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Posts Tagged ‘school reform’

I’m haunted by the Biblical story about leaving the ninety and nine sheep safely in the fold to go rescue the one lost sheep:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  (Matthew 18:12-13)

As a teacher, does this mean that I should ignore the students who are succeeding and more self-sufficient and spend my time trying to “save” struggling students?

Certainly, this is the mainstream philosophy of public education: I had plenty of professors in college who told prospective teachers, “Don’t worry about the smart kids–they can take care of themselves.”  On any campus of which I’ve ever had any substantial knowledge, the number of programs targeting (and the amount of budget invested in) the needs of high achieving students was dwarfed by the gargantuan industry that is remediation, credit retrieval, and discipline, among plenty more.  A case can be made for these priorities; after all, there are (sadly but honestly) far more kids in America today on the left side of the bell curve than on the right. 

However, mere majority shouldn’t dictate our standards.  Might it not better serve the long range interests of our nation by agreeing to raise the bar and fully develop the potential of those with the most of it, rather than focusing almost exclusively on making minimal gains with the very lowest skilled?  How well would any hospital operate (to borrow a metaphor from Walter Williams) if the vast majority of effort was spent on emergency cases nearing terminal status, and letting the stable patients fend for themselves? 

Still, this doesn’t help me in the classroom, for surely the Savior’s injunction means something to me; it must apply somehow. 

I think I’m figuring out a way in which it does. 

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This what I said to the Clark County School Board at last night’s public meeting:

My name is Jamie Huston and I am here to ask you to let me serve as the next superintendent of our school district.  I was raised here myself and have two children in school now, with a third starting next year.  Like all of you, I have a great interest in the success of  our school district. 

But to solve our problems in student achievement and budgeting, we need to return to common sense.

As superintendent, I will vastly scale back the elephant in the room of this budget crisis, the rampant bureaucracy in our school district.  I will champion teachers and administrators in more effectively handling discipline.  I will end all the insidious ways that low expectations have crept into out policies and have hurt student achievement.

Some have told me that it’s tilting at windmills for a teacher to campaign for superintendent, but this is a chance to show our children that we have the courage and integrity to do what’s best.  We can select a new leader based on merit, not any other criteria.  If the American political ideal is a citizen legislator, then the educational ideal is a teacher-superintendent.

I have here for each of you a folder that better introduces me, including some of my ideas for fixing the budget and improving academic achievement [the folder included my resumé and my list of 21 ideas], and to show how serious I am about fixing the budget and serving our community, I’ll state publicly that I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary that I make as a teacher.  Thank you. 

 

It’s hard to say exactly how the speech was received.  (more…)

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Last week, the Clark County School District superintendent announced that he’ll be leaving over the summer. As the school board starts searching for a replacement, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring. Below is a list of ideas that I like. I plan to be at their meeting on Thursday, April 8, at 4 PM, to discuss my interest with them. I’d appreciate anybody’s support!

These are only ideas, not laws set in stone. These tentative suggestions are meant to illustrate my priorities and values as an educational leader. Ideas would be discussed with the public and school district legal counsel, and may need to be enacted more or less strictly in practice.

  1. All decisions about finances and policies should be made with this motto in mind: “Academic achievement above all.”

  2. Frequently and regularly conference with every principal in the district about their needs, ideas, and concerns. Be open and available to all faculty, parents, and the community. Have an open door policy, and engage the community in person and through media more often. Public schools are community schools, and everyone’s input will be valued.

  3. Reduce non-teaching personnel throughout the school district: eliminate “regions” and regional superintendents, “teachers on special assignment,” and non-academic departments such as “Equity and Diversity Education.” These and many other examples of bureaucratic pork do nothing to improve students’ education.

  4. Reduce and/or eliminate programs that encourage ongoing student failure, in terms of lowered expectations or unreasonable credit retrieval: social promotion, 50% minimum grades, certificates of attendance, and block scheduling, which will also save the school district millions of dollars.

  5. Reduce number and frequency of physical mailings from school district to homes; vast and expensive waste will be ended here.

  6. Aggressively find and eliminate waste and abuse in the free and reduced lunch program.

  7. Consider ending year round schedules in elementary schools, as another cost-saving measure.

  8. Expand an emphasis on basic literacy and arithmetic in elementary grades. Consider re-instituting tracking of students based on achievement, to better modify instruction for individual student needs.

  9. Under no circumstances will funding for arts and sports programs be cut.

  10. Another cost-saving measure: all school district materials will be printed in English only.

  11. Require every campus to survey their community about dress codes and standard school attire.

  12. Strictly enforce discipline and attendance regulations; end the “revolving door” of discipline and endless truancy allowances.

  13. Empower teachers to conduct more effective disciplinary action against disruptive students, such as immediately placing them in an in-house suspension or placing them on RPC.

  14. Make it easier for campus administrators to discipline or fire grossly incompetent teachers; likewise, advocate for reform of current licensing standards and alternative licensing to attract experienced professionals to teaching.

  15. End all emphasis and pressure on teachers to utilize “learning styles,” multicultural education, cooperative education, and any other educational trend that is not supported by research as being consistently beneficial to learning.

  16. End any doctoring of disciplinary and other statistical numbers to the school district and public; stop pressuring and punishing administrators and teachers for “excessively” high discipline rates. Secrecy is out; transparency is in.

  17. Assertively involve parents in the education of nonproficient students: at all grade levels, after each grading period, nonproficient students will be required to attend conferences with their teachers and parents to determine the causes of student failure and to make definite resolutions to fix them. There will be no “grading of parents,” but as appropriate, these meetings may lead to voluntary parenting classes or seminars, such as many campuses already sponsor.

  18. Require schools to counsel habitually truant and disruptive secondary school students to enroll in alternative placements such as virtual high school, distance learning, adult education, etc. This will reduce discipline problems on campuses and will redirect school resources to those who want to learn.

  19. Actively encourage community organizations and businesses to reward successful students, especially through promotions, discounts, and in offering good students employment; CCSD will officially recognize and endorse such organizations and businesses to encourage the community to patronize them.

  20. Sell unnecessary facilities and materials. Does the superintendent’s office have a big leather chair and a huge oak desk? If so, they’ll both be on Craigslist by the end of my first day.

  21. I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary I make as a teacher, with no added perks or bonuses. This alone will save the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Anyone who thinks I lack sufficient financial background for this position should know that I am raising a family with five children only on my teacher’s salary (my wife is a stay-at-home mom). If I can make that work, I can make the school district’s budget work!

 

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Third quarter grades were due today, and as I finished entering them, I couldn’t help but notice the big picture for a lot of students.  Days like this are sobering and discouraging. 

Here are two screen shots from my computer, showing what we’re working with here. 

First, this is a transcript page for a girl in one of my classes.  As you can see, after three full semesters in high school, she has earned exactly two credits, including a half credit in the middle of a semester for something called “guidance.”  She also failed every class this quarter.  The large numbers indicate absences.  Notice also that she is listed as a tenth grader, even though she falls far short of being on track–our politicians recently decided to let every student be officially promoted by age with their friends, rather than measured by the credits they’ve earned.  Thanks, leaders!

Obviously, this kid is not going to graduate.  I don’t know why she even comes to school, why we haven’t guided her to another school option or made her more uncomfortable as she slacks her way toward failure, or what’s going on in her home that makes such rampant failure acceptable.  (Her father is an educated professional; her mother is a homemaker.) 

This second shot (more…)

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“Don’t hit the kids and don’t hit on the kids.”  If I had to summarize my best advice about teaching in just one saying, that would be it.  However, last summer’s post, 50 Things New Teachers Need To Know, went into a bit more detail and has now garnered thousands of hits, making it this blog’s most popular post.

During the school year between then and now, I’ve made some more notes and now have this new collection ready.  As I say at the end, take it all with a grain of salt, but I have no doubt that this list is more useful than a bachelor’s degree in education.  Furthermore, I like this list even more than last year’s.  Enjoy!

 

1. Cover any windows on hallway-facing doors to your room from the inside with paper. If administrators complain about it, just cover as much as you can at eye level.  You don’t need lollygaggers out there distracting students by making faces at their friends in your class.

2. PC Myth #5: “Your teaching skills are more important than content knowledge.”  In my own undergrad days, an early class taught me that I wouldn’t need to worry about subject knowledge because I already had more than the students would, and I should just focus on methodology, classroom management, etc.  As a result, I spent my first couple of years as a teacher watching all those college theories go down in flames, and desperately playing catch up on the English facts that I needed to know to teach well. 

3.  Always remember: administrators are politicians.  (more…)

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Based on some reading I’ve done (such as that covered in some posts a couple of weeks ago), and my nine years of teaching experience, I’d like to suggest a way of more effectively measuring teacher competence.

Traditionally, administrators observe bits and pieces of a few classes, and spot check the teacher’s lesson plan book, basing their evaluations largely on criteria related to how the lesson plan book demonstrates cohesion with school district standards and syllabi. 

This really doesn’t work.  Lesson plan books are better at recording what has already happened than at committing to what will happen–in a good classroom, there is so much flexibility and adaptation as teachers respond to immediate needs that any lesson planned more then a few days in advance is essentially worthless, anyway.

What I suggest is evaluating teachers based on their grade books(more…)

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I’m reading Richard E. Nisbett’s new book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.  Its chapter on effective teaching mentions the Department of Education’s web site, What Works Clearinghouse, and its sister site, Doing What Works.  

 

I checked them both out, and they look promising.  Like most education research, they’re clearly geared primarily towards elementary education, but there is some good stuff for math and science teachers, as well as for staff development, which I find myself caring more and more about. 

 

Regarding Nisbett’s book, I’ll simplify the chapter about effective teaching thusly:

 

Based on correlating extant research, do the following things make schools better?

 

Spending: no

Charter & private schools: no

Class size: yes, for younger children

Teacher education and certification: no

Inexperienced, rookie teachers: no (negative effect)

“Emotionally supportive classrooms”: yes

Computerized instruction (for math): yes

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What makes an effective teacher?  What’s the meaning of life?  What do women want?  (Blame Freud for that last one, not me.)  These three questions have excited so much postulating and pontificating that many thinkers have given up on trying to answer them at all, instead resigning themselves to the apparent inevitability of resolving such baffling conundrums.  However, recently, two of America’s best major magazines have run thought-provoking features intended to address the first query above. 

 

            Malcolm Gladwell (author of the bestsellers Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point) reported in December 2008 on the burgeoning field of statistical quantification as it relates to the field of education in The New Yorker.  Gladwell summarizes the findings of one expert in the piece as showing that “the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast,” noting that teacher competence has a far greater impact on student achievement than class size or even (perceived) school quality.  Another expert—Jacob Kounin—emphasizes the importance of what he calls “withitness”—a preternatural awareness of a class’s immediate climate.

 

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It surprises me that so many teachers are liberals.  My associations with many dozens of teachers over the years has shown that we’re almost unanimously in agreement on the things that hold back student achievement: apathetic parenting and cultural poison that subverts our efforts.  These are both (at least in our current political climate) essentially conservative concerns. 

And yet, our most vocal teachers, as well as administrators, unions, and districts, tend to obsess over ideas that are inherently liberal: increasing spending, adding more bureaucrats and programs to the system, and increasing regulation of what individual campuses can do.  This, despite the total failure of any of these things to do any good at all for the several decades that they’ve been in vogue.

Anybody else reminded of the caucus race in Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland?  Leftist policies tend to bring that to mind for me.

Anyway, I think I realize now why so many education professionals are liberals.  It must be an automatic defense mechanism, because being a conservative teacher is enough to drive anyone insane.

It’s easy to keep running around trying all these new programs in our schools and crying for more money, because that strategy can never fail: if results don’t improve, just insist that we haven’t come up with enough programs and money yet.  The beautiful thing with this strategy is that it allows us to focus on things we can control: the teaching profession can keep tweaking the details of campus routines endlessly and without benefit, but (much like the thinking behind the stimulus package) at least we’re doing something, right? 

Certainly this approach is much easier (and more sanity-friendly) than resigning to the truth that the vast majority of the factors that influence the quality of our work are well beyond our control.  Why would any administrator try to improve the conditions of a community that produces lackluster students–a Herculean task, to say the least–when he or she can just get on board with the established program: fiddle around with the procedures for department meetings in your school, assign teachers more paperwork, and lobby for more education spending?

There’s just no natural incentive for teachers to be conservatives, because it will only lead to more frustration. 

My students this year are ten times more productive than my students were during my first few years teaching.  Did I become a better teacher?  Not at all; I do most things exactly the same way.  I just got a job in a better part of town.

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The Clark County School District is facing a budget crisis; after having cut $130 million from its budget for this year, we now find ourselves having to cut even more for next year.  Some details are here

Schools are having emergency meetings with parents in the community to discuss ideas for cuts, and my school had such a meeting among its staff last week, as I’m sure many other schools have.  Everybody’s worried about salaries, perks, and even job security itself.

Let’s set a few things straight:

First, there is plenty of money out there for what we need.  There always has been and always will be.  It’s not a matter of needing more money, it’s a matter of better investing what we have.  It does not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to provide textbooks and necessary supplies.  Besides (the curmudgeon hastened to add), there is absolutely no relationship between education spending and academic achievement

But what about technology?  Doesn’t that cost a lot?  Yes, but that might as well be where we make some cuts, too, since…wait for it…students with greater access to computers statistically do worse academically than others

All this brouhaha reminds me of a letter that I had in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on July 11, 2007:

 

Here’s a shocking thought from a teacher: Raising our salaries won’t improve anything.

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I first read about Rafe Esquith in an article in National Review.  After that, I read and enjoyed his book, There Are No Shortcuts.  Esquith espouses a teaching ethic that is heavy on emotion and personality, but that is more than balanced out by incredibly high academic standards and a work ethic that would make your average Marine cry. 

I don’t think everything in Esquith’s methods would work for me, but I can’t help but respect someone who gives 150% of himself to teaching, not to make kids feel good, but to guide them into becoming truly intellectual giants.  (Esquith is most famous for putting his students through a full professional production of a Shakespearean play each year, a task that, especially considering his many other ambitious units, has him running his classroom about twelve hours a day, six days a week.  And these are fifth graders.)

As I’ve been gearing up for the new year, I wanted to read something that was inspirational, practical, and not a bunch of warm fuzzy gobbledygook.  So I checked out Esquith’s more recent book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.  Where There Are No Shortcuts focused on Esquith’s philosophy and anecdotes, this newer volume is a nuts and bolts how-to of teaching like he does.

Like I said, a lot of this stuff really wouldn’t transfer to my high school English class, but after reading the first two chapters–one about reading and the other about writing–I did go back and take some notes.  For someone whose language is often so reminiscent of PC nonsense (Esquith says the priority on the first day of school is to “establish trust”), his actual work routines are strenuous, and completely dedicated to independent achievement.  Rock on. 

Actually, I recommend this book for everybody, not just for teachers.  For one thing, even though we all went to school ourselves, unless you’ve spent time in the profession, you have no idea just how much corruption, stupidity, and heartbreak really exists behind the scenes of a school.  Esquith has great stories about these institutional failures, and isn’t afraid to name names.  Second, his class ranges the gamut of curriculum, from humanities to hard science to pop culture to character development, and his many specific examples are a joy to consider. 

Read the chapter where he describes, in painstaking detail, how to get the most out of a visit to Washington, D.C.  He bases this on decades of annual field trips there.  I’m going to copy it and use it as my official travel guide the next time I go.  And the chapter about his after-school classic film club…priceless.  My wife’s had a copy of Charadeon her shelf for years; I never thought I might like it until I read Esquith’s praise of it.  I think I might try to start something similar at my own school.  (Last year, during a discussion with a class, I made a passing reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The class came to a grinding halt as I faced thirty blank stares.  They had never seen it.  They had never even heard of it.  And this was an honors class.  Sad.)

One quibble, though.  Esquith makes a big deal out of how his success comes in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where most homes don’t have English as a first language.  The implication is that he’s teaching “disadvantaged” minorities, yet this book has lots of pictures of his students…and virtually all of them are Asian.  Most every picture looks just like the one you see on the cover here.  There are a few Hispanic kids in the book, but only a few, and not a single black kid.  I have to wonder if Esquith’s school population is really a tough to teach as he suggests; all of the kids in the pictures have nice, preppy clothes, are clearly well nourished and groomed, and show no physical sign of coming from lower class homes. 

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it would be disingenuous of Esquith to sell himself as a master teacher of poverty-stricken youth if he’s really teaching primarily the children of hard working first or second generation Asian families with stable homes, a strong work ethic, and who place a high value on education.  I could be wrong, but the pictures make me wonder.

Still, it’s a great read, and it gave me exactly what I wanted: a boost of enthusiasm sprinkled with a few practical ideas.  It’d do the same for you, no matter what kind of teacher you are, or even if you aren’t a teacher at all.

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A parent of a student recently sent me this survey as part of her masters’ program, and asked for my input.  Following up on my last post (and trying to make up for the deficit of education-related posts this summer), I thought I’d share some of my meager thoughts here.  Perhaps they’ll be of interest to someone.  My replies to the questions are in italics.

 

Upper Elementary through Middle School and High School

 

What grade do you currently teach? 10th–Sophomores

What grade have you taught? All grades 6-12 (and college)

What subjects have you taught? English I-IV, English R/W I-II, Composition, Forensics, American Literature Honors, Modern Literature (college: English 101 and 102, World Literature)

 

1. What aspects of literacy do you hope that your students have been exposed to prior to your level? These could include activities, state objectives, or materials (pieces of literature). By high school, the most important aspects of literacy would be reading fluency, genre awareness, basic literary terms (setting, plot, figures of speech, etc.), and, ideally, some memorization of literature.

 

2. What Reading deficits and disabilities do you encounter most? Comprehension, fluency, willingness to engage difficult material.

A. What are your most used remedial tactics for these problems? Reading aloud to them is the best overall intervention, as well as guided practice using strategies like making predictions, evaluating an author’s methods of narration, and identifying themes and encouraging students to analyze and apply them.

 

4. In regards to phonetic awareness skills, what theories of practice do you support and/or not support?

C. Do you see phonics facts like Math teachers see addition/subtraction/multiplication/ division facts; that if a student does not master these early, he or she will continue to have difficulties? Yes; for example, early training in Latin and Greek word roots is essential to development of advanced vocabulary.

B. How do students at your level need to use their phonics skills? Primarily for decoding difficult new vocabulary; at another level, for tracking complex sentence structures in difficult texts.

C. Do you see any outside influences that detract from phonics skills; such as popular language among peers or media influences? TEXT MESSAGING!

 

5. What are you feelings about parental involvement in Literacy? Describe your ideal situation. I’m unsure about this: we might be able to instruct students without parental help, but certainly not against parental illiteracy. Have you read Freakonomics? The best statistical predictor of student acquisition of literacy is a language-rich home environment, established by the parents’ own habits. As such, if schools are going to advocate for improving their communities, I sometimes wonder what we could do to “reach out” to parents better; offer more classes and activities that involve them in reading with their families, perhaps (maybe sponsoring family/community book clubs?).

 

6. What are your personal theories on literacy instruction; its practices and goals for you level?

A. What reading programs have worked best for you? Describe what element(s) of the program were the most beneficial.

B. How do you approach multi level reading groups? At the high school level, this is difficult. For independent reading projects (which I try to do quarterly), I encourage individual students in the library to select books of an appropriate difficulty level; I’ve even offered different reading lists to different groups of students based on their ability.

C. What are your best/ favorite reading comprehension instruction techniques? See my answer to 2A.

D. What are your major checkpoints/milestones throughout the year, and how often do assess; such as beginning, mid-year, and end of year? For literacy, I would my “major checkpoints” would be the tests I give on each our quarterly in-class novels(Huck Finn, Ender’s Game, etc.), which focus on comprehension of major aspects of writing (plot, character, style, etc.); and, for their independently-chosen novels, a report that focuses on summarizing those things, and responding to the text in various ways, including evaluating it and illustrating scenes from it. So, each quarter should have at least these two differing major assessments of their literacy, as demonstrated by how they’ve interacted with two differing texts.

 

7. What proportion should be given to literal questions vs. high order thinking questions? This might sound like a cop-out, but I say “lots of both.” Heavy doses of questions and activities that hit all six areas of Bloom’s taxonomy offer the best means of making the most of a text. I’ve found that if I offer “question starters” to students based on all six levels and have them finish the questions with material from their reading, then trade papers and answer each other’s questions, they usually impress me.

 

8. What proportions should be given to reading materials such as short story, novels, and nonfiction? Before the 20th century, fiction was often seen as little more than a toy, but I would argue that it should predominate in our humanities studies. Reading fiction invites students to track character and plot development over time, as well to grapple with understanding narrative devices such as metaphor, theme, and satire, which are more rarely used in fairly direct non-fiction works. In addition, literate fiction can convey much the same factual information that non-fiction can, but with a greater artistic care and narrative craftsmanship that helps improve student interest.

 

9. List which written works you would consider classic, whether they are novels, short stories, novellas, or an author in general, for your grade level. Contemporary “young adult” literature is often touted as increasing student interest; my experience does not bear that out. Besides that, I’m an inveterate classicist, and prefer assisting students in studying the Western canon as much as possible. That being said, I also think it’s worthwhile to introduce students to superior, worthy materials in the world of current literary criticism, such as Harold Bloom. These two approaches reinforce each other quite well.

 

10. How much time do you devote to independent reading in your planning? How much would you with complete freedom? As implied in my answer to 6D, I use both assigned class readings as well independently-chosen works. However, the essays, stories, and novels used for class are obviously covered in greater depth. The “outside” readings are mostly offered to help spur lifelong reading interests. To that end, (I should append this to my answer to 6B), when I give lists of titles to be used as a guide for independent reading, I try to mediate small “book club” discussions in class based on groups arranged as per same/similar titles/authors/subjects. This works quite well. “Complete freedom” in a classroom only results in anarchy—titles for independent reading must always be approved by me before they begin. If a title is inappropriate or below their level, I try to redirect them to options that are more suitable.

 

11. Summarize the reading skills necessary for a student to be fully ready to pass your grade level. For the sake of space, I might refer you back to my answer to 6D.

 

12. How would you describe a student that is a fluent reader of any age? “Rare.” Ha! Sorry. Seriously, such a student can identify favorite genres, even specific titles and authors that interest him/her. He or she would likely have a library card. He or she would also likely be able to give examples of books that he/she “liked more than the movie version.”

 

13. How do you avoid being in a vacuum in your field? Um, I suppose by not getting inside a vacuum. Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re driving at here.

 

14. Do you have any comments or input that you think are necessary for Reading teachers of levels beyond yours are important to know about the students’ prior training, skills, or anything else? One important thing I can think of that hasn’t been covered yet is this: promoting lifelong reading interest is important and worthy, but not something that we can ultimately control. As such, expending too much energy on stimulating student interest is unproductive. We might want students to love reading as much as we do, but if there doesn’t seem to be much hope for individual students, or even whole classes, to attain that characteristic, we shouldn’t let it be a barrier for us. We need to be able to continue immersing them in the literary canon and reading skills that form the core of our civilization without feeling that we must “convert” students to our love of the subject.

 

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After reading endless superlative references to him in the columns of Las Vegas Review-Journal author Vin Suprynowicz, I have decided to read a book by renegade educator John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.  Read the first part of my critique of this book here.  This essay covers chapter two of the book.

Gatto calls the public school model psychopathic, describing it with phrases like “a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class,” and “move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong.”  Never mind that the first is exactly how people choose to group themselves in normal adult life and that the second is a jaundiced version of what more objective observers would call organization and time management, rather than insidious tools in a soul-crushing, brain-washing conspiracy.

 

Gatto’s crude caricature of school fails because he never connects his vision of school—with its routines and schedules—directly to the academic malaise he bemoans at the beginning of the chapter. 

 

That being said, I’ll agree with him on one point.  Children are institutionalized at school.  Gatto would probably say because of school, but I merely share the observation that kids tend to mindlessly shuffle through their routine.  For example, I’ve lost count of how many students ditch school or neglect their work to the point that their grade barely registers as a percentage, but who show up on the last day for the final exam and work their hearts out for hours.  There is, of course, no chance for them to pass the class and get credit at that point, so why do they do it?  My only answer is that they must be very well programmed to follow the overall conventions of the school-centered life.  

 

But I see that “programming” as evidence of being spoiled, not brainwashed.  It’s the product of an entire childhood of being coddled, of being ensured a safety net—by entitlement-minded parents set on auto pilot, by a media that indulges their every hedonistic whim to a degree that Caligula would have thought excessive, and only partially by a school system that inflates grades and promotes them socially.  Ironically, the cure for the apathy that Gatto sees isn’t to make school far different in form, but to make it more strict—and therefore more effective—in its current form.  But that would only work partially, because the other aspects of a young person’s life which influence him or her far more than school—home and media—are beyond our control.  (To his credit, Gatto does admit that television has a greater effect on children than school, but neglects to propose solutions to the problems that causes.)

 

Gatto labels this malady “dependency,” and he’s absolutely right to do so.  But this dependency on “the man” to tell you how to live isn’t created by schools—in fact, it’s well in place before most students step into Kindergarten—it’s merely enabled by a school system that fails to combat it aggressively enough.  The structure of school isn’t broken, it just isn’t employed rigorously enough.

 

Higher standards and expectations would raise achievement like nothing else.  I know because that’s what worked for the colonial and pioneer eras that Gatto so adores.  He seems to imply that there was some radically alternative method of schooling back then that we’ve lost.  Sadly, he never gets around to explaining what this is (he doesn’t appear to have a very good conception of the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse—where do rulers and paddles fit into your paradigm, Mr. Gatto?), but, yet again ironically, that system which was corrupted by the Industrial Revolution (another point on which we agree) was not individualistic, it was regimented, mechanical, and authoritarian.  (This truth is perhaps best laid bare in Dorothy Sayers’ classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”)

 

Perhaps the best argument against Gatto’s “school is an assembly line that only produces government-worshipping drones” thesis is this: where’s the beef?  Where do we see hordes of public school graduates whose eyes zone out at the very mention of school and robotically chant, “I love Big Brother”?  In actuality, school does the opposite of what Gatto claims: many, if not most, students, drunk on the intoxicant of countless media models, reflexively combat the school system via apathy, truancy, and shallow work, most often to their own detriment, and usually solidifying a lifelong hatred of school in the process.  To me, a hundred hostile parent conferences prove this. 

 

Gatto also decries the “loss of private time” foisted upon students by school.  Is he suggesting that less time drilling in algebra and more time staring at caterpillars under shady elm trees would boost math scores?  If so, he forgets to clarify it, much less document it, though the existing research (see my earlier post on this subject) and common sense dictate otherwise.  (Though perhaps Gatto would agree with Lowell Monke’s excellent essay, “Charlotte’s Webpage: Why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips,” which shares his concerns about the degradation of independence, interaction, and imagination, though Monke lays the blame squarely at the doorstep of electronic entertainment technology parading as educationally valuable.  Amen.)

 

Perhaps I’m not being charitable; in all fairness, Gatto does emphasize a loss of social and imaginative development in his comments against the unstructured time vampire that is school.  However, he does not account for the fact that much of today’s schools are disproportionately engaged in group work or “cooperative learning” or some similar counterproductive fad.  More than a few truculent students have told me over the years that the only reason they don’t drop out is because school is where they see their friends, which would seem to rebut Gatto’s school-as-Gulag position.  But at least it demonstrates that institutionalizing isn’t the only thing keeping our kids in school!  J

 

At one point, Gatto lists eight distressing facets of the identity of modern young people (all quite real), but in his zeal to blame them on school, he takes logic to a brave new world—how in the world do the bells between classes invariably lead to a dearth of curiosity?  Mr. Gatto, it’s not just the time spent watching television that hurts children, it’s the amoral content.  They get it there, not at school. 

 

I’m also confused when Gatto criticizes the doctrinaire public education system of “the last 140 years.”  All of the problems we see—mental and emotional—are products of the post-WWII period, less than half of the time the current models of public school have existed.  Perhaps Gatto ignores this because it would invalidate his anti-school thesis.

 

Gatto’s suggestions for solutions near the end of the chapter amount to engaging in a national “debate” (about what?) and, especially, letting children do more independent study.  I agree that ultimately a well-educated person must be an autodidact, but it is foolish to think that students who have little self-control or study skills, much less goals or ambitions that they can articulate, would benefit from being set loose to do it all on their own.  Also, Gatto’s scheme of encouraging ad-hoc apprenticeships would do little to inculcate literacy or computational skills.  Is he seriously suggesting that America’s intellectual deficit is the result of not enough unsupervised field trips? 

 

The most disturbing thing in the chapter is Gatto’s assertion that time needs to be taken away from school so that students might have “large doses of privacy and solitude,” when by his own accounting, students spend far more time watching television (55 hours—far lower than the actual 2008 total) than attending or preparing for school (45 hours—far inflated).  Such poor selection of targets makes for irresponsible reform.  By ignoring the media and lacerating school, Gatto is tilting at windmills.

 

Gatto’s call for a “curriculum of the family” is honorable, but in the age of day care, not practical.  I can’t believe that he would have us campaign for family-involved public education (this would certainly pose controversial problems for the large percentage of students with missing, uninterested, or otherwise unavailable “families”!), which assumes that we can count on community factors far beyond our control, yet he declines to include a head-on campaign against the abuse of electronic entertainment media, which is obviously the major culprit in America’s mental decline, and a goal for which we can conceivably make progress.

 

Or is it just easier to blame the big bad bogeyman of school than it is to ask America to reform its media-saturated lifestyle?

 

 

 

 

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A shorter version of this letter was published in the Las Vegas Sun on Saturday, October 28, 2006.  It got universally positive feedback, including a hand written note of thanks from the superintendent.  Near the end, I say that my idea is tongue-in-cheek because it’s impractical: no doubt the law of unintended consequences would turn this into a circus of manipulation, intimidation, and blame.  Too bad.  In a better world, this idea would work just fine.

 

Dear Editor:
 
As the first quarter of the school year goes out not with a bang but a whimper, this frustrated educator wonders why. Indeed, teachers scrutinize and reform their methods far more often than you may realize.
 
We beat our heads against the wall trying to discover that magic detail that will turn our students into scholars. Is it curriculum? Scheduling?  But these and a thousand others have been endlessly honed! Only one thing has remained constant—apathetic parents.
 
It’s an old observation in teachers’ lounges across America that as society has grown less disciplined, children’s academic achievement has followed a parallel path.
 
Barring a wholesale overhaul of cultural mores, what are we to do to stem this tide of parents who model incompetence and get nothing else from their offspring? How could we actually work within the bloated, entitlement-minded bureaucracy that Joe Sixpack has abdicated his autonomy to and get his attention?
 
Here’s how: let’s give tax breaks and penalties based on children’s performance in school.
 
It’s easy: If your child gets an A one semester, you get a $100 tax credit. Perfect attendance, $50. And what about the cost for someone who has ten kids who always get straight A’s and never ditch school? God bless them. They’ve earned every dollar they get. They’re producing the kind of citizens this Republic needs to flourish.
 
But your kid failed two classes? Ooh, that’ll cost you $50. Skipped class ten times? Cough up a Franklin or two. Got suspended? Goodbye refund.
 
How is that fair? Think of it this way—why does public education exist?  It’s to ensure the future of the nation. And what better indicator is there that someone will be a benefit or burden to society in the future (via welfare, lost productivity, and crime) than performance in school?
 
Finally, parents who are doing their part could get some overdue recognition, and those who neglect to actually provide parenting might get a red flag to help them see their kids’ lives already going down the toilet.  Or at least they’ll pay for the mistakes they’re letting their children prepare to make in a needlessly wasted future.
 
Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek.  The courts would choke on the glut of petty lawsuits from parents who want to sue their way out of having to pay for their children’s mistakes.  (And they would win—another reason why our schools are so weak: they’ve been neutered by such lawsuits.)
 
Even more distressing is that we even have these ideas.  Nobody wants schools checking up on parents!  But that leaves us where we are now—helplessly tweaking mundane details of education while the real power players, the parents, sit back and do nothing.

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To celebrate the last day of school here in Las Vegas, let me share some thoughts about the beginning of John Taylor Gatto’s “classic” work of subversion, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.  Gatto, an award-winning veteran public school teacher, has spent about the last twenty years shrieking about how awfully destructive the U.S. public school system is, claiming that it’s designed to promote widespread failure and should be abandoned altogether. 

It’s actually an intriguing thesis, and a worthwhile local news columnist is just ravished by anything Gatto has written, so I’m giving it a chance.  However, based on the first chapter, it’s a huge disappointment.  My references are to the newer 2005 edition:

 

From “About The Author”

 

Pages xxxiv-xxxv: “Although I continue to this day in those futile assays because of the nature of institutional teaching [Excuse me? Isn't this a confession of complicity with a system that, according to you, breaks down students' souls and enervates society? Isn't that monstrous?], wherever possible I have broken with teaching tradition [“whenever possible”? What's holding you back the rest of the time?] and sent kids down their separate paths to their own private truths. [More time spent explaining how this is to be done and less time heaping blame onto your shadowy bogeyman “system” would have been productive! Such reluctance to offer specific solutions suggests that you truly have none to offer.]”

 

From Chapter 1

 

Page 10: [regarding grades and assessment] “Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet, is never considered a factor.” Name one “major philosophical system” in world history that not only allowed children to voice their own judgments of themselves, but gave formal credence to them! Isn’t this really only a feature of experimental, new-age educational doctrines? Haven’t the educational systems that built Western Civilization (especially the Trivium, and those 19th century schoolbooks you rightfully admire) traditionally been strictly authoritarian, far more so than schools today?

 

Page 12: “No, the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn.”Oh, is that all? Gatto assumes that such motivation is inherent in all students, and that it has been sadistically squashed by school. Nonsense! Students start school these days used to being entertained and pandered to. The difficulty of sustained thought and the indoctrination of anti-intellectual media make them reject school with all the xenophobic zeal of any ethnocentric zombie.

 

Page 16: [Here, Gatto asserts that the modern “prison” model of school was formed as a hostile reaction towards immigrants, emancipated blacks, and the poor.] Then why create a universal, mandatory system that drags down their own (presumably WASPy) children with all the other children? More to the point…where’s your evidence for any of this? Without any kind of research or documentation, isn’t this just gross speculation? And since you’re using these assumptions to inveigh against generations of Americans (you know, those evil fat cats who gleefully consign undesirable children to the virtual slave mines), isn’t this conspiracy theory libelously irresponsible?

 

Page 17, 2nd paragraph, and page 19, 2ndparagraph: [Twice, Gatto accurately describes the degenerated nature of American youths' mental abilities. However, he blames school for these failings, still without a shred of evidence beyond, apparently, his own experience teaching in New York. On 19, though, he does mention television and two-income and single-parent homes as contributors to the failures of American children. Thanks for agreeing with me, Mr. Gatto.]

 

So far, Gatto appears to be just as dogmatic as the left-wing educrats he criticizes.  I’m no fan of a lot of things about schools today, but just because someone comes up with a criticism of them doesn’t mean it’s justified.  We’ll see if it gets any better.

 

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