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The Problem with Teachers

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

racetothetop

The current issue of Academe, the bi-monthly publication of the American Association of University Professors, has an article by recently retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein with the title 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. I don’t ordinarily read Academe. However, I saw a reference last week to a post the week before at Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog The Answer Sheet in which she reprinted Bernstein’s article. It’s worth reading.

Here’s a sample:

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.

Bernstein in turn links to and quotes from a 2010 blog post in Education Week by 2009 national teacher of the year Anthony Mullen. Old news, but worth reading three years later.

Mullen describes a roundtable discussion at an education conference in which he participates along with “three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator.” The others discuss and agree on the failings of contemporary teachers, who one governor explains “are not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms because they possess, in his words, ‘only 20th century skills.’ He does not provide specific examples or elaborate upon his theory but the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement.”

Mullen stays silent, until finally the senator asks his thoughts.

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators 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.”

“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.”

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