As we suspected, the Thomas Gradgrinds of the world are busy proliferating in school administrations across the nation because of school “Rhee-form” measures that push teachers to focus on facts only, and only those facts immediately relevant to the subject matter they’re teaching. A friend of a friend who teaches High School American and World History in a wealthy school district writes about a recent evaluation by her principal:
“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” This quote was put on my white board for the daily “Do Now” which is a warm up activity for students while I take roll. I read it to the kids and provide a bit of background for context. Besides quotes, I sometimes put up SAT vocab words.
We have a new principal who came in for an informal eval the day I had this quote on the board. When we met to discuss my eval, he told me it was inappropriate as I am not teaching philosophy….”everything I do in class must be connected to the US History content standards for testing purposes.” When I, rather perplexed, explained that I use quotes to inspire my students–from philosophers, world leaders, authors, scientists, proverbs–and that for example, when we our studying WWII, Churchill–that historical actors provide us with a wealth of wisdom which is one of the benefits of knowing history–he told me that I am not teaching philosophy, and that “good teachers” find a way to inspire while teaching their subject content.
[ed. note: Does anyone else detect a mockery or slighting of philosophy in that comment? Where outside of tony prep schools do high school students have the opportunity to take a philosophy class these days? I look back with admiration on the woman who taught a philosophy elective course I enrolled in as a Senior in high school, late in the last century. But because prepackaged, electronically-graded tests don't cover philosophy, I guess teachers who might want to do something creative and thoughtful for their curriculum are out of luck.]
I was dumbfounded at such an ahistorical anti-intellectualism. He continued to pontificate that we are here to raise our test scores and that is to be my only focus. When I then told him that we are focusing on raising our test scores, two other teachers and myself volunteered during our lunch to tutor our far below basic students. He dismissed our efforts as a waste of time because we were not reaching enough numbers.
While this episode is extreme, the fixation on test scores is pervasive throughout our district. This principal was hired to raise test scores as I have heard, that is what he did at his other high school. I am no longer angry. I just want out.
This teacher now has an official reprimand in her employment file because she wrote a quotation by a German writer on the board in an American history class. What a classic CYA move–how very manly, Mr. Gradgrind!
We are turning over our children to the Thomas Gradgrinds of the world, and Gradgrinds have no use for dreams, boldness, magic, or the power of words and ideas to inspire us. “Now, what I want is facts,” he says. Welcome to Coketown, friends. If you college instructors are wondering why your students seem so afraid of ideas and fearful of writing anything longer than a formulaic 5-paragrah essay, don’t look any futher than the Gradgrinds of the nation who are hired not to oversee the education of students, but rather to raise standardized test scores.