Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cookie Cutter Schools

It was a recent conversation with a mom from Pennsylvania (let’s call her Laura) that brought me to a better understanding of America’s “one-size-fits-all” schools and the stratifying effect they have been having on our society.  This lady lives in a very affluent, suburban neighborhood outside of Philadelphia and has 15-year old twin boys.  She described her children’s schools as “very good”, (and I thought, “Wow how lucky!”) – and then she began the litany of complaints. 
She started with how her sons were taught Math.  When they were little, the boys would come home with these bizarre homework assignments that neither she nor her husband could figure out how to help them with.  These are both college-educated professionals.  Have I seen the lattice method?  Sure have. Laura and her husband bought supplementary Math work books that had practice sheets.  Then the parents took turns almost every school night plus many hours during weekends and summer vacations at the kitchen table teaching them the correct way to solve Math problems.  Laura described these correct methods as the way they themselves had been taught which were, of course, the Standard Algorithms. 
I nodded my head – it’s the same down here.  As a tutor I have spoken to many, many parents about this same thing.  The kids would be trying to solve a division problem, for instance, and the first thing they did was start drawing all these bubbles all over the paper.  Laura saw that in her sons’ school as well. 
Or they would try to solve fraction problems, but had forgotten their multiplication facts.  About two years can separate the schools’ work on the tables (3rd grade – and we’re talking about an all too brief attempt at rote memorization) and the introduction of fractions (5th grade).  During this time, the material covered is so fast-paced, over-loaded with disconnected skills, and poorly sequenced that the gradual building of complexity in using multiplication appears to have been lost in the crowd.  Almost never do I meet a student of any age who has had enough (or any) practice in using two and three digit multipliers, while the neglect of the Standard Algorithm in division can apply to simple one digit divisors, let alone two and three digit divisor problems.  (The absence of division instruction was one of the most criticized points in the NCTM-written standards of the OBE days.  They’ve effectively done away with this function anyway, despite all our protesting.)  Once the connection between multiplication, division and fractions is demonstrated to my tutoring students, they are astonished!
It’s the logical, building-block sequencing in the practice of increasingly complex operations that helps a child internalize the basics, such as the multiplication tables or the step-by-step procedures used to solve elementary arithmetic problems. Many parents know this and believe strongly in the importance of plenty of paper and pencil work despite - or maybe because of - their not having Education degrees.  Too often, however, when these parents try to show their kids how to solve Math problems, the kids will protest that that’s not how they do it in school.  But the kids can’t do it the way the teacher showed them either, nor can they explain this new way to their parents. The books, when they come home at all, are poorly written and will have only one or two examples showing procedures which will not even cover all the different quirks and ramifications of the exercise problems the kids have been assigned to figure out.  (This is experience speaking here.)  It is lose/lose.  The end result is usually a build-up of frustration on both sides, and the child’s loss of respect for the hapless parents.
The Pa. schools don’t teach cursive anymore either.  Laura believes that cursive is very important – how can anyone sign their name if they haven’t learned cursive?   I nodded - it’s the same in Fl. They pretend to teach cursive for like two weeks or so, then it comes to a screeching halt, and the kids go right back to printing.  The printing is illegible because many schools don’t teach how to hold a pencil and, if the kids start at the wrong place and head in the wrong direction, they are not corrected.  (Dyslexia is such a lucrative little diagnosis.)  The kids end up trying to invent how to write the letters themselves which is usually backwards, upside down and in the wrong positions. 
Laura said they had the same situation up north.  Plus there is no keyboarding instruction.  She was very indignant about this.  The reason the schools give for not bothering with cursive anymore is because everyone will be typing everything.  But then they do not provide any kind of formal training in keyboarding.  In their earliest days of school, this mom took on the task of teaching her sons how to print and write cursive correctly, plus made sure they knew how to keyboard better than the default, two-finger hunt & peck.  It’s a good thing she started this so soon, because once a child has a few years practice forming their letters wrong, it’s a horribly difficult habit to break.
Spelling?  Spelling tests are gone in the schools she knows of in Pennsylvania, while in Florida, they are sometimes still seen in the earlier grades.  They are pretty hit or miss though – I’ll ask my students how they’re doing on all their subjects, and they’ll tell me they haven’t had a spelling test for a while.  I told Laura that back in the late 90’s, when my kids were still in a public middle school, the tests had devolved into a multiple choice format.  When I complained to the principal, he told me that that’s how he did it when he was a teacher.  Plus there are a lot of times where spelling is seen as unimportant, like in the kids’ daily journals.  Laura hadn’t seen any multiple choice spelling tests, but she remembers being appalled by her sons’ daily, error-filled journals and also complained about all the “rough drafts” the kids are always writing even now when they are in high school.  No one ever used to turn in rough drafts.  We turned in the best work possible, and if there were errors, the teacher marked them – in red – and we would take the papers home, fix them and turn in the corrected paper the next day.  This is how kids learn – and this has not been happening in America’s public schools for quite some time now.
Neither the rich Pa. nor mixed-income Fl. schools of our acquaintance spend significant time teaching grammatical rules, parts of speech or variety of sentence structure.  I’ll have a student recite that a noun is a person, place or thing, but be unable to identify the nouns in a sentence.  They won’t know what a verb is until reminded – but helping verbs, adjectives, adverbs – nada.  Prepositions? Please.  Verb conjugations?  Subjects and predicates?  Compound sentences?  Comma placement?  Not that either of us have seen.  There wasn’t anything she could do about her kids’ journals since they stayed in school, and she only got to glance at them during parents’ nights.  But as often as she could get her hands on her sons’ written work, Laura has been doing the correcting herself, from elementary school and right up into their high school years.  Lucky you, I said.  The Florida parents I know of almost never get to see their children’s work.  When they do, it’s the same story.  If you ask the teacher why none of the mistakes are marked, it’s to save the child’s self-esteem.  Right – like illiteracy is good for self-esteem.  And whatever happened to diagramming sentences?  Gosh – who isn’t asking that question?
We must have compared our respective school experiences for an hour.  Skimpy phonics instruction – check.  Called “coincidental” by the pro-Phonics millions, this is known as “eclectic” in Florida.  Having higher achieving children tutor lower achieving children without first instructing the little tutors in how to teach?  You bet.  Group seating and group projects – check.  They call it cooperating and collaborating in school and cheating everywhere else. 
The homework brought home veered from none at all to infantile nonsense to pointless, time-consuming “projects”.  Laura said she would prefer no homework at all to the stuff her sons spend so much time trying to get done.  I told Laura about one high school Senior I knew who spent hours designing a color chart – for her Honors English class.  This was a very intelligent young woman, but her English SAT scores were awful.  Go figure.  Sadly, she wanted to be an English major. 
Laura told me she worried about how well many of her children’s friends would do in college – the kids who did not have their parents spending so much time with them or even getting them tutoring.  Together we wondered how the kids could be learning much about History or Science when no books ever come home, and homework projects don’t seem to be teaching them anything either.  She actually has no idea what her boys have been studying in those subjects.  It is certainly hard for me to believe that schools that do such a poor job teaching the most basic of skills and knowledge would suddenly become terrific at imparting thorough, accurate, engagingly presented and politically neutral content in these areas.  According to college and university professors, as well as the American population at large, these bodies of knowledge are also being neglected in our public schools.   Generally, parents who do much of the teaching at home are hard pressed to keep up with the dearth of grade-level basic skills, and will not think to read History and Science text books with their children.
Finally, I pointed out that while we were both describing almost identical schools, I described them as “really crappy.”  What was it that made her think of them as “very good”?  Laura answered that the schools where she lives are considered excellent because all the kids get high SAT & ACT scores, and every single kid gets into a prestigious college or university.  There is no lower income cohort that does more poorly?  No flunking?  No dropping out?  No.  Every single child gets into a good college.  Wow.
I hearkened back to a couple experiences I had when my kids were still in the public schools during the beginning of OBE.  At an open house at my son’s middle school, one of his teachers and I started talking about all the changes going on, and she kept repeating the phrase, “Everything depends on the parents.”  She was staring at me intently, so I stared intently back at her and said, “If it takes a village to raise a child, when are the schools going to be kicking in with their part?”  (Hillary’s village was HUGE back then.)  “Everything depends on the parents.”  She was a good teacher and retired shortly after.
There was also the time I spoke with a representative of the Federal Department of Education.  He was down in Sarasota investigating claims of discrimination, and I was positive that the withholding of skills and knowledge from young school children was definitely discrimination.  He kept asking me if I knew of any instance of different treatment and, of course, I didn’t.  No one was being taught phonics or grammar or anything else, at least not in the public schools.  Then there was nothing he could do because, according to the law, as long as all students were receiving the same treatment, there was no discrimination.  So discrimination for all is OK?  He shrugged his shoulders – there was nothing he could do.  I yelled, "You’re getting blamed for this, you know!"   And, indeed, he did know.
This, then, has been - and continues to be - the true essence of Outcome-Based Education. With the input of this nation’s cookie-cutter schools held constant - as identical and as inferior as possible - the basis of the schools’ reputations has become the outcomes, and those outcomes will depend on how well the students’ families overcome the deficiencies of their children’s schools.  In fact, the modern school’s biggest accomplishment has devolved into an assessment of the parents’ performance.  This explains why poorly performing schools so often whine that their students’ parents are just refusing to do their jobs. It’s why one of the biggest arguments against objective teacher evaluations is that the schools can’t be held responsible for their students’ test results.  They say stuff like this with conviction!  Of course, the way things are now, the schools are all too sadly correct.
 This Darwinistic, family as destiny, survival-of-the-fittest structure has been assuring the perpetuation of an ever more rigid class system.  To a certain extent, this outcome dichotomy will break along income lines simply because higher earning parents have more of the skills and knowledge necessary to help their kids through the morass.  The illiterate, the innumerate, those whose schools have treated them shabbily in their own turn are not only unable to do the teaching themselves, but are also less likely to be earning enough to hire tutors let alone afford private school.  Our illustrious Educrats do want us to believe that everything hinges on money – because they want tons more of it.  But this is the Information Age, so it’s the families with the necessary “information” who will have the children who at least appear to be thriving in America’s cookie-cutter schools.

Why the American school system has become one where teaching is so degraded rather than one where all children receive equally effective books and teaching methods is the topic for another to handle.   For now, I can state - with conviction! - that Common Core is more of the same shabby treatment.  We need Parents’ Choice.

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