By Rainer Wasinger
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or the school system has failed you so bad that someone is reading this to you, you’ve probably heard grim news about American public schools. Longtime Chancellor of New York City Public Schools Joel Klein penned a piece entitled “The Failure of American Schools” and the Huffington Post has an entire category of articles called “Failing Schools.”
So, the experts think there’s a problem. I’m not an expert. Additionally, I’d like to add some qualifiers, because no one student’s experience is alike, and for what it’s worth, mine may have been more out of the ordinary than others. First and foremost, I went to public school in a district that was not only decidedly well off and open to spending generously on education, but was also particularly well suited to draw talented teachers. My hometown is often named one of the most educated cities in the United States, earns high quality of life ratings, and my high school is a two minute walk from an excellent research university. Smart people want to live here and smart teachers want to teach here.
My experience was also atypical because I, for all intents and purposes, am a poster child for the success of American schools. I received quite good grades, performed well on both my college entrance exams and AP tests, and will attend college at a school that ranks highly on “the lists.” The relevant bit of those brags is that I am not one of the students that the system left behind. I attack this issue not as a malcontent, but frankly, as a beneficiary, and that’s an essential distinction.
“So”, you may ask, “The system worked for you?” The answer is not that simple. Did I learn all I wanted and more? No. Was I always challenged to be the best version of me? Definately not. However, I’d like to deflect blame away from certain aspects of my experience. First, I have no complaints about my teachers. All of my teachers were either a good educator or a genuinely nice person, and the vast majority were both. For what it’s worth, I think the teachers earned by far the highest marks on my evaluation than any other factor. We had underwhelming facilities, shoddy administration, a terrible football team, and yet, the teachers cured the ills. Perhaps this is a result of the privileged place I grew up, but I’d wager there are a whole lot of exemplary educators.
This begs the question, “If not the teachers, than what is the problem?” A common response revolves around standardized tests. If you ask people in the Liberal bubble I grew up in, standardized tests were sent by the devil to poison the minds of our children. If you ask Joel Klein, they are an important tool with which to evaluate teachers.
I think both schools of thought are far off base. In my Liberal bastion, I was one of two Seniors to take the CMAS, the state’s new attempt at cataloging the progress of the state’s students. The rest of my class opted out, and the other guy didn’t know he could. I’m glad I took it now that I’m writing this article, but the test was bullshit. I haven’t received word on how well I did, but it was one of the most challenging tests I’ve ever taken in my life. However, it wasn’t difficult for the right reasons. The questions were convoluted, simultaneously trying to be accessible to everyone while allowing the cream to rise. It failed on both counts. In trying to be accessible, it made prior knowledge irrelevant, and in trying to identify quality students, it conjured up ambiguous and off-topic questions. It felt as if the essay and short answer questions were built not to test my knowledge, but to test my patience and willingness to monotonously continue to reword information from their original sources. It was the worst test I ever took in my life. Worryingly, the company who created the test (Pearson) currently owns contracts to create tests for 18 states and the District of Columbia. Thus, this particular problem isn’t limited to my home state.
Even though I’ve just ripped on one for the last 200 words, I think standardized tests have their place in education. For example, I’m a big proponent of AP tests, so big, in fact, that I took 14 of them. They are standardized tests, and, if we are to believe conventional wisdom, the epitome of the “teach to the test” bogeyman. For what it’s worth, if a test is good, I reckon it’s worth teaching to. I learned a ton in AP classes. I not only acquired the skills to succeed on the tests, but I found myself branching out, learning outside the curriculum, be it through a tangential teacher or a personal quest. Hell, my French class was simultaneously completed dedicated to scoring well on the AP test while also being an unbelievably enriching foray into both French culture and my own. Do I think AP tests and classes are perfect and the solution to all the problems? No. Do I think they’re a good place to start? Absolutely. They encourage deep study, and often, the free response questions allow students to showcase out of curriculum knowledge for brownie points. However, most students never take one. And that’s a shame. Looking back on all my years of school, I’d say my top five favorite classes were all Advanced Placement.
However, my anecdotal musings on the wonders of AP tests have some pretty glaring flaws. Primarily, those classes and tests are designed for students who are already relatively successful students. Secondarily, Wasinger, you’re a nerd, of course you like AP tests. You get to show off how smart you are. However, I still think there’s something to be said for this kind of testing. Instead of casting a wide net and testing students in broad categories like critical reading, math and writing, why don’t we let all students take classes in subjects of their interest and show their mastery in more specific tests? Just because the test doesn’t directly evaluate those skills doesn’t mean they aren’t required to be successful. Additionally, I reckon students are more willing to pick up those skills when the subject matter interests them, and they’re more likely to showcase them in an arena where they’re not showing that they have them, but using them to make broader connections and learn new things about the majestic planet we live on.
Hell, maybe I’m crazy, and maybe some researcher is going to tell me I’m all wrong. However, I’m not going to sit around and let those researchers blame my teachers, or my peers’ lack of work ethic, or cultural shortcomings, because those imply a structural, non-mendable flaw in the system. Does the U.S. need to stop ridiculing academic success and idolizing those who seem to rebuff it? Absolutely. Are there bad teachers out there? Of course. Do we work as hard as some other countries? Probably not. That being said, does it mean we have to settle for anything less than excellence? I don’t think so. The solution is out there. Our schoolhouse isn’t a teardown, it’s a fixer upper filled with people ready to make it great again. All they need are the right tools.