The Real Experts in Education

After more than 40 years working in its innards, I can't get away from the idea that a high school resembles a department store - the old kind, like Macy's, that tried to have something for everyone. In the ambitious attempt to retail all sorts of knowledge and skills, we get our wares from the wholesalers - the textbook publishers and university gurus who deliver the goods sterilized, cooked, cut, packaged, and stamped acceptable by some academic FDA. The customers (the students or their parents?) are served by trained and cheerful clerks (teachers) under the watchful eyes of the floorwalkers (administrators). The guidance counselors are the Complaint Department.

This commerce-like arrangement has generally worked well enough. Teachers, as those who wrap the purchases and hand them to the customers, don't have to be either the developers or manufacturers of the product. Biology teachers don't need to be real biologists, most history teachers aren't historians, and English teachers like me - well, there has never been even an approximate name for us.

Lately, however, schools seem to be experiencing a proliferation of Real Experts - mysterious individuals who come between the teacher and his anomalous art, who bring a new and perhaps troublesome factor to the traditional learning equation. Real Experts are those professionals inside the school who don't meet classes, give tests, or maintain gradebooks. In the school where I labored for most of a lifetime, Real Experts constitute, with the administrative staff, an astonishing one-fifth of the professionals.

What I am calling Real Experts are the guidance counselors, librarians, psychologists, sociologists, speech coaches, reading coaches, computer coordinator, special needs counselor, audio-visual specialists, and drug intervention counselor. As one of them in my school (the Special Needs Counselor) said to me recently, "You may know something about Tennyson, but I know tests and measurements." They can be especially intimidating to us handlers of ordinary, familiar educational goods, with their stanines and standard deviations.

Perhaps as old age moves me toward contemplation, I have begun to question their authority. I've always had, for example, a more or less fixed number of students who can't seem to pass my tests on assigned reading, simple questions designed to assess merely the bare fact that the student has indeed done the reading, questions like, "Who is Nick Carraway?" or "Why does Gene say he resents Finny?". I have usually assumed the moral worst - laziness - as the source of these failures. Whenever I asked a Real Expert about it, I would be told something like, "There's nothing wrong with his reading - 85th percentile. Let's work on his study habits."

Yet some of those students, clean-cut and diligent as they seemed to be otherwise, insisted they were putting in their reading time. Still, they swore they couldn't keep the characters, events, and ideas straight. This went on, I am ashamed to say, for more than 30 years.

Then I looked at the standardized test we use, the popular California Achievement Test. Form E, Level 19 of that test contains 10 reading passages, each followed by between three and eight questions. The passages include a poem, a letter, a piece of technical writing, several expositions, and a number of narratives, with and without dialogue. Seems fairly complete, doesn't it?

But it isn't. The final touchstone for any testing instrument, after all, must be: "Does it examine the range of skills needed in the real-world situation?" Surely there are important reading skills not tested even obliquely here. In particular, English reading assignments run typically between 10 and 30 pages, yet none of the reading passages in the test was more than about half a page. Are there skills having to do with continuity, with keeping things straight as one reads? Most novels are 200 pages or more in length - is it possible that some readers can hold a single scene in mind, even the 15 pages of a chapter, but can't manage the threads of a story of novel length?

Perhaps more to the point: My assignments might be given on, say, a Monday. Presumably the reading will be done Monday night, about 12 hours before the next class. Do some readers know exactly what they're reading, but not successfully store it in long-term memory? (Real Experts tell us there are at least two such distinct memories). With older students, I might say on Monday, "You'll be tested Friday on the next 100 pages." That makes the problem all the more pronounced.

Yet all the responses on the standardized test are made immediately, within seconds of the reading itself. And that circumstance is true of every reading scale I've ever heard of. When I bring these matters up to my Real Expert colleagues, I'm usually told, "All the tests do it that way." Exactly!

The presumption, I guess, is that They Must Know What They're Doing. When I persist, especially if the Real Expert is in authority over me (and most of them seem to be), I am obliquely or directly asked what Real Expert credentials I have to offer to the discussion. Actually, I did once attend a reading teachers' conference at Syracuse University, but I didn't understand much of what was going on.

Real Experts maintain their power, in part, by a language and an arcana like that of the hierarchs of ancient Egypt. They offer the patina of sure knowledge in areas where humanism seems to provide only doubts and evasions. Nevertheless, I can't help wondering whether over the years, I might not have been guilty of assuming bad intentions in students who in fact had needs - needs clearly indicated by their response to what I was asking them to do, but inexplicably not measured by the Real Experts.