less prior knowledge, and therefore the texts you used in the past may assume prior knowledge that is just not there.

4) Students will expect a greater degree of active engagement.

5) Students may expect alternative assessments, and may not appreciate the amount of traditional assessments used in a class.

This a beautiful, honest article. Thank you for writing it. I am a college instructor, and I am heartbroken over the lack of writing skills in my students. I love to read and write. Words are a therapeutic and creative outlet. My love of the written word has been a saving grace in my life. To witness the degradation of public education, and its impact on young people is unbearable. My daughter home-schools her four children because of the poor policy choices of this nation's educational leaders.

As new teacher entering schools during this time, I am both horrified and shocked at what this testing-based curriculum is doing to the classroom. From the time that I was a student in high school to the little experience I now have in the classroom, I can see major changes in the way students think and behave. It's only been about 8 years since I was freshman in high school! Students can no longer think for themselves or question the material I teach. For them, mathematics has a become an endless repetition of drill and practice. Forget about writing in mathematics! I cannot believe the endless amounts of fragments, grammatical errors, and lack of creativity in my students responses. Honestly, it is very discouraging. Not to mention there is an expectation for new teachers to incorporate inquiry into lessons, but at extremely limited time frame. How can we incorporate inquiry when students are so accustomed to having someone or something else thinking for them? It's absolutely ridiculous! The whole educational system is one large circle of contradictions.

I've adjuncted at Academe Editor Aaron Barlow's CUNY for twenty-four years. Reflecting on my (mostly freshmen, most at-risk) students, I sometimes wonder if NYC's K-12 public education policies were a *precursor* to NCLB. Sometimes I've thought CUNY an academic bantustan for the working poor, and a bellwether for the rest of American public higher education.

Everything in this article is 100% true, but it barely scratches the surface. I taught in Maryland for five years, and am now teaching elsewhere, and the testing and scoring of teachers and schools is far worse than just a matter of being able to write essays well.

In Maryland, the HSA tests that the author mentions are much like any other standardized test, in that all the results can reasonably be expected to show is that students from wealthier families will do better on them than students from poor families. This is pretty much the same problem we've dealt with on the SAT for some time now. But Race to the Top has an initiative to try and "close the gaps" in educational testing performance, and Maryland has a huge source of such gaps called Baltimore City. So what did Maryland do? They created something called the Bridge Project.

Under that project, students who fail an HSA test three times can do a project instead. I've seen this project done, with my own two eyes--this isn't anecdote; it's testimony. A student sits with a teacher after school. The teacher, who's forced by administration to be there, opens a textbook, points at a sentence, and tells the student, "Write this." This process, and similar dictation to the student, continues for a few hours (or a few days after school for the Biology project, because that one's a bit longer). At the end, the "student's work" is sent off to be graded elsewhere. The student magically goes down in the books as having passed the HSA, and Maryland's statistics look better for it. Maryland received $250 million from RTTT for basically lying about how well its students are doing.

And Maryland isn't even the worst offender. In Philadelphia, there are Title I schools where kids who are deemed "likely to fail the math exam" are put in rooms where a math teacher is proctoring. ...See where this is going yet? ("Alright, kids, let's check our answers to #10-20 now...")

But it's not all about testing, either. It's also about graduation rates. In several states, attendance is becoming more of a guideline than a rule for graduation. I've seen, again my own testimony, a student who skipped all but six days of senior year walk across the high school graduation stage. Kids are more likely to get a free pass if they fit "multiple check boxes," such as being minority, poor, or special ed. Good luck trying to explain how this is really helping education at any fundamental level.

Grades, likewise, are manipulated if a student needs them in order to graduate. Several school districts have outlawed scores below 50%, even if an assignment is never handed in. Guess how that affects a student's homework production over time. Several schools no longer give zeroes for incidents where students cheat. Guess how that affects the integrity of students' work. More and more, potential principals and other administrators are screened for whether or not they support such policies. Guess how that's affecting the quality of administrators at your child's school, and the message that sends to the school's teachers.

All of the educational statistics NCLB and RTTT have resulted in over the past decade, from graduation rates to tests, are suspect at best, and outright fabrications at worst. For all that we've gone crazy about keeping more and more data about students, that data is, by and large, garbage. And the thing is, it's not going away anytime soon, because it's politically brilliant.

Think about it: testing scores and graduation rates are easy to manipulate. If you're a politician, you can watch schools raise them, however artificially, until they level off (and they will always level off--it's impossible to reach 100% success rates, after all). When they level off, you just change the test and/or the standards behind it. When everyone has to adapt to a new test, the schools' scores will drop dramatically, but you can say it was because you've "raised the bar." From there, schools will slowly adapt to the new test, and the cycle of gradual artificial increases in your statistical scores will continue quite predictably.

They did this in Virginia last year with their state-wide Algebra 2 test. All they did was change the test from paper to computer, and emphasized imaginary numbers a little more. The result? Statewide passing rates went from about 80% to about 35% in one year. Were the teachers that much worse? Were the students that year just really weak? Nope. But that's what moving the goalposts will do in a high-stakes testing environment, and that's the political genius of it.

It's not just politicians, of course; everyone, and I mean everyone, has an incentive to cheat under this system, one way or another. Students want to graduate. Teachers want to keep their jobs. Administrators want to keep their jobs. Central Office workers want to keep their jobs. School Board members want to get re-elected. Governors want the statistics to show improvement under their tenure. So does Arne Duncan. Nobody has an incentive to cry foul at any point, for any reason, unless it's like this: anonymously, or once we retire.

But enough complaining. What could we actually do to improve education? Several things. We could make school years longer. We could get rid of the state tests--however nice they seem in theory, the fact is that their results will always be a lie at some level. We could implement an inspection program instead; it's not hard to tell a good school from a bad one if you're actually inside it. One of RTTT's goals, increasing student access to technology, is actually quite noble... But it needs to be better targeted. The aforementioned Maryland looks great in the stat books, but there are still schools in Baltimore City where students have no access to computers. That should change.

Of course there are other things one could do, and all of these things would be subject to further debate. I don't claim to have all the answers. But because education is a political issue, it too often is the case that the ideas which fail the worst are often the most staunchly defended. It's almost like watching the Bush administration talk about how it made no mistakes in Iraq; nobody has the courage to admit when they have supported a fundamentally bad idea. If we're going to improve education in the USA, an open and honest discussion about what has gone horribly wrong over the past decade, and what we could do to correct it, will be absolutely necessary.

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