They Always Test Us on Things We Haven’t Read : Teen Laments and Lessons Learned
reviewed by Lawrence Baines - 2006
Title: They Always Test Us on Things We Haven’t Read : Teen Laments and Lessons Learned
Author(s): Kathleen W. Gershman
Publisher: Hamilton Books, Lanham
ISBN: 0761829318, Pages: 165, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com
The University of Indiana has launched a massive campaign called The High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) to describe and document student engagement in secondary schools. Through self-reported responses to questions such as, How many hours per week do you spend doing volunteer work? and How many papers have you written between 3 and 5 pages in length? researchers at HSSSE hope to diagnose whats wrong with American high schools (McCarthy, Watson, So, Harris, and Winstead, 2005).
The latest federal Department of Education budget targets $1.5 billion specifically for high school, including additional funds for more testing. In February 2005, the National Governors Association met with policymakers from six philanthropic foundationsthe Gates Foundation among themto announce that they were donating millions of dollars for the reform of high schools.
Clearly, the focus of educational reform has shifted from young children to adolescents. So, whats wrong with Americas high schools?
Bill Gates points to the inequalities of a system that prevents children from fulfilling their potential due to factors beyond their controltheir zip code, their skin color, or the income of their parents (2005). Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings thinks schools are ineffective because teachers have low expectations and are not held accountable. HSSSE researchers hypothesize that that high school courses are, across the board, too easy.
Although well-intentioned, these high-profile initiatives offer sometimes abstruse, often contradictory prescriptions for what ails Americas high schools. In truth, spending a few hours at the local high school can be more illuminating than reading through volumes of survey data or plowing through the caustic tripe of public relations materials.
Kathleen Gershman spent a year in high schoolsattending classes; talking with students, teachers, and administrators; showing up at social and sporting events; hanging out with teenagers. Her book They Always Test Us on Things We Havent Read describes life in high school from the vantage point of a well-educated adult sitting at the back of the room. When writing of the problems of public education, Gershman writes with perspicacious wit:
There is something of a disconnect, even in a school as bland as a beet field, between what adults intend to happen and how the students there actually experience it all. Miraculous moments of learning and sincere support happen throughout the day, but overall there is a lot of time and money going into an effort that tends to fall flatunless the intents of public education are to teach punctuality, politeness, orderliness, and respect for extrinsic reward systemsthen in that case it is rather successful. (pp. 6-7)
Gershman spent time at three high schools in two cities in North Dakota, where 98% of students graduate from high school and 80% admit that they love or like their school. Although Gershman seems a bit sheepish that she is not reporting from a beleaguered school in downtown Detroit, her observations have as much resonance for urban education as for the well-supported, orderly, beet field schools of North Dakota.
The bottom line is that students in high schools in both North Dakota and Detroit seem to be bored out of their minds, way beyond the usual bounds of teen angst. They feel indifferent about the curriculum, negative about most of the teaching and positive about the group of which they are a partwhen they feel a part of it (p. 7).
Although empathetic with the demands of teaching, Gershman places much of the blame for student apathy on misguided priorities and the blatant ineffectiveness of teachers. From her observations, teachers seemed to fit one of three broad categories: 1) the lecturer, 2) the do-nothing, 3) the caring enthusiast.
Lecturers spent almost the entirety of every class period talking, usually about the subject-at-hand but occasionally about anything else that popped into the teachers mindanecdotes about the weather, opinions on celebrity gossip, etc . Do-nothings rarely spoke to students except to announce due dates for seatwork. Do-nothings required students to read textbooks, fill-in worksheets, and take frequent, multiple-choice testsall in silence.
At the schools where Gershman observed, lecturers and do-nothings were dominant, while caring enthusiasts (teachers who actually learned students names, showed concern for their welfare, and taught with passion) comprised a small, but lively minority. Although not always the smartest or most dazzling teachers, the caring enthusiasts were the only ones students considered worthy of respect.
Again and again, Gershman contrasts the grim sterility of the school environment against the topsy-turvy, emotional tumult of students lives. A happy, immaculately-groomed girl rushes into class one day, disheveled and sobbing, places her head on the desk with her arms over her head. Meanwhile, the teacher writes out state-approved objectives on the chalkboard, takes roll, and proceeds as if nothing had happened. All it takes to be aware, writes Gershman, is to look at them in the course of a period (p. 117).
In counterpoint to insensitive teachers and anemic academics are moments of total engagement when students come alivebetween classes, and especially after school, as members of a sports team (apparently, hockey is very big in North Dakota), club, or particular clique, including those with memorable appellations such as the Burnt-on-Arrivals, Innocent-By-Standers, and The Yknow What-The-Hell-Is-He-Doin-In-Band-People. Gershman found that the best part of school for most students, even the Burnt-on-Arrivals, was what happened out-of-school.
It is puzzling, then, why Gershman advocates disbanding sports teams as a way of improving high schools. Rather than rid schools of one of the few sources of joy for students, a more logical plan might be to develop more after-school activities, more teams, more clubs, more community involvement.
Unfortunately, Gershman lapses into Harvard Graduate School-approved (where she received her Ph.D.) sermonizing upon occasion. She contends that competitive sports are evil, racial discrimination is rampant, and gender bias is pandemic, despite the abundant evidence she presents to the contrary. She describes how a black student and a white student are paired off for a group project. When the two boys do not launch into an animated conversation within the first minute, she makes allusions to discrimination and prejudice. Yet, her description depicts the typical reaction of two boys forced to work together on an ill-defined assignment for school. If anything, the two boys seemed overly amiable and understanding.
In portraying the horror of neglected girls (an entire section of the book), Gershman resorts to platitudes, such as Updike said the world runs on push. Maybe its boys who learn this attitude as youngsters (p. 84), Even natural allies like female teachers can favor the boys presence in class (p. 85), and the frequent high ratio of male teacher to male students may well have contributed to the comfort level of male students to engage in conversationand to the discomfort level of the female students. Say what?
Finally, she describes the case of Liz, a high school junior and one of a few girls in an industrial arts class. According to Gershmans description, Liz asks the teacher questions every five minutes, and interjects off-topic comments such as, Curt (her old boyfriend) used to eat paper. He used to eat little tootsie rolls with the paper still on it. Put the whole thing in his mouth (p. 88). When the teacher steps out of the room and says, Make sure Liz doesnt cheat, Gershman takes the comment as an inexcusable insultWhat this attitude of the teachers did, it seemed to me, was give every boy in the class permission to undervalue Lizs presence and contribution there. And they did undervalue it (p. 89).
Meanwhile, in the real world, it is the boys in industrial arts who are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, more likely to spend some time in jail, and much less likely to attend college (Bauza, 2005; Gurian & Stevens, 2005; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2005).
Despite brief lapses of hokum, Gershmans book is well worth reading, if only for the zingers of insight that she offers from time-to-time.
Curriculum texts obfuscate the presence of the student in the classroom. Like diagrams of dance footsteps, there is not even the remotest hint of rhythm on the paper. (p. 8)
An overbooked high school teacher doesnt worry about quiet students; he thanks God for them. (p. 74)
Small group work and cooperating learning have become the open classroom movement of the nineties. (p. 133)
Actually participating in ones education is the first step towards accomplishing it. (p. 137)
Gershmans central thesis is that the quality of instruction in high schools can be improved only if the relationships between teachers and students are ameliorated. To this end, she suggests a maximum class size of 12 students. She reasons that smaller classes would allow teachers to become more concerned with the whole student (rather than only on the students test score); allow for more complex, writing-intensive projects; and promote more interaction. Her emphasis on restoring warmth and humanity to high schools that have become desensitized and overly bureaucratized through the live-or-die mandate of standardized testing is welcome and wise. She emphasizes a goal that many well-intentioned reformers often overlookAmericas high schools should help children, not just measure them.
The publisher of this book, Hamilton Books, a new imprint of University Press of America, was established to publish scholarly materials for limited audiences. The quality of paper, cover, and binding of They Always Test Us on Things We Havent Read was of professional quality. However, because Hamilton Books requires authors to submit print-ready pages, the manuscript likely did not receive a thorough going over by editors prior to publication. Minor problems include the title (which would lead most readers to conclude that the book is about assessment), misspellings (Hemmingway is one that made me wince), and issues of style (Gershman cites Alfred Lord Whitehead more than a dozen times). Nevertheless, if They Always Test Us on Things We Havent Read is any indication of the quality of manuscripts to be published by Hamilton Books, then the imprint will provide an invaluable service.
Bauza, M. (2005, January 9). Boys fall behind girls in grades. Detroit News, A1.
Gurian, M., & K. Stevens (2005, May 2). What Is happening with boys In school? Teachers College Record. Retrieved on 5/20/2005 from
Gates, B. (2005, February 26). Speech at National Education Summit on High Schools. Washington D.C.
McCarthy, M., Watson, C., So, H., Harris, B., & Winstead, T. (2005). 2004 High school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.
U.S. Department of Commerce (2005). Statistical abstract of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.