The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
I wrote my name upon the sand,
And trusted it would stand for aye;
But, soon, alas! the refluent sea
Had washed my feeble lines away...  ... Horatio Alger

Commentary of the Day - August 14, 2005:  The Twelfth Annual Emperor's Awards.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Sometimes you can judge a man by what he chooses to be proud of.  That's why Poor Elijah presents his annual Emperor Awards.  They commemorate the monarch who posed in his underwear while his subjects nervously applauded his good taste.  In that spirit here are some of last year's proudest press release education moments.

Our opening presentation spotlights efforts to rededicate schools to high standards.  This year we honor an institution of higher learning [Benedict College in Columbia, S.C] that saw fit to dismiss two professors for violating their university's "mandatory grade inflation policy."  The professors objected to the official formula that required counting effort as sixty percent of a [freshman] student's average, a proportion which resulted in C's for students whose highest actual score on anything was "less than forty."  This year's Distinguished Priorities Cross salutes Benedict's president for his pronouncement, "I don't think that's a bad thing [awarding 60% for effort]."

The Horatio Alger Silver Bootstrap celebrates effort as an essential component of learning.  Last year's nominees included Duke University for eliminating eight o'clock classes so "sleep-deprived" undergraduates could get more shuteye.  This year's Alger follows up on Duke's pioneering efforts by acknowledging the Princeton Review's advertisement for their Law School Admission Test preparation course, which boasted a young legal hopeful sporting a prominent bra strap and bandanna.  In the tradition of Blackstone and Justice Holmes, their "top five reasons" to take the June LSAT headlined, "You can sleep in.  It's on a Monday afternoon."

An ingenious middle school collects this year's Order of the Tempest in a Teacup.  Their revolutionary attendance policy "red flags" students for "intervention" after they've missed seven and fifteen days of school, a radical departure from the former thresholds of five and fifteen absentee days.  Understandably, this monumental achievement required the assistance and funding of no less than nine private, state, and federal agencies, including the office of the state's attorney, the social welfare department, regional police, health care providers, and the U.S. Department of Justice.  A Teacup goes to one and all.

Consistent with public education's post-1970s focus on everything but academics, Texas schools enacted a tough nutrition policy.  Officials amended the rules, however, to permit cupcakes for classroom birthday parties.  In affirming their view of the critical role of the home in scholastic achievement, officials justified the exception on the grounds that class parties provide an ideal "opportunity for parental involvement in the education of their children."  This visionary definition of parent involvement wins the inaugural June Cleaver Golden Bundt Pan Award.

It's never quiet on the education research front.  The Archimedes Eureka Honorarium hails the astounding discovery that "children who don't think they deserve their peers' attention" are "more likely to avoid social activities" that involve their peers.  Sharing the Eureka, and equally startling, was the earthshaking Gallup revelation that a majority of adolescents complain that they're "bored" at school.  "Tired" placed second, with students who "consume alcohol" inexplicably more bored and tired than students who don't consume alcohol.

In a related category, the And the Next Thing I Knew It Was Morning Award commends the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse for unveiling a "correlation between teen dating habits" and "substance abuse."  Apparently, teens who date and have sex are also more likely to drink and smoke.  Researchers described their findings as "striking," though one spokesperson acknowledged their conclusions were "things that most people's grandmothers already know."

The Whole Earth Medallion recognizes districts across the country that are reportedly "moving away from the traditional middle school and toward K-8 schools."  This innovation will "cushion the leap out of the elementary years," which coincidentally was the same rationale offered to justify formerly innovative middle schools when they were the innovation.  Paying homage to the recycled nature of school reform, the academy applauds the anointing of 1980s middle schools as an education "tradition" and 1930's K-8 schools as the new cutting edge.

The Boss Tweed Ethics Trophy wings its way to the heartland school district that paid summer school participants over one million dollars in bonuses.  In an apparent effort to penalize students who do what they're supposed to between September and June, kids who failed or were truant during the regular school year received seventy-five dollars a head for passing or just showing up the second time around.

Educators have tracked with alarm the decline of high school graduates math skills.  The Scarlett O'Hara Instructional Laurel lauds an Ivy League Excellence in Teaching professor and his novel proposal for teaching fractions in elementary school: "Don't."  His fractions-abstinence strategy might fall short when it comes to equipping students for the trigonometry that pipe-dreaming experts want all kids to take before they graduate, but it will perfectly position them for the remedial college math they'll have to take after they graduate.

The Ed Norton Trophy celebrates heroic efforts in the pursuit of excellence.  Following up on last year's recognition of New York City's school regulation prohibiting "red ink," the 2005 Norton toasts educators everywhere who have switched to correcting papers in purple.  In addition to being less "scary," psychologists testify that purple "mixes the authority of red with the serenity of blue."  Of course, purple is also less visible since it looks an awful lot like blue, the color most students write in.  Presumably this will further preserve students' self esteem by camouflaging their teachers' corrections.

Ordinarily competition is fierce for our final accolade, the coveted George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award.  This year, however, there was no competition.  The academy, unanimous in its judgment, presents its Orwell to a British educator for her call to abolish the word "fail" and replace it with "deferred success."  Employing this tactic more broadly would yield immeasurable benefits, instantly rendering war "deferred peace," poverty "deferred prosperity," and winter "deferred summer."

If that makes sense to you, award yourself an Emperor.  Poor Elijah figures we've each got at least one coming.

© 2005 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer email addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  Here at Krispy Kreme U., where "learning is preeminent", we see more than our share of "deferred success".  And, the IP has written an entire commentary on the politically correct notion that red ink is somehow bad for a student's psyche.  But the part of Poor Elijah's piece that really hit home was his comment about the reemergence of K-8 schools (the latest innovation).  The IP is old enough to have actually attended a K-8 grammar school -- Agassiz School in Cambridge, MA.  The Agassiz School recently was renamed the Mary L. Baldwin School to honor the first black woman in New England to hold the position of school master.  Baldwin served at Agassiz as teacher, principal, and master from 1882 through the first two decades of the 20'th century.  One of her best known students was the poet e.e. cummings.  It's a fine bit of irony that the Agassiz School was renamed to honor a black woman because Louis Agassiz, who was a well-known 19'th century naturalist also was known for his anti-evolutionist and racist views.

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