Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cause 'n' effect

I've already heard from several former students who are now in K-12 education that the scenario depicted by my friend Kyle is more than ever a reality. I've always known the high-stakes testing, NCLB, and all that nonsense were driving our public schools off of a cliff, but I don't think I was ever aware of just how bad it had become...and Buncombe County's schools are by no means among the nation's "worst."

What in the hell are we doing? I see two immediate and profoundly negative effects to this shortsightedness.

First, by drilling our students on "basic skills" (i.e., reading and math) to the exclusion of all else, we're ensuring that our students will grow to loathe those subjects more than they already do. Many but the most math-motivated students come out of high school hating math and reading little, and being unable to do more than solve pointless decontextualized machine-gradable math problems and extract topic sentences from unchallenging tendentious passages of "literature." This isn't an inevitable outcome: my experience in working with my department's Super Saturday "Math Discoveries" program has taught me that there are many bright 8- and 9-year-olds of all backgrounds who positively love math, and that if that love is nurtured they'll stay focused on it for a long time. Moreover, my experience in teaching Calc I, Calc II, and even Precalculus has taught me that it's not impossible to reawaken dormant affinities for math if it's presented in a way that makes it interesting, challenging, relevant, and fun. But drills and standardized tests are neither interesting nor challenging nor relevant, and they're certainly not fun.

Second, by neglecting less readily-assessable (or at least less readily-assessable-through-machine-graded-standardized-tests) subjects like social science, Earth science, literature, music, etc., we are ensuring that our students will have virtually no ability to contextualize whatever minimal understanding of reading and mathematics they're able to eke out of their loathsome experience with these latter subjects. Their knowledge of math will be disembodied, inapplicable to any other science. "Word problems" will always be "word problems," impenetrable blocks of quasi-mathematical lingo, and not opportunities to apply mathematical understanding in a meaningful setting. Worse yet, reading (and writing) will always be a soulless enterprise, undertaken in order to find a topic sentence, identify three (precisely three) salient pieces of evidence in support of that sentence, and pen a five-paragraph response containing both an introduction and a conclusion (god forbid you forget either).

I'm well aware that there are many more negative effects than these, but I've not got enough time to list them all here...nor am I the most well-trained to make this list. (I'm sure many of my recent grads who now teach in the public schools could do a better job than I could, and I hope they find their way to this post and chime in in the comments section.) I'll close by quoting a colleague/Facebook friend, who said on my link to yesterday's blog post "why is it getting so hot?...why am I in this hand basket"?

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