School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, 1983

nation at risk

“During my time in school, I have developed many skills that teachers did not intentionally want me to learn, but in a way forced me to because of the way they teach and implement the school rules. These are basically ways to cheat the system discretely. Things such as writing a whole essay not knowing what I am really talking about and not paying attention in class but acting like I am.”

High School Junior, 2016


Here’s a few things I did in school.

  • Plowed through weeks and months of class by daydreaming, doodling, playing games, reading unrelated stuff, messaging, and otherwise generally dinking around.
  • Talked my way out of deadlines, extending them, sometimes indefinitely.
  • Copied homework, answers, and projects, receiving credit for work I didn’t do.
  • Ignored everything until the night before the exam and pulled all nighters to finish essays.
  • Made judicious use of sources to pad and lengthen my sloppy writing and reasoning.
  • Lied to teachers about my mental state, or home state, or some kind of state, in order to avoid consequences and work.
  • Learned to nod when applicable, look ahead for the answer to the question that was coming my way, write down responses after they had been given out by others, and generally DO as little actual work as absolutely necessary to still pass the class.  

By the end of high school I was really, really good at a lot of this.  I could read a teacher’s sympathy or mood or general demeanor like a politician.  I had a solid, workable bank of excuses and avoidance techniques.  I could lie so convincingly I believed my own lies.  I eagerly joined group projects because I knew another student, one more interested in higher grades than I, would do most of the work for which I would receive credit.  I mostly mastered the art of determining the minimum work needed to escape scrutiny and still get a passing grade.  (On occasion I misjudged.)  I even developed a solid folder of techniques for making it appear that I’d done far more work than I actually performed.  I developed as well a genuine, heartfelt disdain for work itself, for anything that smacked of repetitive deliberate effort, self-improvement, or vague purpose. Continue reading “School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers”


Standardized Reading Tests Really Are Boring, and that’s a problem

(This is a much-needed and fairly thorough edit of an earlier post…just in case it seems vaguely familiar to the few of you who muddled through the original.)

“It’s soo booooring!”

The single specific complaint I hear from every student who struggles with the reading portions of standardized tests – including the SAT, the ACT and the FCAT in Florida – is that the reading selections are ‘boring.’  The readings don’t hold their interest.  They don’t relate.  The passages are dry and emotionless.  On the surface, this is a lousy complaint.  Boring is a relative term, relative only to the one bored.  Nothing is either inherently boring or interesting, and obviously a student who anticipates all experience to be entertaining or otherwise interesting is in for a difficult future.  Still, the universality of the response begs investigation.

It may be that the term ‘boring’ is simply the only word to come easily to the minds of  sixteen year olds.  We often latch on to the easiest answer when faced with obstacles and complications.  There are lots of reasons to dislike tests, many of them complex and multifaceted, but students have little experience beyond school, and to them the tests are simply parts of their lives they must accept.  They lack both the depth of experience to understand how Standardized exams affect their personal lives and the professional experience to understand how the tests are supposed to exist in the larger world.  Sitting in the middle of that experience, uncertain of its purpose, slaved to readings and questions over which they have no control, eager to escape but not exactly suffering in any tangible way, the only answer to their discomfort and confusion is ‘boring’.

But there is also a more profound reason students lack the vocabulary to explain their struggles with Standardized Exams.  The tests ARE boring, and it has nothing to do with the students themselves.  It’s in the nature of the tests to be boring.  Not because they are uninteresting, or dry, or tasteless and bland.  Not because they lack energy or vitality.  Not because they are repetitive, or simplistic, or opaque.  Though they are all those things.  It’s in the nature of Standardized Reading tests to be boring because they deny the reason any reading is engaging in the first place.  Standardized tests break the contextual energy that makes reading interesting.   

‘Boring’ isn’t a simple matter of missing interest – the causes of the disconnect are varied and significant.  It’s difficult to answer a question, to ‘connect’ to it, if one doesn’t know the point of the question.  It’s difficult to connect to an experience if the conditions are unjust or unfair.  And it’s quite difficult for many young adults to perform well at a process which has no clear purpose or inherent value to them.

Reading Is contextual, tests are not

Reading (like most things) is a contextual experience.  The written word does not exist alone, it acts as a bridge between two things in the real world, between the reader and whatever the writing is about.  An automobile mechanic uses the words in his manual to connect his actions to the actions of the engine.  A surfer reads a surfing magazine to connect his interest in surfing to the wide range of complex details inherent to the sport.  Novels provide a link between the reader and the meaning of experience.  When the reader engages in the text, they do so in an environment in which the written words are merely a part.

But the reading portion of a standardized exam provides few, if any, such links.  More to the point, the reading portion of the exam isn’t about the context, it’s about the words and sentences and paragraphs themselves, independent of any larger purpose the words serve.  Students are to prove they understand what the writing is about without any clear connection between the words and the subject of the writing as it exists in the world.  Most often, in fact, paragraphs are lifted from the middle of essays, textbooks, or novels and then students are asked questions related only to that specific passage.  The disconnect here for poor or reluctant readers can be profound.  Intuitively, students understand the purpose of the written word as a bridge, yet the test itself seems to completely ignore writing’s purpose.  Rather than a test of skills, the exam seems to many some sort of trick designed to…well, they aren’t quite sure.  What they do know, though, is that the passages seem to lack whatever vitality it is that makes things ‘interesting’ instead of ‘boring’.

The tests also are boring because they demand students read in a way that is unnatural to reading.  Students will never elsewhere be asked to read in the manner required by the exam, because, quite simply, it’s not the way (or ‘why’) we read in the first place.  Nobody ever reads a passage in order to answer specific questions about it.  There’s always a context, and for most readers the context is fundamental to the understanding.  If, for example, I am reading a novel and I find myself in a descriptive passage about the weather, I instinctively know that the author is likely setting a mood or tone and that the passage is setting the place of the events.  Well designed questions will focus on this kind of reading, but such a focus is irrelevant to a student who doesn’t read many novels, much less one who is either confused by the purpose of the exam in general or – as is so often the case given the sheer pressure the tests create – suffers from test anxiety.  

The actual assessment aspect of a Standardized exam is also different from that which students usually experience in the classroom.  In the classroom, tests related to readings involve specific lessons and details from the recent past, which are reviewed and then built upon (or discarded) for the next lesson.  They are part of an ongoing experience, with all sorts of visible and invisible purposes.  Vocabulary tests, for example, usually concern words studied or reviewed previously in class.  These are lists of specific words defined and spelled.  Students know that learning the words is part of a wider process and purpose, the amassing of vocabulary, the recognition of roots, prefixes, suffixes, and cognates, deeper understanding of a text through its vocabulary, etc.  (To be sure, the absence of clear purpose within a classroom is also one significant reason students struggle.)  None of that larger purpose or extended history is evident on a Standardized exam.  Vocabulary skills on a Standardized test are mostly about gleaning definition from context clues.  While this is no insignificant skill, the full depth of it is lost if the passage has no larger context.  Again, students are asked to prove they can glean the meaning of a word or passage from the very small fragment they have before them, a passage often sliced from the body of a much larger creature.   

Avid reader, poor test taker

Many students who are enthusiastic readers perform poorly on reading exams.  It’s frustrating, particularly since the issue is not skill.  Because the point of a reading exam is so different from the reading they do elsewhere, that student actually ‘reads’ differently.  When we read, we don’t hold all the information the words contain in equal measure.  Without much conscious decision, we evaluate the purpose of the text and group the information accordingly, holding usually only a few common threads and crucial supporting evidence throughout the reading experience. (This is how one can read a 1,000 page novel and not get lost.)  Since a reading exam, however, is testing comprehension removed from context, students don’t know where to start.  As a result, a weak test taker tries to hold every single word of a reading in their minds, to in effect memorize the passage before they get to the questions.  A paragraph into any reading passage and they have lost all track of the beginning.  By the end of the passage, they have to go back and start all over again.

Later, they wonder, ‘What happened?’  The standard answer: ‘It was a boring selection.’  But behind that answer is real damage, for these enthusiastic, avid readers exit the experience being told that they are poor readers.  Many of them lose the passion.  

Moving Forward

There are answers to this nightmare, answers actually discovered by many people some time after they leave school, all those folks who go on to great success despite lackluster academic performance.  Yet presently, the school system relies primarily on testing to mark, monitor, measure, and motivate.  A student might understandably survive their academic years under the impression that the world of successful professional adults operates under the same general guidelines.  To many, the thought of this is enough to steer them towards less professional fields.  The world outside school, however, accommodates everyone to varying degrees, and it does not rely on testing – it relies on individual product.  Like reading itself, the world students graduate into is purpose driven.

Standardized tests do work, of course.  They do measure many student’s reading ability, but in many ways what they actually measure is kind of peripheral to the skill of reading comprehension.  Good students are very often simply more curious than poor students.  Good students are open to ideas, and are willing to gaze past the limitations of a passage to the material within.  Good students also read a lot, and over a wide range of topics; thus, they are more likely familiar with the variety of passages and language that shows up on the test.  Often their ability is not so much their skill as it is their experience.  But it is by no means a democratic or equal measure, and all too many students are not being accurately judged.  The big question, then, is this:  How can an assessment accurately gauge or evaluate the skill of a process that isn’t actually being fully tested?  Is it even an accurate assessment of a student’s true reading skills if the test doesn’t allow the student to demonstrate the skill?

We’ve been evaluating student ability this way for a long time now, but the past does not quite serve as a standard for the present when it comes to standardized exams.  The two big hitters – the SAT and the ACT for college – are relatively new to the scene, and for a long time they were hand-graded essay style tests.  Only recently have the public schools themselves gone full-on with standardized exams.  In other words, these tests are not classics.  Moreover, the model for the standardized exam is drawn from tests that measure advanced academic potential; that is, success in school.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach, so long as it applies to those young adults with an interest in pursuing academic fields.  Those are the ones who do well on exams.  Currently, however, we apply the model to all students, regardless of their interests or abilities, and bemoan the lack of universal success.  The tests are also a product of their time and circumstance.  Until recently, these kinds of exams were the easiest, most efficient, and accurate way to measure large groups of essentially anonymous applicants.  That is not true anymore.  If we so desired, and were willing to undertake the (admittedly strenuous) task of changing direction, we could create an evaluation system that would more accurately gauge ability, not to mention serve – far more accurately – a much wider range of demands.

It may be that the standardized exam is here to stay.  Accountability in an institution as entrenched, bureaucratic, and large as the education system is difficult, to say the least, and consistent, across the board, exams are quite possibly the only reasonable path.  But let’s at least be honest about both what should be measured – not student academic success on a large scale, but possible student strengths and ability on the scale of the individual – and how best to democratically measure those skills.  At the least, we should give the students power over their own destiny.  Let them choose what tests to take.  Give them some choice in the reading.  Let them sense that the exam is merely a tool for direction and proof of achievement.

If we are to use an exam to measure our kids, we should provide as many exams as possible, and allow the scores on those tests to be the badge by which the students earn entry into the work they choose.  We don’t need two exams – English and math – or three – writing – or four – add science.  We should have hundreds, for everything they choose.  And we should not measure them by our choices (which I doubt we even understand), but by the paths they choose.  Our students should not be forced to come to us with a piece of paper that judges them by our standards.  They should come to us with a piece of paper that says, “This is what I care about and what I’m good at.”

Grades Are Currency

Imagine your job looked something like this:  Five days a week you are forced to go to a place and perform a series of tasks.  Sometimes you enjoy the work, often times not.  You have many bosses throughout a day of moving from job to job, place to place.  A great deal of your time is spent sitting and simply listening.  Your basic needs are met.  You have food and water.  There is shelter.  You arrive with clothing.  You have limited decision-making over your assignments.  Opting out, when an option, has serious consequence. You often take your work home with you.  

Both the product and the payment are…interesting.  Neither has much immediate tangible value, though you must collect a minimum amount of ‘reward’ in order to simply escape the cycle.  (For many of your coworkers, the only goal is escape.)  You are told that the payment is mostly internalized, that it’s built into the tasks, that the tasks themselves, the experience gained, is the actual reward. You are told that the built-in reward nature of the tasks will allow you, in some future, to continue doing such things for a currency that allows the purchase of an infinite variety of goods and services, but that is a world you are not yet allowed to enter.  You are reminded, repeatedly and with variety, that the longer you remain in THIS system, completing tasks and accumulating that strange reward, the greater your ability to accumulate a far more powerful currency outside.  You are working, in other words, for a reward that has extremely limited present day value.  If you like the work, that is the reward; if you don’t like the work, the reward is the promise of escape.   

There is a more specific ‘reward’, if one could call it such, and here is where things get even more complicated.  Periodically, you receive a mark for the quality of your work.  Some bosses are generous, others less so.  This mark has little immediate value at all – you cannot trade it for anything.  It cannot be used to purchase tangible goods.  Like the work itself, this payment is supposed to have intrinsic value, though it also bears the oft-repeated promise of future value.  The amount you can earn is capped, and the value is in how close you reach that cap.  

Most often, that product and reward arrive after a long period spent simply trying to get a handle on the material.  Sometimes, that product arrives after a long period of not doing much at all, with a brief spurt of furious activity just prior to the deadline.  You build your earnings slowly, and the formula for growth has an almost infinite variety within each job.  Roughly twice yearly you get a report outlining your savings and their value, though again it is assumed that the tasks themselves are a kind of reward.  This is so painfully NOT true for many of the tasks that it hints at conspiracy.  Enjoyment of the tasks is scattered incomprehensibly throughout your group, but it is expected that you perform to the best of your ability and with maximum enthusiasm to every task.  What happens if you do not, besides reduced payment, is a vague hint of some future painful consequence.  Should you fail to perform the task satisfactorily to the boss of the moment, you risk repeating the entire experience.

Competition varies from job to job, boss to boss, but mostly you are rewarded not for victory over another but for completing the tasks placidly, on time, in abundance, and with skill.   

There are some strange rules and contradictions.  For example, there is a vague promise that if you earn enough from performing the tasks either in abundance or with excellence, you can parlay your earnings into more of the same yet harder!   Your ultimate goal is to escape the job itself, by doing the job so well that you can then go do the job for a different currency, though just as often you are reminded that the job is its reward, and upon exit you should continue to do the job for the sake of the job.  Like string theory, nobody really believes this or understands it completely.  

You are fairly confused about the purpose, nature, and value of the whole affair, but you have no choice or voice so mostly you muddle along as best you can.  The work itself is often vague of purpose, and most of the time seems strangely self-referential.  Final products seem backward thinking, reflections of what was experienced rather than directed towards the future, even though the ultimate goal is leaving the job for someplace else.

And that, friends, is school.


As much as it might pain us to imagine schools as an economy, the reality is that they are.  How, in fact, can one even avoid the idea of school as an economy, when so much energy and attention IN school is purposefully designed to acquire skills and experience to function in one upon exit?  Do we imagine students will not internalize the final purpose of all that education?  Do we imagine that if we can divorce the purpose from its form, that somehow it will not intrude?       

Grades are currency.  They are the most powerful currency a school has to offer, and as such, they are treated as a currency by everyone.  Teachers use the currency of grades to get students to do the work..Students work for the payment of grades.  Moreover, taking away the currency of grades does not mean students will suddenly change their ideas about school.  

The other currency of school is the learning itself, but we have no clear way, in the present construct, of turning that currency into value.  Until we do so, we will continue to expect unreasonable engagement and investment from our students.

We would like to deny that grades are a currency, that the world of school does not function like the one we enter after leaving it.  One would like to assume that the structure of school, with its intrinsic motivation and teachers impassioned by the joy of their subject material, should not – cannot – function like a market.  One would like to emphasize that grades are not a currency, not tradeable, and that their value is connected to the skills of students and nothing else.  All true, yet not quite true at all.

It’s easy to anticipate many of the objections,  But I think most objections, like much of what we do in schools, blatantly ignores the fact that students are people no different from ourselves.  If we could not imagine ourselves abiding by such circumstances, then we ought not assume students are something different.