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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians.  It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible."....  ....Robert M. Hutchins.

Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2007: A Clean Slate.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I think of September as a clean slate.  Unfortunately, that instantly brands me a relic of the stone-age twentieth century when teachers wrote on blackboards with dusty, low-tech pieces of chalk.  Cutting-edge educators prefer whiteboards that you write on with colored markers that give off toxic fumes and can never really be erased.  Even better are smart boards, wall-size video displays that plug into a computer.  Experts claim smart boards can make all the difference when it comes to boosting student achievement.  They seem to think our problem is students can't read words written in chalk or ink anymore.  All we have to do, though, is convert them into pixels, and every kid will be able to read War and Peace.

Regardless of what's hanging on your school's classroom walls, here are a few suggestions as we all head back to school.

1. September really is a fresh start.  It's not that I develop amnesia and forget who each kid is.  I've learned, though, that most students change so dramatically from one year to the next that last June's performance frequently doesn't accurately forecast what lies ahead for this term.  Some who couldn't handle grammar or algebra last year will catch on this time around.  It's not that they got smarter.  Their brains are just more ready.  Maturity often brings better behavior, too.  For students it's helpful to remember that part of growing up is seeing people, including teachers, differently from the way you saw them when you were younger.  The teacher you couldn't cope with last year may seem more reasonable, even likable now.

2. Don’t sneer at homework.  "Child-centered education" advocates cite dubious "research" to bolster their complaints about homework, but whether it's basketball or biology, learners need to practice their skills.  They also need to prepare for tomorrow's class.  Achievement requires hard work.  It takes time.  Contrary to critics' charges, homework is child-centered.  It lets kids get some of that work done and spend more time at home instead of at school.

3. Insist on decent behavior.  The New York Times recently detailed how to turn a "biting insult into a teachable moment."  For example, when a student called his teacher "fat," she "calmly" retorted that she was "voluptuous."  Unfortunately, this allegedly "memorable vocabulary lesson" completely ignores the real lesson the class and the offender needed to learn: Obnoxious behavior doesn't belong in the classroom, which means that obnoxious people don't get to stay in the classroom.  We can talk forever about sensitivity and anti-bullying programs -- and we do -- but as long as schools tolerate disruption, cruelty, and violence, talking is all we'll be doing.  Expecting students to solve the problem of indecent behavior, as many state-of-the-art programs prescribe, is itself indecent, but teachers can't fix things by themselves either.  The united front needs to include parents, administrators, and regular citizens willing to act no matter who the offender is or how much pressure their parents apply.

4. Don't rely on standardized testing to judge how your child and his school are doing. I'm not trying to avoid accountability, but most current assessment tools have proven shamefully unreliable.  If you want to gauge how much your kid is learning, you can look at his work, you can talk to him, and you can talk to me.  If you want to assess his school's performance, check how its graduates do when they reach the next level.

5. Don't worship technology.  I'm not suggesting we eliminate computers anymore than I'm in favor of having schoolbooks written by monks using calligraphy.  But computers, like the printing press, are just tools.  They’re neither magic nor the point of education, and they certainly haven't "changed everything" the way boosters, many of whom coincidentally are in the computer and software business, keep insisting they have.  Experts and politicians tout laptop giveaways as the key to ensuring student success, but a 2007 U.S. Department of Education study reported "no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs" and those who didn't.  Some school officials who were surveyed even describe laptops as a "distraction to the educational process" that actually makes things "worse."

6. Don't worry about whether school is fun.  I try to make class as enjoyable as possible for my students and for me.  And naturally, you need to be concerned if your child comes home miserable every day, although you also have to be willing to consider that the problem might not be his school's fault.  In general, though, the modern American obsession with making learning fun doesn't yield kids who know very much.  A Brookings Institution study found that kids in math classes that stress "fun" and the "relevance" of math to students' lives, both very fashionable notions, wind up learning less math than students in classes that just teach the math and "basic skills."

7. Don’t get lost in the big picture.  Between No Child Left Behind and the pronouncements of education experts, it's easy to get mired in meaningless rhetoric.  Harvard, for instance, has been sponsoring the Public Education Leadership Project, or PELP, for the past four years.  In a reform breakthrough, PELP's first national conference, held this June, recommended that schools identify "strategies" and "concrete steps" to "ensure that high-quality teaching is happening in every classroom, every day."  In a further burst of insight and edubabble, authorities concluded that "a well-articulated strategy helps leaders choose what to do" so they can implement it "in a way that is congruent with the strategy."  This took them four years?  You can find out more about your kid's education over supper.

8. Don't misunderstand parent involvement.  Students whose parents take an interest in what they're learning tend to do better academically, and parents should feel comfortable asking questions at school.  On the other hand, schools that campaign to involve parents in the school day are missing the point.  Typically, parents can't help in the classroom anymore than they can in the operating room.  Parent involvement means being involved with your child, letting him know that you believe in learning, that you expect hard work, and that you’re there to help.

I’ll do my best, too.

With all that and a sense of humor we've got a good start.

2007 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 IP comments: While there undoubtedly will be some readers who have minor quibbles with one or more of Poor Elijah's points, his advice is unusually sound.


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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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