The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession."...  ...Kingman Brewster.

Commentary of the Day - August 26, 2009:  The 16th Annual Emperor's Awards.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Before we embark on the new school term, it's always helpful to review the past year's magic education moments.  The Emperor Awards annually commemorate the monarch of underwear fame and his devoted admirers so we can profit from their example in the months ahead.

With American math students trailing their peers in many industrialized nations, including England, our first award, the Distinguished Priorities Cross, is shared by a Briton and an American.  On our side of the pond, we honor an Ivy League professor for following up on his earlier Emperor-worthy campaign to stamp out teaching fractions, first announced as part of an outdoor, in-depth sixty-second campus lecture series.  Now that he is his university's dean of arts and sciences, he's expanded his hit list to include multiplication and long division.  Responding to the president of the American Mathematical Association, who blasted his approach as "absurd" and one of the reasons American math achievement is "so abysmal," the professor subsequently refined his position, allowing that long division "has its uses," and suggesting that teaching fractions at least be "delayed until it can be understood, perhaps after a student learns calculus."  Apparently unaware that most people find calculus a lot more daunting than dividing a pie into six equal pieces, he also left unexplained how fraction-free students would be able to tackle calculus, which like its precursors algebra and trigonometry, involves very complicated fractions.

In a gesture of Anglo-American good will, his British co-honoree is magnanimously doing his bit to keep America competitive.  Arguing that math needs to be more "democratic," he contends that "social responsibility" demands a "total rethink" of British math instruction.  He claims students are discouraged by the reality that solutions are either "right or wrong" and proposes that math answers "allow for shades of opinion."  The Academy warmly congratulates both professors for their updated Atlantic Alliance.

The 2008 Nathan Bedford Forrest Prize recognized a California district for holding segregated pep rallies in an effort to "inspire students to do better" while "being honest" about differences between ethnic groups' test scores.  Forrest 2009 travels to Illinois and a state senator concerned about funding for poor school districts.  Committed to shrinking the achievement gap between white and minority students, he urged minority children to start the year on the right academic foot by boycotting school.  His plan was endorsed by Al Sharpton, whose characteristic wisdom earns him an honorable mention.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Silver Star salutes a MacArthur Foundation study for concluding that, despite appearances, kids who spend hours on social networking sites like MySpace aren't really "wasting a lot of time."  Among the "contemporary" skills children are developing via laptop and cell phone, researchers listed "how to manage a public identity" in a "full-time intimate community" consisting of people who frequently never meet and often don't use their real names.  The study cited vital instant messaging exchanges, including the girl who posted, "hey…hm.wut to say?  iono lol/well I left you a comment…u sud feel SPECIAL.haha," and the boy who replied, "hello there…umm I don’t know what to say, but at least I wrote something."

In a related field, the Academy acknowledges Family Circle for its invaluable assistance helping mothers manage household and "school commitments."  The editors advise that instead of jotting down grocery lists on paper, moms should "create" the list via computer keyboard and then "send it to your cell phone by text" which you can then download in the produce aisle.  While this twenty-first century procedure requires several thousand dollars worth of equipment and reliable cell phone reception, Family Circle maintains that it simplifies shopping because it conveys a crucial advantage over traditional methods: "no notepad needed."  For their innovative support of paperless mothers everywhere, we present the June Cleaver Golden Bundt Pan with Silicon Clusters.

The 2009 Archimedes Eureka Honorarium spotlights findings published in Science magazine which predict that, despite No Child Left Behind's "universal proficiency" mandate, every American student won't be academically proficient by 2014.  In an equally breathtaking revelation, researchers revealed that low income students who don't speak English are less likely to succeed academically than middle class kids who do speak English.

In a field trip touted to make their second language "more concrete and relevant to their lives," “expose students to French language and culture," and allow them to "use their skills in a real world situation," a New England high school French class traveled 150 miles to a "French" restaurant where the wait staff doesn't speak French, the menu isn't in French, and the bill of fare features such traditional Gallic favorites as grilled turkey BLT, Maine crab cakes, ravioli of the day, and beer batter fish and chips.  Their international flavor and flair for fictional press releases earns school officials our Phineas T. Barnum Citation.  Honorable mention goes to the Maryland principal who passed out 3600 peppermint candies on standardized testing day because she heard they "increase performance and raise grades."

In the past when students showed up without lunch money, Albuquerque cafeterias served them on credit.  However, when many parents of these students, who incidentally were not eligible for free lunch, refused to pay their tabs, the school district was facing a $300,000 deficit.  Rather than bankrupting the lunch program or letting anyone go hungry, officials decided in the future to give kids with unpaid tabs a less expensive cold plate consisting of a sandwich, fruit, and milk.  Rather than paying their bills or expressing their gratitude that their children were being fed a nutritious lunch that they weren't paying for and to which they weren't entitled, irate parents chose to complain that their kids weren't getting the same meal as kids whose parents were paying.  For their principled refusal to accept a free lunch, unless it meets their specifications, we present the inaugural Even Greater Generation Entitlement Trophy.

The Order of the Tempest in a Teacup is headed for the Big Apple where concerned parents are protesting playground conditions.  The city long ago installed safety mats to protect children in the event of a fall.  Now advocates are complaining that the mats can get too hot on summer days and burn children's bare feet.  All playgrounds already post signs advising users to wear shoes and caretakers to make sure their children comply, but protestors aren't satisfied.  One public advocate wants to the city to "do more" to "ensure that the signs are helpful," presumably by dispatching caretakers to read the signs to the caretakers.  Another watchdog group demands that the city "pressure the manufacturers to come up with a solution."  Since dimming the sun isn't an option, he's proposing the city install canopies over all its playgrounds.  Similar future projects could include requiring seaside communities to install beach sprinklers to be turned on when the sand gets hot.

As always competition for the George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award was fierce. Candidates included the new credential "certified lifestyle counselor," which apparently means someone who puts you on a diet and isn't Valerie Bertinelli, and researchers who determined that people with "grit are more likely to succeed in school" because they’re "doing something [they] love" and want to do, a problem for anyone who cares about words since grit generally involves persevering at something you don't love or don't want to do.  However, we present Orwell 2009 to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and their crusade to start calling fish "sea kittens" in the hope that people will stop eating them if the have a cuter, furrier name, a tactic that's worked wonders when it comes to saving lambs.  As part of their campaign, PETA officials contacted the principal of Whitefish High School in Montana to urge him to rename his school Sea Kitten High.  Though the principal inexplicably declined, the Academy wishes to honor PETA for its venture into Orwellian territory.

The Academy also wishes to remind us that everybody deserves at least one Emperor for something.

Even you and me.

2009, 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: Once again Poor Elijah delights us with his barbed wit.  To elaborate on the issue of teaching fractions, the IP can recall many students in his introductory optics labs who thought that 1/2 + 1/3 = 1/5.  (This would come up when we discussed the thin lens formula, which involves the inverses of the focal length of the lens and the object and image distances.)


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© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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