Saturday, October 27, 2007

Damn Kids

Accurate prophecy or alarmist tripe? You decide:
We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement,
he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.

Well, no, I don't think it is. But I can see how anyone who has been in the Ed Biz for a while might feel downhearted. Look at California: there are thousands of high school students who cannot pass an exit exam requiring nothing more than middle school math. They take the test again and again and again and again, all the way up to 12th grade--and sometimes beyond--and still they can't pass it. Thousands.

Look at the universities, where students are being asked to take remedial courses--for no college credit--to re-learn (or finally learn) the math or language arts skills they never got in high school.

Look at the corporate world. When I worked for Large Investment Bank as a secretary (sorry: Banking Assistant...all job titles having been selfesteemed for our comfort), I saw year after year of entry-level hires who couldn't write to save their lives. The vice presidents had to nurse them through every document they created. And these were, without exception, Ivy League graduates.

And let's not even get into our increasing historical and scientific illiteracy.

Something is definitely going on, and what I find interesting about it is that it's going on at a very basic level. Everyone is in a panic about Algebra, but if you dig a little bit, you find that the real problem is with basic number sense. We want our kids to take Algebra earlier, so that they can all move into Calculus...but they can't even make change. And we want young adults to read sophisticated technical manuals, understand complex legislation being proposed, and navigate through the treacherous waters of political opinion-mongering...but they can't even make it through a page of Dickens, or write a coherent paragraph.

In our rush to sophistication, or in our love of Grand Theories, are we simply shortchanging the basics?

The Wife had a student teacher, years back, who, when given the chance to work with 11th graders for the first time, decided to introduce them to deconstruction. These were kids who were still struggling to construct something. But that didn't matter. She had learned Cool Stuff in grad school, and she wanted to pass it along.

There was a teaching assistant when I was in grade school who was notorious for using his section of Introduction to Theater as a way to expound Marxist Theory--or his version of it, anyway. For him, every play in the history of drama was nothing more than a series of master/slave relationships and domination of the poor by the rich. It's certainly a valid lens through which to view literature--but it's a lens. And it was the only one he was providing to his students--students who had no prior context or exposure to the material.

Maybe context is the whole thing, here. We're too busy, too fascinated, too Beyond It All to take the time to lay the groundwork and establish deep context for students. We want them to take courses in the Latino Civil Rights Movement in high school, when they haven't yet gotten a grasp on the basic chronology of world or American history. But nobody wants to teach that--it's boring. It's old fashioned. It's not progressive. We all want them to do critical thinking, but none of us wants to teach them critical thinking.

Let me ask you this: if we wiped out all the state-specific high school exit exams that have blossomed under the sun of No Child Left Behind, and replaced them with a single, national test for 17-year-olds that assessed nothing more complex than reading comprehension at an 8th grade level, simple paragraph writing, and pre-Algebra level math, what percentage of our students do you think would pass it? More than 50, do you think?

I agree with the writer of this article that a population that cannot interpret or advance a logical argument is a population of sheep, if not outright slaves. Witness how many people swallow O'Reilly, Hannity, and Limbaugh (yes, and Michael Moore) without any willingness or ability to question what they say. But these are complex skills that have to be built from the ground up. There needs to be a clearly articulated progression of instruction with an eye towards the eventual goal: What do we want our 18-year olds (or our 22-year olds, if you want to hold our colleges accountable to anything) to know and be able to do? How long does it take to get there? What are the steps along the way?

And teachers are willing to have that discussion. They are. But only if they get to decide what that goal is and what those steps are. Each one of them. Separately. Independently.

You know, education is not assembly line work, by any means. But there is an end product, and it is the result of the work of a large number of people. And if each worker in this particular "line" is so in love with his or her job and how they perform it that they can't see or care about the end product, then the end product ain't gonna work.

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