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Seriously Folks, What Ever Happened to ‘Education’?

THE VIEW FROM HERE-As a public school teacher for over 37 years, as a parent for over 38 years, and as a member of the “village,” I have to question how education has evolved (or perhaps devolved) in America over the last many years. 

Today’s students and many adults have no memory of the days when students were not graduated unless they were steeped in the traditions of the Classics and could read them in the original Greek.  

 

When I arrived at my last school some 35 years ago, it was still offering Latin.  But, somehow, without much fanfare, that subject disappeared from the curriculum and nobody much seemed to complain or even notice!  As teachers retired, many were not replaced to teach those lofty courses, and soon there was no Latin or German or French, no sewing or cooking, no wood or metal shops, no auto mechanics, no chorus or drama or orchestra.  What happened to the goal of creating well-rounded graduates? 

What happened to teaching cursive?  Many teachers say there just isn’t time to include it in the school day.  Let’s all use computers in the classroom, they state, so that students won’t see the need for learning correct grammar and spelling.  Remember Rachel Jeantel in the recent George Zimmerman trial?  She was presented a document which she could not read, not because she is not intelligent or well-educated (she is tri-lingual, after all) but because it was written in cursive and she had never been taught how to read or write it--there will not always be a computer or tablet or cell phone at the ready.  She was judged unfairly for something for which school had not prepared her. 

What happened to analysis and interpretation—the Socratic method of teaching?  Why are there multiple choice test questions and scantrons?  What happened to essay exams during which a student can expand upon ideas and elaborate and explore new perspectives and ways of looking at a broad range of topics?  There cannot possibly be only one answer to most questions (except in math, I suppose).  What happened to encouraging students to think far outside the box and for teachers to accept well-developed answers that they themselves had not considered before? 

Incidentally, I just read a wonderful article in The Wall Street Journal from the Saturday/Sunday (September 28/29, 2013) “Review” section entitled “Tough Teachers Get Results.”  The referenced studies strongly endorse the teaching strategies I so unequivocally support:  the lecture and Q and A method, note-taking, individual work (as opposed to group/pod efforts), strong discipline, self-motivation and organization, praise for positive results and hard, determined work (not for merely trying or even just showing up), drill/repetition (whatever happened to actually learning the times tables without help from a calculator?), experiencing stressful situations that are seen as challenges and meeting those trials and tribulations with the resolve to find solutions. 

I started school in Detroit and moved out to California when I had just turned 8, but the California schools took about 3 years to catch up with what I had already learned.  Not much has changed regarding student readiness.  Increasingly, schools across the nation have decided that we need to coddle our children, to make them always feel good about themselves by praising their efforts even when such compliments are essentially undeserved—all this slows the learning curve considerably (except, perhaps, for those self-motivated students who challenge themselves beyond what the classroom asks of them).  

Similarly, why do our young student athletes always get a ribbon or trophy at the end of each season (even if they struck out each time they were up to bat or were never able to make contact with a ball)?  Unmerited compliments negatively affect the psyche and personal drive.  What students really crave (and all of us for that matter) is getting recognition for authentic accomplishments, something which pushes them to do better--to earn praise for reaching a higher bar. 

The Los Angeles Unified School District has wasted so much time and money over the years by raising its hand every time a new pilot program is offered.  When I started teaching, the “old-fashioned” teaching philosophy was the prevailing one.  Since then, the LAUSD and other districts as well have veered away from the tried-and-true methods in an attempt to be “updated and modern,” but what have been the results?  Poorly educated students that are ranked far behind other countries in math and science and other areas of study.  We must reconsider the approaches we have been using during the last several decades and revisit what consistently worked for the majority of our students. 

Yes, recently there is a developing program called Common Core.  It is a standardized curriculum being introduced across the country and I welcome it.  I hope it is a sustained movement that takes education in the right direction.  It was developed not by the Federal government but by the states themselves to offer consistent requirements in English and math.  This seems to be a good thing, particularly as we have populations that move from one state to another because of employment, environmental, or health reasons.  I hope that, unlike other grand programs that have been advanced over the years, there will be ongoing funding and development to meet the needs of the schools which use it. 

Without question, we do need such programs, but they cannot address all the educational issues we face today (nor do they claim to)—many problems we now have we have never had to tackle before—a transient population speaking hundreds of languages; cultures that choose not to assimilate but maintain a separate culture and way of thinking in the home and the neighborhood. We need to create and maintain special programs for foreign-born youngsters who cannot learn merely through total immersion (with parents who are encouraged to push their children, encouraging them to become acculturated while not necessarily losing their unique ethnic identities).   

Of course, there are bi-lingual and English as a Second Language programs but often students slip through the cracks because of the very narrow requirements that must be met before they can participate.  For instance, a student who was born in the United States but lives in a home where only a non-English language is spoken arrives at school not understanding enough English to do well but, ironically, is also not eligible for ESL classes because that child was, in fact, born in the States.  

And let us not forget the special needs children who require a special kind of attention with a unique approach. 

Today we face greater levels of unemployment that push many young people out of school to earn an income which can help their families and themselves to survive.  There is an increasing crime rate in neighborhoods where the young people see no viable future and turn to gang affiliations for a sense of family and belonging.   

Indeed, we need to reassess how our schools can meet their needs.  We need to go beyond the schools to the greater community where its members are frequently discouraged by what they see around them but can be introduced to a more pro-active way of getting involved with their children.  Remember community organizing?  We must make a commitment to funding the kind of programs that promote such thinking while, at the same time, to training the kind of personnel that can help turn these confused but decent children around.  

Perhaps, what we need now is to take one step back to recapture the broader and deeper curriculum that trained an America that once led the world at every level—literature, math, science, medicine (Nobel prizes in all categories too numerous to mention)—an America that was the most powerful nation in the world, that was the ideal to be emulated in our striving for economic and social justice.  We need an educational system with committed educators who are paid a professional wage and treated with the respect that any college-educated executive would get.  We need to give them the room and opportunity to experiment with different approaches that will lead to the success for which we all strive.  

We do not need to spend enormous sums of money on textbooks that become outdated almost immediately, on testing that interrupts the natural flow and progression of the curriculum.  Teacher training programs are often not preparing our new teachers with the foundation they need for instruction or for managing an organized and disciplined classroom where students not only can learn but are eager to learn. 

I see English teachers who do not know how to teach grammar or composition and so give it short shrift in the classroom (an English major, on balance, studies literature, neglecting the other disciplines that must also be covered in an English class).  I see math teachers who ask only for answers to the questions, thus ignoring whether the student has used the correct process to get to the solution (whether the student’s answer is correct or not).  I see history teachers who do not give exams that require critical thinking for essay answers or demand well-researched reports that are graded not only on content but also on clarity of communication (which would include grammar, spelling, and style). 

I know many teachers are already deeply committed to the approaches suggested above and they are finding great success when they use these methods.  We need more of these inspired and enthusiastic teachers who can motivate, excite, and encourage students.  Because of outstanding teachers, students become engaged, inspired, and committed to completing an education that will lead them to a rewarding future.  

On the other hand, we need to rid the classroom of underperforming teachers—not because of low test scores by students who face many challenges, flounder with the more demanding subjects, or take longer to rise to the top of the testing quartiles.  We need to rid the schools of those instructors who come to the classroom ill-prepared and leave the classroom with students who have not been energized and empowered--students who may not work their hardest because their teachers don’t.  Keep in mind, I am a strong UTLA member but we need the best teachers possible (and the union generally agrees).  We need to draw from the creme de la creme of college students to become the admirable teachers we have always admired. 

And charter schools!  What are people thinking?!  Why can’t we see that their goal is to privatize education, to do away with the public school system as we know it, to make a profit on the backs of the students over whom they have been given the power to decide the when, the where, the how, and the why as to what is taught. 

Is it any wonder that many charter schools score so high when they can pick-and-choose who is accepted into their programs and who gets to stay.  Charter schools leave for the public schools the most challenging young people—children with academic, health, family problems; children who come to school late because they are helping their younger siblings but are themselves sleepy and hungry, sometimes because of the dysfunction within the walls of their own homes. 

These are the children that often become drop-outs, homeless, criminals.  Charter schools too frequently reject outright the more difficult-to-teach children because such schools want to skew their scores to demonstrate to the public (and parents of prospective students) how well their programs work.  Those denied admission are frequently the same children who become fodder for our prisons. 

It is not a coincidence that we hear objections about the privatization of prisons where the inmates are warehoused and not rehabilitated, where ill-treatment and abuse are rampant.  Even in prisons (and in some ways, especially in prisons) we need to educate, to transform, to make productive citizens of the inmates--not recidivists.  Who are these prisoners?  Haven’t I already described them?  What will happen when all public schools become privatized?  Is the connection far-fetched? 

Charter schools are not the panacea!  They can tout high scores all they want.  It is easy to do when students are hand-picked for their skills and potential, for their record of good discipline and cooperation—but booted out if they do not maintain a pre-set standard.  Don’t you see how the test scores of many independently run charter schools are spun in order to make the schools look good, often achieving a reputation that is not deserved. 

And what happens to the children left behind—in those “awful public schools”?  People insist on claiming that our schools are failing.  I say we are failing the students who go to those institutions.  Are we relegating the lower-achieving students to a new serfdom—to work at the very bottom of the labor ladder for poor wages, barely eking out a living, never to escape that bottom rung?  The best education is one that is obtained in truly heterogeneous classes where there is a healthy exchange of ideas and a sharing of cultures and lifestyles and backgrounds. 

We cannot become a class society (in its worst sense)—something that our Founding Fathers (despite the ugliness of slavery) were so firmly against.  We must all be furnished with the same opportunities to become part of the educated class (in its best sense).  Not everyone will or can rise to the top, but that is okay as long as they have first been given the opportunity to get there.

 

(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Coalition. She also writes for CityWatch.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 80

Pub: Oct 4, 2013