One professor at a top-20 law school recently confided that he has to teach his students how to write business letters. A professor at another elite school complained that grading exams is far more difficult now because the writing skills of students are so deficient that each exam requires several reads. Bernstein’s article suggests that he knows what accounts for this—federal education policy. He may be right.
Teaching to the test overshadows (if not supplants) teaching critical thinking, higher-order reasoning, and the development of creative-writing skills. As Bernstein emphasizes, contemporary teaching or teaching to the test does not “require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.” In fact, those skills may be perceived as unimportant in this modern age—as many of the tests taken by K-12 students employ multiple choice, and those that require essays grade on a rubric that pays little if any attention to the quality of writing.
Something to add to the pile facing legal education today: students may not be as smart as they used to be. And that’s a problem because the law is more complex today than ever and requires extraordinary analytical and critical thinking skills. If you show up at law school lacking the necessary skill set, you will not do well.
As the father of 2 teenagers I can tell you that even in the best public schools “teaching to the test” is a great problem. Bright kids hit high school without a lot of writing and independent thinking skills and aren’t learning or even working on those skills there. I can certainly see where issues are going to come up in higher education as these kids move forward.
Be sure to read the comments following the Chronicle piece, there is some good stuff in there.