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On Purpose

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I went looking through the comments this morning, and, like Cheryl, I feel for Mique’s granddaughter–but one of those cases here and there will be inevitable in any educational system. 

What is going on in the US, however, is not one or two cases, and it’s not “incompetence” in the  usual sense.

It is the result of deliberate policy initiatives enacted as regulations by federal agencies and imposed on local school districts by bureaucratic diktat.

These regulations rest on two assumptions, both of which are wrong:

1) that we can mandate results by imposing multiple choice testing and its adjuncts as a measure of those results AND

2) that teachers who have come out of the schools of education are “experts” in pedagogy and therefore can be counted on to achieve those results, if they only try hard enough.

The poster child for the first idea is the No Child Left Behind program, which the Left purports to hate as degrading to teachers and getting in the way of “real” education.

If you look at liberal criticisms of NCLB, however, what you find is not that they think the program gets in the way of “real” education, but that they object to anybody checking on whether or not teachers are achieving results. 

This, they say, is demeaning to teachers and treats them as hirelings instead of professionals.

And that, of course, is true.  But the same can be said about the Obama administration’s Department of Education in the way it treats university professors.

No bureaucracy is going to treat anybody it regulates as a professional, because the essence of being a professional is having control over your own work.  You can’t micromanage the work from Washington and still leave the professionals to make their own decisions on their own terms.

But the simple fact is that NCLB does treat teachers as professionals in at least one way:  it assumes they are “experts” on education and let’s them find their own way to getting the job done.

The problem with this is simple. By and large, the teacher training programs in the US present to their students a vision of teaching that says its most important function is to “transform society” by being “change agents.”

Teachers in the classroom are not to be overly concerned with things like grammar, punctuation and spelling, say, or the multiplication tables, but with “teaching students to think.”

This sounds really good until you try to break it down.  When you do try to break it down, what you find is that it mostly consists of trying to instill attitudes on a whole host of subjects from climate change to homosexuality to “income inequality.”

There are a whole host of problems with this approach, not the least of which is the fact that you can’t think critically, or at all, unless you have something to think about.

Being given limited information and told it is true is what is usually known as indoctrination, and indoctrination is what US public schools largely engage in. 

But in spite of all the yelling–and there’s been a lot–the indoctrination in itself is not the problem here.

The problem here is that the assumptions on which this indoctrination is based largely rule out the only method we now have that can even approach a solution to functional illiteracy.

The method is called “knowledge based education,” and it consists in starting in kindergarten and going on being very careful to make sure that students learn, understand and remember a set of specific facts and ideas that constitute the cultural context necessary to understand anything not only in higher levels of academic work but in day to day life.

Combined with a regime that rigorously fails those students who do not meet benchmarks for the acquiring of this knowledge, this is the only known method we have that actually closes the “achievement gap” between underrepresented minorities and whites and Asians.

The problem, of course, is that such a curriculum at least implies the idea that Western civilization is a good thing that ought to be admired and preserved. 

And since most of the teachers’ colleges–and especially the high end ones like Columbia and Harvard–begin with the assumption that Western civilization is inherently bad, racist and sexist and evil, and ought to be destroyed in the interests of “social justice,” that will never do.

All of this is made yet worse by something else. Eric Holder was right about one thing, although probably not in the way he meant it. 

We in the US are scared to death to have an honest discussion about race. 

When our backs are to the wall, we will mumbling admit the obvious–that black and Hispanic kids are something like five times more likely than white and Asian ones to exhibit a “knowledge deficit,” and that this knowledge deficit exhibits itself disproportionately by race even when factors like income and parental education are held constant.

And, to cap it off, these disparities are actually increasing over time.

This phenomenon does not seem particularly confusing to me. 

In an educational system that does  nothing to make sure that students have the cultural context they need to operate, those students will do best who can get that cultural context elsewhere.

Contrary to all the hyperventilating about the “injustice” of imposing a hegemonic majority culture on defenseless minority victims, cultural literacy is the ONLY thing that can give disadvantaged students a fighting chance to outachieve their more fortunate classmates.

But cultural prejudices aside, I also think there are two  more reasons–and possibly more important reasons–why there is so much resistance to knowledge based education.

The first is that I believe that a fair number of people who declare themselves “progressives” in this country believe, down to their bone, that black and Latino students are inherently incapable of learning on the same level as whites and Asians.

That is, I think they believe that black and Latino students are born stupid. 

The second is that the same is true of a fair number of people who declare themselves “conservatives.”

Now we hit a really difficult patch to negotiate.

It is, in the first place,  impossible for anybody on any side to admit that this is what he thinks.

The fact that this idea is largely wrong, and could be proved wrong if you actually looked into it, doesn’t matter.

Nobody is going to look into it, because they are too afraid that it might be true. 

So we have a covert discussion not about how we can fix the problems of academic underachievement, but in what we should do about a large minority of our population that we assume is just not competent to function in the world with the rest of us.

For progressives, the preferred response is affirmative action of two kinds:

1) The kind we’re all used to, which involves insuring “diversity” (not real diversity, just diversity of skin color) by  setting up double standards for admission to universities and for employment.


2) By redefining the meaning of various achievement levels–like “middle school” and “high school” and even “college”–so that more people will meet them and therefore so that more “people of color” will meet them.

It’s a race to the bottom.  “Graduating from high school” comes to mean first a skill level that used to be associated with junior high, then a skill level that used to be associated with middle school, and then–well, we’re getting there.

 The problem with all this is that there gets to be a point where the rubber meets the road.  The skill levels that were required for such achievements were not arbitrary.  They represented real needs in the real world. 

It doesn’t really matter why Shaniqua can’t read.  If she can’t, she can’t safely perform work as an emergency room nurse, or a firefighter, or an engineer.  If she can’t write a comprehensible and correct English sentence, she’s a liability to any company that does business with places like Germany and Japan, where they tend to view that sort of imcompetence as reflecting significantly on the ability of the company to do any kind of competent work at all.

 This is, of course, monumentally unfair on a lot of levels–it was  not Shaniqua’s decision to construct or inhabit a racialized educational system, or to be born to a crack-addicted mother, or to have any of the other myriad things that  may have gone wrong in her life go wrong.

But unfair or not, we are just not going to let her into that emergency room with any level of responsible, nor are we going to let her build that bridge, or communicate with the Head of Operations for Toyota in Tokyo. 

Our response to this has been uncomplicated:  we have redefined a “college” education as a skill level of about the sixth grade,  except for the students in very elite and very expensive private universities, or in the Honors Colleges of the public Ivies.

Everybody else will live increasingly in a system in which their college degree becomes increasingly worthless with time–because it is not a college degree, and it is worthless.

And still, that “achievement gap” will not close, because in a system where you cannot learn what you need to learn in school, what matters is what your parents can teach you at home.

And with this we get whole new university departments of “student success,” of affirmative action, of–well, you name it.  The departments are necessary because the feds are going ballistic.  They’re paying a ton for all this stuff , and it isn’t working.  And they’re paying more and more for it, because those administrative departments are expensive to run. 

In the short run, good schools in towns where the majority of parents know what their kids should learn try to do an end run around all of this by installing “gifted programs” that teach what kids should really learn, but only to a few of them, at the very top, while the rest of the class is left to wallow not  in mediocrity, but in insufficiency. 

Then come the complaints that there are too few underrepresented minorities in the gifted programs, so the criteria for admission to those are softened in order to get the diversity up.

Then the parents who can decamp for private schools, and we get a lot of sniffing on the Op Ed page of theNew York Timesabout how we’re abandoning our sense of community and commitment to the public good for an every man for himself society.

One of the things you have to remember about the kids I talked about yesterday–they may not have gone to bad schools.  They may have gone to good schools whose administrations had decided that it wasn’t worth the enormous political and social trouble of insisting that they meet common standards.

I think I need to go  make egg salad.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'On Purpose'

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  1. Let me make it worse for you. The legislature here is pushing (and has been for a couple of years) to make it possible for high school students to graduate HS with their first 2 years of an undergraduate degree completed. We are being forced into a program called ‘Concurrent Enrollment.’ Students will, for example, be enrolled in their high school composition class. However, that class will be based on the curriculum (course outline, learner outcomes, etc.) of our college level course. Their teacher will be in a ‘mentoring’ relationship with the college instructor. The course will count toward their HS graduation requirements AND they will also receive college credit. For the same course. For the same work. At the same time.

    Consider that the majority of our students who come in with their HS diplomas (and I teach in a Community College located in a suburb and a majority of our students come out of suburban systems) place at the remedial level in both writing and math (and many in reading also) on the Accuplacer. Does anybody else see a problem here?

    During our first division meeting of the semester our Dean informed us that we needed to get our numbers up (retention, completion) by 5% this semester. If we don’t we will be losing legislative funding. After quite a bit of evasive discussion, one faculty member finally got the courage to say “So, are you telling us to inflate our grades?” The Dean’s response was “I’m telling you that we need to get our numbers up by 5% this semester. If we don’t we will lose a percentage of our legislative funding. They are funding us based upon our ‘outcomes’.” If students don’t pass, it means that we aren’t doing our jobs. Sigh.


    9 Dec 12 at 12:53 pm

  2. OK, let me do the ugly bit first. As for what liberals or conservatives or anyone else “really believes” but won’t say for attribution, I refuse to discuss it. Whether those who believe in racial differences in average mental abilities are provably wrong, (a) I doubt it can be proven, and (b) they may not be wrong. Pygmies, waTusi, Eskimos, Swiss, Mongols Australian Aborigines and so on–we seem to be optimized for at least half a dozen different environments in everything from the proportions of our limbs to our gestation periods. It would be a remarkable thing if all our inherited mental qualities averaged out exactly the same in each group. I wouldn’t expect the differences to be extreme: we seem to be tool-using tribal omnivores everywhere. But “not extreme” is not the same as “no difference” especially on the far ends of the distribution curve.

    None of this makes any difference if you truly pursue equal opportunity and hire and promote strictly on ability. It makes a LOT of difference if you use unequal outcomes to “prove” prejudice.

    The deeper and less sensitive points: I don’t see how it’s not treating someone like a professional to expect them to provide testable, provable results. We don’t say “this car was designed by ticketed engineers and they say it’s very fuel-efficient.” We say “we took it out on the test course, and it gets 35 mpg.” And Judy, that’s your problem. If the Dean were told the results had to be better on a good fair test of reading ability which he did not control, then pressuring you to raise grades couldn’t save his job. The grades are, in this case, an assessment not subject to checking. Let’s not confuse “professional” with “priest.” A professional is someone who can be relied on to get results, not someone whose word we have to accept.

    And just so I can irritate everyone thoroughly, I don’t for one moment believe that “the feds are going ballistic.” Study military history for a bit: when governments know that if they lose this war, there’s no tomorrow for them they really do go ballistic: crazy inventors are encouraged to build and demonstrate weapons, unsuccessful generals are fired right and left and successful kids promoted and entire new tactical systems crammed down the throats of the establishment. Does this sound like what’s going on in education? Not to me. In education, hiring and firing is almost entirely by seniority, methods change basically as instructors retire and neat paperwork trumps results. (That’s more or less how regular armies fight guerilla wars, by the way, which are not existential threats. You can see how well it works.)

    We’re pouring more and more money in the same rat holes, and prioritizing paperwork and procedures over results. That’s what you do when the people in charge are very well pleased with the system as it now stands.

    Let me know when you see evidence of that changing.


    9 Dec 12 at 1:54 pm

  3. Should also have said that not only are you entirely right about knowledge based education, I don’t think there’s any sane person interested in education–as opposed to indoctrination–who would honestly disagree with you. Oddly enough, though, all that federal micro-managing never seems to require or encourage this. I wonder why? (Go ahead: tell me it’s because they don’t want to interfere in local matters.)

    My conclusion again: if you judge by actions and not rhetoric, the people running education in the United States are very pleased with the system and results they now have.


    9 Dec 12 at 6:32 pm

  4. two comments

    The programs you are complaining about are all the federal government dictating terms to the states. The NY Times article was praising a local, volunteer program. Draw your own conclusions.

    I still get a newsletter that reports interesting results of physics research. Quite a large number are from US universities with the researcher having clearly Chinese names. I wonder what will happen in 20 years?


    9 Dec 12 at 7:56 pm

  5. “But cultural prejudices aside, I also think there are two more reasons–and possibly more important reasons–why there is so much resistance to knowledge based education.

    The first is that I believe that a fair number of people who declare themselves “progressives” in this country believe, down to their bone, that black and Latino students are inherently incapable of learning on the same level as whites and Asians.

    That is, I think they believe that black and Latino students are born stupid. ”

    Sums up the nub of the problem in a nutshell. The same phenomenon is clearly the case here in Australia where the whole so-called “Aboriginal Industry” is based on, and clearly depends on, the belief that not only are Aboriginal people incapable of deciding for themselves what they need or want, but also that they couldn’t possibly be allowed to take effective action to improve their lot because, if they were to do so, they would no longer need the “help” of the bien pensant “progressives”.


    9 Dec 12 at 8:22 pm

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