Disengaged Students, Part 20: Too Many Standards, Too Little Learning
In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Imagine a construction worker who arrives at work to find that his job is now subject to a new set of federal regulations in addition to the rules he has always followed. A few months later he is handed a stricter set of rules from the state. It does not contradict the federal regulations, but it places even higher demands on his work. A few months after that he hears from his supervisor that the way things are done on the construction site are changing to better adapt to the needs of the clients. In addition to doing the actual work set in front of him in a timely and accurate way, the construction worker must answer to three entities with different rules (four if you count the actual clients), and the task of building something beautiful and structurally sound is lost in a sea of standards.
This is essentially what has happened to the teachers in today’s classrooms. Under the guise of accountability and the idea (and law) of “no child left behind,” teachers face regulations that are not simply suggestions; non-compliance can impact their livelihood.
Teachers Stranded by Standards
While these standards are well-intended, they place educators in a straightjacket. Those who have a passion for knowledge that lies outside what will be tested face a dilemma: should they move forward with their calling, potentially risking a dip in test scores, or should they simply go with the outline placed in front of them? “Performance-based” standards promote academic disengagement in teachers, and this attitude is naturally passed down to students.
There are other factors that lead to teachers acting as agents of academic disengagement, whether purposefully, subconsciously or unavoidably and involuntarily. Every industry employs some people who choose their career paths at random and then end up resenting them. Teaching is no exception. Some teachers become jaded to a degree that impacts the effectiveness of their instruction. Some educators arrive on the job without ever having read a classic canonical work of literature or learned to recognize or appreciate world-famous art. Some teachers bring their own political leanings into the classroom, whether right or left, religious or atheistic, in a way that promotes bias, discourages the exploration of contrary facts and ideas, and takes away from the academic experience. All of these things impact students.
Preconceived Educational Notions
Contemporary academic disengagement has many sources. Students do not arrive at Kindergarten as blank slates, ready to be taught. They already have some knowledge. More essentially, they already have an attitude about knowledge. Educators do not receive a pliable ball of clay from which to build intellectual beings; they receive fully developed sculptures that take a lot of work to modify.
The job of teachers, after all, is not to change the students in their care but to find each of their strengths and play to them. This does not mean ignoring intellectual pursuits just because a particular student is averse to learning. It simply means that the tactics which effectively reach one student may not work for others.
Despite what a standards-based teaching culture tells us, what is good for the many is not always good for the one. Richard Hofstadter talked about the way the democratization of education had hurt the broader search for knowledge in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The principles of equality that are the very fabric of the nation are detrimental in many ways to learning in classrooms. How can students take responsibility for their own educations if their learning paths are dictated for them? How can teachers academically engage students when all that “matters” is the number on a standardized test or the ranking of a school?
Teachers, then, have a unique calling when it comes to engaging students and imparting a love for knowledge that fosters a spirit of intellectualism. Educators must keep their jobs while reaching across the standards that divide them to pull in students who are already preprogrammed for academic indifference when they enter Kindergarten classrooms. Though the job of reclaiming intellectualism for the next generation falls on the shoulders of many, teachers are at the forefront of making it a reality – yet struggle under increasingly stronger standards that stunt the pursuit of knowledge beyond what will end up on an assessment.
It wasn’t overnight that we reached this state of anti-intellectualism in K-12 classrooms, and change in a positive direction won’t happen immediately. But by identifying the factors that are contributing to the heightened state of anti-intellectualism and admitting that there is some work that needs to be done, we can start the long journey back toward re-establishing an intellectual culture where rational thought is accepted – and celebrated.