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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."...  ...W. Somerset Maugham.

Commentary of the Day - December 11, 2007: Let's Get Back to Education in Education.  Guest commentary by Rick Fowler.

Education gurus have advocated and public schools have incorporated many new trends aimed at increasing the rankings of U. S. students in many standardized tests given in countries around the world.  From the ideas of writing gurus Glasser and Collins, to portfolios to state guidelines; from literature-based to whole language reading programs; from mapping to thematic approach, from weighted grades to tracking.  However, many if not most of these "cutting edge" programs and quick fixes for educators and education too often end up on the cutting room floor.  These "recipes for success" have cost public schools literally millions of dollars since my first day as an English teacher almost 30 years ago.

Too often "keeping up with the Joneses" is taking precedent over the real problem of maintaining adequate basic education.  Case in point, President Bush and many other politicians seem to believe that the No Child Left Behind act is of utmost importance in improving the performance of our students.  Yet I liken his reasoning to an analogy recently posted on the web:

No Child Left Behind: The football version

1.  All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship by the year 2014.  If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable.

2.  All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time and in the same conditions.  No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabilities.  ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL.  

3.  Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction.  This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren’t interested in football, have limited athletic ability or whose parents don't like football.

4.  Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th., 8th and 11th games.

5.  This will create a New Age of sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals.  If no child get ahead, then no child will be left behind.

I  cringe every time I read about a new educational savior or new educational tool which is introduced supposedly to bring the United States back to respectability in the global markets of learning.  I also think parents and taxpayers would cringe if they knew of the cost of bringing this expert or plan into the district, explaining its merits, and then failing to implement the program because of money restraints or because staff will not buy into it.

What is the matter with traditional methods?  I realize that the computer has been an asset in the classroom.  Yet, it also has led to the near demise of the personal letter, to little or no proofreading, and to a myriad of excuses on deadline day.  Kids are sometimes aghast when I ask them to hand in their rough drafts hand-written and in ink.  I sometimes require  research papers with the title page, body and works cited that must be completed on notebook paper in ink, and either printed or written by hand.  By the looks on their faces it's as if I had assigned the complete memorization of Hamlet's soliloquy, Antony's funeral speech and Shylock's dissertation at the trial to be due in an hour.

As a writing teacher it is my job to enhance a student's ability to get a message across to their readers.  This message might be in the form of a letter, an essay, a journal, a formal report, etc.  Whatever the genre, they must be able to connect by using examples, reasons, facts, incidents, analogies, cause and effect and many other writing techniques.  In their freshmen year I expect students to master the fundamentals steps in the writing process.  After that I expect them all to proceed at a steady pace until all avenues (genres) have been successfully undertaken and completed.  This is to insure that all students can accomplish one of the most essential tasks in the work force, the ability to communicate clearly in simple, written English.

However, there are now too many grading scales that are aimed at boosting a student’s ego, (let's lower the minimum proficiency level from 70% to 60%) saving the instructor from the harangue of parents and administrators, and from government threats about the depletion of funds unless grades rise.  Yet if I were an employer would I want to employ a graduate who received a passing grade of only 60%?  That would mean that on average 40% of the student's work was incorrect.  In the business world if 40% of written communications are muddled or unclear, the business likely is doomed.

I'm not a total skeptic, stoic, and purveyor of the negative.  Indeed there needs to be constant training opportunities for educators just as there are for doctors.  However, unlike doctors who attend conferences that demonstrate how a specific medicine, machine or part can prolong lives, educators cannot come back to their districts, operate and within weeks see their patients cured.  They need conferences that are led by teachers who have the grit to share successful and-not-so successful lessons.  Educators don't need slick public speakers who have left the teaching profession to spend most of their time on the lecture circuit.  These folks give their spiels, collect their checks, and leave.

We need to get back to basic education: "Here is what we will accomplish by the end of the year to make you better in math, history, English, or social studies.  There will be no frills!  Meet the criteria or you will fail!"  We need to work at getting nearly all students to meet high expectations, but also realize that these expectations will be met in varying degrees.  In other words, nearly all kids can learn, but not all of them will learn at the same pace.  Ray Bradbury in his novel Farenheit 451 told of an educational system in the future that allowed for an hour of class by television, and hour of basketball, an hour of transcription history and more sports, followed by four more hours of film teaching.  The premise behind this daily schedule is to allow students to feel good about themselves, stay somewhat healthy, but also to keep them tired so they don’t ask questions and perform by rote memory on tests.  One critic wrote of the novel, "Frightening in its implications…"

We need to have a complete turnabout as far as knowing what's best for the students in our public schools.  Without this change of thought, the implications are indeed frightening.

2007 Rick Fowler.
Rick Fowler is in his 30th year of teaching high school English in Boyne City, MI.  He has also been a varsity football, basketball, and cross-country coach during his tenure as a teacher.

The IP comments: The IP agrees with much of what Rick says.  Learning involves a good deal of hard work on the part of both teacher and student.  For many students traditional methods work well, but we should be willing to try newer approaches with students who don't respond to traditional methods.

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