Mediocrity breeds mediocrity: SATs and a weakness in American education

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I was talking to a teaching colleague the other day — a man I respect and who I would unreservedly call the finest teacher I know. We were discussing a slight drop in our school’s SAT scores, particularly in the area of “Critical Reading” and he said, “The only way to improve this is to drill the kids on critical reading questions until they get good at them. Making them write a lot is not going to do it.”

This might have been a slight “dig” at me. I am not a giver of objective tests. I have my students write until their eyes fall out and roll off of the desk. I have them reach for Bloom’s higher levels of learning (analysis, synthesis and creativity) every day. The reason I have them do this is because no one else does — at least not enough teachers do. They don’t do it enough in grade school and they don’t do it enough in high school.

So, here we are in that all-too-talked-about place: being put in a position of “teaching to the test” so that we will look like a good school — so that our success with our students can be measured; so that benchmarks can be set in order for us to follow growth. Measuring progress and analyzing data can be really, really helpful, but when the principle behind producing the data is flawed, you have a problem.

My colleague is right, of course. But he is only right (and I think he would agree) because of a failure in our educational system: the fact that mediocre teachers are doing mediocre teaching that is lifting our kids only to the level of mediocrity — a level that is being relabeled as excellence. This is a brilliant commentary on that, by the way:

Students cannot analyze well and they cannot reason well by the time they get to high school, so we need to teach them tricks that will enable them to take a standardized test that means way too much for both them and the schools they attend.

Before I continue, I need to tell you: I’m not one of those bandwagon thinkers who claims that the American educational system is “failing” — one of those people who bases his conclusion on some whisper-down-the-lane anecdote about Japanese kids going to school sixteen hours a day, thirteen days a week and sitting on broken glass as they do calculus at the age of seven.  We have a good educational system whose worth is proven, I believe, by a pretty good country to live in, not to mention an amazing literacy rate.

And, please, don’t fall victim to those phony emails that show you what kids did in the third grade in 1895 as compared to today. (Their phoniness is a whole other article, but check if you want to pursue it.) Don’t fall into the trap, either, of seeing newspaper articles from, say, 1724 and being amazed at how much better educated people were then than now. The truth is, in 1724, there were two types of people: the highly educated few (those for whom the papers were written) and the illiterates. Newspapers are written on a lower level today because more people are literate. That’s a good thing (unless you are an aspiring tyrannical king).

In short, please notice I didn’t refer to “the failure of our educational system” but, rather, to “a failure in our educational system.” I do believe we should seek out flaws in our system and correct them. The SAT issue is just that: a flaw.

Did you know that the SATs are supposed to be a reasoning test? Theoretically, a good reasoner (with a prerequisite amount of education in math and English, of course) should be able to get a good score on the test. And, theoretically, he or she should be able to do this without SAT training.

But, because our K through 12 educators are not teaching our kids to think — really think — parents find themselves lining the pockets of “SAT prep.” teachers, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

So, now it is up to us — the high school teachers, along with the “SAT prep.” people  — to do damage recovery. (Hence, the conversation with my esteemed colleague.)

I taught “SAT prep” for several years. I was trained by Kaplan. It works. For instance, using Kaplan’s methods, just  a few years ago, I helped a senior: She needed fifty more points to get a “full ride” to the college of her choice. She had taken the SATs multiple times and her score had not budged. We sat for no more than an hour and I taught her some critical reading “tricks” that I learned from Kaplan. The next weekend, she scored one-hundred-fifty more points. She got her “full ride.”

That’s great, and all, but does this make sense? How was her intellect measured? How was her educational achievement measured? It all came down to “tricks” — approaches to individual types of questions.

There are a lot of how-dare-yous forming on the lips of teachers who are reading this. I know: I said “mediocre teachers” are the problem. But let’s face it: most people are mediocre, or the term would not exist, right? Exceptional people are few and far-between. That’s what makes them exceptional. (Unless you are in school; there, everyone is exceptional, because “Cs” are simply “unacceptable.”)

The people who make these standardized tests are exceptional thinkers. One of these test-makers (professors; hyper-educated educators) competing against the average teacher is unfair. My dad, for instance, is a pretty good chess player — very good, in fact — but, he would be destroyed by a Kasparov. There’s no shame in that. A fact is a fact.

What do I propose? Damned if I know. I just know that we have boiled teacher-training the same way we boil down everything in our society: We believe that anyone can be a teacher if he is taught the proper procedures, passes the proper tests (the most difficult of which, in most states, is simply navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the certification process) and gathers the proper credentials. And this is true: anyone can learn to teach, if not exceptionally.

But can one teach another human being to be analytical and creative if one is actually neither? Can one teach deep reasoning skills if one doesn’t possess them?

Somehow, we need to figure out a way to produce teachers who can reach Bloom’s highest levels so they can teach their students to do so. Teachers need to be brilliant, not just smart. I’m not sure how we get there, but until we do, high school teachers will find themselves scrambling to make up for years of mediocrity by teaching cheap testing tricks.

Whatever the approach, the standards for teachers need to be raised. Requiring a masters degree in the content of the field in which one teaches (not in “education”) would be a good start. (Now, of course — and I say this without the least intention of sarcasm — we need to talk about pay increases for teachers…)

Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll teach tricks because I have to. In the meantime, though, out the window goes one more lesson that might give my kids a map to the heart of poetry. If you think that’s good — that it leaves time for more practical things like SAT prep. — you are part of the problem, my friend.

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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2 Responses to “Mediocrity breeds mediocrity: SATs and a weakness in American education”

  1. This is a great piece about one of the most troubling aspects of today’s education system. What’s amazing is how few people who have anything to do with education believe in standardized testing (search the Web for supporters of these tests; it’s a challenge). Who is driving all of this?

  2. As you know (and have said) well: it might just be profit, after all is said and done.

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