Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Another Reason (as if we needed more) for the Sad State of Public Schools

When he said it, I couldn't believe it. I wanted to contradict him, but what he said was wrong in so many ways, I didn't know where to begin, and I didn't want to go off into a political discussion. After all, this was a meeting of the 4th and 5th grade math teachers. We were analyzing this year's state-mandated standardized test scores in math. Our assistant superintendent stopped in to give his views on what kind of curriculum changes he was going to make.

But then he said something that I'd heard others say before, others who run unsuccessful public schools. We are classified as an "urban" district. Urban, in this case is a code word for Black, or African-American if you wish, or you can say "minority" if that's your brand of political correctness. Almost all of our students are black. A huge percentage qualify for free or reduced lunch, and breakfast. There are many single parent families. Some of our students come from really awful situations. Many of them have difficulties in school. They show up unprepared, hungry, etc. Not all of them, but some of them. Others have wonderful families. They work hard. They do well. They will go to college and succeed in whatever they decide to do.

Remember though, they are almost all black. So, our assistant superintendent, who is in charge of our curriculum, tells us that minority students learn differently from white students. They need to be taught using different strategies. My mind began to rebel. That's an old excuse for failure. Rather than address the fact that we don't teach phonetically as we should, educational experts for the last 40, or 60, or God only knows how many years, have come up with various cockamammie theories to explain why some students don't learn, and even more cockamammie programs to fix the problems. Obviously they haven't worked. Phonetics, remember? They continue to ignore or demean the necessary phonetic component. So of course their theories are useless, and their annual *NEW* and *IMPROVED* programs are doomed to failure. They do get lots of money and prestige, but that's another topic.

Our assistant superintendent goes on: Minority students, he imforms us, come from collective cultures while the culture of the United States is based on individuality. This is true, he says, not only for Black students but also for Hispanic/Latino students. Therefore, he states, we must not teach them individually, we must teach them collectively, using "cooperative learning" techniques to insure that they continue to fail. Oh wait, he didn't say they would fail, I did. For some reason, he thinks, and he is not the first to think this, that if we expect them only to succeed in groups in school (groupthink?), this will help them succeed as individuals in an individualistic society. Of maybe they will get together and form their own failing societies within the larger American society, you know, like a college town.

For some reason, he, and other educational "experts", who run our schools and profess this nonsense have never read about Marva Collins, or any of the other teachers who successfully taught minority students to achieve. They've never read anything by Nancy Ichinaga. They've never researched the KIPP schools. They've never visited the NO EXCUSES website (now sadly defunct) or read their book (even more sadly, out of print).

I couldn't argue with him because I didn't know where to start. Now I do know. It will be useless because I will never convince him that he's wrong, but I can't let this pass. Besides, over the past six years I've become pretty adept at beating my head against the educational wall. It took a pretty good pounding during the former regime, but I've been working on the new regime beginning with our new principal. He's a reasonable guy, but so was our last principal. Me? I'm not reasonable, so I will argue with the assistant superintendent the next time he tries to hand us this collectivist crap. I will point to the failures of the past and present, and I will suggest that we actually visit some of the "urban" schools that do succeed. There are some in our area. I won't go beyond that into the worldwide failure of collectivist societies though. As I encourage my students to do, I have to stay on topic, because if I go off, he will too, and who knows where we will end up.

Unfortunately, this debate still has a long way to go before it's resolved.

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