Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!" (Ghost in Hamlet):Teachers, Tests, and American Miseducation

You know those moments in horror films when the Happy Family on Vacation takes a detour that doesn't turn out so well?  They end up in some remote town named Slasherville or Chainsawton, then, much too late, figure out that something is wrong?
We've made the same sort of turn in American education--with consequences that are every bit as deadly. It was the decision we made, late in the last century, that we would equate the value of an education with scores on standardized tests.  The result has been every bit as predicable as a horror film plot: We've ended up in terrible place--and there seems no way out.
Here's what I believe (know?) about how education works.  Most of us remember very little of the specific information we learned in school; we remember it only if we regularly need it for some reason (people in engineering, say, use higher math; by contrast,  I could do none of the problems now that were in my high school math books) or if it has some sort of personal significance for us (a poem that went straight from our eyes to our heart).  Otherwise, specifics go away--and quickly, too.
What we learn in school--in a good school--is to want to learn and how to learn.  (Actually, most of us begin school with the desire to learn--it's what humans do; good schools nurture that; mediocre and bad schools quickly kill it.)   But when test-taking becomes the curriculum, as it has in so many places, then the desire to learn can weaken, fade, die.  And we all suffer the consequences.

Let me tell you about some teachers I had.  None of them ever gave me a standardized test.  (In fact, I never took one till the College Board Exam my junior year in high school.)  None of them had dangling overhead the sword of standardized assessment.  All had that most precious gift for teachers--academic freedom.

Back in Adams Elementary School in Enid, Oklahoma, I had a wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stella Rockwell.  We all loved her.  She read to us every day--after recess (if we were "good").  I heard her read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (somewhat bowdlerized, I later learned when I read them again!).  We wrote all the time.  Did reports on books.  Dressed up like historical characters and performed in skits.  We memorized poems.    We played number games.  Did simple science experiments. At times--and this is hard to believe--it was more fun being in her class than it was playing outside .

At Hiram High School (1958-62) I had several good teachers, but the one with the most enduring influence was Mr. Augustus H. Brunelle, who taught me English, Latin, and German.  I was not the most, uh, assiduous student in those days (I was positive I was going to be a professional baseball player in the summer, a Broadway star during the off-season), but Mr. Brunelle, I realized (years later), was an intellectual and professional model for me as I began my own career.  He read everything--and made us read a lot, too; he gave us lots to write about--graded it quickly; he demanded we do our best, was understanding when it was not always forthcoming.

At Hiram College (1962-1966) I had quite a few memorable professors--but two of them, Prof. Abe C. Ravitz and Charles McKinley--were especially influential.  Dr. Ravitz (from whom I took seven courses) was very demanding (we often read a dozen to fifteen novels for his courses), seemed to have read everything published since Gutenberg and Caxton, and brought to the class a cerebral manner and wry wit that just, well, turned me on.  And Dr. McKinley, who taught me everything from freshman English to Ulysses (he succeeded with the former, failed with the latter), remained a life-long friend and supporter.  When he knew I was speaking at WRA, he used to come sit in the balcony and listen--then joke that he'd give me a B+, a grade I earned from him more than once.

In graduate school at KSU--well, Dr. Kenneth Pringle I will always remember because it was in his great class on American Transcendentalism in the summer of 1969 that I met Joyce Coyne, who, in my post-school years, has become my finest teacher.  And Dr. Sanford Marovitz, who taught American literature courses at Kent, was yet another person who showed me that an intellectual life can be an exciting one.

And now I wonder: What would had I have been like if I'd had to suffer through today's brain-numbing curriculum?

And what would those wonderful teachers have been like if they'd had to practice their art in the intellectual vacuum of today?  If Mrs. Rockwell couldn't have let me dress up like Davy Crockett (not on the test), if Mr. Brunelle couldn't have played recordings of Robert Frost (not on the test), if Dr. Ravitz and Dr. McKinley and Dr. Marovitz couldn't have ... 

And what if, in my own career, I could not have taught Shakespeare to my eighth graders (not on the test) or The Diary of Anne Frank (not on the test)?  What if I couldn't have let kids write what they wanted to on Fridays (not on the test)?  Or write plays with me that we would produce (not on the test)? Or perform radio plays over the school PA system (not on the test)?  Or ...

O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!


  1. I just came across your post via Twitter and I have to say it hits home. You paint a stark picture of what life is like for educators these days. Many of my veteran colleagues bemoan the way we are headed while my younger co-workers see pressures upon pressures. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, obscured by big money, lobbyists and politics all in the name of ed reform.

    I entered into the profession with a love for teaching. That has not diminished one bit. However, I do find myself not being able to be as creative, do as much, push as much. More concerning, I find myself feeling beat down and not wanting to do as much sometimes because it's not tested, it's not in the curriculum or "what will my administrator say?". But then I realize that the importance sits before me every day in the form of my students, so I keep going back and trying to make it as interesting for them. Hopefully they leaving, as you say, wanting to learn and knowing how to learn.

    And for the record, I will always read to my kids, every day. It was done for me by my parents and teachers and it HAS to be paid forward.

  2. Great post!!! I would like to add another quote, "The horror, the horror".

    Everyday, for the last decade, I feel like I've been watching an Apocalypse Now in education. Today's education policy is like the Vietnam Conflict in a way. We are using outdated battle plans to combat a new problem (The method won't work this time either). Isn't it "insanity when doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result"?

    These so-called education reformers are like General Westmoreland in that they are using a search and destroy method to knock out enemies, especially the innocent ones. When all is said and done in this portion of the history of U.S. education the only group not affected will be those making large financial profits from the "reform". Young children and the innocent will pay a price like those in Vietnam, this time with their future lively-hoods, instead of their lives. The horror, the horror!


  3. I completely agree with the above lament, but must add that standardized testing should never be an excuse for poor teaching. There will always be too many tests, too many kids, too much to cover, too many difficult parents, too many difficult administrators, not enough money, not enough time, and too much pressure. Any teacher who sacrifices creativity and innovation using the excuse of a standardized test should not question the system, but question his or her beliefs and philosophies about quality instruction.