Most of us grew up associating special events with patron characters — Christmas and Santa Claus — loose change under our pillows and the Tooth Fairy, or a dysfunctional Senate and Mitch McConnell. The new school term belongs to public education’s patron, the Emperor.
You remember the Emperor. He’s the mythic character who preferred parading around naked to admitting he’d been swindled by his tailor. His sheepish subjects also pretended to see his clothes that weren’t there, demonstrating that people will often embrace stupidity when it’s armored in public acclaim. The Emperor Awards spotlight some of last year’s education fashions as we prepare to march in this year’s school parade.
We begin, as we do every year, with a nod to education research. Few topics have prompted as much research as reading instruction, and experts have concluded, not surprisingly, that students who can’t read proficiently in third grade are less likely to graduate from high school than students who can read proficiently in third grade. This reckoning has led 19 states to enact laws requiring schools to retain third graders who can’t read, a move applauded by experts who, based on the research, agree but forbidden by experts who, based on the research, counter that retention is “ineffective” and a blow to students’ self-esteem. These advocates favor “social promotion” to the next grade for students who can’t read, a practice the pro-retention camp has condemned since the Clinton administration. For both sides’ decades-long perseverance waging the retention war, and particularly for social promoters’ sunny refusal to recognize illiteracy can also be a blow to self-esteem, we present the Sisyphus Prize for Perpetual Research.
Two teams share 2019’s Archimedes Eureka Honorarium for their investigations into the link between teacher qualifications and student achievement. Thanks to their tandem inquiries, we now know that students with “experienced,” “fully qualified” teachers tend to “outperform” students whose teachers are less experienced and “not fully credentialed.” In an equally shocking development, students whose teachers have “higher literacy skills” and “numeracy skills” tend to score higher in reading and math.
With active-shooter drills as commonplace as diving under your desk to escape a hydrogen bomb once was, one bold superintendent decided to inject a dose of extra realism into an elementary school. After administrators sounded the “active shooter” alarm, a masked man “holding a gun” began “shaking doors and yelling” while teachers and students, who weren’t informed about the staged fake attack, crouched “terrified,” crying and praying on the other side of their shaking classroom doors. One desperate teacher nearly cracked the fake assailant’s skull with a fire extinguisher, and an irate school board trustee pointed out it was fortunate nobody with a real gun, like a policeman, had arrived during the drill, or “someone may have been killed.” For their no-holds-barred zeal, the superintendent and his merry players take home the John Dillinger Safe Schools Medallion.
On the technology front, a majority of surveyed teachers think “students are spending too much time on their phones while they are in school.” Eighty percent report their students “multitask” during class activities, with most teachers concluding phone-enabled “multitasking impedes their students’ learning.” Proposed remedies include requiring “students turn off their phones” in class, a straightforward but unlikely option as schools adopt increasingly “device-driven” curricula. Reducing after-school social media and homework multitasking is also on the list, except students who ignore restrictions on phone use when they’re supervised in class are unlikely to respect those restrictions when they’re unsupervised at home. The plan that earns an Emperor generously gives students “mid-class breaks to check their phones.” For schools’ willingness to schedule academic instruction around their students’ many and varied phone needs, the academy bestows its Distinguished Priorities Cross.
With 7 in 10 adolescents logging fewer than the recommended eight hours of sleep, experts blame homework, extracurricular activities and “rising late-night use of technology.” It’s worth noting 1960s adolescents frequently slept less than eight hours a night, and there’s nothing new about homework and extracurricular activities. That leaves the blue light emitted by video screens as the only uniquely 21st-century culprit, assuming you don’t count 21st-century humans. Since turning off their many devices is clearly out of the question, some schools have opted to start classes later in the morning. Now some high schools are instituting “afternoon naps.” The Valley Forge Endurance Prize celebrates the prospect of “designated sleep areas” for 18-year-olds.
Competition for the coveted George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award is always fierce. Last year, we departed the rich realm of education jargon to recognize the president of the United States for his unwitting, truly Orwellian echo of Big Brother’s most essential command: “Just remember — what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
This year, we salute a “new form of discipline” based on “mindfulness” where students who “misbehave repeatedly,” from kindergartners to high school seniors, are assigned to yoga class instead of to detention. While research on the “effectiveness” of mindfulness is largely “anecdotal” and ranges from “varied” to “lacking,” mindfulness discipline practitioners have coined a delightfully soothing euphemism for what used to be known as “time out” and before that, “the principal’s office.” They call it the “mindful moment room,” “where disruptive students can go to meditate and calm themselves,” which sounds a lot better than telling your parents you got sent to the principal’s office. If, owing to “constantly misbehaving,” those meditative moments mount up to mindful hours, students proceed to the ultimate consequence, after-school yoga, also known as “Deep Breathing after Three O’Clock.” Mindfulness itself may be of dubious value, but its enthusiasts’ talent for contriving New Age jargon clearly merits an Orwell.
Emperor Awards are presented without the winners’ names. That way, if you find yourself in agreement with any of our honorees, you can count yourself a winner, too.
Bear in mind, as well, that each of us at sometime deserves an Emperor of our own.
Even Poor Elijah and me.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.