main page
Revised Jan 2011
politics, quotes on education

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach. - Aristotle

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. - HL Mencken

15 Jan 2011 We watched Waiting for Superman, a ducumentary on the failure of the American education system.
    The statistics are horrifying: low graduation rates are a problem, abysmal literacy and numeracy rates are horrifying.
    The teachers' unions take a big hit as the major impediments to education reform.
    The social context is largely ignored. I think schools stink when the public doesn't care, and politicians pander to the unions on one hand and teabaggers on the other.
    The political context is completely ignored, apart from all the recent presidents, except Nixon, calling for or promising education reform.
    There are schools which work, even in the poorest urban settings, but their methods are barely touched on.

B is wrong

school answering machine with an attitude

Where schools are not vigorously and honourably encouraged, whole colonies will sink apace into a degenerate and contemptible condition, and at last become horribly barbarous; and the first instance of their barbarity will be, that they will be undone for want of men, but not see and own what it is that undid them.
---Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702)

subbingI've been working as a substitute teacher in 2 systems: Shrewsbury and Worcester, Mass. Shrewsbury High School is new (5 years) and large (1600 students), serving a relatively upscale town. Worcester has 4 regular high schools of similar size, and 4 junior highs, ranging from fairly new to very old - I've been working mostly in 2 junior high schools, and a bit in 2 high schools.

    Overall, being a substitute is not a difficult job, but the pay stinks ($65/day in Shrewsbury) and the work sporadic. The main function is classroom coverage, so it's taking attendance, signing bathroom passes, and keeping the noise level down. The classroom control aspect takes some practice, and I'm getting used to it -- learning what to let slide and what to take issue with.
    The Shrewsbury teachers have always had a lesson plan ready for me. Most often it's just work sheets, proctoring a test or showing a video. It's rare that I actually get to answer an academic question, and I never get to actually teach anything. But then again, I can't prepare a lesson when I don't know before I show up whether I'l be in a French, English, history, chemistry, biology, physics or health class. The honors level classes are easy and quiet, the A level classes are more rambunctious.  Students in the AP classes have a reputation of being rude, but I haven't seen that at all. The top jocks seem to bend the rules most, being disruptive and having others do their classwork.
    "Directed studies" are a way around a stupid state ban on old-fashioned "study halls." A certified teacher is in charge of a room full of students, supposedly so students can get help if needed. No one bothered to explain that to me, but I've had only 1 question  in a dozen or 2 sessions. I heard it explained to a student meeting last week -- the town won't fund enough teachers to actually teach classes that would fit the gaps in student schedules, so directed studies are needed as place holders.

    Junior high in Worcester is something else. The best (easiest) classes there are much harder to manage than the worst in Shrewsbury. The classes aren't any bigger, and the students only slightly younger than some in Shrewsbury, but I'm frequently yelling at them to quiet down and sit down and stop throwing stuff. There is little expectation that the students will come to class prepared with paper and pencil, and when those are handed out, the paper is frequently turned into trash, and the pencils broken to small pieces. Some will pick the keys off the provided calculators. If I were in charge, I would enforce a preparation rule.
    Most, but not all, of the Worcester teachers also leave lesson plans, but most of that is quickly done make-work that probably isn't ever graded, and many of the students know it. Students use calculators for even the simplest problems, often incorrectly and despite instructions, because they don't/can't organize and understand the problems.
    Worcester and Shrewsbury have different ways of dealing with inappropriate internet access. Shrewsbury High has a strong filter, and gets some student complaints. Worcester apparently allows everything through, and the students go straight to the sex, cars and violence video clips. What are the administrators thinking? I'd put in a strong filter for junior high, and probably for high school as well, with potential for teachers to unblock for a limited time. If they are learning to type, or program, or use image processing applications, there is no need for internet access anyway.
    Worcester East Middle School is a 1910s era building, in reasonable shape but antiquated. There are genuine slate blackboards on 2 walls in  each classroom, with some small whiteboards over parts. The high-ceilinged rooms echo -- a big problem with perpetually loud kids. The room originally built as the library has been cut into 2 classrooms -- it has carved stone fireplaces and beautiful woodwork, yet the current library is a sad affair, made from 2 classrooms with the wall removed! The school libraries are always on the verge of being eliminated. The gym is the antique sort with an upper-level track. The seats have all been removed, and the track is used for storage. I don't know whether there are locker rooms now, but the old ones are converted to classrooms. The music room is sad too, a smelly place where apparently nothing happens. It has a piano, a trombone, a bass guitar and some broken instruments. The "science labs" retain their lab benches and stools, but there is virtually no equipment, and the cabinets and drawers are boarded up, and the gas and water lines disconnected. The cafeteria is in the semi-basement. Lunch duty means preventing food fights, watching for violence and harrassment, and rolling the trash barrels around to each table and insisting on speedy eating and cleanup. Most of the original student bathrooms have been locked up, and there are rules and supervision of the available ones - I assume to inhibit vandalism and truancy, and to lower custodial costs.

    I understand that Worcester spends more per student than Shrewsbury, yet stiill has these marginal buildings and a much lower academic reputation. It's not clear where the money goes.
    I'm certified to teach biology and math, but not sure that's going to actually happen. A problem is that, by the rules (whose? the Commonwealth's or the union's?), with my education and work experience, they would have to pay me about twice as much as someone just graduating from college, even though I have no experience to speak of teaching school. And if I was to work for 5 years as a Mass. teacher, I'd lose all Social Security benefits, yet only accrue 5 years of teacher pension.


Too much book learning kills character.
I would shut down the whole higher education system.
Six grades of reading, writing and arithmetic are enough for most people. - Susan Bobilin, Orange MA, 3/8/2003, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

My letter to the Boston Globe, regarding the MCAS exam controversy (they didn't publish it):

    Derrick Jackson, on 6/7/00, condemned the MCAS as silly and racist, but stretched his thin evidence beyond the breaking point. If we accept his statistics, then the 10th grade history test is Eurocentric, and certainly many people think that Eurocentrism is bad. But, even at that, why does he think that European history is any less relevant to Latinos than to WASPs, Irish, or Italians? Even one of his examples, the significance of the Treaty of Tordesillas, is more relevant to the history of Latin America than of North America (Spain and Portugal divided the heathen world between them, with the Pope's agreement).
    Pluralism is good, but teachers only have so much time to teach, we are living in a "Western" country, and there are loud complaints from all quarters about the length of the MCAS already. Is there any evidence that brown and black students would score much higher on another kind of history test? With the low reading scores, it does not seem likely. And how are the Asians students doing? Do their scores support Mr Jackson's apparent belief than history must be about your own ancestors to be worth learning?
    It is a common problem with the 10th grade history test that students have not taken a world or European history class yet, so in those schools only the best read students will score well. American history is a typical 10th grade class. This does not seem to be the situation with the math and language classes - MCAS is not testing higher math or sophisticated literature skills. Mr Jackson admits a literacy test is fine, and I hope he thinks a numeracy test is fine, too. So what makes them silly or racist? It stands to reason that when any student fails the literacy portion of the MCAS, he or she has little chance of passing the science or history portions.
    The point of the MCAS to students and potential employers is that their high school diplomas should be a certification that a student is at least basically literate and numerate, and this includes some knowledge of history and science. It is a political and economic decision as to where the pass/fail line is drawn. (I do have a faint hope, that so far the minority and voke students have had such high failure rates because there was no real point to passing, or penalty for failing - that when the showdown comes, to graduate or not, they will do much better. ) To the schools, the MCAS is a potential tool, good for assessing programs. It is not a bad thing, to compare schools, as long as there some thought that goes into the analyses. How else can we we judge whether programs, teachers, and curricula are effective? To the politicians and journalists, the MCAS is Silly Putty, to be stretched into whatever form suits them for the moment.
    Mr Jackson's columns tend to invoke racism as the problem in the US, responsible for all the problems of black and brown folk. I think the System doesn't care much, that it's up to self defined groups to organize and to pressure it's students, teachers, clerics, community groups, leaders, school committees, etc. That pressure can be to improve study habits, teaching intensity, parental expectations, change curricula, punish disruptive behavior. There can be pressure for lower standards and to make excuses for disruption and failure. Or pressure to opt out the standard system.
    The huge example of successful organizing is that of the Catholic church in developing its own educational system. When 19th century Catholic immigrants perceived the public schools as overly Protestant, they started their own schools (and hospitals, charities, clubs), in the face of legal discrimination and official hostility. They were probably as intolerant as the Protestants, and the separatism was perhaps a bad idea, if you support assimilation, but my point is that a group could organize an effective educational system, despite being poor, speaking several different languages, and competing with the free public schools. It worked until there wasn't much need for the parallel systems.
    Times have changed, but not so much that any group should expect the government to do the organizing for it. Isn't this the same government that gets blamed for causing the problems?