The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account."...  ...Oscar Wilde.

Commentary of the Day - January 1, 2010:  Poor Elijah's 2010 Education Wish List.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Poor Elijah never put much stock in New Year's resolutions.  Every so often he tried to make one or two, but he always had a hard time finding anything new to be resolute about.  Growing up he needed intravenous milkshakes just to get within shouting distance of the bottom of the growth curve, so dieting never made much sense.  In eighth grade he resolved to stop driving his teachers crazy, but once he realized how unfair this was to his fellow students, he canceled his plan on humanitarian grounds.

Despite his own personal ambivalence, Poor Elijah recognizes the stock some readers put in organizing their intentions at the top of the year.  Here then are a few resolutions he'd like to see schools adopt.

1. Enact a ban on press release photographs of smiling students aimlessly milling around "innovative" classrooms.  This will help refute the growing assumption that learning is directly related to the number of laps students make around the room every day.  Just once let's see a news photo of students seated at their desks with their books open and their hands raised, with the entirely unspectacular caption, "Students in this picture are learning history."

2. Issue a gag order silencing all education experts who haven't taught in public school classrooms for the bulk of their careers.  Offer these authorities – cabinet officers, commissioners, legislators, education professors, and think-tankers – the chance to reapply for an education preaching license after they've spent the next five years teaching on their own in a real classroom with real kids.

3. Call for a national commitment to achieving low standards.  Experts tell us the problem is our standards aren't high enough, and in some senses they're right.  But failing to meet high standards is our second problem.  Meeting low standards comes first.  Twelve-year-olds who can't multiply won't get better at math just because we're pretending to teach them algebra.

Yes, some kids respond if you challenge them.  And some are excruciatingly unchallenged in their public school classrooms.  That's often because their teacher has to go slowly enough to ensure "success for all students," including those who can't or don't care to meet low standards.

4. Admit that some students are smarter than others.  Then admit that this typically makes a difference in what and how fast they can learn.  Reformers who complain that old-fashioned schools ran on the "one size fits all" principle need to take a close look at what their wholesale rejection of ability grouping and their obsession with heterogeneous classes, comprising students from gifted to learning impaired, have cost us and our children.

5. Announce an immediate cancellation of all guarantees of academic success.  Some students – like some adults – will fail.  We all fail at something sooner or later.  Failure isn't a cause for celebration, but it is a reality.  Across the nation states and districts have adopted the slogan "Success for all students – no exceptions, no excuses."  This impossible entitlement is a lie, and despite any good will behind it, a cruel hoax.

6. Stop trying to resuscitate bankrupt ideas by renaming them.  The follies of the past thirty years won't work any better just because you change the banner from "Restructuring Education" to "Reinventing Education."  Cooperative Learning, where students theoretically teach each other and earn group grades, isn't any less ineffective just because you start calling it "Team-based Learning."  The diluted educational objectives currently touted as "21st Century Skills" are just as inappropriate and ill-advised as they were when experts hawked them as "Skills for the 21st Century" back in the twentieth century.

7. Deny Internet access to students who can't use a table of contents.  Boosters rave about the wealth of online data, but most students don't suffer from a lack of information.  It's what they can't or won't do with the information they already have that's the problem.

8. Freeze all expenditures on "state of the art" education assessment tests and portfolios.  Most have proven embarrassingly incapable of reliably assessing anything.  Besides, we already know more than we need to know about how much our kids don't know.

9. Stop regarding students as laboratory animals.  Too many children have served as guinea pigs for too many half-baked, bandwagon education innovations.  Too many currently suffer as unwitting participants in "mainstreaming" behavior plans drawn up to maintain disruptive students "in the regular classroom," regardless of the damage done to the rest of the children in that classroom.

10. Restore actual physical fitness programs to gym class so students know what it feels like to work hard.  Hard work hurts sometimes, whether it's physical or mental. K ids need to recognize the feeling so they'll be able to tell when they’re really exerting themselves.

11. Pack all students off for "hands on" field trips to the third world sweatshops where the rest of the planet's children spend their days.  Some American kids have life far easier than others.  But most would profit from the realization that the alternative to public school isn't their PlayStation.

12. Legalize the words sloppy, lazy, and obnoxious in the education lexicon.  Permit teachers to say, "Your kid's lazy," instead of the current, "Your child appears to be dealing with motivational issues."  Also substitute "sloppy" for "organizational disability" and "obnoxious" – or "dangerous" – for "behaviorally challenged."

Given his own views on New Year's resolutions, Poor Elijah won't be hurt if you skip over his dozen.  But he suggests you at least give some thought to adopting Number 12.

There's ample room to disagree when it comes to school.

But we'll never get to the bottom of things if we don’t say what we mean.  And that's a resolution for any season of the year.

2010, Peter Berger..
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: There is substantial merit in what Poor Elijah has said, and plenty to upset more than a few readers.  Items 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 12 are pretty much on the mark as far as the IP is concerned.  Items 1 and 7 perhaps are an expression of a desire to return to a simpler era in education.  But, in reality there is little chance that we can return to the regimented classrooms of the first half of the 20th century.  And, great care would have to be exercised in returning to the "ability grouping" that Poor Elijah suggests in item 4.  The IP can remember a day when "ability grouping" or "tracking" as it often was called had less to do with an individual student's ability and more to do with his or her socio-economic status.  As far as item 8 is concerned, the IP is of the opinion that there is a legitimate role for standardized testing to measure what student's are learning.  Unfortunately, starting with "No Child Left Behind", standardized testing has become an end in itself rather than a useful tool with which to measure progress or lack thereof.  Item 10 would be nice if schools actually had the resources for decent physical education classes.  These days budgets often are spread so thin, and so much else is mandated in the curriculum that there is little time left over for "recess" let alone serious physical education.  As far as item 11 is concerned many of today's public school students already are living in conditions that are close to third-world, so they already know the consequences of the lack of education.


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