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What’s Really Wrong With The Country

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Several weeks ago, John sent me a link to an article–I tihnk it was in a British newspaper, but it might have been Australian,  I can’t remember–bemoaning the way elementary and high school students today are carefully shielded from competition, les their tender self esteem be destroyed forever.

This is not the world I, or my sons, live in.  My sons either go or went to academically rigorous private schools whose admissions are often as selective as the most selective colleges, and whose programs take competition more seriously than the most dystopian movie.  Anybody who has ever seenAmerican high school kids compete for places in the top tier of colleges and universities can’t say that we’re shielding them from anything.  When the best places get ten to twenty applications for every space they have to fill, you can have straight As and perfect boards and still get rejected, and kids with records like that do, all the time.  That means a race to do other things to make yourself stand out–sports (seldom, and not usually team, as the take too much time), community service work, whatever. 

I’m really not worried about the top tier.  Even just trying for it usually insures that a kid gets a decent education in most high schools.  Those are the kids high schools take seriously, if only because those are the kids likely to have parents who also take school seriously. 

The kickers are the kids who show up in my classes, which are largely remedial, and definitely not in the first tier.  They’re not even in the third tier.  Robert once commented that I shouldn’t worry so much about what was going to happen to my kids.  They’d have a second rate degree, but they could work with that.  I agree.  If they got a second rate degree, they COULD work with that.  The problem is, what they’re actually doing is considerably poorer than that.

I’m back on this kick because I just handed in the final, not going to discuss it any more, grades for a remedial class of thirteen students, out of whom eight–count ’em, eight–received Fs. 

Before you decide I must be one hell of a stickler, I’d like to give you some idea of what these people did to get their Fs.  One missed paper, even four or five missed classes, didn’t phase me.

But I assign ten short papers plus a research paper in that class.  Of the kids I failed, most did not do more than two of the short papers.  Two.  As for the reearch paper, half of them did one, and half of them didn’t.  The half who did one handed in a page or two, to which they appended a liste of unidentified URLs as a “works cited” section.

The assignment was five to seven pages–about half what I ask from my non-remedial regular composition classes–with an annotated bibliography of at least five works, at least four of which had to be NON internet sources, and all in proper MLA format.  There also had to be five citations in the text and at least one properly executed block quote.

I know, I  know.  I complain about their lack of background, preparation, and work eithic all the time–but this time,  I’m not.  Let’s just stipulate to the catatonically mind numbing silliness I have to go through with this on a regular basis.

No, what I’m complaining about today is this:  at this particular school, any teacher who fails a student is subject to an automatic administrative review of the grading process.

To quote Dave Barry:   I am not making that up.

Look at this for a minute.  What would make an administration, ANY administration, assume that a student’s bad grades are somehow the fault of the teacher, that a teacher is to be presumed guilty of bad teaching until proven otherwise?  When did we reach the decision that student performance was caused by teachers?

And before you say that we have concluded no such thing, that there are lots of bad teachers out there who need to be removed from the classroom–well, I agree with the second part but not with the first.  I don’t know when it started, but over the last decade or so the mood has shifted steadily to the corner that says students are lumps of clay that teachers mold, and if the teacher is any good at molding, the student will do well.

This is, after all, the entire rationale behind the No Child Left  Behind Act, which assumes that if the majority of a school’s population fails to achieve an arbitrary “grade level” standard, then the school must be doing something wrong.   Never mind the obvious, which is that if the majority of your kids come from neighborhoods where drive by shootings are more regular than mail delivery and parents on crack are just a fact of life, it’s just possible that something besides poor teaching is causing the sag in test scores.

But much as I like to beat up on NCLB–weren’t the Republicans the people who promised to abolish the  Department of  Education?–the attitude didn’t start there, it just ended there.

Kids who get  Fs get an automatic administrative review, but any student can request an administrative review if he doesn’t like his grade.   I get quite a few of these lodged against me, almost always from students who end up with Cs.  Why?  Well, because they came to all the classes, and they handed in all the work–obviously, they deserve at least a  B.

What we have done to the kids in the less-than-top-tiers academically is to habituate them to a world in which success means doing nothing much of anything at all.   Show up, do the bare minimum required on the syllabus, that gets them at least a B, and in some cases an A.

Hell, even not showing up is okay, as far as most of them are concerned, because most of their high schools have let them get away with it.  I’ve had kids miss half of all classes, and some miss more, and still expect to pass, at least, if not to do better.  If they don’t know  how to do something, or don’t want to do the work required, they just sit there shrugging until frustration makes me go in and demonstrate for them–essentially writing their papers for them, doing their  MLA format for them, doing their research for them.

That’s what makes the plagarism question such a difficult one.  I get plagarism all the time.  I get buried in it at the end of every term, when the research  project kicks in.   It’s not subtle plagarism, and it’s not something sneaky and sophisticated like buying papers from a term paper mill.

No, what I get is kids who log on to the Britannica site and just copy out the entire article, then log onto Wikipedia and do the same, then log onto maybe one more and do the same, just cutting and pasting and slapping it all together.   When  I give them an  F and point out that I could report them to the Dean, they’re indignant.   I said to write a research paper!  That was their research!  What else were they supposed to do?

I tend to suggest, at that point, that if they had come to more than 14 of the last 28 class sessions, they might know what to do, but it goes right past them.  They are angry to think that anybody would expect them to know how to do anything. 

And no amount of effort is ever too little to be too much.  The library at this place is very central, only steps away from the cafeteria, but it’s too far to walk for most of them.  That’s why, tehy tell me, they don’t have any books on their works cited list.  And they looked at some newspapers and magazines and that kind of thing, but there wasn’t anything they saw on the topic, so they just went online and looked there.

In the middle of  wading through the mountain of crap that is student excuses for not every doing anything, I’m likely to remember that when my older son was a sophomore in high school, he wrote a forty-two page research paper with 246 footnotes and over fifty entries on his works cited list, all in correct Chicago/Turabian format, for an American history course–and the paper got a B.

What I think I’m getting at is this:  we have created a two-tier system of education.  The people at the very top are expected to work like horses, to produce, in h igh school, the kind of work my generation didn’t manage until they were college upperclassmen, to take responsibility for the founding and runninng of clubs and activities.  Everybody else is given to understand that they’re entitled to a free ride.

My kids think “the government” controls gas prices and car prices and home prices, that it sets tuition even at private colleges and universities, that it handles their financial aid, that it creates all the jobs and then it’s ust not fair handing out the good ones.

For a long time, I used to think that what these kids needed was a good civics education.   Let’s teach them what the government does and does not do.

Now I think that “the government” is actually code for “people like those suckers over there.”   You know those people.  The ones who, when there’s no chess club or repertory theater or  ROTC on campus, don’t sit around whining about it but start one of their own, or set it up.  The ones who volunteer at the local homeless shelter because they were walking by it one day and it bothered them to see people in pain.  The ones who start their research projects the day they get assigned.  The ones who read more outside of schoolwork than in it, and tutor everybody in class on how to use Blackboard because, well, for some reason, they don’t seem to be able to figure it out on their own.

And, okay, I’m at the moment in a state of high piss off, and probably typing badly as a result.

But gearing up to answer an administrative review of the  F I gave a student who missed half of all our classes, turned in less than a tenth of the papers assigned, and twice called me up to say he wasn’t going to be in class because of a “family emergency” when the “emergency” he was having was obviously measured in liters of beer–what to say.

I don’t think Western Civilization r any other Civilization can afford to run on its talented tenth, not if it’s only the tenth that are doing any work.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'What’s Really Wrong With The Country'

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  1. I’m not sure the 90/10 situation is any different than it ever was. Except that in the past, the 90 were not in college, they were in trade school or went straight from high school into (non-white-collar) jobs.

    Now we have a large community college network, feeding students into state universities who never would have been there 25 years ago, supported by scholarships or grants that didn’t exist back then. We’re asking people unsuited for the life of the mind to take it up and then wondering why the pig can’t sing. Lake Wobegon to the contrary, half of all people are of *below average* intelligence, and then we get a much larger percentage of enrollment of the population, well, what do the numbers tell you?

    Those people who can’t be bothered *wouldn’t* have been bothered 25 years ago. They would have been at work. So why are they in school now? Because so much more of our economy depends on jobs that require education and those things that come with education: The ability to organize one’s thoughts, the ability to achieve to deadline and express a coherent thought with proper grammar & spelling. Unfortunately, just going to school doesn’t grant those skills unless one has the intelligence to grasp them, a good early foundation, and a life that is conducive to putting forth actual effort to learn.

    You’ve talked previously, Jane, about how poorly your students are prepared for things like being someplace on time, showing up on a regular basis, dressing and behaving appropriately, and not expecting things to be done for them if they just show enough incompetence. Clearly this hasn’t changed over time.

    The situation with the administrative reviews for failing grades is a clear outgrowth of the 70’s sympathy for those “victimized by society.” Can’t be their fault, let’s shift the blame to the teacher, or the neighborhood, or anyone else other than the person. Personal responsibility went out the door and I don’t blame you for being irate and bitter over it. I’d resent it too if I held high standards for myself but everyone else got a pass just because.

    If the administration wants to hand out A’s to anyone who gets their own name right on the application form, then they’ll reap the rewards of having the institution’s reputation trashed as these people get out into the work world. “Don’t hire X, he graduated from The University and that place is sh**.” You can’t protect an institution that won’t take a long hard realistic look at the consequences of their choices.

    Sometimes you just can’t save people, not even from themselves.

    The 10 percent have always been there, making sure things work, innovating, cleaning up behind the nonsense of the rest. Don’t feel bad for them…this is what they’re for. To remind us of the best of humanity, and that there’s always hope.


    12 Jan 09 at 2:32 pm

  2. There’s a lot more than 10% who can manage to write their own language clearly and grammatically, get places on time and dress and act appropriately when they get there. I suspect that at least some of Jane’s students would fall in that category. They might never become intellectuals or leader of industry (although some did and do), but they provided most of the skills necessary to keep society running. Some of them still do.

    There are also people who are genuinely incapable of writing or reading very well, no matter how well they are taught, and who nevertheless are capable of functioning well in society – working reliably and honestly at things they can do. And there are more of those jobs than most people seem to think – but some potential employees are shut out because of silly and irrelevant requirements – like high school diplomas to do simple service jobs.

    This problem has a lot of contributing factors – before I saw Lymaree’s response, I was going to say something about teacher evaluation: the difficulty of doing it well, the silliness of not trying to do it at all, and the even greater silliness of assuming you can do it by measuring improvement on some scale without taking into consideration student characteristics. But that’s a can of worms I decided not to re-open. Then you have administrations which do not actually support teachers, as well as fellow-teachers who don’t care much any more – more cans of worms. And finally, there is the demise of the Protestant Work Ethic, which probably wasn’t exclusively Protestant. Lots of people used to think you needed to work hard to succeed, and that there was nothing wrong with that. Now we have people on welfare who think their working relatives are fools. Well, maybe there always were some of them – through the centuries sober hardworking types got worked up over able-bodied vagrants of various kinds, and maybe some of the able-bodied vagrants thought that anyone who worked honestly was a fool.

    But it’s true – aside from the usual few who are trying to scam the teacher, there are plenty of students who genuinely think that just showing up, or, well, showing up sometimes guarantees success. They’ve had 12 years or so of proof of the fact.


    12 Jan 09 at 2:57 pm

  3. I once knew a high school math teacher. He had been given the class containing the worse students. He said that I was sheltered because I’d always known people with high abilities. His students couldn’t read a simple straight line graph or solve “a wall is 3 meters by 4 meters. A liter of paint will cover 6 square meters. How many liters of paint do you need?”

    Those students sound as if they have low IQ. But Jane seems to be diescribing a different type of student. Ones who cculd do the work but simply can’t be bothered. Cheryl seems to think they could still hold jobs. Is that true? If they won’t show up for class or follow instructions, would they do any better at a job?

    Perhaps all we can do is accept that half the population is going to be below average.


    12 Jan 09 at 9:12 pm

  4. “Cheryl seems to think they could still hold jobs. Is that true? If they won’t show up for class or follow instructions, would they do any better at a job?

    Perhaps all we can do is accept that half the population is going to be below average.”

    I think most people CAN learn to show up for class and follow instructions. You do not have to be at or above average to be capable of doing that much! Whether any individual actually does so is another question entirely. I, too, once tried to teach math, or really arithmetic, to poor students. Even some of them could function quite well in situations in which they didn’t need arithmetic. A lot depended on what they wanted to do and what they had bee socialized, or raised, or whatever term you like, to do.

    People who function very badly in academic situations may indeed be stupid (have low IQ), but they may also be quite bright enough to handle work and more education than they do – IF they want to; IF they think they can, IF they think it is of real importance.

    I’ve even known students I could swear were above average intelligence, in the ‘normal’ level classes, who deliberately didn’t get good marks because their friends would mock them if they did.

    ‘Below Average’ does not mean ‘incapable’. I always liked a slower student who was willing to work to a brighter one who couldn’t be bothered.


    13 Jan 09 at 7:08 am

  5. I too am confused by the attitudes of many of my college students, but I see an interesting paradox among them (and those of my colleagues). I just finished grading a class of freshman seminar. Students are asked to write (and rewrite and edit) four separate papers. at the end of the semester they are to turn in a portfolio containing all four papers as well as the rough drafts, peer editing work and any other writing they’ve done that semester to demonstrate their skills. They are also allowed to re write one of the four papers and have the grade of the rewrite replace the original grade. To pass the course the student’s portfolio must get a grade of C or above. several of my students were on very thin ice (somewhere between a D and a C), yet none of them, not a one, chose to rewrite a paper. Yet several of these same students did make the effort to come to my office and to protest the grades they had been given (usually along the lines of my lack of understanding, or inability to appreciate the efforts they had put into their works). Another phenomenen is the emergence of ‘helicopter parents’…mom and dad who immediately appear on campus to defend sons and daughters charged with various infringements of social or academic regs. The universal defense is that ‘Johnny is a good boy and could not have done anything like that’. Teachers and other students who have brought the accusations have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just plain lied.

    So here,s an hypothesis. I beleive students (and others too) have become more and more likely over the last 20 years to see themselves as VICTIMS …of teachers, of parents who have raised them inappropriately, of laws that are not ‘fair’, of a society that discriminates against them of of just the plain difficulties of getting up in the morning (one of my students argued that he just could NOT get up in time to make his 9 AM class, no matter how hard he tried…and that this should count as some sort of excuse). With victimhood comes loss of control and with loss of control comes loss of responsibility. Seems to me this puts the stamp of approval on passivity.

    And our society encourages these perceptions. It seems to me that every year we throw more and more folks into the victim category. Certainly some are legitimate victims, but it also seems to me that many have been encouraged to see themselves as victims just because of what they perceive to be their own unique situations…regardless of what those situations are. So I’m not really sure that passivity is linked in any way with being average, with being capable or not, even only with being poor or ‘traditionally disadvantaged’, since we have now introduced and sanctified the ‘non traditionally disadvantaged’ class of victims.

    To some extent our societ

    Janet Lewis

    15 Jan 09 at 12:51 pm

  6. Even ‘real’ victims – people suffering from some disease or illness or loss or weird brain chemistry which can be identified physically – don’t seem to benefit from classification as a victim. By considering yourself a victim, you have (in your own mind at least) put all the power with the affliction and none with yourself. There’s nothing left to battle the affliction with.


    19 Jan 09 at 10:29 am

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