In the remarkable 2014 film “Whiplash,” J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a maniacal music professor at an elite East Coast conservatory bent on producing the next truly great jazz musician, on the order of Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. In order for his students to reach their full potential musically, Fletcher believes, he must browbeat them, even slap them. Only through pain — deep psychic pain — can his students reach the heights of the jazz legends, or so he thinks.
Fletcher is eventually dismissed because of his abusive, even obscene behavior, but only after one of his former students commits suicide and one of his current students assaults him following weeks of taunting by the professor.
The story is extreme — and, thankfully, fictional. But it could and should serve as an object lesson to educators, and particularly those setting school policy, that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching — particularly one that is capricious, arbitrary and abusive — is doomed to failure. Yes, in the end, Fletcher finally finds his one true great — a drummer named Andrew Neyman (played by Miles Teller) — but only after the professor lays waste to countless other promising music students.
New York’s failed Common Core initiative, which the state did away with only after mass protests, feels a bit like the plot of “Whiplash,” minus the profanity-laced insults and physical abuse. The policy set unrealistic standards for students, and gave teachers an unreasonable time frame within which to implement them.
Now we have the state’s new Every Student Succeeds Act, a raft of revamped education standards that the New York Board of Regents recently passed. As with the Common Core, the measure of success in meeting the new standards will be based largely on standardized tests administered annually at the end of the school year, provided that the federal Department of Education approves the plan.
Once again, we implore the state to get it right this time. Standards must be upgraded, but they must also be fair for students of all ability levels. And teachers will need training and time to integrate the standards into their curricula.
Otherwise, we might be facing yet another case of whiplash.