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Let There Be No

Posted: 2011-02-26

Here's a quick explanation of why Standardistas are like eunuchs in a harem.

Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?

By no manner of means will we allow it.

--The Republic, Plato

Lining up solidly behind Plato's assertion that any chance remarks from any chance teachers must be eliminated from the schools are: Keith E. Bailey, Roy Barnes, Craig R. Barrett, William J. Bennett, Teresa Bergeson, Frank Brogan, Wilbert Bryant, John E. Chubb, P. M. Condit, Christopher Cross, Gray Davis, David Driscoll, Eugene W. Hickok, Denis P. Doyle, John Engler, Bill Evers, Sandra Feldman, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Lou Gerstner, Jay P. Greene, Eric A. Hanushek, Kati Haycock, E. D. Hirsch, Caroline M. Hoxby, Frank Keating, Lisa Graham Keegan, Kurt Landgraf, Gary Locke, Robert L. Linn, Jaime Molera, William J. Moloney, Mark Musik, Jim Nelson, David Packard, Rod Paige, Thomas Payzant, Diane Ravitch, Lauren Resnick, S. Paul Reville, Edwin B. Rust, Jr., Arthur F. Ryan, Linda C. Schrenko, Robert Schwartz, Bob Taft, Abigail Thernstrom, Tommy Thompson, Marc S. Tucker, Paul Vallas, Herbert J. Walberg, Charles Zogby. And a horde of fellow travelers.

Materials shoveled into schools to prevent teachers' chance stories are too numerous to list, but the reading programs that treat teachers as mere clerks in a corporate one-size-fits-all system of skills delivery include: Accelerated Reader, Corrective Reading, Lexile Framework for Reading, Open Court, Reading Counts, Reading Mastery, and Success for All. Parents whose children are subjected to these materials should be aware that their children are losing out on the wit and whimsy and the deeply personal experiences of what reading is all about.

Speeding Up the Three-Minute Egg

M. F. K. Fisher once pointed out that a three-minute egg took about the same length of time to boil in 1922 as it did in 1722. And things are no better in 2002: still three minutes. Eggs can dawdle, but kindergartners can't. As soon as they walk in the door, they are on the no-frills, high-skill conveyer belt to college. Out with the blocks and paints; in with math workbooks. Standardistas shriek that kids are getting dumber and dumber, but facts show differently. I learned the difference between sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in a college geology course. Today, third graders encounter such niceties in their science text. A fifth grader encounters more new vocabulary words in science than do students taking introductory French in high school.

I wonder what Mary Frances Fisher, with her disdain for the obsessive weighing and measuring of foodstuff, would make of our national fixation for rating students like so many slabs of beef. Speaking of the "ghastly good balance" nutrition fanatics tried to bring to eating, Fisher insisted that people are different: Some feel better with two meals, others with five. Some need more proteins, others more broccoli. I wonder why it is so difficult to convince Standardistas that different children have different curricular needs. It seems so obvious. But to understand this principle, one has to understnad teaching and learning at more than a behavioristic checklist level. Teaching is a lived occupation, not an abstraction or a task of performing the pre-ordained rituals. Like eunuchs in a harem, Standardistas can see the action performed but can't do it themselves.

Take Sarah. She was one of a group of high schoolers so obnoxious and troubled they were denied access to the regular campus and sent to our storefront school. My teaching partner and I were officially on the books as public school employees, but everybody left us alone--just so long as we kept control of the rejects. On probation for various infractions of the law, Sarah was sullen and uncooperative. Showing up because the law required it, she spent as little time as possible on academic pursuits. Then we discovered her ambition: Sarah loved to cook. When we held out a promise to help her continue her studies at a culinary institute once she earned her high school diploma, Sarah began to work seriously for that diploma. And we teachers made sure her studies included lots of material about food preparation. When Sarah graduated, she prepared and served an elegant meal for her teachers. I was definitely in the presence of an expert--and she hadn't even set foot in a culinary institute yet.

The Standardistas who might sneer at the idea of high school teachers encouraging a student to become a cook would do well to read Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession by Amy Trubek.

In the first semester at a leading culinary school in the United States, students must master the fundamentals of stock preparation and learn the five mother sauces of French haute cuisine as well as their many derivations. In "Knife Skills" class they learn to hold the French chef's knife and perfect the transformation of raw vegetables into precise mirepoix, brunoise, julienne, and batonet. They also learn the biographies of French chefs Antonin Careme and Ausguste Escoffier. . . .

Surely just as rigorous as studying algebra or Shakespeare's sonnets. And maybe a whole lot more beneficial to society. William Bennett, Lou Gerstner, members of the U. S. Congress and their designated, for-hire experts insist they know what's best for the Sarahs in our schools. Parents and teachers must hold the line, resolving never to betray a single child to dogma. The global economy should crumble before we sell out children to the Standardistas.

Eileen McNamara, Boston Globe staff writer, gets to the heart of the matter when she asks, "How can we argue that what we exect our children to know is not arbitrary?"

Ask a dozen people for a detailed list of information that kids should know, and you'll get a dozen different lists. We may well agree on fundamentals, but the devil is in the details. And in the end the details are arbitrary, which is why the Code of Hammurabi appears in sixth grade in some standards and high school in others. Only William Bennett puts it in second grade. Education Trust trumpets that "College Begins in Kindergarten." On the topic of the failures of African-Americans and Hispanics taking the New York Regents exam, Education Trust CEO Katy Haycock made one of the most outrageous, cruel, and asinine statements imaginable: "At least they failed something worthwhile." That one is worth reading again: "At least they failed something worthwhile."

That does, of course, depend on whether or not one believes a student's being able to decipher the work of sixteenth century essaying Roger Ascham is, indeed, worthwhile.

Pushed by a corporate agenda for producing the kind of docile workers big business finds profitable, our politicians and their state boards of education functionaries are determined to turn all kids into cooked squash. Summarizing the revolt against testing by Scarsdale, New York, parents, New York Times columnist Gail Collins commented, "Those who can't, test."

Executives of the Fortunate 500 and their political and media lackeys, for whom schoolrooms are terra incognita, have never met Sarah--or heard her story. They are scornful of me and my teacher colleagues; they are disdainful of principals and superintendents who don't cozy up to the idea of raising the bar and targeting students; they are disdainful of people who doubt that a sixth grader's knowledge of the treaties between the U. S. and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s should determine their advancement to seventh grade or whether a high schooler's knowledge of the third-string metaphysical poet George Herbert determines his worthiness for a high school diploma. Standardistas proclaim that test scores are expert, and students' classroom performance and teachers' training, experience, and good judgment be damned. Like Plato, they don't want "chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers" to infect students and perhaps lead them to stray from the established agenda. Parents beware: Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never trust your child to a Standardista who has a plan that works for all children.

--from What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?

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