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Wastes of Time, Plural

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Well, the biggest waste of time this morning is singular.  But I’ve only got a few minutes before I have to get going, so…

Today, I’m going in to school half an hour early in what is already a very early day.  I am doing it because, last year, we started to test students in English and math twice a year, first to establish their skill levels coming in, then to establish whether they’d learned anything in the program.

I’m not opposed to testing, and I greet howls of rage over “teaching to the test” with something less than sympathy.  It seems sensible to me that if a community is paying for a service, they ought to be able to measure whether they’re getting the service they’re paying for.  If the community wants kids to learn specific things in language and mathematics, then schools should teach those specific things, and communities have the right to find out if they’re being taught.

If the only way schools–or colleges, like mine–can manage to teach what they’re being asked to teach is by “teaching to the test,” then they ought to teach to the test.

And yes, I know.  The real life situation on the ground is considerably more difficult to explain.  At the moment, however, we’ll skip the parts about teachers and systems that cheat and all the rest of it, and go directly to this specific test.

The test we’re using is meant to test specific abilities for college level work, and for that reason it would be a good basis for an admissions decision.

What it is not designed to do is to tell you why students lack the skills they’re supposed to have.  It is therefore useless at telling you what needs to be done to fix the problem. 

The idea that it might not be possible to fix the problem at this stage–that too much time has gone by, that the window of opportunity for learning what you have to learn to do these specific things–is not on the table, so for the moment we’ll ignore it.

The reason my kids are not able to do college level work has different causes in different individuals.  Some of them–I’d say the majority of them–are simply purely prepared.  They’ve attended schools where not much of anything was taught.  They’ve lived in families where there was little or no contact with current events, never mind history and literature. 

The ones who are simply purely prepared are not the real problem.  We can fix that problem if we want to.  We would have to want to fix it more strongly than we want to pat ourselves on the back for being good egalitarians, but if we did want it that much we could fix it.

Give me a couple of hours some day, and I’ll show you how to design a K-12 program that will insure that every one of its graduates is capable of doing “college level” work, and that even those who drop out at sixteen are more skilled in English, math and basic American history than the vast majority of today’s college sophomores. 

That’s not the hard part.  The kids who come in whose problems are the result of the lack of such a program can in fact be brought up to speed.  What they need is the kind of remedial program the women’s colleges ran right after the Civil War.  They wouldn’t water down their programs to accommodate the silliness of “finishing schools,” so they demanded the women who could not pass the usual entry examinations do a couple of years getting ready to pass them before starting actual college courses.

The real problem is twofold. 

In one corner are the kids who can’t do college level work because they can’t do it–they don’t have the native intelligence, period.  Many of them are hardworking, pleasant, ambitious kids.  They come to class.  They try to do the homework.  They don’t get in anybody’s way.  They’ve been passed up the line on the basis of their affability, mostly, and now we have them. 

And one part of me is convinced–absolutely convinced–that we have them as a kind of safety valve maneuver.   They’ve been told all their lives that this is a meritocracy.  They’ve also been told that they can be anything they set their minds to being.  This second thing is not true, but instead of being truthful about it, we need to convince them that their failures are entirely their fault.  So we rope them in, put enormous pressure on them, and then flunk them out.

I can go on for several years about the moral culpability of the schools and colleges in what is happening to these kids, in the way we get them to waste their lives and resources, in the end result of nearly crushing levels of self-blame.  But that’s another post for another time.

In the other corner are the kids who just don’t want to be here.  They haven’t wanted to be in school for years, really.  Lots of them are bright enough.  Some of them are very bright indeed.  I’ve seen a kid who was flunking out of “college algebra” (actually 9th grade algebra given a face-saving title) work out the numbers for pawning a piece of jewelry and getting it safely back within the time alloted, figuring in paychecks from two different jobs paying at two different rates along with necessary bills and a trip to the movies.  It was an impressive performance.  I would have needed a pen and paper.  She didn’t.

The problem with the kids who don’t want to be here is just that.  They don’t want to be here.  And they’re very, very angry about it.  They feel as conscripted as any draftee.  They’re bored by everything they’re given, except every once in a while by some piece stray piece of information that strikes their fancy.  They like learning the word “stercoraceous.”  They don’t give a flying damn about the structure of the five paragraph essay.

Almost all the kids who don’t want to be here have jobs.  Many of them have two.  A few have three.  A lot of them are actively involved in the local music scene, meaning that they write and sing, not just listen.  A lot of them are actively involved in their churches.

These are not the passive kids I’ve talked about before.  The passive kids fall mainly into the category of kids who are not actually capable of doing the work–or maybe that’s what I think they are because that’s the impression such passivity makes.

The kids who don’t want to be here see time spent in the classroom as costing them not only the money they pay for it, but also the money they forgo by not having that time free to do paid work.  They’re aware that people with college degrees are supposed to make more money than people without, and that certain kinds of jobs are open to them only if they get a college education.  My impression is that they’re not much interested in the kinds of jobs college actually prepares them for.

The kids who don’t want to be here lack college-level skills because they want to lack them.  They don’t see any point in acquiring them, and they few attempts to make them as assaults on their persons.  They fight them tooth and nail.

I think all these categories of kids would be served better if the high schools went back to actually teaching high school level skills and in the process making the content of academic work plain to both the kids who are capable of doing it and those who are not.

But I also think that we should not be forcing kids who do not want to be here to be here.  They’ll take the test today, and they’ll do badly.  They’ll take it again in the spring, and do just as badly.  We’ll all sit around and bemoan the fact that they just don’t seem to be learning anything.

In the meantime, they’ll disrupt class after class, chew up great swatches of class time acting out, and generally make life unpleasant and unproductive for their fellow students. 

And in the end, most of them will drop out anyway.

I’m going to get ready to go.  I’m out of a book, too, and that means I’m going to have to find something to tide me over.

God only knows, I’m going to need something to read while all this is going on.

Written by janeh

September 20th, 2010 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Wastes of Time, Plural'

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  1. Who’s paying for these third category students to be there? Someone must be!

    I know sometimes parents pay for such pointless attempts at education – sometimes multiple times, way past any sensible level – but, as you say, that’s another topic for another post, and, in some cases – the ones in which idle students are taking their parents for party money and pretending it’s for their tuition, these aren’t the hardworking kids you mention, who actually hold down jobs. A friend’s adult son actually gave up a job that he finally managed to get because it involved working evenings and so interfered with his social life.

    Why would they stay, if someone wasn’t pressuring them and they have some income plus the possibility of earning more? I ran into a bad period at university, I left and got a job. Later, I went back, but no one could – or, to do my parents credit, even tried – to force me back against my will. They let it be known I SHOULD go back, of course – but force me? To the point at which I’d actually go, and then stir up all the trouble I could? No way.


    20 Sep 10 at 6:45 am

  2. Do we really teach people that they can be anything they want? How many high school football players expect to make the NFL? And how many high school band members expect to make najor concert orchestras?

    As for universities, I recall reading that India has far too many university graduates with no jobs available for their skill level.

    Do US high schools still have shop courses which were pre-apprenticeship for students who wanted to be carpenters or plumbers?


    20 Sep 10 at 10:34 am

  3. I think there is a tendency to tell children they can become anything they want, and it’s stronger in the US where there’s the idea that anyone can become president.

    It may have started as a counter-measure to the tendency of people to tell certain children that they’re never going to amount to anything (for reasons ranging from behaviour, socio-economic background, ethnic/racial background etc). Or it may be an Horatio Alger-type thing -has anyone actually read those books about people hauling themselves up by their bootstraps? I knew a lot of kids, back in the day, who were told they wouldn’t amount to much, and some of them believed it, justifiably or not, but over-correcting has its own dangers.

    In my part of Canada we never got around to building high schools with that level of shop courses before the community colleges took over trades education – only the very biggest or most modern high schools had such facilities at all, and they were generally dumping grounds for the slowest students and the teachers with the least seniority.


    20 Sep 10 at 12:11 pm

  4. I think you guys missed Jane’s point about the “you can be/do anything you put your mind to” mantra.

    If you tell a child that, then any failure to achieve must be their failure. Not the program, not the teacher, not the circumstances of life, or luck. The person who fails owns it. But not in a good way, “accepting the consequences of your choices and actions” way. Nope. It’s a failure due to not trying hard enough, because after all, if you had put your mind to it…

    It’s the flip side of what I call the Unearned Self-Esteem Movement. Trying to make children feel good about themselves by praising them even in the absence of their accomplishing anything. It’s a crippling dichotomy of messages. “You’re great, just because.” “You fail, you suck, you didn’t try hard enough.”

    What? No wonder there are passive people who don’t bother to try. Either they’ve been told they’re great for doing nothing, and so continue to do nothing in hope of more praise, or they tried, failed, and were told that failure is not the waypoint to accomplishment, but that it’s the measure of their own inadequacy.

    Why don’t educators teach that failure is a necessary adjunct of creativity and invention? If a scientist isn’t failing, he isn’t trying, and he certainly will never accomplish anything. So why not teach this? And why not live it? Instead we instill a fear of failure that paralyzes many people into never risking it. Because it would be THEIR fault, and they can’t take the responsibility.

    I could go on like this for a while, but the sun is finally shining in Mendocino and the outdoors is calling and my vacation is waning.


    20 Sep 10 at 12:29 pm

  5. She’s also talking about a third group, that isn’t mired in fear of failure or the belief that they don’t need to work to succeed. They’re the ones who don’t want to be in school and simply disrupt or ignore proceedings while they are there.


    20 Sep 10 at 1:08 pm

  6. Still not clear on why the draftees are there. I understand some states tie welfare benefits to being a student, but that shouldn’t be the incentive for kids working two or three jobs. (It’s also a poor way to work the incentive. Pay kids to master the material, and more money the better they do so. Otherwise, the incentive is to do the least work compatible with not actually failing.)

    Trade schools vary in the states. Can’t speak for Connecticut, but I’ve seen some good ones in Ohio and Indiana. One problem is that schools, parents and some students regard them as an admission of failure, so probably fewer kids are in the programs, and they’re put in the programs later, than ought to be the case.


    20 Sep 10 at 3:46 pm

  7. Ausrtralian high schools have courses in metal working and auto mechanics among others. And there are tech schools called TAFEs (Technicak and further education) which provide classes for apprentices. But we still have a shortage of people trained in various trades.


    is a list of skills we are looking for in immigrants.


    20 Sep 10 at 8:26 pm

  8. We have a shortage of skilled tradesmen, too, but we don’t train them at the high school level. They go to ‘colleges’ – private or public – which can get confusing with the US usage of the term ‘colleges’. We do have a few academic colleges, usually now associated with a university, but generally (and always in my province) a college offers a 2-3 year leading to a certificate or diploma, not a degree. They may also offer shorter courses, often tailored to the specific needs of a specific employer. But we don’t seem to offer training of the level some European countries do, and of course, some students and parents think any university degree is better than any college diploma for all students, which is not always the case.


    21 Sep 10 at 5:37 am

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