The bad news is that our public schools are in a state of crisis about the teaching of language and literature; the good news is that our public schools are always in a state of crisis about the teaching of language and literature. Because schools so acutely reflect the state of our society, the same winds of change that have blown us along throughout our country’s history have buffeted both our one-room schoolhouses of lore and sprawling modern school districts of the present, and the continual debate about curriculum and instruction is indicative of the health of both our democracy and our schools. However, what is truly unique about the reaction to our latest challenge, the mandates for minimum competency standards set by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, is that so many schools are now deliberately teaching less and less Language Arts content material in order to focus more and more time on teaching test-taking skills.
It is obviously a shame so many of our public schools struggle to produce students who can meet the minimum competencies mandated by NCLB—but that is only the beginning of the problem. Because of the ongoing concerns about achieving the minimums necessary to meet the NCLB-driven standards, more and more of what was for generations considered the standard content of the literature curriculum in English classes, from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Maya Angelou, is being tossed out to make room for additional practice exercises designed to improve test-taking skills. Devoting less time to challenging literature and the writing assignments tied to that literature, each working with the other to improve skills at analysis and rhetoric, flies in the face of what our public schools are widely expected to do for our students in a highly competitive global marketplace—particularly when other countries are doing precisely the opposite in order to create good writers and thinkers for the 21st century.
Should we be making sure our students reach a minimum level of competency in Language Arts before leaving high school? Of course we should. To argue otherwise would be foolish, and it has always been the viewpoint of experts in curriculum and instruction that a key to reaching this goal is offering challenging content that allows students to grow well beyond the minimum competencies we should expect. However, in the world of NCLB this time-tested paradigm has been turned on its head. We now actively pursue mediocrity at the expense of excellence. If you believe this is an exaggeration, I would direct you to read a study released last month by ACT entitled “Rigor At Risk” at http://www.act.org/path/policy/pdf/rigor_report.pdf. It paints an appalling picture of just how effectively we have dumbed-down even the most challenging “College Prep” courses in today’s NCLB-driven educational environment, a problem that strikes particularly hard at low-income students who are counting on those courses to prepare them for what may very well be their family’s first foray into college.
However, the basic question remains: Should you be concerned about the Language Arts education your child is receiving, even if the standardized test scores look good? Answer that question for yourself by taking a trip to your child’s school and asking a few hard questions about what is being read and how much writing is being done on a regular basis. Although a particular state or school may score well on yearly standardized tests, they could still very well be shortchanging a generation who will compete against students who spent less time practicing how to take a test and more time becoming better writers and thinkers while learning a rigorous Language Arts curriculum. In the rush to meet the minimums, we need to consider the long-term ramifications of failing to provide our children with the high-quality Language Arts education that has greatly benefited students in the past because the future of our schools and our nation depends on the decisions we make today.