Students Versus Standards?

In an “Other Views” column in the Chicago Sun Times a couple of weeks ago, Adam Heenan wrote:

Most of my lessons prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to my students. But this is changing across the country, with pressure either to align current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the high-stakes standardized assessments. When I choose as a lesson-planner to consider what “the standards say I should teach” I risk compromising my students’ voices in the learning process, which sets students on a path toward disengagement in activities, then classes, and finally school in general.

While we do want to keep “standards” and “outcomes” in mind as we teach, we should never forget that the students are where our classes start and their voices need to have as great an impact on the classroom as any predetermined goals. It’s not one or the other, adhere to standards or pay attention to students–but the stress on “outcomes” in evaluating teachers is beginning to make it seem so and, as Heenan claims, it is beginning to have an impact on the way we teachers deal with students in the classroom.

The situation is actually worse than what Heenan presents. Yes, when students do not see clearly that they are invested in classroom activities, those activities fail. But the divide between faculty and students grows wider, making any learning more difficult and making faculty, too often, feel threatened by students, as an article in Academe shows us, as does one in today’s The New York Times.

The headline in The Times is “Was This Student Dangerous?” The question is never answered, nor are the causes of perceived (and real) incivility adequately addressed in the Academe piece. What both show, to me, is a remove between faculty and students: Neither knows the other any longer.

There are a number of reasons for this, many of them cultural (the one in The Times was an “international student, alone in the United States”). At only elite schools are students generally from the same backgrounds as their professors. In most instances, it takes real effort for teachers to learn to understand just where their students are coming from–literally and figuratively. When we place undue stress on “standards” (as in the Common Core State Standards being forced on our public schools) or on “learning outcomes” (the favorite of college and university accreditation organizations), the balance shifts away from students, the faculty having fewer and fewer opportunities to learn about their students as they are forced to jump through more and more arcane bureaucratic hoops.

The last paragraph of that Times essay, by Julie Schumacher, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is particularly sad:

Eventually the student dropped out, but before he did so I sat sentry outside his instructor’s classroom while she taught. Her class was at night, at an hour when the building was mostly empty. If violence had erupted, I doubt I would have been useful. Still, I sat outside her classroom, reading, waiting, because it seemed there was nothing else to do.

That’s a loss, for the student and the teachers. Many of us are feeling much the same as the author, that our hands are tied in dealing with our students. If so, one of the ropes is the necessity, generated by this new focus on outcomes and standards, of spending so much of our time dealing with standards and not with students. We have to, or we can lose our jobs. As a result, we haven’t the time necessary for making sure that such situations don’t happen.

If teachers were really encouraged to get to know their students, colleges (to focus on higher education) would not be so inclined to rely so heavily on adjuncts–who are not expected to be on campus beyond class and (minimal) office hours. Colleges would recognize (as once they did) that teaching goes far beyond the classroom. It would also be possible for the teachers in all of a particular student’s classes to get together when there is a problem and talk with the student.

Anyone can go off the rails and turn dangerous. Sometimes we recognize the possibility but, more often, we don’t. For the most part, though, the people the anger is directed toward are not those who have treated the individual with respect and support. Yes, it is a dangerous world, but we don’t shy away from crossroads because of the possibility of an errant bus–and we should not shy away from students.

Because of some of the things the student had written, both Schumacher and the instructor she supervised had become afraid of this student. They didn’t want to be and tried to address the student. But they were too late. The student, clearly fearful himself  (he “confessed to anxiety and a history of depression”–making it sound like he was under police interrogation), showed as great a distance in understanding his teachers as they did in understanding him. No bridge between them could be constructed–any longer.

By focusing so narrowly on standards and outcomes, by making careers dependent on things far removed from the students themselves, we have let American education get out of balance. More and more, we’re going to have distraught students shaking in faculty offices while helpless faculty look at them, waiting only for the student to disappear. We need to return the student, and not her or his “outcomes,” to the central place in education. Then, perhaps, we can start getting to know our students once again–and can stop being afraid of them. Only then will we return a sense of balance to our schools.

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