Chapter 8: Divided Against Ourselves
Standards, Assessments, and Adolescent Literacy
On page 113, Marshall points out that while shorter-lived than its predecessors, the “standards period” (though we’ve yet to label it that, it fits), “has proved comparably powerful in framing debates about schooling at the national, state, and local levels”. My questions revolve around the reason(s) for that. What about our society caused us to so embrace this ideology of standards and assessments? What’s in the discourse of our times that makes this make sense? Is this really how a majority of people think it should work, and if not, why is it happening anyway? These are larger ‘how does policy work’ questions, but I can’t help but wonder.
The irony! I keep reading that the reforms have been implemented…without evidence…and the original claims made about our “nation at risk” were also presented…without evidence. So, while we expect our students to provide evidence, and we teach the value of empirical evidence, we don’t actually worry about it when it comes to examining test results or teaching standards? In example, “standards policies themselves are seldom evidence-based” and, “generated in response to some modestly shifting test results that are linked-without evidence”. Scary stuff, that.
“To interrogate those policies, to marshal research evidence questioning their assumptions or their procedures, would be to stand somehow against educational excellence, against even our national stature in the world.” This left the educational community with the options of accepting, “the policies’ basic terms or…criticizing high-profile reforms rather than authoring them” (115). Well, shit. Again, how ironic is it to NOT use evidence and critical examination when it comes to education reform? Politics and its rhetoric can be so irritating.
Developing national standards is fraught with difficulties: how can a culturally and economically diverse country possibly have uniform practices for their classrooms when the diversities are ignored? This, along with the misguided assumption that all subject areas are as tidy as mathematics with regard to things like curricular content, makes for a nasty dynamic.
“the NCTE Task Force members charged with developing national standards in literacy were, in fact, theorizing literacy and literacy teaching. The national standards project helped us define who we were by teaching us what we were not.” <–old story, new chapter
The state standards seem to be defined by measurability, as opposed to usability.
The theme of morality is an interesting one to examine here. It is an underpinning of most conservative political ideology, at least on the surface, while actually being nothing but a misguided ideological agenda, in reality. 116: “William Bennett proclaimed the need for teachers to inculcate a “moral literacy” in their students because those students ‘need reliable standards for deciding what should be prized and what should be shunned’”. 121: “They assume, in other words, that ‘ineffective teaching and learning is a problem of moral deficiency and that testing will prompt both students and teachers to greater effort’”. Wow. The asshattery is astounding. This theme of moral deficiency is concurrent with the concept of accountability; the assumption, that teachers have been flailing around in the dark with no accountability and no intrinsic morality, thereby ruining our education system and subsequently entire generations of students’ literacy skills, is preposterous.
It brings out another point about curricular content, as well. In trying to align content across the nation and ignoring the diversity of people, needs, and situations, an environment is created that puts morality in the background. We learn morality mostly in the context of our cultures and current events (be they personal, local, or national), after all, so presuming that the morals of The Great Gatsby (yay for the roaring 20s) are applicable to all high school and FYC university students is fairly outrageous. We do not currently deal with prohibition or the lack thereof in the same sense; our moral landscape has profoundly altered since a century ago. That’s not to say there aren’t relevant concepts, it’s to say that we need more texts and discussions that are not the same tired old thing.
In essence, it has been shown that teaching to the test doesn’t work as well as regular instruction for some tests (this comes from the ACT piece as well, I believe), and teachers are still increasingly pushed to do it anyway, and not for pedagogical reasons whatsoever. They need their students to perform well on these tests so that schools can retain funding, teachers can retain jobs, and “standards can be met”. In effect, it lowers the quality of the literacy taught. Total nightmare scenario (also why I refuse to teach–and yes I am familiar with the argument about this, which is much the same for the one about people who don’t want kids and how they are the ones that should have them. I didn’t want kids, I have them and I adore them, and I’m not teaching. So there.)
Summary quote: “There is a serious incompatibility between the current standards and assessment movement and our long-established, research-supported best practices in the teaching of literacy”. (122)
Question: if the NCTE/IRA standards were rejected by the Department of Education (and is this the divide, between educational organizations and the feds?), what standards were then employed by the Department of Ed for their national standards and assessment policies? The NCLB?
This makes me angry: (mostly because I’m sure it’s true) “The question becomes whether we prepare students to teach comfortably in school cultures that are being reshaped by assessment intensification or attempt to provide them with tools with which they might resist or work around that intensification. The former approach might betray some of our most central professional commitments, whereas the latter would ask young teachers to make difficult, potentially damaging professional decisions near the beginning of their careers” (122). This, to me, is reprehensible. How can we have a set of what educators across the board deem best practices (that are based on research), and ignore that in favor of a politically charged (and created) situation surrounding the “crisis” of our education system? GAH.
procrustean – marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances, producing or designed to produce strict conformity by ruthless or arbitrary means.
The Neglected “R”
This chapter makes one huge point-we should spend a lot more time on the teaching of writing. In this case, the teaching of writing is a phrase that includes what we teach future writing teachers, what we teach students learning how to write well, what we teach teachers of all subjects about writing, and how we treat writing in general.
It is based in the premise that writing is act of discovery that is itself a method of learning (while doing). It also examines the notion that we have compartmentalized the subject (process?) of writing in what has to be one of the worst ways possible. By acting as though writing is one aspect of English, that is acquirable through memorization of a few facts and rules, we have done our students a grave disservice.
According to this chapter, writing is an essential aspect of knowledge creation, one that should be taught in every subject area. That, I couldn’t agree more with. I’ve always found it curious that we don’t do a lot in regards to teaching writing, and even more curious that what we do teach is so prescriptive and formulaic (the 5 paragraph essay), and nothing like what comes out of…well, any discipline really. We do not teach according to genre or subject in secondary school, as far as I experienced.
“Writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions” (13). Certainly these are skills that prove useful regardless of the area one employs them in. We don’t treat writing as a facet of every subject, despite the obvious fact that writing exists not only within every discipline, but in pretty much every single aspect of our lives. This chapter makes the case (again, I’m thinking) for an(other) expansion of our education system, in which students don’t just learn information they can spit out onto a scantron sheet, they learn how to learn…and maybe even develop the desire to learn as much as possible. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Discourses of Writing and Learning to Write
It is interesting on page 228 how the discussion of writing discourses leads to the examination of the political dichotomy that’s been created between the basic mechanics of English and other aspects of writing. I fail to see why this needs to be an either/or scenario, rather than an and/with situation.
The idea that to learn to write and become a good writer, one must have an interest in the material and practice, is one that seems to have a sound basis in pedagogical practices. “people learn to write by writing, hence learning to write involves writing as much as possible” (229).
My own experiences are reflected in the following quotes:
“the belief that knowledge about the patterns and rules of written language are best learned implicitly” (228), and: “learning about how to write and what counts as good writing is implicit in the acts of writing and reading, rather than having to be taught explicitly” (229). This follows along with the idea of apprenticeship as a learning method. I have found it be very effective at providing a formula for different rhetorical concerns. For instance, if I don’t know how to write something, I will certainly look at the conventions, but I will also examine something that’s already been written. It is a fast, effective way of learning to do something new or unfamiliar (at least for writing).
It’s interesting, on page 232, how he suggests that, “attention to writing processes is relatively uncontentious”, after he outlines how the practice of writing personal narratives has required “sensitive and aware teachers of writing [to champion] the value of writing which represents the experience, perspectives, and ‘voice’ of learner writers” (229), “considered by many current literacy researchers as…serving only to ‘authorise disadvantage’ by encouraging learners to write texts which will not be valued in the real world” (230). This causes the reflection that while the process versus product debate might be raging theoretically, teachers have continued to operate with what they know to be best practices (which coincides with what I know of teachers of English struggling with NCLB). I mean, honestly, if practice is one of the best ways to facilitate the learning of writing (and I think that’s true), then why wouldn’t a teacher encourage learners to write what interests them (which is going to be their own stories, let’s be honest)? Ivanič seems to promote a holistic approach that involves many of the discourses he discusses, avoiding pigeonholing any of them as “the one that works best” in a narrow formulaic way, preferring instead to showcase the values and drawbacks of each.