Problems that led to the demise of K-12 education could be easily ignored by higher education. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was designed to improve the quality of American education. The products of that program, now headed to our campuses, will get our attention.
Librarian educators know the challenges of activating students in their instruction sessions. We want to connect with our students in ways that lead them to think critically about the resources they choose and be able to thoughtfully synthesize information into well-written documents. That gives us something in common with our faculty. They too want to reach students in ways that achieve deep, not surface, learning. Well, we may all be getting exactly what we don’t want—the result of No Child Left Behind. These students are far less inclined to think for themselves because their education was largely focused on preparing for and passing the next test. At least that’s the warning coming from our colleagues in K-12 education. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration. Perhaps we have nothing to fear. Then again, perhaps we ought to take a closer look under this particular rock.
From the horse’s mouth
If there is something here that higher education needs to know, it can thank Kenneth Bernstein. He’s a high school educator in the Washington, DC, area, and has taught since the introduction of NCLB in 2002. We may know that NCLB, as a program, has a reputation for teaching to the test. It does involve standardized testing of K-12 students at the state level, and there are severe consequences for school districts. Schools that do well continue to receive their funding. Those that do poorly are subject to serious requirements for improvement, such as restructuring or the replacement of staff members. So there is considerable incentive to teach students to do as well as they can on these NCLB exams. Bernstein claims that even those who teach at selective higher education institutions will begin to notice a shift in their incoming students.
Beware the students
What has Mr. Bernstein so alarmed? For starters, the tenth graders that he sees are information deprived. He finds that the content they’ve learned in his area, social studies, was so tailored to the assessment process, that the students actually know little of what he expects at this level. You get the impression that Bernstein would want to correct that problem, but as an NCLB educator he spent so much time preparing students for tests that he rarely got to the serious subject matter. Perhaps of greater concern to faculty and librarians is the deficiency in writing ability. Owing to the heavy use of more cost-efficient multiple-choice exams, the NCLB generation rarely writes, and they certainly experience few opportunities for writing essay responses that require analytical, deeper thinking. When it comes to AP exams, writes Bernstein, students actually succeed with writing that scores points but is technically poorly constructed. Low expectations, he suggests, are what we should hold. “Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them”.
Sooner than expected
Bernstein’s warning suggests that those of us in higher education need to prepare for an onslaught of smart but ill-prepared students—in the near future. But according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bernstein’s concerns are surfacing much sooner than expected. At a recent conference of the American Association of Law Schools, faculty shared observations that their students’ writing is the worst ever seen. They shared anecdotes about students incapable of writing business letters or the increased time required to interpret students’ written essay answers. They also complained of students having far greater expectations for learning how to give the right answers. In far less supply are students who can demonstrate the ability to learn on their own. Ironically, given their dissatisfaction with the quality of their students, the law professors were left to contemplate how their own admissions emphasis on GPAs and LSAT scores was contributing to the problem. The NCLB generation is here now.
Can’t Write, Can’t Research
To what extent the NCLB phenomenon will rear its ugly head in the academic librarian’s world it is difficult to say. Being somewhat disconnected from our students’ work products and class discussions, we are less likely to notice the degradation of writing skills or their ability to participate in thoughtful, intellectual interaction. It may be more noticeable when our efforts to engage them in active learning seem more difficult than in past years. If Bernstein is correct, the deeper research needed for good writing will surely fall victim to teaching to the test. In more impoverished urban school districts where federal funding is like water to a man lost in the desert, librarians and libraries are already becoming remnants of the past, perhaps sacrificed so that more instructors and time is devoted to test preparation. These students come to us devoid of more than just writing or independent thinking skills; they lack virtually any prior knowledge of even the most basic library skills. Looking ahead, perhaps the challenges that the NCLB generation brings to higher education could be a rallying point for faculty and academic librarians. If Bernstein is right, we’ll need each other to figure out how to help these students build the skills and confidence needed to do more than take tests.