Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Getting It All Done

with 3 comments

I’ve just had one of those days where, by the end of it, I can barely believe I’m still standing.  I had about six million things to do, it all had to be done as quickly as possible, the places it had to be done all had to be inconveniently driven to, and there was thick fog and freezing rain.

And then, of course, we’ve got the obvious–two of those things could not be finished up today, so that I’m stuck going out at seven in the morning tomorrow to get them done.

It would be redundant to say that I need staff.

But the small good part is that all of this was actually important stuff, and not the endless make work of modern going along to get along.  So at least I feel like I’m accomplishing something.

Or doing the groundwork  for accomplishing something.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the posts of the last few days, and I want to get into a side issue.

Except that it isn’t a side issue.

Most of the students I teach are poor.

They are, in fact, very, very poor.  They’re not working class.  They’re not “working poor.”   They come from families that are destitute or something close to it.

If they’re “minorities,” they tend to come from the cores of small, dying industrial cities.   If they’re lucky, they live in public housing projects.  If they’re not, they live in one of the nearly ubiquitous “triple deckers,” wood frame houses with single apartments that run through each floor, three floors tall.

A lot of my white students live in triple deckers, too, but the ones they live in tend to be in more rural areas.  There are a lot of triple deckers lining the two-and-three street town centers of towns with populations in three figures.

The trouble with the three deckers is that they catch fire a lot, and when they catch fire they always seem to take a few people with them.   I knew a woman–not a student–who lost both of her two small children in one of those fires.

Here’s the thing–the places I teach are relatively cheap, and they offer a lot of financial aid.  No matter how much financial aid they offer, however, they’re almost never free, and that means that they’re charging kids whose families often either don’t have a car or have one that shares out with everybody (and starts about two thirds of the time), who lose their heat at least once every winter,  who think TGI Friday’s is an “expensive” restaurant–they’re charging these kids and their families money out of pocket to learn skills that they would have been able to learn free (with no out of pocket at all) in high school fifty years ago.

Whenever I hear somebody rattling on about “massive transfers of wealth” from the poor and middle class to the “rich,” this is what I think of, and it holds for lots of kids whose parents make a lot more money.

A year of tuition, room and board at a private university these days–not a good private university, but any private university–tends to run a minimum of $45,000 a year. 

If the kid is exceptionally talented and can actually get into an Ivy or the equivalent, the out of pocket won’t be all that bad–in the range of about $8,000 or so. 

But a lot of perfectly ordinary middle class kids from perfectly ordinary middle class families are paying full freight for second and third tier universities, at prices quite a bit higher than the minimum, and with little or no help. 

What they get for their money is almost never a real education in either Robert’s sense of the term or mine.  They don’t learn useful vocational skills, and they aren’t introduced to the scope and depth of Western culture, either. 

They spend four years taking a mishmash of random courses that don’t hang together in any particular way, at standards of “accomplishment”  that wouldn’t have passed muster at a Gold Coast high school in 1969. 

Their colleges do the best possible job of spending as little as possible to provide them with the “education” they think they’re paying for–hiring more and more part timers at rock bottom wages, raising class sizes, scrimping on the equipment provided in labs and practicums, requiring “general education” classes that amount to a kind of head tax, and offering courses required for the majors only alternate years, so that most students have to spend five or six (instead of four) expensive years getting through to the degree.

And all to end up at “skill levels” they would have reached before they graduated from high school fifty years ago.

In a real sense, we have done away with free public education in the United States.

The very best of our public schools do a stellar job for about the top ten percent of their students.  A Wilton High School will give its honors students an education that will beat Exeter’s on virtually every level.

But everybody else–at Wilton, too, but especially at lesser schools–is left to float, to “graduate” with little in the way of useful skills and many fewer at a much lower level than they would have managed a generation ago. 

And if they want to actually graduate from high school–to have the skills and knowledge they should have as high school graduates–well, they’d better be sure to be ready to lay out a lot of money and take a lot of loans.

I have no idea if I’m being very coherent here, but what seems to me is going on here is a massive scam–the educational equivalent of charging the same price for tuna fish but making the can only six ounces instead of eight. 

And the prices keep going up every year, just as the standards keep going down.

Written by janeh

February 28th, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Getting It All Done'

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  1. Couldn’t dispute a word.

    A few points to show I was paying attention: I agree that the high schools–indeed, almost any school–will go out of its way for the best, or even the hard-working. Some of our worst schools will still do a pretty good job if the kid and the kid’s parents insist. But they sometimes do a poor job with mediocre students, and barely trouble to warehouse poor students. The problem seems to be (1) elementary schools aren’t delivering literate and numerate students to the high schools. (2) In a litigous society, it’s almost impossible to fail a poor performer–or dismiss a poor teacher, come to that. And (3) a genuine trade is no longer considered acceptable in far too many instances, so we’re graduating kids poorly prepared for white collar jobs instead of well prepared to be plumbers or electricians.

    I think the elementary school failure can be corrected. The problem is that the sort of drill necessary to make every child able to do math up to algebra and be fully literate is deadly dull for the teacher, and unless constantly held to the task, the elementary faculty will find more interesting and creative ways to teach–more fun for the teacher, if you don’t mind that one in ten or one in five of the students won’t master the material. Mind you, I don’t say the failure WILL be overcome, merely that it can be.

    But if it is, a high school diploma will mean something, and employers can, hopefully, back off demanding college diplomas just to get proof of literacy.

    At the college end, note Jane specified private schools. Tha last time I ran the figures–about 10 years ago, in Indiana–a young person working part time at minimum wage during the school year and full time during summer could live on campus and have a respectable degree in Engineering from Purdue or in History or English from Indiana in four years–and no debts. If he stayed at home and attended an extension, he’d have some money saved toward graduate school. I used to do 20 hours of part-time work, pull Guard drill one weekend a month and work three jobs in summer. Wasn’t easy or fun for me, for my wife who did much the same or for any of our classmates–some of whom worked full time–but I was through graduate schol before I ever met anyone who’d borrowed money for college.

    Or the kid could enroll in ROTC. And a four-year hitch in any branch of the armed forces will pay for a four-year degree anywhere in state–better than that, actually, because most servicemen can get free or discounted college courses while in uniform.

    There will always be people who will take your money and give you as little as possible for it, and maybe our accreditation system doesn’t sort out as many as it should. But bright a kid who is willing to hustle can still get a good education without a mountain of debt.

    It’s the dull-normal kid in need of learning a trade who is the worst served, and I don’t know how to fix that.


    28 Feb 11 at 8:40 pm

  2. I know nothing about the education systems in either the US or Australia so will just have to take Jane’s word for it.

    What worries me is the decline in learning trades. Doctors may keep us from dying of heart trouble at 70 but plumbers keep us from dying of typoid at 40!


    1 Mar 11 at 1:10 am

  3. This is not new. When part of my family moved to the US (two of us were grown and on our own), the new school thought that the courses my parents wanted my siblings to take represented an extremely arduous and demaning program – but it was the standard ‘academic’ (ie post-secondary prep) in our small home town! A single data point proves nothing, though – and Canada has a distressing tendency to pick up US educational trends, usually 10 or 15 years after they’ve been introduced in the US, and often at the point some US authorities are ready to abandon them, having found their weaknesses.

    I must say I don’t think much of training plumbers and electricians in high school. We’ve never done that here, and even much smaller attempts at doing practical trades-types courses in high school have fallen foul of the difficulty of finding qualified teachers and expense of providing appropriate equipment. Many of our schools are much smaller than those in urban and suburban US. Make that almost all of them, with one possible exception.

    Get them literate and numerate in school, and then put them in an apprenticeship program with some classroom time at a central Trades College, as they used to be called.

    I understand a current barrier to the trades locally is finding an established master electrician willing to take on an apprentice.


    1 Mar 11 at 7:50 am

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