In general, school started off well, but there has been one snag. In one of the courses I teach, the introductory reading I chose has proven too difficult for many of my students. I know this because I have already spent some time having pointed discussions about the reading, because they have already had some time to work in groups to share their understanding, and because they have had seat time to read, pencil in hand. Reading pencil in hand yielded in some students no more than question marks. In the group work I could see that some of the students were asking their classmates to explain it, while others paid cursory attention or none at all to their reading or to what was being said about it. The whole class’s discussion showed that there were more questions than answers and as much silence as questions.

Yet another reaction was clarified for me by a student who asked me during group work, “What should we do if we can’t find anything about this piece on the internet?” I told him that I had chosen the piece partly because I didn’t expect them to be able to, but then suggested some methods for approaching the reading by asking questions of it.  By contrast, a lot of students, when something is difficult, turn to a pre-digested version, which they then describe as what the author “really said” or “was trying to say.” I hate that formula in discussing poetry, and I hate it in discussing prose; but I can’t blame students for falling back on it. The culture of pre-digestion leads them inevitably to conclude that a reading with depth, weight, or thickness is unreal because unreadable, while the digest is real because they can get it. It teaches them that the correct response to difficulty is to give up and try something less troublesome.

But the troublesomeness of this particular reading remains. Next week, I will make some adjustments in how they approach it, giving the excellent readers a chance to test themselves and the more tentative ones a way to approach its insights more fruitfully.

A teacher connected with his class has the ability to size it up on the wing and to make any adjustments needed. It is part of what Barzun calls the teacher’s “perpetual discretion.” To speak of it thus is to generalize, but the connection a good teacher makes with his class plays out in particulars, such as the Reading Drama I have just told you about.

It also has to be said that being a good student includes the readiness and ability to meet good teaching partway, the way Adèle meets Jane Eyre. My students have clearly been trying to do so. Ideally, in another week or two we will come away from this challenge with an understanding that allows us to proceed.

We could say, among other ways of putting it, that I have connected with my students and they have connected with me. The connection is personal, for I dealt with students individually and in small groups to help them gain the understanding they lacked. The connection is professional because it is governed by the demands, constraints, and opportunities in the teacher – student relationship. The connection is also, let it be said, instrumental, for it is a means to an end: that the students learn what is to be taught.

As against this kind of connection—personal, professional, instrumental and reciprocal—we are now presented with another kind of connection brought to us by “science” and “technology”. The advertisement-cum-article in which this connection was expounded tells us that the sense of connectedness is revealed by students’ scaled answers to comments such as “I feel comfortable going to my teacher for help” and “My teacher really cares about me”. The questionnaires are compiled and the compilation of responses is performed by a suitably paid “education” company.

Problems immediately reveal themselves to an adult possessing “critical reading skills”, or what used to be called an educated general reader.

(1)    The “education” company assumes that students’ answers are the valid result of sound evaluation and ripe judgment. Raise your hand if that jibes with your experience of sixteen-year-olds. I do not mean to disparage unduly the not-completely-formed powers of judgment evident in our not-entirely-adult students, but rather to suggest that judgments of this kind must be treated with caution. That does not happen when they are combined as equally valid in a composite result naïvely and uncritically presented as a “scientific” “measurement”.

(2)    The survey misuses averages and endangers standards. Ms. Campbell, the teacher in the report, is not judged to be good or bad but “below average” in “connectedness.” Let us suppose that Ms. Campbell and her colleagues all improved their “connectedness” by equal leaps and bounds—or, more correctly, let us assume that students start rating them as “more connected.” Rather than receive congratulations for this improvement, Ms Campbell would still be judged “below average.” If things went the other way and she and her colleagues suffered some kind of mass demoralization or drop in their students’  regard, such that their scores all dropped, Ms. Campbell would still be “below average” rather than, say, abysmal. Of course, that could also happen if the students rated them low because of pique. In all these shifting sands, where are standards?

What is more, if “average” is a point on the scales in questions given to the students, the survey has failed to understand something elementary: “average” is not a judgment, it is a statistic. If students rate all their teachers “above average,” we are faced with the troubling conclusion that average is above average or that above average is average. In this kind of system, what can “average” mean? I hope no one from the “education” company tells me that average does not mean average!

But there is more. Teachers like Ms. Campbell receive these data because the “education” company that generates them and the school administrators who pay its fees believe that the onus of improving the ambience of education rests entirely on the teacher. They also appear to believe that handing out results from a questionnaire is a valid substitute for sound pedagogy and effective educational leadership.

At one point in the article we are assured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that “when combined with test scores and observations, student surveys made for a more consistent and reliable way of measuring how teachers were performing.” That conclusion has been confounded by a thorough debunking of the study that produced it. We also hear a Harvard professor assure us that we can’t stop using numbers and “go back to nothing.” Who said anything about nothing? We could “go back” to discernment, discretion, educational leadership, and the mutual regard of students and teachers.

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