No Apologies Necessary

My ClassroomA recent Op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein is making the rounds on various social media channels.  I am not surprised that it has resonated with college professors that I interact with online because it is addressed specifically to this group.  Bernstein uses the opportunity to vent her frustration regarding the state of high school education and what he sees as the effects of No Child Left Behind.  I have never operated under its strictures, but I certainly identify with Bernstein’s experience in the AP classroom and the often defensive posture that teachers assume when questioned by non-educators.  In short, I get it and I am sorry to see that it has cost this country another passionate educator.

My frustration with this editorial comes not so much with its content, but in who it is addressed.  At the end Bernstein essentially apologizes to college instructors for the quality of students that now populate their classrooms – even in elite schools.

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.

Whether Bernstein intends it or not such a view reinforces a complaint that I am hearing more and more from friends of mine who teach at the college level.  I should point out that I know for a fact that many of my friends are passionate teachers who take their responsibilities in the classroom very seriously.  Still, the tweets and Facebook updates that pick out deficiencies among students or the questions that are asked of me directly about the state of secondary education grate on me.

What I want to ask in these moments is what are you doing in the classroom to address this?  What kinds of pedagogical practices are you utilizing in the classroom to address specific problems?  No research skills? No analytical writing skills?  How exactly are you addressing this.  The shift from high school to college is no longer a matter of handing students off, but a close continuation and even introduction to certain methodologies and content.

We are all teachers, we are all in the same boat.  No apologies necessary.

13 responses... add one

I am an elementary school teacher librarian in Virginia. Here we are teaching students to pass SOL and Benchmark tests. Anything beyond that is considered extra. Having college students unable to do college work does not surprise me in the least.

I agree with Pamela. IN Gwinnett we are under strict calendars because the county routinely tests students at different intervals. I can only integrate so much research and anayltical practice into lesson plans. IN the end, the goal for administration is for students to pass the test and if they don’t, under new federal evaluations, it’s my job.

This is true in Virginia as well. I teach in a Title I focus school and if our scores don’t improve the principal, assistant principal and half the faculty will be replaced. Luckily for me I am retiring in June.

College professors have ALWAYS complained that the students arriving in their classroom are dumber than ever. It is anecdotal bullshit. There is a ton of data on the college readiness, and I am not aware of any hard evidence that the skills and abilities of students are declining.

The questions that I hear more than anything else are not about cognitive ability, but about the skills or lack thereof that they bring to the college classroom.

Yes–and I don’t think that the skills are declining, and don’t know of any data that supports the idea. I may be wrong on the latter–but I am deeply suspicious of any argument that begins “back in my day.”

I teach history at a liberal arts college and have always assumed that history-composition instruction is a central component of my job. I make sure that I not only assign plenty of analytical writing assignments, but that I spend time IN CLASS going over how to critically analyze primary texts, how to construct and develop meaningful thesis statements, how to organize essays that advance arguments based on logic and evidence, and how to improve stylistically with the use of extra verb lists to jar the mind. Practice usually pays off. But ALL students at my institution also receive a rigorous portfolio-based, peer review-heavy composition education that gets them well beyond the often subpar Tennessee HS training they received prior to college. Learning to write is a life-long skill.

Thanks for the comment, Aaron. I do hope this post didn’t rub you the wrong way. My concern was primarily with the way Bernstein framed his argument. Like I said, I know there is some incredibly teaching going on on the college level

I’m not going to judge whether today’s college students are better or worse students than when I was in college, but, damn, a majority of my students can not write a coherent argument to save their life. What really worries me, however, is the lack of study time they put in, largely because so many have to work, and because they take such a heavy class load. Three or four classes a semester used to be the norm. My students normally take five to seven. How the hell can they spend the time to really learn a subject taking that heavy a load, especially as they spend on average fewer hours studying a week than I did?

As an AP US History teacher you should have seen my surprise and shock when our administrators told us two years ago that AP test scores do not matter. They want inclusion and more numbers in the classroom as data showed that the more students who take AP classes do better in college. OK I don’t know what study they got their data from, all I know is my class had to be literally “dumbed” down to accommodate more students who had no business being in an AP class. Sadly my AP worthy students are not getting the same rigorous curriculum I was teaching three years ago. In a way it is liberating to not be held accountable to scores, but at the same time it is sad that scores somehow do not matter, thus we are leaving the higher functioning students behind in my opinion.

My frame of reference is different. I graduated high school in 1974 and serve on the board of directors for the alumni association where I graduated. Interacting with the university staff and with students I think we get at least some feel for the caliber of today’s students. From this perspective, I believe today’s students are better instructed and prepared for college at the high school level than at any point in our history. Yes, there is the “teaching to the test” phenomenon, but there is also much stronger support to guide and prepare students who want to go to college. Today’s teachers are also better educated in what it takes to help students learn. And their dedication and commitment remains as strong, even if disillusionment is likely higher.

When I graduated high school the process of preparing students to move on to college was more like “natural selection”. There were not the formal Advanced Placement programs, just a selection of courses of which the students deemed “college material” took the more rigid ones. If a student wanted to go to college, or moreover one of the more highly regarded ones, the onus was on them to commit to what it took to be ready. This isn’t to say individual teachers didn’t play key roles from their encouragement and academic support, but it was really more of a sink or swim situation.

I would argue what Bernstein is seeing is not just backwash from “No Child Left Behind” but the results of cultural shifts. The pace of the world today’s students move in is so much more quick and challenging than my generation faced. It’s an “input-output” world which has no patience for patience. Communication skills, so vital to expanding reasoning ability, are more difficult to develop in a world which values text messaging as a form. Parents, wanting the best of everything from their children, often over commit them (and stress them) to the point where they good at a little of everything but don’t have the time to find their gifts and develop them. And in the middle of it all society is sending false signals to teens they are ready (and expected) to begin to engage in adult behaviors which can bring distractions and pressures which take away from the time they should spend developing intellectually and personally.

If we took away everything Bernstein cites as negatives, would college professors see a profound difference? I suspect not. I also believe he is overly pessimistic about today’s students (who despite all the overload and stress we put them up against are for the most part very bright, very enthusiastic young people) and teachers (who are moving the ball down the field in ways no previous generations of educators have).

It’s all down to the old quote, “The problem lies not with our stars, but ourselves”. If we find ways to strengthen society, to temper expectation with understanding, and support our teachers and schools we’ll come out to the good.

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