Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

And Then…

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Well, I’d like to start by saying at I’m really impressed by Mique’s experiences quitting smoking.  My experience was hell on wheels.  Bill used to say that my quitting smoking was the hardest thing he ever did, including dealing with cancer.   I wrote an entire book I couldn’t remember, and I was a bitch on wheels for six months.

Yeah, I had withdrawal symptoms.

But–to get back to get back to Cheryl’s objections to the original post with which all this started.

Yes, I’m sure that if we ever had hard evidence that intelligence and/or ability distributions differed by race, some people would use that evidence as an excuse to declare one race inferior to another.

But I also think that some people are going to think some races are inferior to others no matter what the evidence is.

My problem is what happens in the US educational system–and I don’t know how far this is true of any other–when educational bureaucrats, community activists and random politicians run head on into something that seems to provide such evidence.

Note that I said seems.

This situation is a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface.

The “evidence” in question, the reality on the ground, is this–when we hold achievement levels steady (that is, when we demand a level of achievement at the same benchmark as, say, the 1950s high school did), half of all high school students fail to succed in reaching them, and that unsuccessful half is disproportionately composed of members of two particular ethnic/racial groups:  African-Americns and Latinos.

That this is in fact the case is not in dispute by anyone.  What is in dispute is what it means, and what to do about it.

What has been done about it is this:  the original standards of achievement have been declared culturally and institutionally racist, and have been changed.

And they’ve been changed significantly.  There’s a reason why colleges are now trying to inculcate the skills that used to be inculcated in high school–if we insisted on students having such skills before they graduated from high school, fewer students would graduate and a higher proportion of the population of black and Lationo students would be among those who didn’t.

If you’re wondering why more students are now graduating from college without those skills in spite of four more years devoted, at least theoretically, to learning them–repeat the steps above.

Now here’s my problem:  the above approach is wrongheaded on two separate levels.

The first and most obvious is its inherent and not entirely tacit racism.  Faced with the fact that African-American and  Latino students fail disproportionately to acquire high-school level skills in things like reading, writing and arithmatic, the response of the American educational system has been to assume that these students are incapable of learning and therefore to stop trying to teach them.

And, of course, it won’t work in a vaccum.  That would make the racism much too obvious.  So we’ve stopped trying to teach anybody, except for the top 10% or so in the better suburban districts. 

Everybody else is now graduating from American public high schools with about a sixth grade education.

My frustration here isn’t helped by the fact that I teach the products of these schools, and especially the inner city products of these schools, and I find a good third of the ones who end up in my remedial classrooms to be perfectly capable, just completely untaught. 

The reality of a system that cares more about what it looks like on the surface–look!  we get 80% of our minority students to graduate!–than what it is actually doing is the deformation, derailment and often destruction of the individual lives of capable, intelligent, and diligent young men and women whose only fault was a skin culor their teachers thought marked them as stupid.

But my frustration goes farther than this.  Part of my problem is that we aren’t bothering to teach large hunks of our fourteen to eighteen year olds.  But part of my problem is that our skittishness about clear standards is that it’s making it impossible to finding alternative routes to learning and demonstrating student achievement of those standards.

Which is why I think things like exit exams and “high stakes testing” (as in NCLB) are a gesture in the right direction, but not likely to get me where I want to go.

Look–why is it necessary to determine that some people are “above average” and some are “below average.”  Why bother, at least on the level of basic skill sets?

For high school, let’s set a list of standards–the ability to write a grammatical, coherent five paragraph essay that states and idea and develops it in orderly fashion;  the ability to figure the real cost of a house after mortgage interest payments and the real cost of a pair of schoes after credit card payments; the ability to understand the standard English prose of something on the level of an article in the Economist;  the provisions of the US Constitution including the  Bill of Rights–

Let’s establish a discreet set of standards like that, provide tests for them, and make those tests pass-fail.   You either do it perfectly, or you don’t.  The tests would each test something small and therefore the tests themselves would be short.  Students presenting such a pass grade on such a test would be able to assure employers that he had actually mastered the skill involved. 

And we could throw out the entire concept of “graduating” from high school. 

What’s more, if we made these tests takable at any point in a student’s career–when he’s twelve, when he’s been out in the work world for fifteen years–we would make it possible for students who do not thrive in the standardized classroom to find alternative ways of learning the skills and/or materials, and a way to demonstrate them.

All of my remedial kids are having a problem because their high school prep has been nearly nonexistent.

But some of them would not have learned even in decently functioning schools, often because there’s no way for a school to cope with (never mind overcome) home situations that border on the horrific–crack addicted parents, drive by shootings, incessant street violence, the kind of poverty that causes people to eat macaroni and margarine five days a week.

I am not advocating here that we should get rid of schools.  Sometmes schools are very important places for students in situations like these, especially if the school is well run.  That’s why desperately poor parents will twist themselves into pretzels to send their kids to parochial schools.  It’s not the curriculum–which in most places is matched with the public school one–but the environment, the stress on order and discipline and respect for authority, the modeling of a different way of life with different possible outcomes.

But making “success” mean the targetted demonstrating of specific skills and knowledge rather than the “passing” of a “course” would benefit just about everybody except the current employees of the school systems and universities–and there are more of us than there are of them.

Besides, the US has been first rate at defending the rights of parents to choose alternatives to the public education system, from Pierce vs. Society of Sisters on down.  That means we are able to make an end run around the institutions to an extent people in countries with national curricula established by law, for instance, cannot.

But on the road to getting there, we’re going to have a situation where larger proportions of African American and Latino students fail. 

We can meet that problem by trying to actually fix it, or we can do what we’re doing now, which is to assume (without ever saying so) that our minority students are incapable of learning even the basic skills necessary to life in a modern democracy, and hand them make-believe worthless diplomas instead.

Written by janeh

May 17th, 2009 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'And Then…'

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  1. Dad was a three pack a day smoker. One day he decided my brothers and I were too likely to imitate him and dropped his last carton in a drawer before going off on a family vacation. Never smoked again, and never a harsh word during the vacation, though it was a rather nervous time.

    On to the main topic: I first hit what Jane describes in the Air Force in 1972, where it was called as “self-paced education.” When you passed each block of instruction, you went on to the next. When you’d passed all the blocks, you were qualified in the specialty and went on to a duty assignment. There was a maximum length of training after which they began asking questions, but I never heard of anyone exceeding it. It’s clear, simple, fair and would let us isolate our real problems and work on them. Pigs will fly before such a system is made law, and while employers could introduce such testing themselves,they won’t.
    Yes, there are “more of us than of them” BUT those of “us” who care the most will see that our children are educated regardless. Those of us with the most political clout don’t even see the present system. (Check briefly where the President and the Secretary of Education have sent their children.) Our very success in “end runs” takes the pressure off the system. For “them” on the other hand, it’s life and death–or loss of prestige and authority, which may come to the same thing. The less competent a teacher or administrator is, the more they need to preserve the present system, and they’ll lobby, vote and bribe to do it. And why shouldn’t Senator X vote to accomodate them? He casts a lot of votes in a year, he’s not going to get thrown out over this one, and it’s not as though it had anything to do with how HIS grandchildren are being educated. It’s a problem inherent in representative democracy–still the least bad form of government.
    Thirty years before the crash, and things will be MUCG worse. I’d really rather be wrong, of course, but I don’t confuse wishes with probabilities.


    17 May 09 at 3:18 pm

  2. I’ve never smoked. I wasn’t living with my parents when my father finally quit, but I gather quitting wasn’t a big problem although he had been a very heavy smoker. My mother really struggled with quitting. It took her several painfully difficult attempts. She said rather bitterly that she’d actually made an effort to take up smoking – mostly for social reasons, I gather – only to find out many years later that she had to make even more of an effort to quit.

    I think our education systems are significantly different from those in the US. My immediate area is rather uniform ethnically, although I have encountered the ‘People Like Them’ argument, which I think is what the thinking you describe comes down to. It tends to be applied to some of the, ah, what’s the term? visible minorities we do have, and also to families from certain economic/social groups. You can’t expect People Like Them to succeed in an academic program/ attend school regularly/ graduate from high school (unless in a special program) etc etc etc. Some places have been suspected of excusing more children from these groups from the various testing programs than might be justified. Some have tried supplementary work and more local control of the schools – Toronto, which IS extremely ethincally diverse, opened its first school for only black children recently, IIRC.

    I like high stakes testing, myself, and it’s surprisingly popular or at least accepted, locally. It’s the only place in North America where that’s the case, as far as I know, and the system is much watered down from the days when I was a student.


    17 May 09 at 4:25 pm

  3. My last word on the smoking thing. I never said I _thought_ it was easy – at least until I had successfully achieved it for the first of many times. After that, I knew it was easy to do, but hard to psych myself to actually try again. It sounds insane, I know, but my wife and I came home from an overseas posting with the full military duty free allowance of cigarettes for ourselves and two infant children that amounted to at least 2000, probably more. It was the sight of so much waste that convinced me to try to quit so I vowed that when the last one was gone, I would do so.

    And I did. I was maybe a bit edgy for two or three days but despite my wife continuing to smoke, and despite many co-workers continuing to smoke, I didn’t have another cigarette for three months. It was not craving that started me again, it was sheer over-confidence that I could take it or leave it. I had a couple of other “successful” attempts until I finally decided enough was enough and quit for good.

    The problem was not in the quitting. The problem was working up the will-power to quit. No doubt different people react differently to the chemicals in cigarettes, so withdrawal symptoms will vary in perceived severity. For me, and I was a very heavy 3+ pack a day smoker, withdrawal symptoms were, in retrospect, trivial although they may not have felt that way at the time. (I do suspect that my falling into a deep clinical depression within a few months of quitting might have been in some way connected, but the timing may just have been coincidental.) However, my wife’s experience was similar to mine. Once she was forced to quit in anticipation of major surgery (unrelated to any smoking-related disease), she did so with consummate ease, and we are still married. :-)

    As for schools and what to do about them, I can see no solution unless and until the existing system totally collapses. Perhaps this financial crisis will be a necessary catalyst in this process leading to complete cultural change.

    Here in Australia, people are voting with their feet in literal droves to get their children out of the free, teacher union dominated public system into the costly private system. My son, in London, is having his hitherto religionless children baptised as Catholics to hopefully ensure that the younger child will be accepted, and the elder retained, in a Catholic school there. They are moving house in September back into the catchment zone for that school even though it will mean a significant increase in rental costs. The public schools around where they live, and apparently just about anywhere in the East End, are simply too awful to contemplate. So, if there’s a box to check to qualify their kids for that school, they’re bending over backwards to check it.

    In London, the financial crisis has forced many people to take their children out of expensive private schools and to seek to place them into cheaper Catholic schools and this has caused a huge rush on the few available places. The same has happened in Australia. My son in Sydney has his children in expensive private schools, and many of their classmates have simply disappeared as their parents can no longer afford the high fees. By all accounts most of those kids are now being sent to the Catholic parochial school system.

    Jane refers to poor people twisting themselves into pretzels to get their kids into parochial schools for the discipline and the “culture”. Same here. Yet the State and Federal “educationists” refuse point blank to accept that the evident fact that the product being offered in the public school system is being comprehensively rejected by the consumers must mean that there is something wrong with the product, its mode of delivery, or that the competitors’ product, etc must in some way be better. They persist in screeching, and I use the word advisedly, that it’s just a rabid right-wing conspiracy and that they, the education bureaucracy and teacher unions know what’s best for us. And in this country, the teacher unions have massive political clout.

    Poor buggers us.


    17 May 09 at 8:11 pm

  4. I did not go to school in Australia and have no children so I have no personal knowledge to the education system here.

    But I know some people who describe themselves as agnostic and atheist. They were seriously thinking of enrolling their daughters in the Catholic schools unless they could get them into a public school reserved for “gifted” students. They managed that and say the girls are much happier than they were in the standard public school. From what they say, the girls were bullied for being “too intelligent.”

    There are two “Christian” schools near me. Both started 10 or 15 years ago with one building and now have large campuses. They are obviously thriving. I know nothing about them other than that they have “Christian” in their names.

    But I thought of them when reading Jane’s book “Living Witness” and the school Nick Frapp was running.


    17 May 09 at 11:06 pm

  5. I’m more convinced than ever that my educational experiences were different than those of anyone else posting here! I grew up in a small town which had two very small public schools – one Catholic and one Protestant. Yes, almost all public schools had a religious affiliation – mine was one of the very few that was more or less General Protestant before such a thing officially existed. Most towns of the size of my old home town – and places I worked many years later had one school. That was it. In some communities, the schools prided themselves on getting lots of their students ready for post-secondary; in others, they barely managed to keep them in school until school leaving age. I could never understand why apparantly very similar communities had such different ideas about education!

    Now I live in a city with a variety of schools, including one private one, and all the public ones are non-denominational and theoretically draw only from their catchment areas. In practice, it doesn’t seem to be that hard to get your child in a school outside the ‘right’ area, but I’ve mostly heard of that being done for convenience – the desired school is nearer one parent’s workplace, or the after-school program provides a pickup there. And that’s in spite of the fact that the last time I was involved in education, some high schools had much more opportunity for some subject learning than others. I suspect the last round of reform fixed some of that, since I no longer hear of only one school having a great program in music or science or whatever. The next round is going to be exciting …. closures, where to build the replacement(s) etc.

    I’m pretty sure none of them do much of a job with the Great Tradition, and some of their graduates are provably less literate than I’d like. Others seem fine. AP and IB programs have become increasingly popular.

    I’m often a bit suspicious that sometimes complaints about the quality of the education in a given school are really complaints about the social class of the kids who attend. Coming from a place in which you had everyone from the ‘good’ kids to the kid who was an alcoholic by Grade 8 not only in the same school but in the same class, I don’t really take these things all that seriously. I have to accept that others do, particularly in other parts of the world, because I’ve read stories to that effect elsewhere as well as in this blog. I think that the values and support of the parents are paramount, and that for children from chaotic homes where such values and support don’t exist, a highly structured and organized educational system is said to work best – and is certainly much more effective than one that depends on a lot of homework and projects being done at home with the help of the parents, as so much education does these days.

    Is anyone else getting a string of weird characters at the top of their screen?


    18 May 09 at 6:25 am

  6. No weird characters here, at least not at the top of the screen.


    18 May 09 at 8:34 am

  7. They’ve disappeared here. Weird.

    Happy Holiday if you still celebrate Victoria Day, or whatever it’s being called now. I think we call it Victoria Day, although other names have been used – Dominion Day, Commonwealth Day. Best known around here as the start of the trouting season, when the crazier of the local inhabitants go out with their fishing rods to hold drinking parties in tents in the snow. Actually, make that most of the local residents, but not me. I’ve come to a great appreciation for mattresses, roofs and warmth. The weather this year is good, which seems very un-traditional! We usually have rain if not snow. I moved one May 24th weekend, and we were all struggling up and down the steps made slick by freezing rain.

    I also think that it’s a bit odd having it on the closest Monday before the actual date rather than on the closest one before OR after. It’s too early this year.

    To bring this vaguely back to education, there used to be a children’s rhyme about May 24th, but I can’t remember it. Something about it’s the Queen’s Birthday and we’ll all run away (from school).



    18 May 09 at 9:20 am

  8. A Canadian friend told me years ago about singing “God shave the Queen” during the anthem, but I suspect that’s not what you’re thinking of, Cheryl…


    18 May 09 at 9:59 am

  9. We had a thing called Empire Day which was celebrated on May 24 way back when I was young, but it disappeared when the British Empire became politically incorrect. There is theoretically a Commonwealth Day, but our republicans-by-stealth have pretty much ensured that such days are no longer celebrated. Not that I object to the idea of Australia becoming a republic as such. What I do object to is the mad and hysterical rush to get “an Australian Head of State” (which we’ve had for generations now), and the sneaky attempts to ignore the referendum that resoundingly defeated the last disastrously ill-conceived attempt at achieving the necessary constitutional change without due thought being given to alternative constitutional arrangements.

    But as with the extremist global warming zealots, there’s no reasoning with such people.


    18 May 09 at 10:05 am

  10. No – but I was in Grade 8 before my school principal decided that we really should learn ‘O Canada’. Up to that point, we’d been singing “God Save the Queen’ and the ‘Ode to Newfoundland’, one at the beginning of assemblies and one at the end. And no, I was not in school before Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949!

    But no, the rhyme we used to say in honour of the Queen’s Birthday wasn’t any of these.

    A New Brunswick school principal got in serious trouble recently when he decided the school would no longer play ‘O Canada’ over the PA daily (which does seem a bit excessive to me), but only at assemblies. I suspect many of the people who hounded him until he quit the job after the board made a policy on the subject was his main reason for doing so. He could have focused on shortening the announcement period and doing a better job on it less frequently, but he started on talking about inclusiveness and students being excluded. I never did find out for sure if the parents who objected to the anthem were atheists who opposed the mention of God, or religious people who opposed worshiping the state. Someone had moral qualms about anthems, and the principle had moral qualms about doing anything that didn’t include 100% of the students.


    18 May 09 at 10:16 am

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