Sunday, September 23, 2007

Guest Blog by Tonya - the University Perspective on NCLB

Hi! I'm Tonya, B's roommate. If you've been reading B's blog regularly over the past year, you know her feelings about NCLB, or as I like to call it, All Children Left Behind. I'd like to take this opportunity to provide another perspective on the repercussions of NCLB, and B has kindly let me do a guest spot on her blog (since I don't have one of my own).

I've been teaching at a large, respected university for eight years, first as a graduate student and now as a member of the faculty. I am an alumna of this same university, having received my BA, MA, and PhD from the institution in question. Obviously, since it is my alma mater, I would like to say that it is the best university in the world (certain European publications would agree with that), but I have to say that over the past eight years I have seen a change in the abilities of the students who have come through my classes, and not for the better. In other words, since NCLB took effect, I have seen a steady drop in my students' preparation for university level work.

To give you a little bit of context, I teach courses in the Reading and Composition series, intended to refine students' skills in academic research and writing. My training is as a linguist and medievalist, so my topics are often somewhat obscure, and I understand that medieval literature and history is new and intimidating for many of my students. Additionally, some of my students are not native speakers of English, so I understand that they have issues with just getting through the material, let alone expressing themselves coherently. What surprises me is that I see many of the same issues with my students who ARE native speakers of English, and that is just sad.

First there are the grammar issues. Some of these are understandable. I mean, does anyone really know how to use a semicolon? And commas can be hard to get in the right place. But come on, people, how hard is the apostrophe to understand? Possessives, not plurals! The real issue I face with these students is that no one has ever tried to teach them grammar. They have no idea what I mean by "subject-verb agreement" or "direct object." I seem to recall having learned all of this in elementary school, and I distinctly remember having to diagram sentences in eighth grade. Apparently, this is no longer done, with the result that students have no concept of the structure of their language. Since they don't know how their language works, they don't know how to use it. They know lots of big words that they memorized for the SAT, but they have no clue how to use them in a sentence. They also, apparently, equate "proofreading" with "spell-checking," with the result that I see sentences like the following: After Beowulf inherited the thrown, he rained for fifty years.

A larger problem I face with these students is that since they have been tested to death for the last few years, all they know how to do is regurgitate information. They have been taught how to take multiple choice tests, not how to think critically or analytically. Many of them do not know the difference between an opinion and a fact. For example, I have had more than one student claim that Beowulf cannot be considered a true hero, since almost every time he speaks in his epic, he boasts, and boasting is wrong and selfish. When I tell them that the statement "boasting is wrong and selfish" is an opinion, not supported by the textual evidence, and certainly not an opinion held by those in the world of the poem, they look at me as if I have suddenly started speaking Icelandic and they don't understand the words coming out of my mouth.

But the issue I see in my students that worries me the most is that since there has been such an emphasis on reading and math in their educations, many of them have no concept of history or geography. I provide here a sampling of claims made by my students (apparently fact checking is not a skill they have been taught.) Beowulf was written by Chaucer. (Uh, no, unless he lived for 700 years). Before the invention of the printing press, literature did not exist. (Hmm... ever heard of The Iliad? How about The Odyssey? Or how about anything that the student purchased in the bookstore for the course, the topic for which was Medieval Literature?) In the early 1900s, slaves worked for rich white men in the American South. (Remind me again, what year was the Emancipation Proclamation?) Constantinople is in Italy. (They obviously don't know the song by They Might Be Giants, which by the way is impossible to get out of your head -- if you were in high school in the late '80s or early '90s, you're humming it right now, aren't you?!) Denmark is known for its tulips and windmills. (OK, I'll admit that one can be confusing)

Did I mention that these students are at an exclusive university? They belong to the top 10% of high school graduates in California. If this is the top 10%, then I shudder to think about the other 90%. I do want to make it clear that these are not unintelligent people. They are intelligent and, for the most part, hardworking. But we have lowered the bar so far in K-12 that when they get to me, I have to spend my time teaching them what they should have learned before they got here. The name "No Child Left Behind" is a good one, a stroke of genius by whoever named it. If you are against NCLB, then you obviously want American children to be left behind, or so those who have framed the discourse would have you think. But the reality is that under the current system all children are being left behind. By testing them constantly and focusing on math and reading only, we not only teach them the wrong things, we don't teach them very well.


LindsayDayton said...

Hear hear! I had similar experiences in grad school--ironically, I was learning along side other teachers!

Thanks for the insight!

Jonathan H said...

So, "Teacher".... now that you've anonymized your blog, you invite the roomie in and she blows your cover in her first 4 words. Great. Don't ever work for the Witness Protection Program, Tonya!

Seriously, though, I *totally* agree with your points, especially about the importance of critical & analytical thinking. And about Chaucer not living to the age of 700. And about getting "They Might Be Giants" stuck in your head.

blue shoes said...

Istanbul was Constantinople now it's Istanbul not Constantinople been a long time gone, Constantinople...

Btw, I just googled that song, and did you know it was written by Jimmy Kennedy in 1953? Tonya, you've got some fact checking to do! Better be careful you don't get left behind too :):) (Although the version I have stuck in my head is, of course, the cover by TMBG).