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Standards, Plain English, & the Ugly Duckling

Lessons About What Teachers Really Do

Publication Date: 2015-09-12

I've been fighting this battle a long time. In 1998, the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation and the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education teamed up to ask me to write a little book about standards. They didn't pay me and there were no royalties, but I was eager to get the word out. I found that when I finished the book,Standards, Plain English, & the Ugly Duckling: Lessons About What Teachers Really Do (70 pages), I had a lot more to say, and One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards was the result. The Ugly Duckling book is long out of print but One Size struggles on, more relevant than ever. I give the link to Amazon because they let you look inside, where you can see that back in 1999, I warned that the Standardistos offer a curriculum of death. If you put 'male baboons' into a search, you can read about how baboons greet each other and what that has to do with CEOs.

As evidence that the fight against standards is not new, I offer the follow excerpt from Ugly Duckling. I think you will see how current it is.

by Susan Ohanian

The best thing we teachers have to take to our students is not our copy of international-class students. The best we have to take to our students is ourselves, who we are as people. This is what is so scary about teaching. We don't teach standards; we teach our selves. . . . In "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that character teaches above our wills, that "virtue or vice emit a break at every moment." This is scary stuff. If we take Emerson to heart and believe that with every breath teachers send out rays of virtue or vice, then why aren't we more worried about the character of the people running our schools than about finding a test that will show us if students in Alaska are ahead of those in Vermont in apostrophe acquisition?

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the collision of Two Cultures (1997), Anne Fadiman observes that the Hmong are routinely called this country's least successful refugees. They flunk the standard American test of success, which is economic. But if one applies social indices to the Hmong's life in the United States, then they score better than most Americans. In rates of crime, child abuse, illegitimacy, and divorce, the Hmong come out on top. So let's ask ourselves, just how do we want to measure success? . . .

It isn't surprising that Albert Shanker, William Bennett, and Bill Honig offered book-jacket priase to E. D. Hirsch, Jr's Cultural Literacy: What every American Needs to Know (1987). And Hirsch has been busy in the ensuing decade, pumping out a set of ugly not-so-little books, available in Kmart as well as every bookstore in the land: What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know, What Your First Grader Needs to Know, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know, and so on, books that are hallucinatory in their specificity. The point isn't that Hirsch's prescriptions, with 1st graders reading biographies of Copernicus and 3rd graders reading Frankenstein, are particularly silly (though this is surely a fact). The point is that any curriculum list made by some people is going to seem silly to a lot of other people. . . .

The list-makers don't seem to know about The Stupids or hink pinks, surely essential items in a 2nd grader's rite of passage. We need to remind ourselves that our students come to us with lots of information undreamt of in our own philosophies just a few years ago. For starters, my 3rd graders knew about black holes, knew about sexual matters that would make the proverbial sailor blush, and were familiar with specific applications of the Bill of Rights, such as the Miranda decision.

If the keepers of the canon would admit, "Here is what interests us, warts and all, now why don't you make your own list?" I'd say, "Fine." I know that good teachers are quirky, opinionated, and strongly devoted to hobbyhorses. But Standardistos present their lists as emerging from careful, dispassionate research; they try to palm their lists off as important and necessary. For everybody. . . .

All this hoohah about national standards makes my skin crawl. The fiery rhetoric filling corporate boardrooms and newspaper editorial just goes to prove that where there's smoke there's smoke. As British astronomer and physicist Fred Hoyle once observed, "Words are like harpoons. Once they go in, they are very hard to pull out." Once media headlines announce 5,683 times that publick education in America is in the sewer, then it's hard for mere teachers to prove otherwise, but I can guarantee that no required curriculum will improve things.

Fifteen years ago I was invited by several education publications to comment on the various reports circling the nation's schools. It struck me then that it was clever of the business and government leaders, the fellows who gave us collapsing banks, hormone-laden beef wrapped in Syrofoam, acid rain, the Kansas City Hyatt, $495 Pentagon hammers, price fixing, and political campaigns, to blame teachers for the fact hat Japanese were selling lots of cars.

Nothing has changed. Education summits abound, the standards product rate threatens national forests, and corporate CEOs continue to issue histrionic repudiations of teacher savvy. In February 1997, President Clinton got his biggest applause when he made national school standards and testing a centerpiece of his second-term domestic program.

"Algebra-for-all" has become the mantra of the 1990s. Numbers Count, published by the College Board (1997), announced that lack of algebra "perpetuates welfare, harms health, and weakens families." Contributors to this volume promote mathematics as the necessary tool of empowerment and equality, declaring that without complex math skills, people forfeit both their voices as citizens and their chances at the good life. . . .

Learning in Unison

Tamara Plakins Tornton observes in Handwriting in America (1996) that for centuries one's penmanship revealed one's social class and one's trade. Then, in the US penmanship was gradually transformed by democracy. Teachers distributed writing materials in numbered, standardized steps, marked by predetermined signals. They counted out loud or used a metronome to keep student scribes executing each portion of each letter in unison. The proper execution of penmanship was compared to a military drill. Good penmanship represented the combination of an uplifted soul and a disciplined body.

The implementation of standardized penmanship was not taken lightly. In 19th-century Cincinnati, the district penmanship superintendent was paid more than school principals, and his assistants were paid more than teachers. In 1858, the Boston school committee informed its teachers that "every pupil must sit in the right position" and they all must write "the same copy at the same time."

This all has a very modern ring. Bombarded as we are with standards documents delineating what students across the land will perform in each grade, teachers across America increasingly can feel kinship with their 19th century counterparts who were handed predetermined signals to present to their students. The corporate Common Core determination to eliminate "teacher variability" so as to preserve the set sequence promising college and career skill acquisition a prime example.

The 19th century dictum was that with hard work everybody could achieve an admirably identical hand, a hand that followed the direction of the leader, an ideal that suited the requirements and goals of a producer economy. In 1926, New York City superintendent of schools Joseph S. Taylor wrote in Supervision and Teaching of Handwriting, "Many hard and disagreeable things must be done by people who would rather be doing something else. The dead must be buried, sewers must be cleaned, dishes must be washed three times a day. It is just as well to let children know from the start that some parts of schoolwork are not very interesting, but that they must nevertheless be done."
Must nevertheless be done is the mantra of our time.

Of late, the watchword of training every student to take his place in society by training him to produce an admirably identical hand has been replaced by the cry to get all students ready for the 21st Century Global Marketplace by training them all in algebra, calculus, and close reading on nonfiction text. Maybe we should all read Joseph Taylor reminder again: Even the the 21st century, the dead must be buried, sewers must be cleaned, dishes must be washed three times a day. Not everybody needs algebra, et al if the sole aim of these courses is the marketplace. The number of higih-tech jobs available is vastly overstated. Think of those Domino's pizza-delivery driver with college degrees. When we reach the stage where the people cleaning toilets at MacDonald/s/Walmart/Business Roundtable headquarters have college degrees, will we pay them a living wage?
In The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found, Don Snyder writes about losing a job as professor of English at Colgate. He provides a sometimes poignant, sometimes desperate, sometimes humorous account of the gradual awareness that this nation has more college professors of English than it can use. No, the US has declared that it doesn’t need any more professors; it doesn't need more of a lot of people. "No more doctors or lawyers. No more of anything that entitled me to a grand life. There were too many people, too many talented and driven people waiting at ever slot for a way in." This is a scary message, one that few of us want to face. It is easier to draw up standards, lengthy lists of the minutiae that all our students will learn on the fast track to suburbia and the t,000 square-foot house with its attached five-car garage. We hear plenty of promises that rigorous standards will pave a yellow brick road to superiority on international tests, lifetime employment at high-tech jobs, financial security, health and happiness. Does anybody really believe this?

I am not against rigor in mathematics or even rigor in literature studies or rigor in musical training. I have even seen rigor in handwriting work at least in the short term. When, while writing a book, I observed a classroom for six weeks in the Jefferson School in San Francisco, I was at first amazed and impressed by the children's beautiful script, the result of the school's adherence to a structured penmanship program that began in kindergarten. Very quickly my amazement turned to gratitude. When3rd graders can write with such a fine hand, the observer saves a lot of hours not having to struggle over their work. I remark that these are short-term benefits only because I didn't stick around long enough to know what, if any, were the long-term benefits. And I tell this story just to show the Standardistos that I can appreciate a fine hand when I come across it.

What I want are school programs that are rich and broad enough to offer students options. In The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education as well as a number of provocative article in Phi Delta Kappan, Nel Noddings, hwerself a former high school math teacher and mother of a large family, warns of the dangers of presuming that all kids should be forced into a uniform curriculum. Noddings promotes, instead, the idea of schools acknowledging and nurturing students’ different strengths. Noddings is brave eough in the late 1990s to proclaim that not every student should be expected to learn algebgra. She talks about being as proud of her child the chef as of her child thel professor of mathematics.

Teachers are being required to sacrifice too much humanity for too little substance in the standards. I am very grateful to my first supervisor, the chairman of the English department in a New York City high school that was larger than my hometown for showing me another way. I was plucked off the streets and given a provisional certificate to teach high school. As far as day-to-day practicality was concerned, my MA in medieval literature was of no value to the requirements of the job. In a deeper sense, however, I would not disregard my medieval studies. I undertook them, after all, for the sheer love of it. Everybodyâ€"my parents and professors, for starters, was amazed that I would be pursuing such studies when I was so adamantly opposed to going into teaching. I was annoyed that the system seemed to set against people studying medieval literature simply because they liked doing it. "What will you do if you don't teach?" demanded my Chaucer professor. I don't have a clue," I admitted, adding, "I'm a very good typist."

Ad it happened, I got a job at an advertising agency another at a magazine because I was a very good typist. I did end up deciding to give teaching a try, but it is the spirit of reading for its own sake and not for some promise of a monetary return that I tried to bring to my students for the next 20 years: If you read here and read there, one day you'll find something that will knock your socks off. And then your life will be changed forever.

Nonetheless, I was the first to admit that I was sadly lacking in practical classroom savvy, and so when the department chair handed me my end-of-the-year evaluation, I was grateful for the C. Probably no one can fathom just how grateful I was. He had, after all, been eyewitness to the ice cream fight staged by one of my 9th-grade classes. He had, during an official observation, come up against my 10th grade student who, when asked why she was reading the newspaper instead of paying attention to my lesson on "Julius Caesar," countered with,"“Who the hell are you tellin' me what to do? If she wants me to pay attention, let her tell me." During our debriefing, I took a deep breath and said, "Well, when you think about it, who the hell are you? I went on to explain what he didn't know about this girl, a kid had been truant and, for her, coming to class and reading the New York Daily News, which I brought in for her each day, was real progress. I don't even remember the name of that student, but I have taken her Who the hell are You? as the leitmotif of my career.

My department chair gave me the grade of "average" and then on that official form that went in triplicate to the City Board of Education, he noted that, with experience, I would acquire the necessary skills for classroom competence. And he added, "This teacher has a very good heart. She goes out of her way to reach out to students in distress. This quality will make her a very good teacher." (Well, I did have two blind students, a boy who was terminally ill acting as my aide, and so on.)

The importance this man placed on a "good heart” in the classroom has stayed with me. Of course he was right, but hearing that confirmation my very first year was earth-shaking: Love steps in when competence can go no farther.

In All Over But the Shoutin', an extraordinary memoir of growing up rock-bottom poor in Alabama, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times writer Rick Bragg admits that he wasted his high school experience. He cut class, never did homework, and never studied the things the teacher deemed important. Writing about football gave him the way out of the life of poverty in which he was raised. "Some newspapers see sports as the toy factory, not serious journalism, so it can be trusted to those who did not go to Harvard, or even to the dentist regularly." When Bragg told former New York Times editor Bill Kovach that an Ivy League-trained editor had sneeringly asked who taught him to write, Kovach said, "The next time someone asks you that, tell 'em it was God."

This is what Standardistos don't comprehend. The teacher teaches and teaches. And teaches. And some kids proceed on their Harvard-bound track, readily available for her to take credit if she wishes. And out of nowhere a Pulitzer Prize winner appears. Who knows if Rick Bragg's teachers even remember him. None of my students have won the Pulitzer Prize, but I have had adults contact me, thanking me for some "good influence." They will mention a very specific incident--about which I haven't even the vaguest memory and out of which I can't manage to pull any significance whatsoever. Teaching and learning are a mystery. We teachers would do well to keep our humility and remember this: Howard Brodkey put it somewhat differently, remarking, "To understand is to tremble. . . . I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event."

This is a good image of teaching: on your knees at the end of the day, giving thanks that you got through the day without behaving badly. Teachers should be fair and they should be humble. When you are humble, you can grow. . . and gain strength to resist that ready-made curriculum of death.

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