From Harper’s: Jeremy Miller on teaching the test
From “Tyranny of the Test: One year as a Kaplan coach in the public schools” by Jeremy Miller
A bell sounds, and students tumble out of rooms and into the gray corridors of George Washington High School. Eight a.m. lethargy has given way to the Brownian motion of the day’s first passing period. A tall boy beside me wraps his arms around a small, pretty girl, backpack and all, picking her up from behind and twirling her roughly. The girl tucks in her feet, tilts back her head, and shrieks giddily, “Yo, who the fuck is this? Who the fuck is grabbin’ me?” A male teacher with a buzz cut and the build of a wrestler claps sharply. “Enough. Second period. Move.” The boy drops the girl, and the two bounce away, laughing down the hall.
I am here because the High School for Health Careers and Sciences, one of several small schools in what was once a single large high school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, has purchased Kaplan’s SAT Advantage program, an abbreviated version of the SAT prep course offered by the testing company at any of its 150 centers nationwide. (“Higher test scores guaranteed or your money back.”) As one of Kaplan’s roving “coaches,” I will spend the day helping math and English teachers kick off the test-taking course by modeling the “Kaplan method” for their classes. Depending on the number of students it serves, a Kaplan program like this can cost a school well into the tens of thousands of dollars. For my efforts each day, which cannot exceed six hours of instruction, I will receive a fee of $295. At this rate, a full school year’s pay would exceed a starting teacher’s salary by more than $10,000.
I glance down at the schedule that Kaplan’s “implementation” team emailed me a few days before. “8:55, Semidey. Room 320.” Disorientation is an unavoidable part of the job. In general, I don’t know the physical layout of the schools I parachute into. I don’t know whether Semidey is a Mr. or a Ms. I don’t know this teacher’s students or whether he or she already uses some kind of test-prep curriculum in the classroom. I don’t even know how “Semidey” is pronounced. Although Kaplan’s assignment sheets include school contact numbers, coaches are instructed not to call ahead; if we cannot resist this urge, we have been told not to expect busy teachers to talk to us. Rather, Kaplan coaches are taught to handle the strangeness of each new workplace by falling back on their highly scripted lessons and by quickly identifying school faculty as one of several possible archetypes; e.g., whether they are “trailblazers” within their schools or dreaded “saboteurs.”
From the Web
As standardized tests became increasingly important, test-taking became ever more stressful. To some students, Saturday morning SAT tests were the “Saturday morning massacre,” and some parents punished their children for doing poorly. But such fears also created business in classes like Mr. Kaplan’s. “I was often accused by admissions counselors of advancing my business by preying on students’ anxieties,” he wrote in his book. “But I didn’t create the anxieties, I just tried to ease them.” Despite the criticism, Mr. Kaplan was convinced of the value of his teaching, which both reviewed subject material and offered strategies for taking tests. Indeed, in 1979 the F.T.C. found that test preparation by Kaplan and other companies could improve students’ scores. —“Stanley Kaplan, Pioneer in Preparing Students for Exams, Dies at 90,” Karen W. Arenson, the New York Times
I first read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year on a train from Boston to New York. That’s the truth. It’s not a very interesting truth, but it’s true. I could say that I first read it sitting on a low green couch in the old smoking room of the Cincinnati Palladium, across from a rather glum-looking Henry Kissinger. Or that I found a beat-up Longman’s 1895 edition of Defoe’s Plague Year in a dumpster near the Recycle-a-Bicycle shop on Pearl Street when I was high on Guinness and roxies, and I opened it and was drawn into its singular, fearful world, and I sat right down in my own vomit and read the book straight through. It would be easy for me to say these things. But if I did, I would be inventing—and, as John Hersey wrote, the sacred rule for the journalist (or the memoirist, or indeed for any nonfiction writer) is: Never Invent. That’s what makes Daniel Defoe, the founder of English journalism, such a thorny shrub. The hoaxers and the embellishers, the fake autobiographers, look on Defoe as a kind of patron saint. Defoe lied a lot. But he also hated his lying habit, at least sometimes. He said the lying made a hole in the heart. About certain events he wanted truth told. And one event he really cared about was the great plague of 1665, which happened when he was about five years old. —“‘The Greatest Liar’: Is Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year a work of journalism?” by Nicholson Baker, Columbia Journalism Review
A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses? I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising. —“What Should Colleges Teach?” by Stanley Fish, the New York Times