Let the Teachers Teach


Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and is a book review editor at HNN

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As a classroom teacher, I find the NEAP survey results, like most education reports, engender a sense of skepticism.  There are so many factors—parental role, economic and racial disparities, government mandates like special needs—that get woven into data, and can only be partially controlled.  I also have nagging questions about the standards for the standards, which sometimes seem more about that which can be easily measured rather than what which is truly worth knowing.   The mere fact of the tests can be corrosive, bending teachers, administrators, and students to serve the needs of the examination rather than the other way around.  But I know that I’m hardly the first person to have such concerns, and that people of intelligence and good will are doing their best to provide useful information in an arena that resists quantification.

For me the most compelling questions in terms of improving historical literacy turn less on what we want students to know—I have no serious disagreement with what I see here—than how we can help them know it.  Which ways of framing information will make it seem relevant and accessible to adolescents?  What kinds of assessments will both measure and reinforce what they’re learning?  How does one align reading, writing and other forms of homework in ways that it seems necessary and useful to complete tasks whose value is evident at the outset?  These can be daunting questions, and ones that have to be addressed in ways that include a healthy regard for one’s own self-preservation.  But unless they’re really considered, the role a teacher plays in the education of a student will never approach its full potential.

Because I teach at a private school, I am in effect my own curriculum designer. That gives me the power to leverage specific personal skills and bodies of knowledge, and allows me to respond to the particular set of people I happen to be working with at any given time.  Many school administrators are afraid to give teachers that kind of autonomy, and instead take a one-size-fits all approach that comports well with the imperatives of standardized tests.  My accountability takes the form of a chair, a principal, parents, and students who collectively are about as shrewd a judge of a teacher’s competence and character as any adult can ever hope to be.  One can reasonably ask whether it should be easier to remove teachers who are not doing their jobs, or whether there are better ways of training and compensating them.  But at the end of the day, when it comes to raising student proficiency, top-down standards are a poor substitute for ground-level judgment.

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