Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Poor preparation

by Michael Dymmoch

Chance favors the prepared mind.* Louis Pasteur

A recent news story reported that the Washington D.C. school system is not just teaching to the tests, but taking the idea to an extreme. They’re making up tests of what they think students ought to know and teaching to those tests. Not surprisingly, test scores are up.

I’m really glad I’m not a student in that system. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school that taught reading, grammar, math, geography, history, and civicsamong other things. As a result, I’m a great reader, a pretty good writer, better than average at grammar, fair at practical math, and a regular voter. I never knew tests were supposed to be an ordeal, so I always took them as a chance to see how much I’d learned. For me, they were fun. And I did well enough in school, and on the tests, to get a scholarship to college. I don’t recall ever being told that any particular thing I was being taught was important because it would be on a test. Presumably everything taught in my school had some value, so students were expected to try to remember all of it.

Over the years, most of my teachers were excellent, especially in high school and college. I think this may have been because they loved teaching or at least loved what they were teaching. (I learned more physics from a novice plant physiology instructor who desperately wanted to share his love of plants than I did from two different physics teachers.) And I was an indifferent student. I didn’t learn how to study until after I’d dropped out of grad school. What I did learn early on is that learning is valuable in itselfnot because it enables one to pass tests or get into a great school.

Which is why I spent the money (over and above my tax contributions) to send my son to a Montessori school through fifth grade, though when I enrolled him, I knew nothing of the Montessori philosophythat children come programmed to learn and all they need to succeed at it is an environment that encourages them to do so. Most Montessori schools provide a learning environment, as do most wealthy suburban and city magnet schools. But they take only the best students‡, so the teachers assume most of the kids will do well. Andsurprise!—they do. A teacher who believes in students' ability to learn is part of a great learning experience.

Judging by news reports, my teacher-friends’ horror stories, and my ownadmittedly limitedexperience, most schools today are not preparing students to do much more than show up for work, follow orders whether they make sense or not, and pass tests. And I may be just getting old and cranky, but I believe the practice of giving students money to get good grades is just wrong. It discourages students from learning for its own sake. Which limits what people will learn. Which limits what they can learn. And that limits their ability to adapt to situations they can’t begin to foresee without a broad knowledge base, including history and geography.

It seems to me we’re preparing students to pass tests, but we’re not preparing them to learn or think. We’re not preparing them to live in our complex world.

What do you think?

*Actually Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.

Some elite schools refuse to take troublesome students or make it clear they’d be better off in night schoolbut that’s a story for another blog.


Dana King said...

The "elite schools produce elite students" is similar to the studied--and pretty much proven--theory that Ivy League schools produce the most successful graduates because they cherry pikc the best kids going in. it makes perfect sense.

The study that struck me most went back twenty years after graduation and compared the careers of Ivy league graduates with those who had been accepted at an Ivy but chose not to attend, for whatever reason. There was no appreciable difference twenty years later. (I apologize for the gross oversimplification, but i don't have the link handy.)

I applaud the sentiment of NCLB, but its implementation is a catastrophe for education. Kids show up for the first day of kindergarten eager to learn; our schools tend to do a wonderful job of beating that out of them.

Shreds said...

I'm a teacher in a large district in a Midwestern city. Our administration's obsession with tests and scores, or what we are calling "achievement", is really the most depressing part of my job. Competition for that NCLB money is fierce, and it seems the only way to play, or win, is to rig the game.
When I was studying to be a teacher, "teaching to the test" was code for "not teaching." Now it's how the job is defined. Sigh.

E's said...

A lot of this is so true...

A teachers expectations shape the student's learning experience. I used to love teachers who assumed you were up to speed, because it challenged me to get up to speed. I hated if I didn't understand something.

On the other side, the students who want to learn are crafty and inventive. They aren't just products of lowered expectations - they expand to learn away from the school, b/c honestly if you're held down to learn with the indifferent kids so test scores can soar - The shit is too easy.

I went to the worst school in my area in Detroit. When I went to Michigan State. I didn't feel a minute behind. And I'm far from a book worm or nerd...maybe a little. The kids' brains are resilient.