How to Heed the Warning

By now many of you have read Kenneth Bernstein’s “Warning to College Profs From a High School Teacher” over at The Answer Sheet, an education blog at The Washington Post. Since it went viral this past weekend, the essay has garnered a couple of thousand comments.

For those who have not yet come across it, paraphrasing Bernstein does a certain injustice to the passion underlying his argument, but the crux of his case is that ballooning class sizes and the increased importance placed on standardized testing have created a generation of students singularly ill-prepared for the critical thinking college professors rightfully expect.

While he aims most of his criticism at the policies of No Child Left Behind and an Advanced Placement testing system that effectively penalizes the framing and synthesis of arguments, he also tries to get at the culpability of teachers and administrators who have been operating under such policies for the last decade. As Bernstein puts it, “My students did well … because we practiced bad writing.”

What I’m interested in most at this point is how professors, so warned, should respond to the problems that Bernstein describes. He closes the essay by apologizing for his students’ inferiorities, but he also says he knows in his heart there was little more he could have done.

And it does seem as though Bernstein (now retired) has attempted to do a great deal. While we might wish he had more actively resisted the imperative to “teach bad writing,” he has for some time voiced his complaints about the policies undermining good pedagogy. He conducted an exhaustive personal campaign to educate other adults and lobby his representatives. He blogged. He wrote op-eds.

But by his own admission those efforts accomplished exceedingly little. Nor, apparently, was Anthony Mullen (the 2009 National Teacher of the Year) more successful at including the concerns of teachers in the national education debate. In light of such examples, the suggestion that educators simply need to “speak out” seems rather vague and unpromising.

Not surprisingly, the lengthy comment stream I mentioned earlier is no help either. Much blame is cast, but it’s hard to find a realistic suggestion for how professors might help combat the problem in the public sphere or in their classrooms.

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