Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Aristotle, arete, and the nation's schools.

CNN gives an update on the president's call for nationwide testing in high schools.

Teachers won't like this, and I don't blame them. As a teacher, the last thing I want is to have my performance evaluated by how well my students do on standardized tests. Until you actually do some teaching, it's difficult to appreciate how different two classes can be. You can be the same teacher in both classes, but get very different results depending on who the students are and how they react. For a teacher, it is a somewhat baffling experience to have the same curriculum, the same lectures, the same readings, the same tests--and get very different responses from two different classes.

And yet: without testing, there is no accountability. And without accountability, there can be no serious effort at the pursuit of excellence--what Aristotle and the Greeks called arete. At my college, I've tried to encourage more testing so that we can be clearer about exactly what we're doing and what kind of effect we're having on our students. To put it differently: the fact that I love teaching and work hard at it...doesn't mean that my students are learning anything. Alas.

The reality is is that standards have slipped badly in the USA. Colleges and universities are increasingly becoming glorified high schools to make up for the deficiencies of the incoming students. American high schools have little or no objective quality controls, and this means that there are no objective benchmarks to determine whether teaching is effective and whether any real learning is going on.

The next step is going to be the universities: the government funds an awful lot of education, but what students are learning and whether students are learning is a completely different story.

I sympathize with teachers who are fiercely opposed to standardized government testing. But the truth is: we need more of this.


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