The “No Child Left Behind” program and its rebranded successor “Race to the Top” have a certain appeal to them. Setting benchmarks improves the quality of most fields of human endeavor, why not education?
An enterprising bureaucrat can define success through standardized tests, preferably tests created by companies willing to make hefty campaign contributions.
But with the veterans/victims of these policies starting to trickle into law schools, there’s reason to fear that we’ve created a bunch of stupid future lawyers. Assuming there’s even a need for smart future lawyers any more….
Professor Michele Goodwin of the University of Minnesota Law School penned a frightening account of the fallout hitting law schools from over a decade of federal programs stressing standardized testing.
Moreover, they complain that students are less sheepish and more blatant about just wanting “the answers.” The challenge of learning on their own is so overwhelming to some law students that it has become far more common for students to demand their professors’ notes.
Or maybe there are more douchebags going to law school. The recession has hurt the financial industry.
The qualities Goodwin identifies would make it hard to teach a lawyer. But she ignores another problem highlighted by these student deficiencies, specifically that none of these kids have any sense of why they’re going to law school. Traditionally, this is a field defined by negotiation and adversarial presentation. If students are so obsessed with “answers,” then their decision to apply to law school was f**ked from Jump Street. Students failing to understand their decision to go to law school is not new, but if student interest in critical thinking and fluid argument is in decline, then every 1L has to be viewed as someone who enrolled without grasping the core concept of the profession.
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.
Standardized tests hurt critical thinking? I’m incredulous. This kid seems to be doing all right.
I don’t doubt that multiple choice tests have degraded writing. The culture of text messaging has probably done a number on students as well. But maybe lawyers don’t really need to read and write.
As I said before, the traditional role of a lawyer — the role still taught in law school — requires critical thinking and the ability to read and write, and anyone going to law school without those skills has failed their first pop quiz of life. On the other hand, outside of law schools, mindless coding doesn’t require a great wordsmith. Redlining contracts doesn’t require a grasp of the English language since contracts usually don’t read as English after enough lawyers touch them.
This isn’t to say that society is better off with lawyers who can’t think critically, but it’s worth recognizing that the industry has developed a demand, especially with the explosion of electronic documents requiring review, for lawyers willing and able to read a document and click the “right answer” codes. It’s reached a point where lawyers spend the majority of their time on these mundane tasks. I wonder if I’d have had more patience for the discovery phase of litigation if I were hard-wired to better appreciate toggle-switch answers. Maybe there’s some value to the modern method of learning after all.
But remember, there is serious discussion of farming out legal work to Watson. So these lawyers won’t have jobs in a few years when the HAL 9000 takes over.
In the end, I think Goodwin’s absolutely right about the damage federal education programs wrought upon future critical thinkers, but I worry the problem is more systemic. It’s not that students might no longer fit the profession, it’s that the profession might no longer fit the society. If society at large starts to value fixed answers and text-speak, then the legal profession will need to naturally evolve to serve that desire. And a legal system that values quick and easy answers would make for a really unpleasant society.
It would be like using the Sentencing Guidelines for everything. *shudder*
Law Professors See the Damage Done by ‘No Child Left Behind’ [Chronicle of Higher Education]