Nobody seemed to ask about critical thinking, but that was at the forefront of my mind. In many classes, no one picked apart ideas. Students weren't creating anything. There was no wrestling with ideas.
It wasn't the vast majority, but it was enough to make me sick to my stomach. Some would suggest that we blame teachers. On some level, I do. But I don't blame them for a lack of skill so much as a lack of courage. They weren't willing to risk low scores.
See, you can't push differentiation and then assess in one-size-fits-all. You can't push for critical thinking and then push tests that are shallow and mindless. You can't push for cooperative learning and then set up assessment systems where students work in isolation. If you want to know why teachers aren't using "best practices," it's because they are assessed through worst practices.
As long as teachers are judged by the test, the vast majority will teach to the test. As long assessment remains synonymous with mindless, kill-and-drill, multiple choice tests, the instructional practices will not change.
Bottom line: before you can change instruction, you have to change assessment. And before you can change assessment, you have to find better ways to define what quality learning looks like and what quality teaching means.
All of this requires a missing element: trust.
Until politicians and bureaucrats learn to trust teachers and trust students, instruction will remain isolated, repetitious, irrelevant and shallow.