Every year halfway through June I get an urgent phone call from Poor Elijah. Thatís how long it takes him to figure out that all the honorary degrees and commencement invitations have already gone to the president and people like Oprah. Fortunately, very little exciting ever happens on my porch, so he always has a venue for his annual address.
Thereís a wicker rocker in the corner. Pour yourself some iced coffee and settle in.
n n n
Iím a teacher. I have a very important job. I know this because the president says that ďeducation is everything to our childrenís future.Ē His secretary of education, Arne Duncan, agrees that Iím doing ďthe most important work in the country.Ē Apparently, though, Iím not doing it very well. I know this because Mr. Duncan also says Iím part of a ďschool-to-prison pipeline.Ē He further claims that a ďstaggeringĒ 40 percent of college freshmen require remediation, even in Massachusetts, which consistently ranks at or near the top in achievement nationwide.
Inconveniently, his staggering 40 percent was roughly double the actual number. The average percentage for all 50 states, which obviously donít all rank at or near the top in achievement nationwide, is closer to 20 percent. This figure comes to us via the National Center for Education Statistics, the number crunchers in the Education Department.
I mention this because Mr. Duncan, like almost every other policymaker, is adamant that data should drive education reform. Itís bad enough that most education data, while extraordinarily expensive, is also extraordinarily meaningless and unreliable. Itís even more unnerving when experts who expect my school to live and die by data, and who zealously judge and ďtransformĒ schools according to that data, canít even get their faulty data right.
Of course, at the same time Mr. Duncan is complaining that too many students graduate unprepared for college, he also maintains that most students drop out of high school ďnot because itís too hard, but because itís too easy.Ē
In other words, students who complete high school donít know enough, but students who donít complete high school drop out because learning all the things they donít know would have been too easy.
Mr. Duncanís theory might make some sense if most dropouts were getting Aís. However, most dropouts were failing the ďeasyĒ classes that Mr. Duncan condemns. Making those classes more academically difficult might be a good idea, but itís unlikely to result in fewer students dropping out.
Students who arenít meeting allegedly low standards arenít likely to succeed if you make the standards higher. If I canít vault over a 3-foot bar, setting the bar at 6 feet probably wonít help. Therein lies the flaw in most reform schemes, including reformís current flavor, the Common Core.
If what Iím saying makes sense to you, and what Mr. Duncan says doesnít, welcome to the looking glass world in which my ďimportant workĒ takes place.
Mr. Duncan and the plague of experts like him who donít know the first thing about teaching are problematic. Forty years of education reform, premised on pipe dreams, have been counterproductive. Some teachers are incompetent and should be dismissed. But none of these is educationís most pernicious menace.
Over the years Iíve known a lot of students and their parents. Most, like me, have been far from idealized characters out of a Frank Capra movie. But most have been decent, hardworking people with the ordinary run of human blind spots and flaws, liable to intemperate moments, but by and large reasonable.
Some have not been so.
This is to be expected.
Whatís unexpected and ill-advised is how weíve dealt and continue to deal with these aberrant individuals.
Individuals who harm other students, threaten other students, or disrupt the education of other students should rightly be excluded from school. I donít care what the attorney general and Mr. Duncan say. They donít live every day in a classroom. Their glib platitudes about safe schools and the ďlearning processĒ ring as hollow as Marie Antoinetteís suggestion that the peasants eat cake.
Iím sorry some studentsí lives are hard. I donít know that I could bear what some of my students do. I cut them some slack when I can. But in the end Iím more obliged to care about the rights of the students they terrorize and whose educations they steal. Education may be a right, but itís a right that can and should be lost, like the right of drunks to drive and the right of criminals to roam freely in society.
If we donít stand united against violence and disruption, donít come to me about why my students donít learn.
Students arenít failing to learn because the material is too easy. It also doesnít matter that some material is boring. Some of it has always been boring. That formerly didnít stop Americans from learning it.
Learning isnít always fun, and the harder it gets, the less fun it becomes. Thatís why 3-year-olds donít feel the burden of work as much as 30-year-olds do. Life isnít an arcade. The fact that so many policymakers think thatís what school should be says something about why we as a nation are growing less productive and competitive.
Students donít need to learn because itís fun or even interesting or because it gratifies their immediate appetites. They need to learn because if they donít, no one will, and that will mean an end to American life as they know it.
If we canít impress that imperative on our children, donít come to me about why my students donít learn.
Families increasingly expect schools to feed their children, exercise their children, treat their childrenís illnesses, teach their children values, prevent their childrenís pregnancies, and generally fill in as parents.
Parents increasingly come to school demanding, ďWhat are you going to do to solve my childís problem?Ē Irrational demands, obscenities and intimidation are daily fare for too many teachers and administrators.
If we donít stand united against the basest, most irresponsible among us, donít come to me about why my students donít learn.
All is not lost yet. Itís important that you as this yearís graduates understand that.
More than my words can say rides on your understanding. Godspeed.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.MORE IN Commentary
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