Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Take a look at this letter from a Berkeley professor to his new students--it's a great and righteous rant against what the citizens of California have done to their school system and their children over the past 30 years.

At the end, he calls upon his students to fight back against the greed and selfishness of their parents and re-establish a social contract:

You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again.
Which is interesting, since a few paragraphs earlier, he says that the current generation of students is too ignorant of history and too low-skilled in writing to fight effectively for or against anything.

What's sad is the complete admission of defeat on behalf of the so-called adult community, the sense of utter abdication. "The grown-ups screwed it up," he's more-or-less saying, "and they're too blind and stupid to un-screw it. So it's up to you." Which is strangely of a piece with what he's been saying earlier. The generation he's attacking has abidcated responsibility for anything other than its own short-term pleasure, and now it's abdicating it's reponsibility for that abdication of responsibility. "How can you ask me to clean up my mess when I'm the one who made such a terrible mess?"

We're going to need some sort of support groups, like adult children of alcoholics, to help an entire generation cope with the selfish scum who raised them. I think it would be very...cleansing...if the current crop of high school and college students could, as a group, throw it all back in the faces of everyone older than 50 but younger than the surviving World War II veterans, and say, "YOU broke it; YOU fix it. I don't care if you have to live on dog food until you drop. DO IT."

A boy can dream.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Do You Need to Know?

My older son, who just started fifth grade, hates the fact that he has to re-memorize all of the "math facts" that he once knew, and demonstrate his knowledge on a series of timed tests. He has a pretty hard-core teacher this year, who will not leave the kids alone on this subject until they can pass addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tests at a 75% passing rate, each one completed in three minutes (though they can start at seven minutes and work their way up). Why is the teacher doing this? Because, he says, without those tools the kids will not be able to do any of the higher-level math he's going to teach.

Read my previous post to see what happens when teachers take the opposite view.

There are interesting (though occasionally tedious) battles going on between the Core Knowledge folks, who insist that all children must know all things, and the P21 crowd, who want schools to focus more on skills and habits than on facts. Obviously, to those of us in the sane middle, neither extreme is true; what is needed is a blend of the two. But how does one blend them? And where does one draw the line? That's the tough question. What facts do you just, flat, need to know?

I think the fifth-grade example is instructive. There are certain basic tools that everyone needs, in order to perform more complex tasks. You can make the argument that not all adults need to have learned all of the complex tasks associated with every subject area--but every adult should have a grounding in the basic tools, just in case they need to look up and learn those complex tasks. And it's not enough to rely on a calculator or a spellchecker to perform those basic tasks, because unless we understand those basic tools, we won't really know how or when or why to use them when faced with more complex tasks or problems. This is why it's not okay to abandon basic numeracy and say, "I've got a calculator." You need the basic numeracy to know that, in this particular case, you'll need to divide this number by that number. You need to understand how math works. I would argue that our biggest problems in high school math--the vast numbers of students who cannot pass Algebra, even after multiple attempts--come from a lack of basic understanding of how numbers work. It's not that they don't understand the Algebra; it's that they don't understand anything.

It's no different in English. If you never learn the basic rules of grammar and syntax, you won't learn how to put sentences or paragraphs together effectively. If you don't understand how to put an argument together logically and coherently, you will not recognize when someone else has failed to do so. Why is our citizenry so profoundly susceptible to propaganda, smears, and appeals to emotion? Because we haven't trained them to recognize and resist such things. We haven't given them the tools.

Instead of starting at the bottom and listing the wide world of facts that students should or should not learn, we should start at the top. Forget about facts for a moment. What kinds of problems do adults need to be able to solve? Once you've listed some of those, then you go back to the facts. What facts and skills do adults need to have readily at hand--memorized and deeply understood--in order to be able to solve the kinds of problems that the world throws at them? I would argue that those facts and skills are the non-negotiables, the things that all students must learn, whether they go to college or not. Other facts can be looked up; other skills can be learned as needed, when needed.

The core curriculum should be a toolbox that we fill with the tools all children will need to be successful at the entry-level job they will eventually take on in the world, as adults.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Standards

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show yesterday while driving around, performing various errands related to having been laid off last Friday. The show was all about higher education and its various woes, from the broken-down system of tenure to the threats of default from "sub-prime" student loans. One of the guests lamented the sorry academic state of many college freshmen, especially where writing skills were concerned. One of the other guests attacked him, saying something like, "I'm so tired of people blaming the high schools. The high schools are doing the best they can, and it's not for us to tell them what to do. Our job is to take who we get, where we get them, and educate them as best we can."

At which point, I dearly wished for a radio that had a button allowing me to remotely smack people in the studio.

So this is where we are, after more than a decade of the so-called standards movement: college entrance is not a goal to be attained, but an entitlement to which all comers are...entitled, regardless of readiness. You don't get to go to college when and if you're ready for college-level work; you simply go. Whenever. Ready or not. And their job is to do with you whatever they can manage to do. They don't get to call the shots or set the agenda.

A standard is supposed to be a benchmark or goal that you meet in order to qualify for something. Advancement, reward, whatever the case may be. You meet the standards? You qualify. You don't? You don't. A standard is supposed to be an immovable object. But we, in our infinite wisdom, decided to adopt standards while, at the same time, embracing a self-esteem movement dictating that everyone must qualify, so that they don't feel badly about themselves. And this idea became an irresistable force.

And as the song says, "something's gotta give."

Well, what's more likely to give--a standard of excellence which requires hard work, and which not all people will attain, or a general feeling of syrupy goodness about ourselves? I'll give you one guess.

All across the country, academic standards that took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop are being subverted by dumbed-down standardized tests (that also took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop), or by good tests with subversive grading rubrics. We talk a good game, but in the end, everyone, or nearly everyone, moves along the line. And college, which once upon a time was an elitist institution (acadmically elitist in the best of times, instead of simply socially elitist), entrance to which was a badge of achievement, is now simply the next step that everyone must take. And if the kids aren't ready to do that work, we'll just give them work they are ready to do. We don't want to be unfair.

I had thought, silly me, that the whole point of this exercise was to spend energy and resources to help more students rise to a higher standard. Instead, we have left the students where they are and lowered the bar to meet them.

And we wonder why our political discourse is idiotic and barbaric? We wonder why "Jersey Shore" is considered great entertainment? We wonder why anyone and anything that smacks of erudition or sophistication is mocked into silence?

If our only standard is going to be smug satisfaction with ourselves, why don't we save our taxpayers a lot of money, and our schools a lot of grief, and just stop the whole charade?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lighting Out for the Territories

This article from Slate made me think about a high school student I taught, many years ago, in an alternative school for kids who had "fallen through the cracks" in previous schools. This kid was immensely intelligent, but socially hopeless. He spent hours at home, reading history, but was more at home in ancient worlds than his own. And he wasn't just awkward--he had some real problems. He occasionally dressed in furs and called himself Hrothgar, and was once seen walking down a major city street wearing scuba gear. He probably needed medication, but he refused to consider it, claiming that the doctors were all Men Without Honor, intent on destroying his manhood, or robbing him of his soul.

And when you looked at the world through his eyes, it was hard not to see things the way he did. To him, the modern world was alien, small, weak, and strange. Compromised in every possible way. In an earlier time, he would have set off for the frontier and become...what? A fur trapper, perhaps? Pa Ingalls, maybe? The kind of homesteader who could quote Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but who could not sit still in either school or church? Huck Finn, running away from being "sivilized"?

One of our teachers took this kid out on camping trips from time to time, to try to help him become more self-sufficient and capable, thinking that maybe we could get him a job in a national park, up on a fire tower or something. Because in our world, there was simply no place for him.

Our headmaster, who had spent many years teaching dyslexic students, was convinced that the thing we called dyslexia was a problem of definition more than anything else. In our modern, hyper-literate world, we saw these kids as problems, because they had trouble reading. But we tended not to see what often came hand-in-hand with those reading problems, which was intense creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and dynamic leadership skills. In an earlier time, all you would have seen were the gifts. Would it really have mattered if Alexander had inverted his letters, or if Napoleon had been a slow reader? Not so much. But in our world, which doesn't particularly value Alexanders or Napoleons, the tail wags the dog.

What are we supposed to do with students who are simply not built for school desks, multiple-choice tests, and college? We live in a country that attracted pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers from nations all around the world; we live in a country that was, to a large extent, built by those people. The West was settled by those people--people who were more comfortable cutting down trees, building a house with their own hands, and hacking a living out of the soil than they were living in town--people who tended to uproot themselves and move further west when the land they had settled became too settled. Say what you like about people like that--you like them or you hate them--but don't pretend they no longer exist. Do we really think, somehow, we have bred those qualities out of collective gene pool? Do we think that will no longer have any Pa Ingallses or Alexanders, simply because we have no need for them anymore?

No--they will come. They come every year. The dispositions are there, and they're not going away, even though we have no place for them. And we have no place for them. There are no frontiers, no unsettled places to which the unsettled minds can run away. There are no unruly places for the people who need to make their own rules. There are only round holes, anymore; if you happen to be a square peg, you're shit out of luck. If you're round-ish, we can accommodate you. If you're willing to squeeze yourself a little, or shave yourself down a little, we can find a place for you. But square? Genuinely, freakishly square? Good luck.

I have no idea what happened to Hrothgar, as I moved away from that city soon after teaching him, and lost touch with many of my fellow teachers. In my mind, he's still on the prowl, in furs, looking for a place to call home.

And Alexander wept, because there were no more worlds to conquer. But Ritalin took care of that.