When Albert Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers, he penned “Where We Stand,” a column labeled Advertisement because the AFT paid for the space. In “Our ‘Easy’ Schools,” which appeared in The New Republic on Dec. 28, 1992, Shanker argued that schools in the U.S. demand too little of students compared with what is asked of students by schools abroad.
But that was then, and this is now. I don’t know what Shanker would say if he were alive today, but I think he would be forced to admit that the pendulum has swung too far. I don’t deny that there still are schools requiring minimal effort by students. However, what has happened is that most schools have loaded up students with homework and stepped up requirements for graduation in order to prepare them to meet the demands of the global economy.
I strongly support a rigorous curriculum, although I question the wisdom of making, say, Algebra 1 a prerequisite for a high school diploma for all students. But there is one aspect of the change that has been given short shrift. In our obsession with meeting the competition overseas, we’ve taken the fun out of teaching and learning. I’m not talking about the playground version, where students are allowed to engage in whatever horseplay they wish while teachers stand on the sidelines. Instead, I’m referring to the joy and excitement that come from carefully planned lessons designed to engage students because of the subject matter’s intrinsic value.
For teachers who started their careers before the accountability movement gained traction, the transformation has been traumatic. No longer can they rely on their professional judgment in preparing lessons, nor are they likely to experience the satisfaction of having opened the eyes of their students to knowledge for its own sake. They now have to treat their lessons as part of an assembly line, where instruction is evaluated strictly on the basis of how much value it adds. The rationale is that the real world operates accordingly.
Reformers maintain that teaching and learning can’t always be fun. They say that discipline is an indispensable part of the educational process. That is certainly true. But the way things are unfolding in classrooms across the country means that even if students perform adequately on standardized tests, we run the risk of forever turning them off to further learning in the same subjects. As I wrote before, you can teach a subject well but teach students to hate the subject in the process. When that happens, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.