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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Everyone in our culture wants to win a prize.  Perhaps that is the grand lesson we have taken with us from kindergarten in the age of perversions of Dewey-style education: everyone gets a ribbon, and praise becomes a meaningless narcotic to soothe the egoistic distemper."...  ...Gerald Early.

Commentary of the Day - September 9, 2004:  The Eleventh Annual Emperor's Awards.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Poor Elijah's Emperor Awards spotlight the year's outstanding achievements in education.  They commemorate the monarch who paraded around in his underwear while his subjects nervously told him how handsome he looked.  There's never a shortage of nominees, but some years boast an embarrassment of riches.  This is such a year.

Our traditional opening presentation celebrates efforts to rededicate schools to academics.  Last year's contest came down to the wire, with an elementary school program that dispatches kids to make sandwiches at a local store losing by a nose to a teacher workshop dispensing a rigorous "5-step plan to use in giving students the gift of happiness."  This year we pay tribute to the newest addition to American high school curricula, scrapbooking.  While acknowledging that some may "raise their eyebrows" as scrapbooks take their place beside civics and trigonometry, boosters tout scrapbooking, which is reportedly "huge" in many parts of the country, as a "worthwhile component of education."  That, of course, explains why it's a two-semester course and why it deserves our Distinguished Priorities Cross.

The Ed Norton Academic Excellence Trophy salutes New York City's school chancellor for establishing rules that doubtless will lead the Big Apple to unprecedented levels of scholastic achievement.  The new regulations specifically prohibit correcting "errors with red ink" because it's an "aggressive" color," teaching grammar because it's "dull," and giving spelling tests because they "strike fear."

The Sisyphus Prize for Perpetual Research pays tribute to education's scientific endeavors.  Nominees included a high school survey that reported more sex, more driving under the influence, more hard-core drug use, and easier access to drug supplies.  On the brighter side, more students admitted to eating fruit.  This year's Sisyphus, however, belongs to Harvard researchers who uncovered the long sought connection between "diversity" and "binge drinking."  These scientists turned the world on its ear by discovering that "problem drinking" is more common among "white, underage male students" than it is among older students and females.  Their findings are expected to prompt colleges to "reconsider admissions policies."

In a related field the Archimedes Eureka Honorarium commends a Canadian study of 5,479 children, which suggests that "overweight adolescents are more likely" to be "victims of bullying."  The Canadian conclusions "echo data from British research" and "follow a U.S. study published last year."  Despite this investigative redundancy, the lead Canadian researcher modestly described his findings as what "anybody who's ever been on a playground would know."

No Child Left Behind mandates that each state identify its "persistently dangerous schools."  Last year's John Dillinger Medallion applauded California for finding no such schools within its borders, despite "twenty-eight incidents of battery, two assaults with a deadly weapon, one robbery, and three sex offenses" that non-persistently occurred at one Los Angeles high school.  This year's Dillinger travels cross country to New York City, where the school danger formula doesn't count any crime, including assault, rape, robbery, or drug trafficking, unless it involves a weapon.  A thousand-student Gotham school would need thirty weapons crimes per year two years in a row in order to qualify as "persistently dangerous."  Anything short of that apparently isn't dangerous enough.

The Horatio Alger Silver Bootstrap promotes effort as an essential component of learning.  The Academy lauds Duke University for eliminating eight o'clock classes so their "sleep deprived" collegians can get more shuteye.  However, this year's Bootstrap goes to the California statute, enacted to save students from "heavy backpacks," which established "maximum weight standards for textbooks."  The Golden State is arguably now the only jurisdiction in the world that sets school curriculum by weighing it.

Several strong nominees vied for this year's Phineas T. Barnum Citation.  Leading the pack was a "cash-strapped" West Coast school system that allowed students to improve their grades by donating school supplies.  A box of Kleenex, for example, raised a B+ to an A-.  Nonetheless, the growing trend among districts to set "automatic minimum grades" won the Barnum nod.  These schools, from Syracuse to South Carolina, have outlawed grades lower than their established minimums, which range from 50 all the way up to 62.  In other words, if you earn a 62 average, you get a 62.  If you earn a 20 average, you also get a 62.  Proponents intend to "send the message to students that we want them, number one, to be successful."

The Jerry Rubin Memorial Headband is shared by a cadre of activist students and their principal.  When the students threatened to sabotage a schoolwide standardized test unless officials reversed a decision to discontinue honors classes, one senior condemned them as "slimy" and "selfish."  Their principal, meanwhile, stalwartly described the plot as a "solid lesson in civics."

Competition for the coveted George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award is always fierce.  Runners-up included the American Dialect Society for lending its imprimatur to the newly coined "flexitarian."  Flexitarians are vegetarians who sometimes eat meat.  Then there was the innovative New England high school that overhauled its block scheduling system by dividing the cutting edge, ninety minute blocks into forty-five minute intervals called "split blocks."  Traditionalists may recall that these intervals were formerly called "class periods" until block schedulers banned them as educationally unsound.

This year's Orwell, however, pays homage to educators across the nation who are teaching their elementary students educational jargon.  Short paragraphs are "brief constructed responses."  Second graders learn to "model efficient subtraction strategies."  Fifth graders are warned, "You will have a formative assessment when this is over."  And first graders bask in these words of praise: "That was a good warm-up for showing our enduring understanding that a number represents a quantity."  Boosters believe they're "creating language that is more explicit and to the point than it is confusing."  Of course, they're talking about kids who don't know what "explicit" means.  Which leaves one important question: Will this be on the formative assessment?

If you think six-year-olds should know the answer, help yourself to an Emperor.  Poor Elijah figures we've each got at least one coming.

©2004 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 IP comments: What?  No red pens.  Next, they will take away our grade books.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.