Tying teachers’ hands to reach students

Meeting the needs and interests of students has long been one of the ways to engage students in learning.  Yet high school teachers are given little slack in deciding how to do so.  I was reminded once again after reading the provocative article “If You Could Add One Book to the High School Curriculum, What Would It Be?” (The New York Times, Aug. 21).

The arguments for the inclusion of certain books, both fiction and non-fiction, were well argued.  But the reality is that public school teachers have little, if any, choice in deciding which books to teach.  In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District held that only boards of education can determine the curriculum.  Essentially, districts hire teacher speech.

The problem is that the list of approved books is decided by those who know very little about the students that teachers face every day.  As a result, the books are often totally irrelevant.  When I was teaching English in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was appalled by my options for American literature.  “Ethan Frome,”and “The Red Badge of Courage” immediately come to mind.  They bored students to death.  Yet there were others that were no less deadly.

I see little hope for changing matters.  As long as teachers are forbidden to use their own professional judgment, students will continue to fall asleep or act out.

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