I have no doubt that Kenneth Bernstein’s main point is right: initiatives like No Child Left Behind have had the unintended consequence of forcing teachers around the country to “teach to the [inevitable, inflexible] test,” ignoring everything — no matter how intrinsically valuable or practically useful — that doesn’t contribute to the evaluation of the schools. It’s simply the evident case that “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.”
But I have some serious reservations about Bernstein’s essay as a whole. It has two chief points: first, that the federal government is to blame for what ails American primary and secondary education; and second, that teachers in higher education — that would be people like me — are responsible for dealing with the consequences. As for teachers at any of the pre-university levels, Bernstein brings one message from them: It’s not our fault. “Those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited.” “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.”
Not only are he and his fellow teachers blameless in all respects, they are afflicted by other people who tell them what to do. Bernstein quotes approvingly from a post by another award-winning teacher, Anthony Mullen, who says that just as it would make no sense for non-physicians to have input on emergency room procedures, so too it makes no sense for non-teachers to have input on teaching.
I have multiple responses to this attitude (as it is evidenced by both Bernstein and Mullen).
First, while I am not a physician, I have been a patient in an emergency room, and I think I can make a case that patients have some legitimate interests in what happens there. Similarly, people who have never taught have all been taught, and most of them have sent their children to schools, and most if not all of them are making financial contributions to schools. Their interests are not obviously and necessarily irrelevant or presumptuous.
Second, Mullen’s comments remind me of what many college and university faculty say — or rather screech — whenever anyone raises similar concerns about what we do: ACADEMIC FREEDOM! As though “academic freedom” means not being accountable to anyone for your professional decisions. Surely part of the price we all pay for the privilege of teaching is to listen and try to respond fairly to the various complaints and suggestions and even demands of the people who pay our salaries. We may not always agree with them — we may have exceptionally good reasons for disagreeing — but the “shut up and leave this to the professionals” attitude is contemptible.
Third, I wonder how many teachers are as skilled or as dedicated as Bernstein and Mullen evidently are. In my public high school in Birmingham, Alabama — lo these many years ago — I had one good teacher. Almost everything of value I learned in those years I learned through books I borrowed from the East Lake Public Library or bought at Watkins Book Shop in Roebuck. Indeed, I would have been far better educated at graduation had I been excused from all classes and told to spend that time (a) reading what interested me and (b) writing about what I read. I do not say that I would have been well educated under such a regime of independence; but I would have been better educated.
Having said that, I know many skilled, devoted, hard-working, and underpaid teachers at all levels of our system, in public and private schools alike. My son was the beneficiary of some exceptionally fine ones in his first few years of formal schooling (though the quality dropped off dramatically after that). None of this is meant to indicate any lack of respect or appreciation for those wonderful people. I just wish there were more of them.
As I said at the outset, I think Bernstein is largely correct about No Child Left Behind and the bind it puts teachers in. But that is only part of the problem of American education. On the levels at which he taught, pedagogical incompetence is, I think, a bigger issue; on the level at which I teach, we’re afflicted by a system that tends to devalue actual teaching to a distressing, and much-noted, degree. (Though this is not true everywhere, thank goodness.) It is discouraging to me to see much-lauded, high-profile teachers effectively denying that their profession is free from blame. We should remember that, badly flawed as No Child Left Behind is, it arose for a reason: the failure of so many school districts around the country to educate the children in their care.
As a teacher, I certainly like the idea of off-loading all the blame, and all the responsibility, to others. But we cannot honestly do so. The whole teaching profession still needs to take a long hard look into the deep dark truthful mirror.