Photo by: albertogp123

American Education Reform and Aunt Ally

Photo by: albertogp123

American schools are undergoing radical change, something to consider with back to school just around the corner. Initiatives of Presidents Obama (Race to the Top) and Bush (No Child Left Behind), along with the loud shouts of business lobbies, think tanks, and reform groups across the country, have made standardization the new holy grail of schooling. The implications for teachers are profound, and they recently got me thinking about one of my favorite “teachers,” my beloved Aunt Ally.

For Aunt Ally, a master teacher in the Brooklyn public school system until she retired in the early 1990s, teaching was a passion, a calling. She touched the lives of her students, most of whom came from impoverished and minority backgrounds, inspiring many to stay in school, or go to college, or to find hope in their difficult circumstances. She mentored some to college, and guided countless others to make positive choices at defining moments in their lives.

My own experience as Aunt Ally’s “student” was more modest than any of that, but nonetheless memorable. I was ten years old and walking down Brooklyn’s Fifty-second Street with her. As we approached Thirteenth Avenue and the heavy iron girders of the elevated ‘B’ train tracks I saw scattered before us on the sidewalk at least a hundred Batman collector cards. Amazed at my good fortune – I loved Batman cards – I greedily began scooping them up. But almost immediately I felt a gentle tug on my arm. “I know how much you want those cards,” she said, “but somebody might have dropped them by accident, and that person would be sad to find them gone, just like you would be if you were that person.” Normally I would have been indignant, argued, complained, and railed against the ridiculous injustice of it all. Instead, I dropped the cards, gave my head a shake, and said to my aunt, “Yeah, you’re right.” Something about the way she spoke, how her words conveyed concern for the cards’ rightful owner, but also sympathy for my feelings of loss, reached right into me. I sensed, but did not fully understand at the time, that I had just been hit by great teaching.

My Aunt Ally began teaching at Brooklyn’s fabled Erasmus High School (the school traces its history back to 1786 and was the first public high school in the United States) in 1958. By the 1970s, the school’s Flatbush neighbourhood was struggling, and Erasmus had begun to slide. Teaching became increasingly difficult as kids “were coming to school from a very hard time at home,” she told me. “Discipline was a problem,” she said.

What, I asked my Aunt Ally, was the key to her success as a teacher, especially in challenging circumstances? “You have to make kids feel like they mean something,” she told me. “You have to focus on and treat them as human beings. Give them a sense that they can make it, that they can do well, that they can aspire to go to college, that you are there with them.” But she worries that teachers today may be less able to do that. “What’s happening now,” she told me, trying to describe the effects on teaching of nation-wide reforms aimed at harnessing teachers’ fates to their students’ performance on standardized tests, “is you see very little said about, you know, your human relationships with kids. The humanism has gone out of teaching.” Standardization, she believes, is part of the problem. “I think something gets lost with this business of standardized tests.”

For my Aunt Ally – and I believe this is true for most teachers – teaching children and teens is about more than the mechanical transmission of a standardized set of skills and knowledge for the purpose of scoring high on a test. When I asked my Aunt Ally what she was trying to accomplish over the course of her long career it was not test scores that she spoke of, but rather the ceremony she created for her honors class (“they would come down the aisle with candles, wearing flowers; they would put on a performance and their parents would be invited; they’d be given certificates, it was a sense of pride”); the palpable awakening of civic sensibilities in her American history students; the parents who visited her between their work shifts to say ‘thank you’ for getting their children interested in learning and wanting to stay in school.

When experts in far-away government and corporate offices measure educational success and failure on the basis of standardized tests that they create and mark, teachers are left with little more to do than produce proficient test takers. With standardized testing, knowledge itself becomes a commodity, little more than a currency of numeric scores to cash in for various tangible rewards. What gets lost are all of learning’s other and varied dimensions – intellect, curiosity, reason, criticism, beauty, compassion; all the things that help us define who we are, and what we aspire to in the world. Knowledge ends up being delivered rather than taught.

Joel Bakan is professor of law at the University of British Columbia. A Rhodes Scholar and former law clerk to Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada, he holds law degrees from Oxford, Harvard and Dalhousie universities. An internationally renowned legal authority, Bakan has written widely on law and its social and economic impacts. He is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning book and film, The Corporation, and also of the new book for parents, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. Visit Joel at his website

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