Dumbing Down the Kids

by / Jul. 14, 2015 11pm EST

If you thought standardized testing and the inappropriate uses to which it has been put (like evaluating teachers on students’ performances in classes taught by someone else, or singling out teachers as the single factor in rating school performance) was stupid and destructive, wait: There’s more.

The same people who gave us standardized testing have now given us standardized teaching, which goes directly to the information a student can get, how the student gets it, and what the student is supposed to get out of each and every class minute. It is 19th-century educational lockstep, pushed by the White House and institutionalized by the New York governor’s office.

If standardized testing dumbed down school and teacher evaluation, standardized teaching takes it a step further: It dumbs down the kids.

The project is called “Engage New York.” It does anything but.

The book

If, say, you are a teacher of 11th-grade English in Buffalo, you get, every 10 weeks, a thick three-ring binder with instructions on what you are to do in every class. The copy I have of one of these runs 587 pages. The volume is excruciatingly boring to read. (I cheated: I skimmed most of the pages.) I cannot imagine what it is like to be a creative and imaginative teacher hamstrung by it. Worse: I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a student in classes that now have to be taught by teachers forced to deliver this drivel or be fired.

The book is divided into teaching “modules,” which list what questions the teachers should ask, what answers they should get, and how they should respond to them. They list what words students should learn each day. 

There are regular pages headed “Unit-at-a-Glance Calendar,” telling the teacher the specific lines and paragraphs to be covered in each class. There are pages listing “Activity” items for each class; each named activity includes the percentage of class time to be devoted to it. One, for example has “Activity 1: Introduction of Lesson Agenda. 5%”; Activity 2: Homework Accountability. 10%”; “Activity 3: Masterful Reading. 5%”; “Activity 4: Hamlet Act 1.2, Lines 900-110 Reading and Discussion, 60%.”

Day after day of this, class after class, minute by minute.

The questions the teachers are ordered to ask are often so banal they read like a Monty Python parody. Here is an example. The teacher is told to ask the question, “What information do you gather from the full title of the play: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark?(All teacher questions are in bold type.)

 Permissible student answers are: 

—The play is about a person named Hamlet.

—This is a tragic or sad play.

—Hamlet is a prince.

—This play likely takes place in Denmark.

This is drivel. The book is full of things like that. It is also full of misinformation. 

And it is sorely limited: In the 10-week period covered by this binder, students read one play (Hamlet), one poem (“My Last Duchess”), and fragments of a book (A Room of One’s Own). What is the logic of that very slim reading list? Each of the three involves women.

And there are egregious and silly errors. The binder defines “metaphor” totally incorrectly; the definition it gives applies more to Marcel Duchamp’s definition of Surrealism. It totally misses the point of what metaphor is about and what it does. (I tried to find it to quote directly, but couldn’t: First time through, I yelled it across the table to Diane, and marked it and thought I’d dogeared the page. I’ve now gone through the bloody volume twice and can’t find my mark. Trust me: It’s there; it’s stupid.)

Finally, the vocabulary words: The Hamlet module says students should learn that the wordecstasy” means “archaic for madness.” So much for Mozart, this week’s Stones concert at the Ralph, and orgasm. A later Hamlet page defines “oaths” as “promises.” Try that when you’ve just been busted for perjury.

Where are the students in this?

Nowhere. They are empty vessels into which dreck from these dull, pedantic teaching modules are dumped, on a minute-by-minute schedule. There is no space in any of this for student creativity or teacher creativity. No space at all. There are percentages of class time for when they are allowed to speak, but there is no space for what they might think and feel.

I have been an English teacher for 50 years. I can tell you this: This module, that Buffalo teachers are now forced to teach from and from which Buffalo students are supposed to learn, is stupid and mechanical in all regards. It squelches all teacher imagination; it leaves no space for students’ creative response. 

It treats students as if they were mere things into which information should be poured. It treats teachers as if there were mere mechanics, following one instruction after the other. 

Talking to the teachers

I talked about the new regimentation and its consequences with two long-term teachers at Buffalo’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Elizabeth Lyons (who currently teaches four sections of junior year English and one section of AP language and composition) and Jim Healy (who is currently teaching history at several levels). This is part of our conversation. 

JH: It is New York State’s version of implementation of Common Core, that changes state to state. What they really are doing is they are scripting lessons on pretty much a day-to-day basis.

EL: I know that our English department has been directed by the supervisor of English to use these modules. 

JH: So when she comes to check into the school, she’s going to look at: It’s day 48—you are on this primary document, you are circling this vocabulary. She is going to walk in and say we’re 25 percent into the class period and you should be right here. And if you’re not, it’s an issue. It’s an issue and the way the new evaluation system is tied to this is: If you are not where you are supposed to be you are to be marked ineffective, and if you are ineffective after two years, you are in the process of being dismissed; if you are ineffective for three years, you are dismissed. So you are required to follow a script, and, excuse me to put it this way, it sucks. It’s horrible. It’s boring; it’s the same thing over and over again and it’s the drain of any enthusiasm for any type of education.

BJ: Any kind of creativity. 

JH: It’s almost like creativity is barred. You can’t do the big-project stuff where you go cross-curricular, where you are bringing in the juices of education; you can’t do it anymore. You have to get a primary document, circle vocabulary, take the questions. The teachers are dying but the kids are really dying. It’s just bad.

EL: It’s very rote, it’s very repetitive and the skills by themselves are very useful but it’s all that they do at this point, so the process is killing any passion the kids have. We have students that already didn’t enjoy reading, and now we are taking any possible enjoyment they might have in an English classroom out of reading. Because it is just logic. there is no passion behind it, they are not allowed to talk about the passion the have for the characters or their visceral responses to what they read any more, it’s all about the technique that s being used and the word choices that are being made.

JH: You’re going to hurt the education of these young minds. The other side of it is the way the evaluation systems for teachers is set up, is that they have to follow these horrible scripts, and when they don’t work, the people who wrote the script are not held accountable, the people who are telling you have to implement it are not held accountable, every aspect and creation of it, all those people have no accountability for this. The person who has to sit there and spend 25% of their time on this is accountable for the content of it. So you are forced to teach a bad lesson and then when it doesn’t work it is your fault.

BJ: So what’s going to happen to the districts that decided not to do it?

JH: Funding—they take the money. And it’s not a couple of dollars: It’s millions and millions. The valuation system, the Common Core implementation, the modules—if you take a variance from them at all, they literally hold you ransom. For Buffalo in the last round the number was something like $37 million.

EL: My course prior to the modules was an American literature course so it was really wonderful to be able to pair up with the American history classes, and I did a humanities basic course. So when we were starting a new time period we would look at the music from the time period and look at art from the time period, and we had food that was popular during the time period, and it really got the students engaged. 

JH: I remember them carrying the coffin around.

EL: Oh yeah, we did a funeral for Jay Gatsby.

JH: And the kids were all dressed up.

EL: It was wonderful. And it’s engaging students with so many different learning styles in our building, and I’m sure that’s true everywhere, but now again you’re teaching one lesson to everyone that’s supposed to suit everyone’s needs and it doesn’t. And it’s not engaging at all.

JH: It’s industrial. It feels like mass production. I love the kids, there was never any question for me what I was going to do. I’ve always loved going to work. I don’t love it as much as I used to. There was always something going on that got everyone moving and there was a passion, and this takes the heart right out of it. Our kids are getting behind. This is not good education. It’s crystal clear, I think anyone who’s reasonable who goes and sits in a classroom and watches. you are going to see that group in the middle is going to kind of get it and get through it and be bored doing it and put a number where they need to. And you’ve got kids at the high end, who are not challenged, who are bored out of their minds who are not even in a different room, they’re thinking in a different place. Then you got kids on the low end who are just lost, who are just out. 

EL: I think you are going to have a whole generation, or as long as this lasts, of people who don’t read. That don’t enjoy reading at all, and don’t enjoy the learning process at all. So you’ve sucked all the passion for learning out of students, all the passion for reading. I think we now spend all of our time teaching how we read and write, not why we read and write. 

BJ: Who did created these? Do you know?

JH: Pearson—it’s the textbook company, it’s the tests, everything comes from this private company.


This educational atrocity story brings to mind not only the novel 1984 but also Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful story “Harrison Bergeron” (1961), which takes place in a society dedicated to absolute equality. In the year 2081, no one in the US is permitted to be smarter, better-looking, faster, stronger, or anything than anyone else. The smart people have radios in their ears to screw up their thinking, the fleet of foot have heavy weights attached to them, the beautiful are masked.

How does that differ from a private publisher creating a dumbed-down structure of education, then getting state and federal officials to accept that as public policy, and, in the process, cripple education?

The modules are perfect for the lazy and incompetent teachers. They are also perfect for students who don’t want to read much. But if they are the problem, shouldn’t we just be figuring out how to get rid of the lousy teachers and encouraging students to read rather than dragging everyone else, especially teachers who care and students who want to learn, down to their level of incompetence and disinterest?

Instead of creating a program that accommodates the worst in the system—which is, finally, what Engage New York is all about—and which provides and promotes mediocrity and mindlessness, we should be flushing out the incompetents, and empowering those teachers who want to set their students’ minds free. That is what good teaching is all about. That is all good teaching is about.

That is harder than hiring a private company to provide an instruction manual that is like the one your car dealer gets on how to maintain your car. But our kids are not cars in a tuning bay, and our teachers are not mechanics. Or shouldn’t be.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and the James Agee Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo.