Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Christmas Season is Upon Us

with 4 comments

I know this because what I have on the player behind me is Handel, not Bach, and there are no harpsichords. 

And it’s the Christmas season and not the holiday season because it seems silly to me to call the season of listening to Handel’s Messiah the–well, you get what I mean.

But then, that’s why I stopped sending out Christmas cards over a decade ago.  I had Christian friends, Jewish friends, atheist friends, Wiccan friends, and when I looked at cards the only thing that really attracted me was the art.

Mostly Renaissance art. 

And that didn’t even keep me out of trouble with my Christian friends, because those were split between Protestant and Catholics, and the Protestants had some trouble with some of the art, too.

Sometimes I think that people are less “free” of religion than they tell me they are.  The art’s the art.  I don’t have to believe in Zeus to like a lot of Greek statues of him, and I don’t have to believe in the Virgin Birth to like Renaissance Madonnas.

But apparently other people do.

I really am going to go back to the Liberal Arts thing.  It’s just been a little crazy.

But there’s a side note here, so–

I wish, if you’re going to post a link to something, you would also post a little explanation of what it is.  Due to the weirdness of my schedule, I tend to check most comments on my phone, and I do NOT have a “smart phone.” 

Matt has a smart phone, and I have seen it work, and I don’t want one.

But what ends up happening is that I try to access the thing and I crash the phone, or just can’t open it, or whatever, and then I forget to go check later when I’m near a computer.

So, some idea of what I’m looking for would help.

I did manage to open Elf’s link to the Atlantic article, and I’ll admit to rolling my eyes a little here.

First, though, I’d have to say that I largely agree with it.  But because I agree with it, I don’t think it would be possible to implement here, at least for public schools.

Education majors are the least qualified students on any university campus?  You bet, and they’ve got the lowest board scores, the lowest cultural literacy rate, and the worst overall literacy rate, too.

The best American private schools recognize this, and simply refuse to hire “certified” teachers.  They demand real degrees from prestige universities. 

Certainly, if we could demand the same for the teachers in our public schools, we’d be doing better–but how are you going to bring that about?  The teachers’ unions see certification as their lock on the profession.   Change certification requirements to the kind of thing the article is talking about, and you would end up rending nearly 90% of the present public school teaching corps unemployable. 

Do you really think they’re going to go for that?  And if they won’t, how do you think you’re going to get around them?

You’d also end up shutting down most of the present teacher’s colleges and education departments, and rendering most of their faculty unemployable.

Sound possible to you?

But the thing that makes me roll my eyes is this:  there really is a form of American exceptionalism at work here, but not in the way we usually use that term.

There is, first, the simple fact that we have a wildly diverse population, something someplace like Japan or Singapore doesn’t have to worry about. 

And yes, diversity is a problem in educational programs, because education is not a one size fits all proposition.  Teaching ESL to a student whose first language is Korean is different from teaching ESL to a student whose first language is Arabic.

And teaching students from dysfucntional homes (at least in the elementary grades) is different from teaching students whose home lives make some sense.

But I honestly think we could get out from under all that if it weren’t for the real issue of American exceptionalism here–the fact that we are scared to death to actually look at the facts of the situation.

Because we have a tendency to think–without having any way of knowing–that if we ever did have to acknowledge the facts, what we would find is that intellectual and academic ability varies inescapably by…race.

Please note what I did NOT say.

I did NOT say that intellectual and academic ability ACTUALLY varies by race.

I couldn’t know that even if I wanted to, because nobody has ever collected the data–no, not even Murray and Hernstein–and nobody ever will.   You couldn’t get funding to do that kind of study to save your life.

What we actually do is THIS–we secretly believe that if a single high standard were imposed across the board, African Americans and Hispanics would not be able to meet it.  They would then not attain the highest levels of education, and be pretty much locked out of the best jobs and the prestige professions from off.   This would be “racism” because–well, because it would be.  The outcome, after all, would be no different than if we were all the way back at segregation.

Having made such a determination based on no actual evidence whatsoever, we do what we have to do to get the numbers up as far as we dare–we dumb down education in our inner city, poor and minority-majority schools so that more of the students there graduate.

The graduation, of course, is bogus–what the students in these schools have received is not a high school education, but at best a sixth-grade one.  But it doesn’t look like that on the surface.  They have high school diplomas!

We then send these kids on to “college,” which isn’t really college, but sort of high school.  And we proclaim that we’ve given students who never before had a chance to go to college a chance to go.

Except, of course, that these students have not gone to college.  They’ve gone to high school and been allowed to call it “college.”   

And the “colleges” they’ve gone to have dumbed down standards so far, that students who would have been able to use them in times past for a real stab at a college education now no longer can.  Real college level work is no longer on offer there.

While we were doing all this, we were operating on an unstated assumption–that we could keep the dumbing down confined to those students over there.   It wouldn’t affect our own kids, who would go to real school with real standards, or be placed in “gifted” or advanced placement programs where the standards could be kept where they were supposed to be.

This did not, of course, work.  It took no time at all for the pressure to mount to insure “access” to things like gifted and advanced placement programs, even if that meant dumbing down the standards in these so that we could shoehorn in more students in “at risk” groups.”

And it took even less time than that for students from dumbed down school programs to enter the teacher’s colleges. 

And by now, you’ve got a very few places with decent programs, mostly in very rich, high educated upper middle class suburbs where the parents aren’t having any guff. 

And you’ve got other kinds of anomalies–Connecticut, a few years ago, changed its state standards in math away from the highly-abstract, go on to calculus stuff to more “practical” math.  Parents in places like Westport and Wilton had fits, and were told that “not everybody can go on to the analytical math.” So the parents in these places put their kids in tutoring to get the stuff they needed to end up i things like calculus and at places like Yale.

This might seem like a nifty solution, except for this–a kid whose parents are not educated, who comes from a poor background but has the talent, now has NO opportunity to learn advanced mathematics in high school.  His family will not have the money to pay for outside tutoring even if they know what they problem is, and they probably won’t know what the problem is.

For what it’s worth, I’ve had black students and white students.  My black students are, on average, far worse prepared–but I don’t see much in the way of a difference in native intelligence or academic ability. 

I think it’s entirely possible that if we instituted serious standards and stuck to them, we might have about ten years in which the “disparate impact” was glaring–but it would be glaring not because our minority students are stupid, but because so many of them do not actually have access to education at all. 

On the other side of that, though, I’d be willing to bet my house that we’d see significant shrinkage in the “achievement gap.”

But, you know, we’re not going to do that.  It’s to the advantage of too many people to keep that achievement gap wide, and, more importantly, to keep standards like “disparate impact” in place.

And they kids don’t vote.

I’m going off to read a little novel by a woman called Ellery Adams.  It’s title is A Killer Plot, and it’s the first in a series. 

Thanks to Dean James for the heads up.

Written by janeh

December 11th, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Christmas Season is Upon Us'

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  1. Hmmm. Maybe. I am not the Shadow to know what evil lurks in the hearts of educational bureaucrats. In public, it seems to be the reverse: a conviction of statistically identical distributions of–well, everything: ability, drive, cultural background–such that any difference in outcome is proof of racism. You can (sometimes) demonstrate that this is not true in particular cases, but that has no lasting impact on them.
    I think one problem is that we keep getting “Education Presidents,” when what we need is Education Governors, and even the governors we do get have a tendency to get hold of the wrong end of the problem. And those hardest hit by the present system have the least political clout.
    Give me a cooperative legislature and 12 years, and I think I could fix a state: set a standard for passing fourth grade, set four years out, with a standard for 8th grade to follow four years after that, and a standard for high school diplomas four years after that. Set a standard for new teachers, grandfather the present batch and let time and retraining work. Actually, if you fixed K-4, you might not have much of a problem: so much of what happens further up the line comes as a result of teachers confronted with students who don’t have what they need to begin the class. I’m with Jane: I bet every year the achievement gap–measured in test scores, not diplomas–would lessen every year for a long time.
    The serious obstacle would be the education departments of the universities and the teachers colleges. They either have to be disbanded to have their incentive structure changed, and either one will be difficult. But if they aren’t changed or destroyed, educational reform will die in a battle of attrition. There are too many decisions: what to be offered and what to be insisted on each year, and all the details of teacher qualifications, and the edge will always be with the bureaucracy.

    Anyway, the experiment is under way. Indiana has instituted what I’m told is a pretty rigorous 4th grade standard, but to my knowledge has done nothing about teacher certification. We’ll see how it works out.

    Or we could, of course, just focus on rough equality of opportunity and let outcomes be what they will. Good luck with that. You can make a good case that DUKE was the worst Supreme Court decision of my lifetime.


    11 Dec 11 at 2:06 pm

  2. A good point about the lowered standards really being a new kind of double standard, based on wealth (ability to escape the public schools) rather than explicitly on race. Public education has become public babysitting, and real education is back to being pay-your-own-way, just as it was two centuries ago.

    The lowered standards meant to accommodate minorities can be flagrantly and condescendingly racist. Some years ago when I took the GED, it was loaded with questions that were clearly intended to give free points to blacks – questions, phrased in inner city slang, about gang warfare, drug use, and the like.

    Paying teachers more is not a solution. They’re paid quite well enough already; taking into account benefits and time off, public school teachers are better compensated than engineers. Bizarrely, college instructors are paid much less (unless and until they hit the tenure jackpot) than elementary teachers, but seem to be at least as good, on average.

    There’s no shortage of teachers, either, except math teachers. Teaching is the main employment option for the hordes of unmotivated, semi-literate grads who majored in things like history or English. The shortage is of competence, not warm bodies to stand in front a class.

    Part of the problem is of course the teachers’ unions. Another disadvantage we have, relative to at least most of the rest of the world, is our culture.

    First, what we ask of teachers, and students, is not performance but conformance. To be a “successful” teacher it is not necessary to teach or to even know the subject. What is necessary is to scrupulously avoid anything that could possibly give offense to any parent, to live an obtrusively ordinary life, and (if male) to avoid above all any physical contact with students or ever be alone with a student. A teacher cannot be fired for incompetence, but can certainly be fired for having unusual opinions or for the slightest suspicion of sexual interest in nubile teenagers.

    It’s the same for students. Grades and diplomas, in primary schools and increasingly in high school and even college, are not given for learning the material but for following the rules: show up for class, turn in the assignments, don’t cheat, don’t cause trouble, don’t have your own ideas. The students who follow the rules expect, from experience, to get an A automatically; they can’t comprehend how a paper that follows the format and meets the required page count only got a C. After all, they showed up for class and turned it in on time, when two thirds of their classmates didn’t.

    A lot of teachers encourage this. It is, after all, a lot easier to check the format and length of a paper than to grade it, and that way there are no surprises and no arguments. Everyone’s happy.

    Second, American culture neither understands nor values education. Our central culture myth is that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard (and that it’s therefore their own lazy fault if they’re not a millionaire). In reality, learning depends on aptitude, but at the wire no one is willing to admit, or to tell someone, that they failed because they weren’t smart enough. To suggest to a student with a 90 IQ that maybe they shouldn’t try to be an engineer would invite a complaint to the Dean, and if the student was black or female someone might get fired.

    To most Americans, education is a credential that you buy, like any other commodity, The American student may or may not be willing to do work, but usually expects that the mere fact of work is sufficient.

    Nor is there any respect for learning. Unless it has an obvious, practical, and immediate application, knowledge is widely considered useless, if not downright contemptible. I’m guessing that in places like Singapore, Japan, etc. there is no equivalent to our word “nerd” and that “academic” is not regularly used as an insult. (David Fischer discusses the historical origins of this and other American attitudes in “Albion’s Seed”, a most informative work.)


    11 Dec 11 at 4:26 pm

  3. ab, you know we’re in closer agreement than usual, and I’ll second your endorsement of ALBION’S SEED. But Americans only “don’t value education” when you use “education” in the specialized (Jane) sense in which a PhD biochemist is not educated and an MA in Renaissance Sculpture is.

    Americans will pay plenty of attention to a man with credentials you can’t get by agreeing with the professor and which are pertinent to the matter at hand. The man with a doctorate in languages and a specialty in Korean–I know one–gets serious deference when translating from Korean. If the subjet’s the Middle East, we sit around and guess as equals.

    The Euros, bless their pointy heads, accept a liberal arts education as a “class marker,” and in their day sent boys to rule colonial populations based on scores in classical Greek and Latin. I can’t decide whether Americans don’t accept the LAE as a class marker, or do, but aren’t much impressed by class. Either way, if you want respect for the degree in the United States you can get it–but only for what getting the degree taught you. It’s not transferable. A law degree, for example, doesn’t make you an econmomist. (For that matter, some days I’m not sure a PhD in Economics proves you know what you’re doing.)

    Get a degree in a pertinent subject and one in which your expertise can be demonstrated, and Americans will give you all the respect you deserve. Just not more.


    11 Dec 11 at 8:22 pm

  4. Getting away from education entirely – I’ve heard this before, but do people really provide those who send them cards with a political (or religious, for that matter) analysis of the cards? When someone sends me a card, I just say ‘Thank you’ even if it’s a depiction of Santa Claus that I think exemplifies the excessive commercialism of the modern season. I tend to send out ones with religious illustrations, and no one ever said anything to me about it.


    12 Dec 11 at 9:46 am

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