the issue isn’t whether or not we should strive for academic excellence and high student performance, but rather what constitutes academic excellence. To my thinking, the central problem here lies in a series of assumptions about what constitutes education and teaching on the part of those proposing these models of curriculum and assessment. Namely, learning gets conceived as a brute transfer of information, where educators function as “senders” and students function as “receivers”, and knowledge amounts to the ability to reproduce the message sent on a test or assignment. The problem is that this model of learning only holds for a very limited area of education. As you know as an English teacher, teaching writing is not simply a matter of transmitting information that the student can then replicate and reproduce as in the case of an assembly line. Rather, it is an art where the student learns an entirely new way of relating to language, thought, arguments, etc. As such, it is not the sort of thing that can be mechanized or easily standardized, thought there are certainly techniques for developing these skills and improving them.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the teaching models currently proposed for these sorts of areas do more to get in the way of enhancing those skills than improving them. Since TAKS I’ve witnessed a marked decline in the ability of students to write college level essays. I do not blame the high school teachers for this. Rather, I believe that the TAKS test structures writing in a particular way that isn’t amenable to the sorts of critical thinking college level essays demand. TAKS got itself into this bind because the sheer number of students that must be tested and evaluated to measure improvement required that the writing tests become highly codified and streamlined so that the test graders would be able to easily and efficiently evaluate them. This, in turn, rebounded back on the classroom, structuring what could and could not be taught, and how it must be taught.
All of this, of course, has been coupled with a pervasive sense of anxiety on the part of educators, administrators, and students who know that school funding is tied to performance on these tests. It’s an ugly machine that only looks plausible and reasonable to people on the outside who know little about education. It’s very easy to think of learning as the memorization of “trivia” as we all recall cramming for tests from our own school days and believe in “accountability”. Ironically, the same business types that find these quality control mechanisms to be such common sense complain about the quality of employees they’re getting, unable to understand why they’re unable to thinking critically, creatively, or communicate well. Of course, these complaints, in turn, generate more calls for reform and structuration, further exacerbating the problem.