Sunday, January 19, 2014


Thomas Friedman's column in today's New York Times,  Obama's Homework Assignment, cites a 7th grade teacher frustrated by students and parents' low standards.  Friedman uses the teacher's experience to make his point that we Americans are going to lose the global competition against those in other countries --he gives the example of Korea-- who expect and demand so much more of their schools and teachers.  Friedman writes:
After complaining about the “superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity,” she wrote: “I decided that if I was going to teach this nonsense, I was at least going to teach it well. I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. ... I quickly rose through the ranks of ‘favorite teacher,’ kept open communication channels with parents and had many students with solid A’s. It was about this time that I was called down to the principal’s office. ... She handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. At the time, I only had about 120 students, so I was relatively on par with a standard bell curve. As she brought up each one, I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further. 
“Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: ‘They are not allowed to fail.’ ‘If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.’ What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline. ... Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing.”

Friedman is using this teacher's account to illustrate the lowering of standards.  Yet he passes over the most important point.   The teacher describes what she was teaching as a "superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity." It's a wonder, then, that more students didn't refuse to participate.  The solution is not, as Friedman suggests, to get our students to do more.  We must give them meaningful work.

We have thrown the industrial arts out of most public education, we (in California) have insisted that all students take the courses required by the University of California for admissions, we have narrowed the teaching of those courses so that they conform to the national standards, we have allowed the college-prep classes to push out the rest of the curriculum, we have raised the cost of higher education so that it is increasingly difficult for those without the means to obtain a college degree and we have ensured that those who won't get a college degree have no useful training.

It's as if education were an already-used lemon and we've been squeezing and squeezing it to get out a few more drops --more kids in college-- and now policy makers will find the answer to this education crisis is in asking us to squeeze even harder.  Longer school days.  Less vacation.  Higher test scores.

If you ask students and teachers, of any age, in any subject, what are the moments that make them love learning and teaching, they will speak of "aha" moments, when they grasped or conveyed an idea, learned or taught something they would be able to use for the rest of their lives, or broke through a mental barrier and understood, implicitly, that there were then others out there that could also be broken.

Recently at my shop I reminisced with Nacho, who has been an employee for well over a decade.  He came to my shop speaking Spanish, not English, had no discernible skills and very limited prior education.  We were in the process of moving to a new shop.  I told him to run copper pipe around the perimeter of the shop, for compressed air lines.  He said that he didn't know how to sweat copper.  Rather than tell him how, I told him, "Learn."  This, he told me, these many years later, inspired him.  He didn't just learn to sweat copper.  He learned that he could learn to sweat copper.  He has been learning ever since and has collected such a vast collection of skills that he's one of the most important people in my shop.

Nacho came to the United States after age 18, so he missed our education system.  Had he come a few years earlier and found himself at the back of the track, trying to fullfill the Califonria A-G requirements, he would likely today be in a monotonous low-level job.  This is something to consider.  He may have done better by escaping our education system than he would have done from within it.

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