In 2011, I wrote a seven-part series on the problems of contemporary education, and proposed solutions for them. It’s time to revisit and update that series. Much has changed in the age of Obama. Seizing control of the educational apparatus is always a primary goal of good communists everywhere, because molding the minds of the young is the vanguard of the revolution. Or in Obama-speak, the fundamental transformation of America. Let’s go forward to the past:
NOTE: This is the first of a multi-part series on the problems facing public education. I suspect that many will be surprised at the problems I identify as many of those problems will almost certainly not be the same problems so commonly bandied about by various critics of education. I suspect many will be surprised by the solutions I offer to these problems—at the end of the series—as well because they will not cost billions or require wholesale reinvention of multiple wheels. In fact, most will require little more than common sense, may be accomplished on the local level, and may actually save money. With that, welcome to my daily world!
Education Problems and Solutions, #1: The Wages of Failure
When our mid-term progress reports, or report cards, are sent, I spend hours sending failure e-mails to parents. I used to send letters, which I’ve always preferred, but the price of postage has become too great, so the personal touch, which once helped to form one’s opinion about the writer, has been replaced, like so much, by the neutral–neutered?–efficiency of e-mail. “Dear Sir and/or Madam,” I began, “Your son and/or daughter is currently failing English because…” The original 2011 article was written after our annual research papers were due and an unusually high number—more than four times greater than usual—failed, because school policy makes the final research paper grade one-third of a student’s average for the grading period during which it falls. If they fail to turn in a final draft, or do poorly, they fail that term. About one-third of my students routinely fall into that sorry category.
I was discussing this with several fellow musicians (I happened to have a rehearsal before I wrote the original article). They were amazed. “We would have never got away with that,” said one. “It would not have occurred to us that we had the option not to do our work, especially something so important,” said another. Like me, they attended high school in the 1400s.
Without a doubt, the past is commonly remembered more fondly than it really was. We were more virtuous, industrious, stronger, braver, more accomplished, in every way better.
I’m not sure I buy that, at least not completely. Judging by our men and women in uniform, the current generation is hardly lacking in bravery, industriousness or accomplishment in comparison with any generation, yet there are real differences in today’s students and in those of the past, at least as far as their school performance goes, and it’s our fault—mostly.
By “mostly” I mean kids take their cues from adults. Kids (and their parents) absolutely bear a significant portion of the responsibility for their own educations, yet if we expect and demand a high level of accomplishment and performance, they will see that as the norm and will work to attain it. If we expect less, they’ll achieve less. It’s just that simple. If we hold up meaningless, artificial accomplishments as the real thing, they’ll recognize that for the sham it is and quickly learn to game the system. Kids are not wise, but they’re smart; they understand playing quick and easy games.
At one time, there was failure and success, and the accepted standard of performance was nothing less than success. At the same time, failure was understood to be a vital part of the process of learning, and one of the most powerful motivators of eventual success. All too often, in too many schools, this no longer holds true.
What has gone wrong? Where have we failed? Here are a few of the reasons:
(1) We’ve become Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average—whether they are or not. In order to achieve this, we haven’t demanded higher standards and performance (except on paper); we’ve redefined them. “Average” has become “exceptional,” and only the most truly wretched are allowed to fail.
The self-esteem culture is, in large part, responsible for this kind of idiocy. Self-esteem is merely positive feelings about oneself quite independent of objective reality. As a police officer, I worked with hundreds of criminals that had stratospheric self-esteem. They thought they were the slickest things since sliced bread. Yet, by any objective, rational standard, they were among the worst, most destructive human beings on the planet. If self-esteem is what really matters, objective reality doesn’t, and if objective reality doesn’t matter, rational standards of performance and accomplishment become irrational and arbitrary.
We’ve allowed self-respect to vanish, and to whatever degree it is ever considered, too many think it and self-esteem to be essentially the same, yet it is self-respect—never self-esteem—that must be taught, earned and valued. One is worthy of self-respect only to the degree they live up to exclusively external criteria and expectations. When a student does all that is expected of him—not only in terms of grades, but all aspects of behavior—and does it well, only then are they justified in feeling self-respect. Only then does their worthiness have a foundation that can be seen and valued by all. Self-respect is not a permanent state of being that, once attained, is always present. It must be continually earned and built upon. It is never eternal, but constantly renewed. This used to be called “building character.”
(2) The very idea of constant, dedicated striving for worthy goals has been diluted, and in some places, abandoned. We have conditioned the young, in ways small and great, to expect more or less instantaneous accomplishment and achievement with little effort and less expenditure of time. Where writing is concerned, this essentially eliminates the possibility of rough drafts. Contemporary students can barely bring themselves to write an assignment once. Twice? You must be kidding! Yet, virtually no one can write well without rough drafts and mastering the process involved in producing them. At the same time, more lengthy and complex projects like research papers–even papers requiring no more than three double-spaced pages–are so overwhelming many students won’t even bother to try. They don’t lack the intelligence; they lack the habits and the motivation.
(3) The reason for being of education has become primarily the production of data. This data is produced for, manipulated by, and benefits exclusively the administrative, bureaucratic and political classes. It is this imperative that has established and drives the mandatory, high-stakes testing craze.
Every year, students arrive in high school utterly unable to identify or define nouns or verbs. They do seem familiar with the terms, but lack any real grasp of what they are. Adjectives, adverbs, interjections, gerunds? You must be kidding, yet these kids came from schools with outstanding accountability ratings and very high mandatory testing scores.
This tragic—and harmful—state of affairs exists because more and more, elementary education is about little else than drilling for the tests by which the “effectiveness” of schools is almost exclusively determined. If it can’t be neatly quantified by data, it doesn’t matter. Sadly, much of education, many of the gains students make, can’t be easily quantified, but they can be demonstrated in real and practical ways, ways meaningful to and useful in society. Unfortunately, the products of real and lasting learning and improvement often cannot be reduced to numbers and data points.
We’re producing a generation that is hell on wheels at taking highly specific, very expensive high-stakes tests, but is lacking in the knowledge—and the ability those tests ostensibly measure—to apply it in real, meaningful and useful ways. The administrative, bureaucratic and political classes say—with remarkably straight faces—that test scores prove kids know and can do a variety of seemingly academic things. Teachers know better and despair for the sake of the kids and the billions wasted in producing data rather than learning, and lasting ability.
(4) Institutional effectiveness—in our data-driven system—has taken the place of individual effectiveness. In the past, it was assumed that schools were competent—unless and until proved otherwise—and what mattered was the individual accomplishment of students. That was before the “accountability” movement of which mandatory, high-stakes tests are an integral, fundamental part. In many states, schools are graded primarily on the scores of their students on the tests, but also on such factors as attendance and failure rates. More recently, schools are also graded on the attendance and supposed academic accomplishments of minority populations. This produces schools desperate to achieve high scores on the tests, and high attendance rates and non-existent failure rates.
What’s so bad about that? It not only drives everything schools do, it allows kids to game the system and denies them a proper, truly effective education. Take the issue of failure rates. Principals–whose jobs are on the line to this sort of accountability—do all that they can to see that as few students as possible fail. In practice, this means that there is always pressure to pass kids that, in a system where individual accountability mattered, would have failed, and having failed, be highly motivated to succeed in the future. Knowing that they will always be bailed out, they never learn the important lessons failure and eventual success teach, lessons vital to survival in the real world, vital to national survival—unless of course the transformation of America into a nanny/welfare state in the European model as some so earnestly desire is completed. It is entirely possible for a student to graduate from high school having failed half or more of the time because institutional reputation takes primacy.
The drive for high attendance numbers keeps in school kids who, in the past, would have dropped out and entered the work force early. Many of these kids are continual discipline problems. Some, because they’re simply antisocial—they’re just not good people–others, because school is really not where they need to be. In either case, they tend to be substantial discipline problems, making learning difficult—sometimes impossible—for others, and taking resources away from teaching and learning to control and deal with them.
There are very practical—and negative—problems caused by all of this. For example:
In my school, and countless others, the minimum passing score for a semester is 70%. However, this is computed by the average of three six-week long grading periods. Other schools use quarters, etc. In practice, this means if a student has a 90% average for the first six weeks and 80% for the second, all they need for the final six weeks is 40%. Thankfully, most kids don’t game the system this way. They believe me when I tell them the point of school is not grades, but building bigger, better brains and the way to do that is to do repeated, correct practice—their assignments. But a substantial portion of kids will game the system. They choose not to turn in a final research paper because they know that while they will fail the third six weeks, they will still easily pass the semester, many with at least a “B.” They may be grounded for a week or so, but at least they didn’t have to do a research paper. They have no idea how much vital brain development they missed.
Because nothing is more important than the data produced by mandatory, high stakes tests, it doesn’t really matter.
NEXT MONDAY: Installment two of this series of educational problems and solutions. See you then!