The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"America believes in education: the average professor earns more in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week."...  ...Evan Esar.

Commentary of the Day - March 22, 2008: Educator's Digest: Volume 23.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Spring is still several ice storms away here in Vermont, so it's a perfect time to curl up by a warm fire and catch up on your education reading. Here's a quick survey of some winter headline news.

In a shocking and worrisome development, the U.S. Department of Education lost all touch with reality and announced plans to include five teachers on the staff of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.  The decision caught official Washington by surprise, since policymakers have long agreed that the chief qualification for being an education expert is never having taught in a classroom.  Having ventured the wild notion that her department might occasionally consult actual teachers, Secretary Spellings added, "I hope that’s not going to be controversial."  Fortunately, the department doesn't plan to hire the teachers until shortly before the election, which will give them just a couple of weeks before they'll be out of their new jobs.

The Washington Post recently published "ten tips on finding just the right school for your child."  The tips were compiled by the Post's noted education columnist Jay Mathews, who once again drew on the insight and experience he's gained from a lifetime of never having worked in a school.  His recommendations range from checking school web sites for test scores to calling parents you don't know and asking their opinions.  He suggests getting the names of reliable, informed, unbiased parents from your real estate agent or the school secretary.  He then cautions against judging schools by their test scores, which he claims are "usually better measures of the wealth of the parents than of the skill of the teachers."  This will hearten many in the education world, who will no doubt be relieved to hear that standardized tests at least measure something well.

Mr. Mathews' counsel varies depending upon your child's age.  To elementary parents he advises just "don't worry."  Your child is already "getting a great education because of you" since you're "an energetic parent who puts great emphasis on education."  Mr. Mathews' evidence of your competence is "you have read this far" in his article.

Parents can also relax about finding a good middle school.  That’s because "there are no good middle schools."  Apparently, "children that age are just too difficult to teach," which is why you need to "look beyond the weariness of the teachers and parents" for an allegedly meaningful indicator of school quality, like whether every eighth grader takes algebra.

I confess to going home tired sometimes, but most of my colleagues aren't weary, and most of my students aren't too difficult to teach.  I'm also not sure why any sensible parent would choose a school that shuffles all eighth grade students, regardless of ability or readiness, into a watered-down version of algebra.

Mr. Mathews does specify a helpful gauge for choosing a high school: The school needs to be "challenging."  In his mind "challenging" means it offers "many advanced placement" courses.  This might seem like good advice for parents whose kids are candidates for advanced study.  Mr. Mathews, however, means it as advice for all parents.  As with eighth grade algebra, he endorses high schools that "encourage all interested students" to take AP courses, regardless of their ability or preparation.

The fiction that everybody is academically "advanced" has led to a widely recognized nationwide deterioration in advanced placement courses.  Prompted by concerns that AP's "rapid growth" as a class for "everyone" has "diluted its quality" and lowered standards, the College Board conducted a "first ever audit" of the program and the classes that schools have lately been labeling "advanced placement."  The immediate fallout has been a sharp decline in the number of high schools offering AP courses, with some voluntarily withdrawing and others rejected outright by an AP review board.

Mr. Mathews' final tip to parents is to choose a school that makes you "happy."  That way your children will be "in a mood to learn."  Unfortunately, as long as learning and study depend on being "in the mood," no school will ever be the right one.

For some experts high-sounding, watered-down academics aren't the hallmark of a good school.  These advocates are more excited about high-sounding, non-academics. NEAToday recently spotlighted "exercise guru" Richard Simmons's "crusade" in support of a federal statute requiring more recess and phys ed. Mr. Simmons complains that No Child Left Behind's "insistent focus on reading and math" has "left our children’s behinds behind."  In the same vein, since principals evidently have nothing else to do, a 2006 federal regulation now requires schools to file "health and wellness policies" detailing "goals for any food served," including "improvement plans" for lunches, class parties, and snacks.  Meanwhile, other more psychologically-oriented specialists demand classroom instruction in "empathy" and "stress management" on the grounds that they’re "equally important as math, science, and English."

Does anybody remember why we send kids to school?

On the brave new world front, the Partnership for the 21st Century is lobbying for schools that prepare American kids for their "globalized futures."  According to activists, "students often complain that the subjects they study in school don't give them the skills they need in the real world."  This finding, based on adolescents' vast experience with the real world, blames teachers who "aren’t equipped to educate students in the digital age," which apparently won't require reading, writing, or knowing anything that happened before the birth of PowerPoint.

In an unparalleled display of pure altruism, silicon giants Dell, Cisco Systems, and Apple have volunteered to meet the crisis by introducing even more technology into schools.  Education consultants and associations are doing their part, too, by providing an ample supply of twenty-first century clichés.  By the time the Partnership is finished saving public education, American kids will be ready to "compete in the global economy" as schools "weave real-world lessons" into the outdated "core subjects on which they are now so intensely focused."  The new focus will feature "musts" like "global awareness" and "health and financial literacy," along with those classes in empathy and stress management.

Naturally, that'll be AP empathy.

© 2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: While the IP is in agreement with most of Poor Elijah's observations, he does believe that physical education has received short shrift of late.  Too many of today's K-12 students and college students have become couch potatoes whose physical condition has become a threat to their health.

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