Ode to Robin Williams by Joel Westheimer

Our Schools Could Use More Mr. Keatings

In a popular scene from the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society, the eccentric Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams), asks one of his students to read aloud from the preface of a high school poetry textbook:

To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

The fictional author of the text, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD, continues with an example: “A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.” Pritchard concludes by asking students to practice this rating method (using the provided rubric) because “[a]s your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.”

Although both the textbook and its author are fictional, the satire is worrisomely apt. In fact, the fictional passage was based closely on a real text found in a popular 1950s poetry textbook currently in its twelfth edition and still used by high school students across the country: Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. In other words, the demand for standardized measures of quality and success in education has not abated but increased.

The relatively uncritical and universal acceptance among school reformers of the importance of so-called standards, rubrics, and uniform assessment tools for teaching and learning is at once predictable and misguided. It is predictable because the idea that we should clearly articulate educational goals and then devise methods for determining whether those goals are met is irresistibly tidy. After all, how can teachers pursue high quality lessons if they do not know what they are trying to teach and whether students are learning? Uncritical acceptance of even such a common-sense seeming idea, however, is misguided for the following reason: education is first and foremost about human relationship and interaction, and as anyone who tried to create a standardized test for family fealty or for love or for trust would discover, any effort to quantify complex human interactions quickly devolves into a fool’s errand.

This does not mean that there is no place for evaluation in education, or for standards, rubrics, and common curriculum frameworks. A new book, Rubric Nation, coming out this Fall edited by Joseph Flynn and Michelle Tenem-Zemach takes a critical stance at the same time many of the contributing authors make the need for thoughtful measures and learning frameworks clear.[i] Moreover, I have rarely met a teacher who did not have standards; most have their own forms of rubrics or evaluative frameworks as well. But “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” legislation and related reforms that call for ever-more standardized rubrics and frameworks have severely restricted teachers’ abilities to act in a professional capacity and exercise professional judgment on behalf of their students.

Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg calls the kind of school reform that elevates the pursuit of rubrics and standardization above all other educational considerations GERM (for Global Education Reform Movement). He describes GERM as follows:

It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less.[ii]

Not only do kids learn less. What they learn also tends to follow prescriptive formulas that match the standardized tests. In the process, more complex and difficult-to-measure learning outcomes get left behind. These include creativity and emotional and social development as well as the kinds of thinking skills associated with robust civic engagement. As a result, teachers’ ability to teach critical thinking and students’ ability to think and act critically is diminished.

Almost every school mission statement these days boasts broad goals related to critical thinking, global citizenship, environmental stewardship, and moral character. Yet beneath the rhetoric, increasingly narrow curriculum goals, accountability measures, standardized testing and an obsession with rubrics have reduced too many classroom lessons to the cold, stark pursuit of information and skills without context and without social meaning – what the late education philosopher Maxine Greene called mean and repellent facts. It is not that facts are bad or that they should be ignored. But democratic societies require more than citizens who are fact-full. They require citizens who can think and act in ethically thoughtful ways. Schools need the kinds of classroom practices that teach students to recognize ambiguity and conflict in “factual” content and to see human conditions and aspirations as complex and contested.

As our cultural obsession with standardization, rubrics, and accountability measures in only two subject areas (math and literacy) increasingly dominates school reform, the most common complaint I now hear from both teachers and administrators is this: I have been stripped of my professional judgment, creativity, and freedom to make decisions in the best interests of my students. When education reforms turn away from an emphasis on supporting positive conditions of practice and move towards technocratic strategies for “compliance,” the profession suffers and so do students. Many teachers would echo the sentiments of Gloria, a teacher in a recent study I conducted of the 10th grade civics curriculum in Ontario. She told us this:

In my 22 years of teaching, never have I experienced a climate that has turned all educational problems into problems of measurement until now. Poor citizenship skills? Raise their math and literacy scores. Poor participation? Doesn’t matter. Poverty? Inequality? The solution is always always to give the students more tests. These days pedagogically, I feel like I can’t breathe.

But education goals, particularly in democratic societies, have always been about more than narrow measures of success, and teachers have often been called upon and appreciated for instilling in their students a sense of purpose, meaning, community, compassion, integrity, imagination, and commitment. Every teacher accomplishes these more artful and ambiguous tasks in different ways.

Much as Darwin’s theory of natural selection depends on genetic variation, any theory of teaching in a democratic society depends on a multiplicity of ideas, perspectives, and approaches to exploring and seeking solutions to complex issues of widespread concern. Parents, administrators, and politicians alike all must acknowledge that educators in a democratic society have a responsibility to create learning environments that teach students a broad variety of lessons – including but not limited to the kinds of learning goals easily captured by standardized assessments.

Talented teachers need the freedom and professional autonomy to work the magic of their art in a myriad of different ways that defy standardization and regimentation of practice. Talented teachers need manageable class sizes in which they can provide the right conditions for that magic to take root. And talented teachers need policymakers who have the courage to marshal the resources necessary to create the best possible conditions of practice and then let teachers do their jobs free of interference and corrosive mistrust.

Nothing about the kinds of standards that school reformers are pursuing with such certainty is black and white. That’s why scholars of education must work together to create a space for dialogue around the tensions inherent in the teaching profession between autonomy and committee-rule, between spontaneity and uniformity. Far from allowing the poetry of teaching and learning to be reduced to facile measurements, educators must demand a fuller framing of assessment and educational progress.

You may recall in Dead Poets Society that after allowing his students to listen attentively to the detailed instructions on measuring the quality of poetry (even drawing a graph on the blackboard to show just how to execute the formula for evaluation), Keating proceeds to demand that students rip out that entire chapter from the text. “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard, PhD!” he exclaims to the sound of students tearing out the offending pages. He was asking them, of course, to revel in the radical possibility of unquantifiable teaching and learning. In honor of Mr. Williams’ irreverent humor and his complex portrayal of Mr. Keating, I hope every teacher enters the new school year with just such an attitude.


[i] J. Flynn & M. Tenam-Zemach (Eds.), Rubric Nation: A reader on the utility and impact of rubrics in education. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

[ii] Sahlberg, P. (2012, June 29). How GERM is infecting schools around the world. The Washington Post. [The Answer Sheet web log by Valerie Strauss]. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-germ-is-infecting-schools-around-the-world/2012/06/29/gJQAVELZAW_blog.html

Maxine Greene by Joel Westheimer

Maxine Greene passed away yesterday. Every single time I saw Maxine, she picked up the conversation exactly where we had last left it, as if I were one of only 6 people who had been in her apartment in the intervening months. But she had talked to hundreds, exchanged letters and notes and phone calls with hundreds more. “Did you finish that article on…?” “Do you still think Obama is…?” “How is your sister, Miriam?” “When Carol was here, we talked about Bill’s new book – have you read it?” There are only a few who know how to live life so fully. Salons. Students. Concerts. Lectures. Reading up. Dressing down. Imagining the possible for our children…and their children.

As so-and-so in this novel by so-and-so, she would say, as if all of us were as intimately familiar with the characters of every book written in the past 200 years as she was…But it didn’t matter. The quotation from the fictional character captured the point perfectly, brought us to those places in our imagination that so often pass unnoticed and yet, when given the attention they deserve, nourish our curiosity and the sense of the possible. She inspired teachers and scholars alike, in fact blurring that very distinction.

Mary Oliver:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Maxine, a mentor and friend to so many of us, lived a wild and precious life.