Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reality Bites The Big One

with 5 comments

So yesterday, when I left the house, I was feeling a lot better, and pretty sure I was almost over this.  Then I went to school and did my long day–or almost did it.  About twenty minutes into the two twenty class, I started coughing and couldn’t stop.  And that’s when I came home.

By then, of course, I was so fuzzy and out of it that I was barely paying attention to anything.  I was even having trouble following Band of Brothers, which is up on the free on demand again.  And I love Band of Brothers.   I love it because it is, simply, wonderful.  But I also love it because Spielberg and Hanks didn’t try to fix WWII.  There are no African American soldiers in Easy Company–because there weren’t any. 

And there should have been.  And it was not just.  And the segregation of the American Army was a bad idea.

But WWII is WWII, we can’t change it now, and for once the history mattered more than the moral lecture.

But I was sitting on my couch, watching the thing and looking through magazines on the loveseat because my head was too stuffed up for me to concentrate on anything. 

And I came across an article in Free Inquiry about education. 

Actually, I really was addled, so I don’t remember what the entire article was about.  What I do remember is that part of it was about how awful No Child Left Behind is, and how it’s resulted in a dumbing down of elementary and secondary education at all levels.

And I ended up thinking both about my kids–as of the post yesterday–and about what always bugs me about those arguments.

I am not a big fan of No Child Left Behind.  The damned thing set standards without every doing any basic research in what the standards should be, what could reasonably be expected of anybody at any grade level, even what we already were expecting of anybody at any grade level. 

It also represents, to me, another attempt to nationalize American education, which is something I really am not in favor of.  I tend to cheerlead for the opposite of a national curriculum–as many disparate and unconnected parts as possible, with no central control. 

But the one thing that never bothered me about NCLB was the possibility that teachers would start “teaching to the test.”   

It seems to me that if I am a local school district–or even the Department of Education–and I want to make sure that students learn X, then it makes sense for me to test them on X. 

And if the only way teachers can make sure that students learn X is to “teach to the test,” then so be it.  If I want them to learn X, and that’s the only way, then that’s what should be done.

I said this once on a certain Internet discussion forum and got seventeen kinds of wailing indignation landed on my head.  What if the students weren’t learning other things–you’d never know about it!  Well, yes, I never would.  But if I want to make sure they know X, then it makes sense to me to insist that there be some proof that they know X.

And I know a lot about what happens when they don’t know X.  My kids are the ones who don’t. 

And Robert is absolutely right.  If we took them step by step over the course of a few years, some of them could definitely learn to do college work.  We’d just have to make sure they learned to do junior high school work first. 

But we won’t.

Let me try to make clear what’s happening here.

These kids will never be given a few years to catch up.  Either they’ll flunk out entirely, or they’ll be spoon fed through four years of “college” and given a “degree” that everybody in the immediate area knows for exactly what it is worth.

The kids who flunk out will flunk out because they’ll go on to a low-level state four year where the academic standard reaches to about the level of a middling public high school.  Since the year, or at most two, that these kids will get in remedial programs will not bring them even close to that, they’ll just fail.

But in a way, they’ll be lucky.  They’ll at least realize that there are academic standards out there that are higher than they’re able to reach.

The kids who go on to the phone four-year “college” programs won’t even know that.   The level of the work they will be required to do will reach no higher than what was required in class a couple of days ago, and they will leave with their “degree” convinced that academic work is just a con game–nothing important, and something anybody can do, so that the only thing that accounts for why they’re not getting the kinds of jobs they want or why the law and medical schools won’t take them is…well, it must be racism.  The black kids think the only reason they’re getting turned down is that they’re black.  The white kids think the only reason they’re getting turned down is that affirmative action means some black guy had to get it even if his grades were worse.

It is difficult to explain just how much of a sham American “college” education on the lowest level really is. 

Nobody is looking to make these kids competent in research skills.  Nobody is even looking to bring them up to the academic level high school should have.

What this system wants, mostly, is a sort of plausible deniability.  It wants to be able to sit back and go:  failing schools?  But we graduate more than half of our kids, and they go on to college and they even graduate!

And since most Americans have no idea what goes on inside programs like mine,  that even looks plausible on paper.

In the meantime, nobody fixes anything, because in order to fix things you would first have to face the fact that the numbers are going to be wildly skewed by both race and class.

And I am increasingly convinced that the people who will not face that fact are secretly of the opinion that race determines intelligence, at least a little–that my kids are incapable of learning much of anything, so that there’s no real reason to try to teach them. 

And in the meantime, of course, this is costing mostly poor kids and their families a ton of money.  It costs a lot more for one of my kids to finish four years of a phony “college” than it does for just about anybody to finish Johns Hopkins, or Harvard.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, Vassar decided that it would not admit girls who could not pass a standard college entrance exam–the same one they used at Yale–and instead instituted a training program to bring them up to speed before allowing them to attend classes.

My kids could use something like that, but they’re not going to get it.  They’ve only got the two choices–a phony “college” degree that’s worth less than a high school diploma from someplace like Westport, or to be sent defenseless into a poor but halfway honest program which they’ll have very little chance of completing.

The only chance any of them have got is to be able to actually make it through one of those halfway honest programs.

But to do that, they’re going to have to be able to handle research in scholarly journals by next year.

Okay, I really am feeling a little better today, on the have-a-cold-front.

But I’m obviously in a much worse mood.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2010 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Reality Bites The Big One'

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  1. As one of my former bosses once said (probably paraphrased slightly) ‘There’s nothing wrong with teaching to the test if the test measures what they’re supposed to learn’.

    I don’t think you need to assume secret racism to explain some of what you’re saying. I’ve seen exactly the same thought processes occur in non-racial situations, often expressed as ‘people like that’ or ‘children from families/ areas/ social backgrounds like that’.

    All you need to explain it is a lot of experience with the society or culture or group, and a lot of faith in the system. The first provides the outcome data for particular people, and the second provides assurance that any problem (as defined by ‘not achieving in school’) can’t be the fault of the way things are done.

    You could probably do without the first half, actually. If you are successful in a system that others attempt to succeed in and fail, the reason for the failure has to be with the people who fail. And, of course, sometimes it is (when candidates don’t have the ability, or don’t have the interest, or are marking time until they can escape to real life while they’re parents collect whatever they’re calling the ‘baby bonus’ this year), which provides further evidence.


    10 Nov 10 at 7:46 am

  2. Yes, as Cheryl notes. If the test is actually testing what you want the kids to know in a valid way, there is no problem at all “teaching to the test.” The problem is when the test sucks (generally because it only focuses on rote, low-level skills) and teachers who would normally teach high-level skills dumb down their teaching to match the test.



    10 Nov 10 at 11:40 am

  3. Oh, and in the US at least, it’s both racism and classism. People secretly fear/believe that black kids and hillbillies and Latinos etc. really can’t do it, so expecting them to just isn’t fair–but we can’t admit that, so we put them in stupid classes and pretend that’s just as good as the real classes. Or we call them “disabled” and put them in special ed programs that are even worse.

    Programs that assume all kids can learn, but you have to start where they are and move from there, can actually be very successful. More so the earlier you start, of course. Taking more than 6 years to finish college is as good as a failure to the sending high school because of how we compile our statistics about completion.



    10 Nov 10 at 11:47 am

  4. I like admissions tests for colleges–clear, straightforward, and hopefully anonymous. If the kid isn’t ready to be a freshman, but has potential, outline what he needs to learn and set up a program for learning it. And then DON’T let them take college courses for credit until they pass the test. Many of them will in a year or two, raising questions about why they weren’t adequately prepared in K-12.

    Which may be a reason why not many schools do, of course. Another reason is that it eliminates the administators’ ability to make exceptions. No special rules for special people, and administrators hate that.

    West Point is an exception: a promising enlisted person with a high school diploma but without a proper high school education is sent to “West Point Prep” for a year or two, THEN admited to the USMA. No one walks through the gate at West Point until they’ve qualified on an objective test.

    Otherwise, I don’t know what you do with “collegians” who are admitted working five years below grade level and given one year to catch up. Has anyone tried suing the admissions office for fraud?

    And of course I agree: if “teaching to the test” is a problem, you need a new test. Sadly, the most ferocious opponents of standardised testing claim they’re “teaching” attitudes or behavior. The objective is not a different test, but not to have any standard to which the teacher can be held accountable.

    But see the admissions officers above, who are somehow never held accountable for admitting a freshman they knew couldn’t do the work.

    Along with standardised tests, I really like accountbility.


    10 Nov 10 at 4:29 pm

  5. “Teaching to the test” is not the worst of the No Child Left Behind Act.

    Let me explain it in ways that may make it clear to those of you who have never taught in the public schools. I know that Jane has taught and maybe still is teaching at a college level. I assume that most of you who write comments on this blog have a college education, either by actually going to college or by educating yourself to that level through reading on your own.

    The situation before the NCLB Act was that each local school district in the country (except in Texas and California where the state school boards decided) got to decide for itself which textbooks and other educational materials would be used in the elementary and secondary schools in its own district. This was done by the district school boards (elected), sometimes with a lot of input from the teachers who would actually be teaching, and sometimes without a lot of teacher input; sometimes with a lot of input from parents, sometimes without a lot of input from parents.

    After the NCLB Act, the state school boards took over making the decisions about which books and materials would be used in every classroom in the state.

    Now, there aren’t nearly as many college classrooms as there are grade-school and high-school classrooms, so instead of per-state, I will make this analogy a country-wide one.

    Suppose you are a freshman English teacher in a college in, say, Connecticut. Before the start of class in the fall, someone from Washington, DC, shows up at your school and dumps a box of books and other teaching material on your desk. It is the same box of books that is dumped on every desk of every freshman English teacher in every college and university in the United States, whether it is an engineering college in the Ozarks, or a teacher-education college in Iowa or an Ivy League college or a state university in Florida or a community college in a barrio in Los Angeles. Every classroom gets the same box. Furthermore, at the end of the semester, your students will be tested on the facts that they are expected to have learned from studying the materials in the box, and if your class fails to do well enough on the test, then your college will be penalized financially and you will probably be fired for incompetence. Whether your students were top of their high school classes (in 1963, for example, 70% of the students at Oberlin College were either valedictorians or salutatorians of their graduating classes) or whether most of your students just barely managed to graduate from high school, you are still judged as a teacher by how well your students do on the nation-wide final exam.
    If that weren’t horrible enough, let’s just suppose that you have been teaching freshman English for, say, twenty years, and that you have discovered what works and what doesn’t for your students. And let’s suppose that the people who prepared the materials in the box that has been dumped on your desk don’t have any experience with teaching English or any understanding of how freshmen students learn, or even much of a grasp of English grammar and literature, so that the people (probably mostly political appointees) who picked the materials that went into the box for all freshmen English teachers in the U.S. so that they (a) listened to the most vocal lobbyists, i.e. the biggest publishers of textbooks about what should be included, and (b) didn’t even think about how to get the students interested in the material.
    Let’s suppose, in addition, that they not only give you a list of the poems, short stories, and novels that all your students are required to read during the semester, but a batch of worksheets that the students are expected to spend each and every class period filling out, with such questions as, “Who was the author of Huckleberry Finn?” or “What year was Vanity Fair written?” or “In the poem by John Donne, what was washed out to sea?”
    And so the material in the box bores the smart students in your class because they already know all the material, so they drop out. And the middling students in your class are bored because, hey, spending hours every day filling in the blanks on stupid worksheets is, well, not even as much fun as flipping burgers at McD’s, so they drop out. And the poor students in your class are lost because they don’t have the background (not your fault, since you got them from the previous teacher, but, hey, you get the blame anyway), so they drop out.
    Now let’s suppose that we’re not talking about a college level class. Let’s suppose that we’re talking about, say 2nd grade. At least seven- and eight-year-olds are not old enough to drop out. Well, yes, actually they are dropping out by the tens of thousands, and I am not talking about the kids who are being pulled out of public schools so their parents can home-school them. I am talking about the students who are making what will likely be a permanent, irrevocable decision that (a) school is boring, that (b) they hate everything to do with education, that (c) they are going to go through the motions and do the minimum of what’s required without really trying because none of it matters anyway, and that (d) as soon as they are old enough they will stop going to school.
    The best teachers in the elementary schools are already dropping out in large numbers because it is too painful to be part of what is essentially child abuse that is being done in the name of “No Child Left Behind.”
    Not all the students, of course, will drop out when they are legally old enough. Many students will stay in the system all the way through high school, and some of them will go to college and get their teaching degrees, and then they will be the next generation of teachers. Isn’t that a scary thought.

    There are a couple of precedents. The “Dick and Jane” method of teaching reading was developed to teach deaf children, who couldn’t use the phonetics system. So in the late 1940s many school districts across the U.S. decided to switch from textbooks teaching reading using phonics to textbooks teaching reading using the “look and see” method (sometimes called the “see and say” method). By the time educators figured out that memorizing the way 300 or so words looked (“something sticking up in front and a tail hanging down at the end”) was not the same as actually learning to read, we had a generation growing up who couldn’t read, which turned into a generation of teachers who couldn’t read very well, and who as a result couldn’t do a good job teaching their students how to read.
    After that disaster, we had “New Math.” My younger brother is a mathematician, so he knows more about such things than I do. He says that “New Math” is a fine method for teaching mathematics even at the grade school level BUT ONLY IF the teacher really, Really, REALLY understands “New Math.” In any group of 100 grade school teacher who were supposed to teach “New Math”, probably fewer than one of them understood it well enough to teach it. Which in turn has given us grade school teachers who were taught “New Math” and who consequently don’t understand basic arithmetic well enough to teach “old math” at a grade school level, which is going to give us another generation who doesn’t understand math well enough to teach grade school arithmetic.

    And now for the bad news.
    If Congress repealed the NCLB Act tomorrow, and if the state school boards could be persuaded to give up control of the district school curricula (an unlikely event), then education in the United States would still not go back to what it was before the NCLB Act went into effect. Too many good programs have been trashed, too many good teachers have left, too many people have been told and now believe that a good education can be measured by a standardized achievement test, and yes, too many students have already turned off their minds.


    20 Jul 11 at 8:32 pm

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