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The Blackboard Bungle: Glimpses into the unhappy state of American education

Ohanian Comment: Reading these brief reviews of four books, one thing I find interesting is that the mainstream press will publish books about schools written by non-teachers or by someone giving teaching a try for a year. As I know from personal experience, they RARELY publish a book written by a longtime teacher.

By Roger Kaplan

Principal Tina McKnight and third-grade teacher Alia Johnson at Tyler Elementary, in Annapolis, Md., made a strenuous effort to bring their public-school students up to state and national standards in reading and math, according to Linda Perlstein in Tested (Holt, 302 pages, $25). The former Washington Post reporter, who spent a year as an observer at the school, reports that Ms. McKnight and Ms. Johnson succeeded -- in the sense that their kids passed the tests designed to measure grade-level proficiency.

But Tested suggests that the sound and fury of the testing process may signify, if not nothing, a lot less than one might hope. She offers affecting portraits of Ms. McKnight and Ms. Johnson, showing them to be devoted to their students and anything but soft educationists who care about "self-esteem" more than real learning. But they are not happy with the test-driven world they work in. Tested raises a now familiar question: Does the testing mania that is the direct result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) -- passed in 2002 and expected to be renewed this year -- have a positive effect on the public schools?

The bipartisan NCLB legislation was an attempt to reverse decades of declining proficiency in literacy and math while injecting some basic measure of accountability into the schools. It was the heir to the Great Society's Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, whose famous Title One requires "equity for poor schoolchildren by infusing significant funds into the schools that they attend." Under NCLB, the funds for Title One ($13 billion in 2005) and other aid can be withheld from schools that do not reach defined levels of proficiency. Schools responded by urging instructors to "teach to the test."

One might think: At least the kids are learning something under such conditions. But Ms. Perlstein suggests that cram-learning is frenetically acquired and soon forgotten. It destroys whatever enchantment a classroom might possess for a richer sort of instruction.

As I know from my own teaching experience, it is still possible to make "Othello" and "Macbeth" come alive in the broken-down classrooms of our inner-city schools. Quick fixes will not make that happen; only teachers who are left alone can do it. And the quick-fix aims of the testing craze tend to push away many good teachers -- an ironic effect, given that the school-reform movement, which advocates testing, also champions the hiring and retaining of talented teachers.

Then again, the quest to find and keep exceptional educators is often a struggle, for reasons that go well beyond testing. For a troubling sense of what it is like to face a contemporary classroom for the first time, we can turn to two memoirs, Dan Brown's The Great Expectations School (Arcade, 267 pages, $25.95) and Christina Asquith's The Emergency Teacher (Skyhorse, 210 pages, $24.95).

Both teacher-authors seem ready to try classroom work for the first time, in the sense that they are eager to teach and seem open to learning new skills. At the beginning of their stories, Ms. Asquith is a young Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and Mr. Brown a budding filmmaker and rock musician. Because school districts are legally required to put "qualified" teachers into every classroom, they often skirt the rule by coming up with lamentably makeshift programs to put people who don't have education degrees in front of blackboards. In Philadelphia, there is something called "emergency certification" (Ms. Asquith's route) and in New York a "Teaching Fellows" program (Mr. Brown's). In each case, the training is mind-numbing, vacuous, centering on make-work assignments for children rather than the transmission of real knowledge. Maybe we would have better teachers if they themselves were taught better.

By both authors' own admission, teaching played a minor role in their year on the job. Neither Ms. Asquith's sixth-graders nor Mr. Brown's fourth-graders learned much. The students did not read and write and calculate much better in June than they did in September. Some of them benefited emotionally from their young teachers' care, and this is surely an important part of schooling. But when we remember teachers who changed our lives, we usually recall individuals who worked on our gray matter as well as our heartstrings.

Alia Johnson did just that with her kids at Tyler Elementary despite the dispiriting regimen imposed on her by business-model administrators. By contrast, the kids at Ms. Asquith's Julia de Burgos School, in north Philadelphia, and Mr. Brown's PS 85, in the Bronx, N.Y., watch their young teachers try and fail to manage the classroom while struggling with corrupt administrators, uncaring school districts and -- this being America -- their own personal "issues."

Mr. Brown seems the more befuddled of the two, repeatedly letting himself be fooled by childish manipulation -- when not obsessing over his own experience playing "Mr. Brown." (He is, after all, a filmmaker.) Ms. Asquith, more keenly observant, discovers a few excellent teachers in her school. But next to these are uncaring -- and sometimes alarmingly unbalanced -- individuals who seem taken from a Charles Dickens novel.

Then there is Ms. Asquith's principal, who faked test results to improve the school's standing. Although the principal's case was egregious (she was eventually fired from another school), the dispiriting truth is that gimmicks to "improve" student performance are not uncommon. Lamentably, the message is passed along to students that whatever works, including cheating, works.

By the end of Mr. Brown's story, it has achieved a Hollywood-worthy arc. He marries his gal, escapes the public-school ordeal by moving to a rich-kids private school in Manhattan and enrolls in Columbia University's Teachers College -- plus he keeps up with his film and rock 'n' roll careers. Ms. Asquith breaks up with her boyfriend, does some graduate work and returns to journalism, eventually covering education in Iraq.

Individuals like Ms. Asquith and Mr. Brown are unlikely to succeed as teachers if they are put directly into classrooms where they inherit all the social problems of the inner cities and, at the same time, must confront petrified bureaucracies that view them as baby sitters. Such teachers are driven from the field before they can acquire the informed experience that educrats and politicians claim they want for their education money.

Part of the problem is the "educationist" mindset. In EdSpeak" (ASCD, 245 pages, $29.95), Diane Ravitch offers a lexicon that captures, alongside many worthy ideas and theories, the pseudo-scientific jargon and "progressive" ideology that does so much to form the education establishment and harm the schools. Service learning: "Community service by students in a nonschool setting, [which] aims to deepen students' learning and promote problem solving by having them engage in socially useful activities." Constructivism: "A philosophy of teaching based on the belief that students learn by constructing their own knowledge. [Its] methods center on exploration, hands-on experience, inquiry, self-paced learning, peer teaching, and discussion." Ms. Ravitch's book is an admirable attempt to bring clarity to pedagogese.

But even if "edspeak" were abolished tomorrow, the problems besetting modern education would persist. No Child Left Behind will not make public education thrive again, either, even if the policy is a well-intentioned improvement on decades of failure in federalized education. But finding solutions is crucial if we are going to meet, as the Greeks did long ago, the core challenge of maintaining a vibrant society: forming the young.

Mr. Kaplan taught English in high schools in the Bronx, N.Y., for several years.

— Roger Kaplan
Wall Street Journal
2007-09-29
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119102819584743309.html


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