The Bubble Reputation

I recently interviewed an applicant for admission to my alma mater. As always when the candidate is highly intelligent and engaged, this was a fascinating exercise. My applicant hopes to study astrophysics and notes that the student/faculty ratio in that department is about 3/2. One of the attractions she sees in such a favorable ratio is the opportunity she will have to work closely with her teachers and mentors. With that ratio, she certainly won’t be able to dodge them!—not even on days when she is sleepy.

Her comment reminded me of what I had heard about the physicist I. I. Rabi, who often taught by having chalk talks and coffee with colleagues and students in Pupin Hall. These talks were said to be formative by those who attended. Interestingly, my applicant went further along this line of thinking when I asked her what is most likely to lead to a successful course.

She said, ‘a teacher who is interesting and makes the subject interesting.’ She added that it helps when students have a generally positive attitude towards the teacher. I guess that if she is successfully studying AP physics and math, this same teacher must lay down and uphold a high standard of work. As a teacher I would add to the mix a readiness to meet a halfway interesting teacher halfway. It would also help that the interactions between such students and teachers took place at schools that support genuine teaching and learning.

That is not what is happening in schools that have to assume the position of recipients of money from programs like RAce to the Top, or other mandates for mastery or university readiness. My applicant is going to be ready for university and scientific work with leaders in her field because she has been made ready through her efforts to work with engaging teachers on material that lays the groundwork in knowledge, skill and understanding that she will need in university. She will not be made ready by being turned into an exam weenie who sacrifices the Big Three for ‘test-taking skills’.

For that is what happens when schools are sized up using the wrong kinds of test. Studies have been done showing what the right kinds are, and they have shown why the wrong kinds are wrong. (There is also the educational experience of the human race, in case something were wanted to supplement quantitative methods.) You won’t need three guesses to tell which category the RAT and Common Core tests fall under.

But there is another problem—one discussed by Garret Keizer in his book Getting Schooled. This is the tendency of large mandatory programs and systems to suffocate the teaching they ostensibly ‘measure’, and its effects extend beyond just high-power programs.  Keizer’s wife and daughter are special-education teachers who labor under crushing bureaucratic burdens that almost guarantee their students will not have their special needs met.[1] These include shape-shifting  ‘programs’ and ‘software’ that ‘monitor’ teachers, provoking Keizer to assert that the two top trends in public education are

‘the rate at which pedagogical conundrums are being replaced by technological ones,’ and

‘the alarming rate at which educators are losing their ability to tell the two apart.’

What educationists should be doing is seeking to provide the training and working conditions in which good-quality teachers are supported in their efforts to help students like my applicant become really ready for university—that is, really ready to think, write and act, not just to bubble.

[1] See pp. 189 – 190 of his book.

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