Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"No, no, they're making me learn...!"

A firestorm is about to erupt across Pennsylvania.

That's because the state has decided to do the unthinkable: to insist that graduating high-school seniors actually know the material that graduating high-school seniors are supposed to know. The plan is to give the kids exit tests to confirm such mastery. Diplomas will be withheld from students who fail. Now, if you're a high-school goof-off living in PA, you don't need to start lobbying Mom and Dad to move just yet. The plan is subject to broad review from unions and other interested factions; that may eat up another year before the tests are made law, and given for the first time to the Graduating Class of 2014. (And of course, if the dissenters are effective enough, the whole plan may be scrapped.) Just be careful where you wanna move: At least two dozen other states already have their respective versions of such competency tests.

We shouldn't really be glib, however, because this is no small matter. A few years ago when Arizona administered a prototype of its newly mandated test to 50,000 sophomores, 88 percent failed the math part, and 92 percent failed at least one of the test's three parts (math, reading, writing). When Florida beefed up its test in 2003, some 4000 seniors flunked in Miami-Dade County alone. It is for such reasons, by the way, that a number of states have quietly retreated from the first-generation, hard-line versions of their tests. Simply put, nobody could pass. So bureaucrats watered the tests down.

According to current PA assessment figures, 45 percent of graduating seniors (that's 57,000 kids in raw numbers) can't meet 11th-grade standards. Here's another way of saying that: Almost half of the seniors in Pennsylvania don't even know what the juniors are supposed to know. Personally, having spent a decade teaching college-level writing courses—including teaching Writing 101 to freshmen—I am not shocked by this. It isn't overstating to say I was appalled by the writing skills, if you will, of the typical incoming college student. And listen, I'm not talking about advanced concepts like style, flow, use of metaphor (ha!), etc. I'm talking about the spelling of commonplace words and mastery of even the most basic concepts in grammar. I'm talking about students who write sentences like, "He don't no if he's comming, to." I swear to you, I had a fair percentage of kids who wrote exactly as if they were ESL students—recent transfers from the Ukraine, perhaps.

I expect the loudest outcry here from minority interests. No, not because minority kids are "too dumb to meet the standards"*, but because history suggests that minority groups always rise up in protest every time academic standards are raised. And if anything, it's the continuing activity of these so-called advocacy groups that suggests to minority students that they're "dumb." What else could the message of an argument for lax standards possibly be? It says to the kids, "You can't do this work. You can't meet the same high standards that are expected of the other kids." I ask you: Is that a progressive message? Is that "affirmative action"?

And really, this points up the fundamental absurdity of the debate I'll be witnessing statewide over the next year. An actual controversy will explode over whether it's unfair to really expect kids to learn what we say we expect them to learn. No matter how you slice it, the logic of the forces of mediocrity reduces to this: Yes, by all means, we can have standards...but god no, we can't enforce them! I'm reminded of an exchange I once had with a student of mine. He came to my office during student-meetings week** quite agitated about the C I'd told him to expect in my class. "I can't get a C," he said flatly, wasting little time on pleasantries. "I'm pre-med. I need a B at least." Annoyed at his entitlement attitude, as well as the implication that this was somehow my problem, I reacted more gruffly than I might have otherwise. "Yeah, well, you should've thought about that during class," I told him. "You should've worked harder." To which he replied—in this teeth-grittingly dismissive and patronizing tone that made me want to strangle him right there and leave the still-warm carcass for the next student to see—"OK, fine, but we're past that now. And I can't get a C...."

Notice the built-in assumption? We're past that now. There's this kind of winking notion that, Yeah, we all know there are standards...wink...and we all know that I'm supposed to meet them...wink...but in the end, if I don't, you give me the grade anyway. And maybe to some people who don't think it through, that almost sounds reasonable: "Hey, the kid tried." But the catch is that they don't try. Not as hard, they don't. When kids are aware of this tacit little bargain (and they are, today, believe me), they just don't give a full-out effort. Except among the modest percentage of super-highly motivated students (who tend to be that way because education and excellence are stressed in the home), there's no incentive to excel nowadays. Students know that by simply coasting, or hardly doing anything at all, they're almost guaranteed a C. Again, I'm not overstating. Professors are under intense pressure to give students no lower than a C, especially at pricey private colleges where the kids—and their helicoptering parents—seem to believe they're paying for good grades.

This, too, is the legacy of self-esteem-based education, wherein nothing is as important as equipping the student with a "positive sense of self-worth!" After all, as Hillary would tell you, bad grades hurt people's feelings....

* And let me be clear: This is NOT ME TALKING. Nor am I even implying that minority kids are any "dumber" than anyone else.
** a required, end-semester opportunity for students to raise questions or air any grievances they may have about what went on during the semester.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, the only way the tests will do any good is if they are followed up with realistic action against the teachers who passed the students when they lack competency in subjects - like terminating them. Can you say "can of worms," boys & girls? Better still, can you *spell* can of worms? Probably also have to find a way to keep Al Sharpton & Jesse Jackson out of the mix (Easy to do... don't allow cameras).

Oh, hell... let's just build more prisons or re institute the draft - give these kids - and the worst teachers - something to do besides sell drugs or flip burgers.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, I just wanted to throw in quickly that when I read your funny example of bad writing from your class, the first thing I thought is you shouldn't underestimate how chat-speak has corrupted the way people my age write. Kids get used to writing things like "no" for "know" or "thot" for "thought". And of course everybody uses "b/c" now, I think you even use it in the blog sometimes.

Cal said...

These kids need to be told that they are probably going to be tested throughout their entire lives. I wish I was. I know I went to college and was told my grades and SAT scores were great for a minority kid. And I got my head handed to me. I don't think my scores were that bad. But you realize later in life that some of the kids were probably several hundred points higher than you, you can understand why you struggled and they didn't. I know that in my required English class I didn't write as bad as some of your examples, but I wasn't where I should have been. That's in both grammar and vocabulary. And college is not the place to try to catch up.

I've lived in both an upper class and a lower class area and the mindset of the parents (of course, in the lower class area it's probably "parent") are two different worlds. The PTA Night in the upper class world can be standing room only where in the lower class area many of the teachers have to go the homes. That's if they want to do that.

But I think these kids need to know where they stand instead of being told mistruths. But I also think the colleges, who I believe know who will succeed and who will fail, should stop admitting those kids who are not at a certain level. Many professors, who have to be concerned with the amount of research they publish or grants they receive, do not have the time to do remedial teaching. The kids become frustrated and either drop out or transfer.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev, you're right. This is a complex social issue with no easy cure-all. But one thing I know: The approach to education in this country has flat-out SUCKED for years now.

Alyssa, that is very true. I don't know why kids think that they should be able to use chat shorthand in formal writing. But they do. And between that and the other problems I cited, it is truthfully like trying to decipher a foreign language sometimes. There should be a stern policy on the use of Web-speak, IMNSHO, LOL. ;)

Cal: The one objection I get thrown back at me when I raise points like this is that "tests are unfair because some kids are just bad test-takers. Why should they suffer such severe penalties?" But you make an excellent point. Life is full of tests of one kind or another. And if we're making all kinds of allowances for bad test-takers, what about other types of allowances? Think about how many kids are terrible public speakers or terrified public speakers. Do we have to take that into account, too, when they make presentations or participate in (required) debates?

Where do you stop?

The Crack Emcee said...

O.K., let me see if I can phrase this right, without spitting on anybody:

Adults seem to be in agreement, regarding the need for a hard-line on education, whether a student "feels" like it or not. But, then, will later demand educated students not develop a hard-line against spirituality in society - because those same adults "feel" like the occasional abandonment of their own education is what's right for them?

Can anybody *spell* consistency?

Steve Salerno said...

Crack, I gotta say, I'm not sure I'm following the line of argument you put forward here; not sure the analogies "scan." I'm curious to see if anyone else wants in on this.

I'd like to make another quick point that I think is worth making, and for which you've given me the perfect opening. Was it necessary to include the sarcastic throwaway line about "spitting on people"? Does that really elevate the discussion, in your eyes? I know that you have very strong feelings--and also that you're probably being glib, as you see it--but it seems to me that if we all carry over all of our personal grievances into each and every thread, treating old scars as fresh wounds, sooner or later we all stop talking to one another in civilized fashion. No? Yes? If I'm wrong, tell me why...

RevRon's Rants said...

Good points, Steve. And I think that's all I'm going to say on the matter.

Cal said...

I'm not sure if I follow CMC's analogy either, but if he is saying people need to go to college at different times then I agree. I also think there needs to be a different track for those whom college is not the best thing. But I think minimal standards for knowledge at the end of high school is definitely needed. Even if it's just basic math, geography, English, financial literacy, etc.

To Steve's comment about my original post, I do think the testing field should be level. I read these stories where kids (usually middle- or upper-middle class) use Ritalin or other drugs before taking exams. I know I worked with a guy who went to NYU in the mid '90s who said he took Ritalin from a friend of his to help study. He told me he was able to stay up much longer to study than otherwise. (Although I'm not sure scientifically if it's been proven that this stuff helps. It may just be anecdotal evidence.)

I also worked with a guy who used to be a finance professor and he noticed some of the kids would get notes from doctors saying they need extra time or other special considerations when taking exams. Some students may need it, but he had his doubts as to the validity of some of them.

It's kind of like the steroid argument in sports with me. And I know you have a different viewpoint on that issue. But I know it's a side issue to the main point.

The Crack Emcee said...


Sorry, but I really was trying to say something without offending, though I thought it would come off offensive anyway (which it did, I guess):

My point was, what's the worth of educating kids, if adults will eventually posit "other ways of knowing" as a defense for their belief in religion and spirituality? Seems like a total waste of time, from the kids perspective, if they're aware the adults make no sense in how they conduct/percieve their own lives.

Steve Salerno said...

Crack, now that is, I think, a very interesting comment. I'm not sure the phenomenon is that widespread--i.e., I don't think too many parents who instill a love of learning in their kids later undermine that whole process by filling their heads with New Wage jargon (though I do, personally, know a few who do/have done that. Perhaps it's more common in circles of your own personal knowledge). And I do agree, it's rather amazing (and frustrating as hell!) that people who should know better--who have serious, formal education behind them--will, for whatever reason of hope or desperation, throw all that out the window in order to embrace the "other way of knowing" that you describe. I interviewed some of these in the course of writing my book; these included people who had impressive scholastic backgrounds in subjects like medicine and physics. Yet they segregated their private "spiritual life" from all of the classical knowledge they'd received in school--and they were adamant about the legitimacy of a dichotomy between the two.

NOTE to possible future students of mine: Regardless of what you read here, no one should use the phrase "legitimacy of a dichotomy."

Anonymous said...

I vote for a class in critical thinking skills. This applies to the good test takers as well as the bad ones. A person can have a great memory and a great education and still be unable to decifer what is important to take from the information. Most con artists, SHAMSTERS, con highly educated people due to the fact they do not have adequate reasoning skills. Of course one can argue, not everyone has the ability to be a critical or thoughtful thinker so why even try to teach those skills?

Anonymous said...

I think it's no coincidence that the Founding Fathers were also among the best-educated of the colonists. The least educated among them, George Washington, spent the last decade of his life trying to establish a university in the nation's capital (not yet called Washington) so that all Americans could have a chance to be well educated. Ben Franklin, another relatively "uneducated" Founder, founded the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson founded (and designed) the University of Virginia. This may seem like a pointless aside, but I think the Founders realized that a good education will give anyone an unequal advantage when dealing with his/her peers, and they hoped to make the possibility of a good education more widely available. I can attest that the advantage is just as real today as it was then. It's a shame that the chance to learn is now regarded as a punishment rather than the privilege and pleasure it is.

RevRon's Rants said...

In my opinion, issuing a blanket statement that spirituality and intelligence are mutually exclusive - which I don't actually think you are doing, Steve - is not only offensive, it smacks of a faux intellectualism that overshadows any "intelligence" one might otherwise possess, and denigrates some of the greatest minds throughout history - including those who designed our system of government - most of whom held to the notion that "there's more to heaven and earth than your philosophy..."

RevRon's Rants said...

To the first anon - I agree that an effort to nurture critical thinking skills would be highly beneficial. However, I believe a core element of such a class would be instilling in each student a primary, objective truth: that no individual will have all the answers. One of the inevitable offshoots of higher intelligence is a sense of humility. The absence of that quality is a clear indication that there is much yet to learn.

Steve Salerno said...

I didn't, and wouldn't, say that spirituality and intelligence are mutually exclusive. I think the issue is far more complex than a simple either/or scenario. However, Ron, I'm sure you realize that there are any number of people--including our friend Shermer--who basically do feel that way. And what concerns me--as I think it also concerns you--is that once you admit the idea of non-tangibility/non-provability into the discussion, that really opens the door to the sort of pseudo-spirituality that both you and I very much reject.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the key here is in recognizing that abandonment of common sense is not prerequisite to the exploration of intangible and unprovable concepts. A healthy dose of realism is essential, but that realism must include accepting the fact that the "explorer" doesn't already know everything. As I'd said before, defining as truth only what one already knows is tantamount to abandoning one's self to ignorance.

RevRon's Rants said...

Oh, yeah, Steve... Schirmer would obviously prefer that his "customers" suspend reason. That's the only way they could possibly swallow the swill he offers, especially given the ever-growing number of complaints against him.

Cosmic Connie said...

Ron, I think you're confusing David Schirmer (the Aussie star of "The Secret") with Michael Shermer (the skeptic). But you're right about the suspension of reason the former requires of his followers.

As a devout agnostic, I can sympathize to a degree with anti-religionists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. However, I have to say that anti-religion / skeptical sanctimony is just as annoying to me as religious sanctimony. And there's plenty of both to go around these days.

The Crack Emcee said...

If I denigrate great minds, so be it. Many of them are dead and - being great minds - they don't need anyone to defend them, or getting angry, because some black guy from L.A. had the temerity to challenge their beliefs. Challenging beliefs is what I do. If I found any worth in 'em I wouldn't bother. Get used to it. Most of 'em are gonna fall anyway: It's The Circle of Life.

About "those who designed our system of government - most of whom held to the notion that 'there's more to heaven and earth than your philosophy...'":

Our first five presidents - and Ben Franklin - were Deists. Men of Reason. (Tom Paine - who, I know, wasn't a president - wrote "The Age of Reason".) The Founding Fathers were children of the Enlightenment; mostly men who wanted freedom from religion. That's why we have the division of church and state. Many of the Founding Fathers never spoke of God/Heaven as you're implying, but found almost any religious talk (as you're describing it) as offensive as I do. (Jefferson cut offending passages out of his bible. Check for yourself.). Many of the Founding Fathers never went to church,...and they certainly wouldn't be found wasting their time in a monastery, that's for sure. They were too busy actually doing things for truth-seeking through navel gazing.

You said to Anon:

"I agree that an effort to nurture critical thinking skills would be highly beneficial. However, I believe a core element of such a class would be instilling in each student a primary, objective truth: that no individual will have all the answers. One of the inevitable offshoots of higher intelligence is a sense of humility. The absence of that quality is a clear indication that there is much yet to learn."

Please, spare us the Eastern outlook, directly from the blind "master" with the trippy eyes on Kung Fu: Ben Franklin wasn't humble and he tore our reality apart with his bare hands. Neither was Jefferson. Americans are ambitious and, sometimes, our greatness precedes us. We like winners and, while modesty has it's place, we tend to save the shy boy routine for middle school dances and Prince's earliest CD covers.

You say, "defining as truth only what one already knows is tantamount to abandoning one's self to ignorance."

Well, I know a lot, so I'm secure enough not to be easily led. I'm not saying, as I walk alone, that I don't learn new things on "my path", but it does mean I know one thing for sure:

I can spot BS a mile away.

Anonymous said...

Crack, you're right on here. Should anyone doubt you, s/he can read Brooke Allen's "Moral Minority," about the religious beliefs of the Founders, or any other profile such as Gordon Wood's "Revolutionary Characters." Ben Franklin believed that the greatest expression of faith in God was to do well by one's fellow men; Jefferson, as you point out, ruthlessly removed all reference to miraculous or supernatural acts from his New Testament; and Washington deleted any references to Jesus from his speeches. It is not that the Founders were atheists, but most were Deists, as you say--believers in a God Creator who made the world and gave man reason, to use if he only would, and then stepped back to see what happened. This did not keep them from being men of high principle--if nothing else, reading their lives shows that they each strove to be "great" in a sense that would be almost incomprehensible today, by being good and doing right. It does mean that, to a man, they believed in reason over blind faith.

I had to laugh about your comment on American ambition. It reminded me of a comment I read about why the "Mr. Bean" movies were monster hits across Europe but not here. The commentator noted that in Europe, a mild-mannered, unambitious guy such as Bean was viewed as a hero, where here, he was seen as a loser. Nuff said!

Anonymous said...


I'm wondering what you think the Brit effect has on education? She didn't have any and certainly isn't suffering financially for it. Do you think its having an affect on the teens looking up to her?

Steve Salerno said...

I'm glad you asked that question, Anon. (And to the rest of the SHAMblog community, I swear, this is not a softball that I lobbed to myself under a false name.)

Yes, I do think that today's twit worship has had an effect on the reverence for education, or lack of same. I don't see how it could not have. Although I never understood the logic behind the "role model" concept, I don't deny that in practice, role models can work--in this case, in a negative fashion. You have to think that when kids see Britney or Lindsay or Paris or Jessica acting the fool and yet subject to constant fawning and media coverage--not to mention accumulating wealth hand over fist--that affects (perverts) their notion of what success means, as well as what's necessary to achieve it. Quite clearly education isn't part of that mix.

Again last night, Paris Hilton was in Philadelphia, this time promoting her new movie--the intellectual tour-de-force, Hotties and Notties, sure to be on everyone's Oscar list next year. My local ABC affiliate interviewed several girls (of hundreds in attendance) who said, unashamedly, that Paris was their "idol" and they wanted to be "just like her" when they grow up. These girls had gone to some lengths to look like her--clothing, hair, makeup and all. One girl was clearly Hispanic and yet had died her hair that washed-out blonde color, and given it Ms. Hilton's asymmetrical wedge-cut (or whatever the "technical" name is). She looked ridiculous: like a parody, a joke.

What they fail to realize is that for most of us who lack the trust fund, the way to success is writ of something more than sex videos, jail stretches, and drunken transcontinental escapades with the rest of The Beautiful People.

And btw--not to be gratuitously snide, because it's relevant here--Ms. Hilton is in no way "beautiful." She gets the attention she gets because she's a sort of rich celebrity groupie. You see hundreds of better-looking girls just walking down the street every day. So here again, perception has played havoc with reality, in terms of what kids look up to and want to emulate.

Anonymous said...

Might want to change that to "dyed her hair" in the last post...

Steve Salerno said...

Good point, and I confess to the error. You caught me blonde-handed!

However, on reflection--and having seen the end result of the hair job--I think "died" may be more appropriate after all. (I only wish I could say I wrote that on purpose!)

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. That just goes to show you, we can all use some ongoing "edumication," as Dubya might put it. Or maybe a good proofreader.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>What else could the message of an argument for lax standards possibly be?

What? How's this?

Education is oppression.

Freedom is slavery.

Or, you know, like, wutevah!

littleplanet said...

Educational standards will always be important, and are becoming more so all the time.
It is probably useless to question why kids from certain ethnic backgrounds (or economic, for that matter) do better than others.
Just because you're Asian, or Dad's a CEO should not matter a whit.
What should matter - is whatever it takes to keep the average student interested in the process of learning.
For some, the carrot is a fat career. For others, it is their own self-respect.
Kids don't turn stupid because it is what they prefer.
The aura of hopelessness out there is a boulder that educational platitudes can't budge.

Anonymous said...

Steve, nice blog. I'm a teacher (Elementary) and in our district we have been making a huge effort to both gurantee that state standards are taught, and that students are held accountable to them. No easy task, believe me. Most parents supprot the idea of tough standards--untill their child can't meet them.

In response, most parents will provide extra support either by hiring tutors, or spending more time working with their child, helping with homework, math facts, etc. And of course, we take steps at the school to see that the student gets the support they need. Sadly, we do see a small percentage of parents that blame the teacher, or else attempt and negotiate a better grade for their child. It happens mostly at the high school level, but I have seen it happen as low as third grade.

The "tests are unfair because some kids are bad test takers" argument is nonsense. Granted, there is no such thing as a perfect assessment, and kids do vary in their ability to take tests--but the truth is, if the kid knows the material and can read for understanding, they generally do OK. The number one reason that kids fail tests is that they do not study and do not prepare beforehand. I see this every week in the class that I teach.

One comment on what another reader posted. Cal said "I also worked with a guy who used to be a finance professor and he noticed some of the kids would get notes from doctors saying they need extra time or other special considerations when taking exams." If we are talking about a college student then the professor would refer the student to the administration to see if they will be allowed an accommodation. A doctor's note to a professor is worthless. While colleges do of course grant some accommodations, they are nothing like the ones that are granted in elementary and high school through IDEA/504 plans--but for those you have to go through a very involved process.

I'll keep reading, and perhaps post under a real fictitious name next time.

Steve Salerno said...

Glad to have you on-board, Anon. The professional/insider's perspective is always welcome--especially when it's as well-put and persuasive as what you contribute here.

Thanks for joining us.