A few years ago, my youngest son, in middle school at the time, asked me to edit an essay. An efficient thinker and resourceful writer, he didn’t require much assistance. I suggested he cut a repetitive sentence from a paragraph, but he shook his head. His teacher had instructed him paragraphs must be at least six sentences long. As a writer, I was dumbfounded. Had I missed that chapter in Strunk and White? Had some new style guide replaced it? Had the relationship of style to content suddenly reversed? I had written several dozen paragraphs less than six sentences—some with as few as one. My God, I thought, this is the key to the craft: six sentence paragraphs. Bestseller list and royalties were, finally, there to be had; I was armed for success. Wait, yep, ten sentences; eleven counting this one.
But as a high school teacher, all I could do is whistle and say, “That’s some catch, that Catch 22.”
“The best there is,” my son replied.
Consider public schools in this country for more than, say five minutes, and you will encounter a Yossarian moment: longer and, like Yossarian, you will find nothing but Yossarian moments. Education is rife with the systematically ridiculous.
For twenty-nine of my fifty-three years, I have been a public high school teacher. Three of my own children have navigated similar halls and similar systems to those in which I make a living. I make no claim to excellence in the field; I am as strong a teacher as I can be, no more than many of my peers. I have been paid decently and I am confident my peers and students would say I have more than earned that pay.
In these nearly three decades, nothing fundamental about education has changed. Each year, schools introduce the latest reform designed to meet the latest standards issued by the latest political appointee’s memo. I have been in the business long enough to see reforms make their second laps, thinly repackaged as the newest way to reach kids. They don’t work any better or worse the second time. The lens through which the culture views reform and, more fundamentally, what teachers and students do in a classroom is clouded by a cataract of ignorance and deceit they confuse for a corrective lens.
One of the facets of Jared Diamond’s work I appreciate the most is his willingness to investigate the most fundamental questions of science without the scale of contemporary and popular perspectives and presumed givens as a starting point. I wish someone would do that for education in this country.
They might explore, for example, standardized tests. The testing industry has managed to marry into the family of government agencies and all its attendant sycophants. Retired school administrators become political consultants for legislators, lobbyists for the testing industry, test developers, or, on the delivery end, pedants instructing teachers how to match lessons to several hundred learning objectives. These folks don’t work for free; in fact, their salaries often exceed six figures and there are several thousand of them in each state. And we have not even addressed the billions in profits the actual testing companies make on the endeavor.
The only thing that guarantees their continued profits: student failure. If students pass the test, the industry falls apart. As a result they alter the tests constantly which justifies their continued employment. In my state, Washington, several times the scores have been so distressingly high they have been cancelled and rescored. Once they were too low, low enough that they implied a flaw in the test, not the students or teachers; again they were rescored. The state average scores have crept higher recently, so the Superintendent of Public Instruction scrapped the entire program and replaced it with another. Requiring a new set of standards, new training, new tests, and apparently more advice in all corners. Teacher salaries are frozen, classroom sizes have ballooned, school infrastructures are collapsing but the testing industry is growing exponentially throughout the country.
Not to say that we teachers are blameless. There are too many of us in this business that should never speak to a kid, even our own, perhaps especially our own. These teachers come in several sizes: the two following the most prevalent.
•The Bureaucrat: Some teachers simply assign tasks that can be scored easily and then assess their students by putting similar problems on a test weighted with more points. They have mastered the bureaucratic capacity to match their test questions and lessons to state or national standards. Typically one third of their classes fail. Upon inquiry, such teachers will say they have high standards.
These individuals are insulated not by tenure or teachers unions so much as by the misguided bureaucracy which implements common standards that, after billions of dollars of research and years of debate, remain as arbitrary and imprecise as a weather report in Tornado Alley, then requires schools to demonstrate teachers construct lessons to match this litany. This approach to standards emphasizes evidence of curricular standards embedded in a class and assessment of those standards. There is no mention of the quality of teaching. These teachers are very good at lists and documentation and paperwork; they recognize them as both job security and an opportunity to bypass, for reasons of fear or apathy, the most distasteful portion of their careers: interacting with kids. Nowhere in these mandates are they required to actually teach, endeavors in which they are either incapable or uninterested.
These teachers have no interest in their subject matter, no interest in the kids, and are the least likely to lose their jobs. Why? Because they can demonstrate their work meets capricious standards that have little to do with educating a person.
•The Autocrat: Some teachers are just plain misanthropes. Don’t accuse them of apathy; they care deeply about power and exercise is it with the joy and vehemence of a prison guard over a chain gang.
They, too, claim their reason as high standards, though they are more likely to cite discipline and character as motivation. They argue they are shaping young people for future success. Their method is intolerance: Your mother had to be rushed to the hospital last night and you didn’t get your homework finished? Well, you get a zero; rules are rules. I hope your mom improves.
These teachers typically respond to any question of authority or subject matter as personal challenges and they avenge themselves through referrals to the principal for questionable infractions (defiance) and the subjectivity inherent in the system that to any teacher can employ against a student, when he or she sees fit.
These people are difficult to fire as well, because teachers aren’t evaluated on levels of bitterness or rancor. They often demand unreasonable, impractical amounts of repetitive work to overwhelm the student who may venture toward actual curiosity. They trade every intellectual instinct, any hint of reflection for their highest value: obedience.
Since obedience is the coin of the realm in schools and athletics, and schools value athletics at least as much as they do academic success (they see the two as intertwined), administrators are often the strongest advocates of such teachers.
Take these teaching approaches, add standardized tests and rote obedience and you have an excellent recipe for the ludicrous
In math or science, students are asked to show their work, as a way of judging the thinking behind the answer, but if they solve the problem with a method not prescribed by those assessing the tests, their scores are discounted. If a student employs the proper process and gets the answer incorrect (due to a computation error, usually) he is awarded points anyway.
Only in the field of education is such thinking logical. Math problems, outside the realm of public schools, are typically self-assigned. They arise from a need for data and an application of numerical principals to gather that information in order to construct a bridge that won’t collapse, let’s say, or a building that will endure and earthquake or to determine the pitch and degree a satellite must travel to maintain a proper orbit. Relying on a formula for such tasks without the capacity to adjust it to your own ends is about as useful as the counting pig at the fair. Yes, it can grunt three times when the ringmaster tells it to add two and one, but ask it to subtract five from eight and it turns half of a good breakfast, and arriving at the wrong conclusion, whether you use an approved method or not, is disasterous; similarly, arriving at the correct conclusion using any method at one’s disposal will allow one to successfully complete the project at hand, and what other practical purpose is there in mathematics?
Let’s get visit my particular rubber room. Instead of navigating the political mid-management administrative labyrinth that ends in a consulting position with no responsibility other than re-organizing fifty-year old maxims into catchy acronyms and declaring them reform, I remain in the classroom and write fiction in my free time (there is nothing necessarily noble about either, I assure you), which makes me witness to such lunacy as well as a part of its system of delivery. My particular corner of the asylum is the English language, however, this discipline’s madness parallels all the others.
Writing can’t be assessed in in an unassailable way, which means there is no sum or quotient or vector or determined correct conclusion that one can say, without qualification, is the answer and all other conclusions are not. It can’t be assessed in in an unassailable way. This makes the endeavor particularly troubling for education; the most assailed American institution in America outside of Congress is uninclined to add arrows to its critics quiver.
Instead of laws of physics or mathematical properties, writing is a craft containing rules of thumb: tenets to employ in instances of confusion, though not doctrine one can live by (add to this that some of these tenets are brainless: use a comma whenever you take a breath — what if you have asthma?). Like Oliver Wendell Holmes explanation of pornography – “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”—it is much easier to identify effective writing than it is to identify why it is so. Discussing such requires patience and time and a familiarity with the craft, the two former a difficult proposition when teaching five classes of thirty kids or more; the latter, simply a tool few English/education graduates, whose programs are typically literature-focused, possess.
Education addresses this problem by ignoring all the various organic ways writers develop quality prose and, instead, imposes a code that produces consistent results, never mind that those results are mediocre and banal at best. One must adhere to something deemed the writing process, a prescriptive, step-by-step template (not unlike a geometric proof), which doesn’t promote or aim to produce inspired work. Uninspired work, it turns out, is easier to measure. A student can be awarded points for brainstorming, clustering, then outlining, then constructing topic and thesis sentences to hold these diluted notions in place. They are awarded no points and often suffer deductions for unadulterated insights that may add spirit to this otherwise weak concoction.
Every year, I ask my students how many do their pre-writing after completing their essays in order to get the points. Sixty percent, typically, lift their hands. Though the process prescribed to them doesn’t match the manner in which writers write or in which most children encounter and develop thought, though it casts off the values of creativity, analysis, and critical insight for impersonal regiment, this manufactured process carries the weight of law because it can be assessed simply with a rubric and check marks, despite the end having no purpose and only an occasional and accidental relationship with most organic thought and quality prose.
Writing is done by writers, not widgets. Despite its constant claims of reform, education seems more committed than ever to turning classrooms into assembly lines and each generation of students into rust belt relics. The industrial model has proven dysfunctional in democratic states and a capitalist economy over the last forty years. Why would anyone continue its practice in schools? Kids can write and they can think, often far better before an English teacher gets ahold of them than after. Education, like factory engines, cannot tolerate original thought, however. Imagine the chaos if the machine’s gears and pulleys try to construct a better motor. On the other hand, imagine the stagnant nature of motors: parts function without thinking. The latter is the school American children attend.
Good writing in schools, like good teaching or original thought, typically happens despite educational dogma, not because of it. This is a shame, because so many good, generous teachers are diverted from the children in their charge and the inspiration in their minds by an institutional sophistry that leads nowhere. Damn, only two sentences. Well, now three. No, four. Now five. At last, six. No seven. How many missions is it this week, Colonel Cathcart, or should I ask Ex PFC Wintergreen?