Madness? This. Is. PENNSYLVANIA!!!!

Field trip?
Permission slip.

Sex-ed videos?
Permission slip.

Rough contact sports?
Arguably permission slip.

Eating an Oreo?

A mother in Pennsylvania seems to have stirred up a teapot-sized tempest over one teacher’s having gone the extra mile in the great CYA-race (note that her tweets are protected, and only visible to confirmed followers):

Insanity. I have to sign a permission slip so my middle schooler can eat an Oreo. @FreeRangeKids
— Main Line Housewife (@mainlinewife) March 23, 2015

A copy of the letter that was sent home is available here, at, courtesy of Lenore Skenazy.

I understand the revulsion at this. I really do. But I think that calling it insanity is probably going too far. Just because your opponents on an issue are (or seem to you to be) insane does not thereby make everything that they do correspondingly nuts. I don’t think it’s crazy to check with a parent before giving their kid something to eat, particularly not when you’re acting in your official capacity as a teacher and a representative of the school. Because you can be damn sure that if some kid had an allergy, forgot about it, and died, that the school and the teacher would be in world of… doublestuff.

As it happens, the tool that the teacher has for making this sort of check-up with parents is the permission slip: it provides documented proof that the parent consented. Could there be a more elegant solution? Sure.

I’m a huge fan of so-called “free range” parenting — although I tend to recoil a bit at the name, because kids are not chickens. But whatever. I’m sympathetic.

But at the same time, I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine a few months ago about this — about how when we were teenagers (I’m only a little older than she) we had a lot of freedom that our students — this friend was also in graduate school at UCLA — don’t seem to possess. So you could all pile into the back of your friend’s pick up truck and just head up to the lake to hang out. No seatbelts, no helmets, no nothing except the radio and good times.

But that sort of freedom came with a cost: every year or so, some kid would die doing something ill-advised. It was like a tax — an offering to the Gods of freedom so that the rest of us could enjoy ourselves without care.

You can have a worry-free school where the teachers hand out Oreos willy-nilly, where people just go with the flow, and where students are able to leave campus for lunch without saying where they are going. You can have a childhood without bike helmets, without seatbelts, without car seats for 7-year olds.

But there’s going to be a cost. And picking one side or the other of this trade off isn’t “insanity”. And wanting to get a permission slip before distributing Oreos — however silly and fussy it may seem — isn’t quite madness.

It’s just Pennsylvania.

Pour encourager les autres

Back in 2011, Joanne blogged about the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal. She closed that post with the ominous line, “Some district officials may face criminal charges.”

I confess that I never believed anyone would actually be convicted of anything. Not, mind you, because I thought no one deserved to. I just figured, in my cynical way, that the unions would make such a big stink about this that no prosecutor’s office would have the stomach for the protracted public relations nightmare that I believed would ensue, and that even if the prosecutors had the moxie, no jury would ever convict.

The upside of being cynical is that it’s GLORIOUS when you’re wrong.

Eleven former Atlanta public school teachers and administrators were convicted of racketeering Wednesday for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal and face up to 20 years in prison, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

* * * *

Because bonuses and raises were awarded to the educators based on the test scores, prosecutors charged the educators with violating the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy. It’s a criminal statute that law enforcement typically uses to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.

The jurors had to decide if the educators were, in fact, part of a vast scheme, committed lesser felonies, or, as defense attorneys argued, were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former supervisors. The educators face sentencing next week.

Thirty-five people were indicted. Many reached plea deals.

I hate plea deals, honestly. I think that they are a perversion of justice that threaten to impose costs on the innocent for exercising their right to trial. If a prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the resources to prosecute all of their crimes, then they need to start sorting through the crimes and not prosecuting the small stuff.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of draconian punishments for people exercising dishonesty and/or corruption while holding public office. I don’t think that people take their jobs as public officials seriously enough, thinking somehow that being a public school teacher is the same thing as being a private school teacher, but with better benefits. It’s not, of course. As a public official — from governors and legislators to the lowliest DMV clerks and meter maids — you are being given the public trust to exercise an office on which the people of the state, country, or city have decided it is worth spending tax dollars, which are collected under penalty of imprisonment. I don’t care if all you did was change the answers on a few tests in order to get a bonus. That’s no longer “the small stuff” — it’s public corruption.

So I hope that the judge throws the book at these eleven.

You can see a rogue’s gallery of the convicted defendants here.

I confess, I was not aware that the defendants in this case were all visibly Black. I read a great deal about these cases, but never went in for the video reports or paid much attention to the pictures. I was somewhat taken aback when I clicked through to the link immediately above and saw that because in my mind’s eye I had always sort of imagined a bunch of Nice White Ladies working at underperforming schools, and I think that it changes the emotional texture of the story in some interesting ways. The color-blind anti-racist in me, however, gently reminds me that it doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — matter.

Hu, hus, hume.

A while back, I ran across some people who were upset at the way that the English language (and, frankly, Romance languages in general) didn’t have a gender neutral pronoun. It had been suggested by some among these people that a new pronoun was needed: “hu”. By adopting the use of “hu”, it was thought, we would free ourselves from the inherently sexist structure of traditional grammar. Many mocking jokes ensued, as is often the case when overly-earnest people attempt to force political and/or moral change through pure lexical fiat. (Cf. “differently abled”.)

Well, at least one university is addressing this issue, but not with “hu”. Rather, the University of Vermont will be committing to (not committing) one of the cardinal sins of traditional grammar: using “they” in the singular.

Gieselman began spending time at Outright Vermont, a trans and queer youth center where the gender lexicon of activists and academe is widely accepted. “As soon as I learned about a genderqueer identity, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the one!’” said Gieselman, who frequently ends sentences with a gentle laugh. “Before, it had been really difficult to explain how I was feeling to other people, and even really difficult to explain it in my own head. Suddenly, there was a language for it, and that started the journey.”

Gieselman dumped the girlie name bestowed at birth, asked friends and teachers to use Rocko, the tough-sounding nickname friends had come up with, and told people to use “they” instead of “he” or “she.” “They” has become an increasingly popular substitute for “he” or “she” in the transgender community, and the University of Vermont, a public institution of some 12,700 students, has agreed to use it.

I suppose this makes sense. Once you decide that pronouns should reflect the rather more malleable social concepts of gender rather than the somewhat less unyielding notion of biological sex — not an entirely unreasonable decision to make, mind you — it make sense that you’d go with “they” rather than “it”, which has a somewhat dehumanizing connotation.

I would like to point out, however, that a language with a lot of rules is a language with a lot of ability for differentiating various shades of meaning, and that the more you futz with things, the more ambiguity you introduce into the social discourse.

Of course, here, that sort of seems to be the point, right? And kudos to the University of Vermont for really committing to their ideals, and making the policy systemic and reflected in the pedagogical infrastructure:

The university allows students like Gieselman to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.

* * * *

Today, a growing number of students are embracing the idea that when it comes to classifying gender, there should be more than two options — something now afforded by the dating website OkCupid and by Facebook, which last year added a tab for “custom” alongside “male” and “female,” with some 50 options, including “agender,” “androgyne,” “pangender” and “trans person,” as well as an option for controlling who can see the customized version.

Of course, language can get out of hand when it bends completely to politics. I’m thinking of the “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM” community at my own alma mater, Wesleyan University. There may be a point where the individual control over language begins to interfere with its role as something held in the common intellect.

Where that line is, I don’t know. I suspect it’s somewhere between “they” and “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM”, or as one of my favourite songwriter/singers put it, “The truth is in between the first and the fortieth drink.”

Privacy in the classroom?

Via Instapundit, I am treated to the story of a student who was suspended for recording a teacher’s behavior in the classroom.

A Samuel Gaines Academy student was suspended this week after she says she was trying to defend a classmate.

Brianna Cooper, 11, says she took an audio recording in class of what she says depicted her teacher bullying a student.

Instead of receiving praise, Cooper says she was suspended for five days when the school said her video was illegal.

In legal terms… well, I’m not licensed to practice law in Florida, so I’ll leave this one up to the local police:

Law enforcement officers say recording someone without their knowledge can be legal so long as there is not an expectation of privacy.

So the questions to be asked here, it seems to me, are two:

First, does it matter at all whether the child’s recording was illegal or not? And second, if it does matter, is there an expectation of privacy in a classroom?

The first question seems fairly straightforward. In general, I think that most people would agree that behavior doesn’t need to be illegal to warrant suspension. Students get suspended all the time for doing things that are not in violation of any criminal (or even civil) statute. It’s not illegal, after all, to throw one’s book at the chalkboard in frustration, or to call one’s teacher a worthless sack of ignorance fit only for target practice. Yet these things will surely lead to suspension. So it doesn’t seem to me that it’s absolutely NECESSARY that the behavior be illegal in order for it to lead to a suspension. It may, however, be sufficient. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that a student who breaks the law at school is liable to be punished to some *lesser* extent by the school, through disciplinary procedures.

Now, the school appears to have stated that the reason for the suspension was that the behavior was illegal. But one could reasonably interpret that claim as arguing, essentially, “The student is being suspended for the behavior, and by the way this is entirely reasonable because the behavior in question is so bad that it’s illegal.”

Let’s give the school the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that the behavior is not, and need not be illegal at all. Can the school punish this student anyway?

I don’t think so. Even in the rights-impoverished climate that is the American public school, students have First Amendment rights. Is the exercise of those rights significantly curtailed by case law supporting the school’s ability to keep order and look after the student body’s welfare? Sure. But the rights still exist. I’m not a First Amendment lawyer of any stripe, but it strikes me that where the photographing or recording is being used for communicative purposes, or to gather information about what public officials are doing on public property, the First Amendment is squarely implicated. This certainly seems to be such a case.

That means, if I remember my Educational Con Law correctly, that in order to ban this behavior — even if it’s not illegal — that a school needs to show that there’s a reasonable concern that there will be a “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities” — the Tinker standard. There are a few other exceptions, but I don’t think they are relevant here.

So now let’s give me the benefit of the doubt, and say that I’m right and that the school does need the behavior to be illegal in order for the suspension to be righteous. Then the question becomes one of whether there is an “expectation of privacy” in the classroom. There’s a reasonable, albeit somewhat politically motivated discussion, of the relevant statutes here, discussing the recording of Mitt Romney’s remarks in Florida in 2012. The gist seems to be, with respect to the Florida statute anyway, that there are a lot of factors that can go into establishing or destroying an expectation of privacy:

One Florida appellate court has held that it did not violate the Florida wiretap act for a subordinate law enforcement officer to record his supervisors’ statements in a disciplinary interview; the court held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy because of the number of persons present (five, the subordinate and four senior officers), the location of the interview (in a sergeant’s office at a police station), and the nature of the interview (a disciplinary matter). Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Servs. v. Edwards, 654 So. 2d 628, 632-33 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); contrast Horning-Keating at 447 (legitimate expectation of privacy in communications between clients and attorney in attorney’s office).

Here, it’s a classroom. It’s a public building — one with restricted access for safety reasons, but a public building nonetheless. The teacher is a public employee carrying out her duties, in front of twenty or thirty other people who are sitting there watching.

Additionally, it does not strike me that the classroom is really a place of privacy: observers constantly come into classrooms to, well, you know… observe. Principals worth their salt regularly do walkarounds. Teachers themselves record their teaching when they are trying to get nationally certified, or sometimes for performance reviews. Certainly the students don’t have an expectation of privacy at a school that could easily be covered by CCTV cameras and teachers watching their every move. And from the student’s point of view, the classroom is not much different from the rest of the school. I don’t see why a teacher should have an expectation of privacy in a situation in which a student would not.

So my tentative conclusions are (1) that it probably does matter that the student’s behavior was illegal (assuming that the statute is Constitutionally sound), and (2) that there probably isn’t a reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom. And frankly, I’ve long thought that I’d *want* cameras recording everything that happened in my classroom if I were a public school teacher, both for my own edification and my legal protection. I can see why parents would want to be able to see what is happening in their child’s classroom, to verify or dispel the child’s complaints about school and about teachers. I think it’s not crazy to believe that principals should be able to flip a switch in their office and see what’s happening in their school’s classrooms.

So even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public school classroom — and I am skeptical of that claim — there probably shouldn’t be.

Private schools, on the other hand… are a different beast. Let them set themselves up however they want, and if parents like the monitored school, they can choose it. If teachers want a monitored classroom, they can take the job at the monitored school. And if they don’t, they can pick a school with a more reverent approach to classroom privacy.

Do teachers have it rough?

So I was reading an article this morning about how U.S. Teachers have it so much worse than most of the rest of the world. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of a survey:

Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

The article is interesting, as far as it goes — though one might quibble with the jump that gets made from “teachers think they have harder jobs” (which is what the survey actually measures) to “teachers have harder jobs.” I’m certainly open to the idea that at least public school teachers have a raw deal in this country in terms of their working conditions and the sort of bureaucratic structures in which they are forced to operate.

There were two things in this article in particular that caught my eye. The first was an almost casual reference to something rare and wonderful.

Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.

The emphasis is mine. What sort of wonderful world would we live in where we depended on the teachers themselves to design the curriculum (or curricula)? But isn’t that exactly what everyone seems hell-bent on killing these days?

A seocnd thing that jumped out at me was this statistic:

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.

That seems like an awful lot. Unless *all* the disadvantaged kids are smashed into schools with insanely high student:teacher ratios (not an entirely implausible notion), that means that there are a LOT of disadvantaged students to go around. I can’t do the math without knowing the student:teacher ratio data, but just intuitively it would seem that you’d need somewhere between 40 and 50% of students to be disadvantaged.

I suspect this has something to do with response bias. But when I tried to go into the survey itself and see the data (here) I was unable to either export a working data file or to find the United States’ results on the webpage. It seems much more trouble than it’s worth for a blog post.

If anyone has more success, please leave notice in the comments!

Those old Greek Myth posters

A quick bleg for those of you who might be able to help me.

Back in the 1980’s (and early 1990’s) there was a series of posters covering Greek Myths. I know, because I saw them in both fifth grade (1984-85) and in either 10th or 11th grade (1990-1991), in two separate California school districts. They were pretty extensive, with posters for Europa and Bellerophon as well as the usual suspects (Appolo, Hermes, etc.). I’m pretty sure they were part of an educational unit, and I seem to recall that they came with pages for students to color in.

The posters themselves were in a sort of very abstracted art-deco style, usually with just two colors (plus black and white). The Dionysus poster was purple and green and showed him eating grapes (held above his mouth, if memory serves). The Demeter poster was a sort of maize-tan color, and she had really big hair. The Bellerophon one showed him dumping the lead into the Chimera’s open mouth.

Anyway, I’ve spent over an hour trying to find them on the ‘net, to no avail. Does anyone else remember these posters? And does anyone know where I can find some?

Any hints or clues are welcome. Many thanks in advance.

(Oh, and so people will have something to argue about: Resolved, that teaching Greek Mythology in some exacting detail is an absolute requirement for any elementary school curriculum which purports to prepare its students for any sort of more advanced literary or academic endeavors.)

Repent. The end is near.

So this is a thing.

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I suppose this is what they mean when they talk about chickens coming home to roost. I suppose that universities sort of had this coming, what with the rampant overproduction of PhD’s.

Maybe this has been around a long time — Slate seems to have discussed it back in February — but I just found out about it, so the horror is still fresh.

Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.

Of widgets and failure

What’s a school to do if it looks like students just aren’t doing so well this year?


Report cards for Montgomery County’s 151,000 students were mailed Friday after a three-day delay that followed a mass recalculation of final exam grades for Algebra 1, according to the school system.

Schools officials said late Friday that they added 15 percentage points to all Algebra 1 exam scores after they became aware that already-high rates of failure had risen markedly.

You’re not misreading that. Scores were too low. So they just gave everyone an extra 15 points on the final.

Now I’m not wholly against shaping grade outcomes to meet a predetermined distribution. Fixed curves are better at differentiating, and the competition they breed tends to really push students to excel. (Unfortunately, they have the side effect of making those on the bottom end of things feel like giving up.) This happens in the hard sciences and math all of the time, where a 40% on a final is often a B+.

But this is something different.

Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said the main cause of the failure spike appears to have been a loss of instructional time in the spring semester, as teachers prepared students for state exams required for graduation.

The preparation for state exams took two to three weeks out of the semester, he said.

* * * *

Lang said that officials added the extra points so that students would not be penalized for a problem they did not create.

So let me get this straight. I’m trying to be charitable here, and assume that the district isn’t just inflating grades across the board to cover up their own failure (which very well may be the case).

The district has an Algebra I course that covers, let’s call it A1, where A1 is the set of Algebraic topics {1,2,3,4}. And the district also has a test which covers A1. But the state has a test that covers A2, which is the set of topics {1,2,3,5}, let’s say.

So the teachers teach A2 as their algebra class, sacrificing the time that would have been spent teaching topic 4, and instead teaching topic 5. Because it’s a state test and presumably there are money, jobs, and other things at stake.

So then they give the district test, and a huge number of students are unprepared to be tested on topic 4, because they never learned it. Because the teachers weren’t teaching it. Because they were teaching A2 instead of A1.

And… wait for it…. wait for it…


Does that about sum it up?

This is what happens when you treat youth education like a mass-scale industrial process and not like the series of interpersonal relationships that it’s supposed to be. You get product defects that affect production runs of hundreds and thousands of widgets. Except those widgets are students. And no one is paying attention because they’re all trusting the system.

You know who should be an absolute authority on what sort of test is given as a final to an Algebra class? The Algebra Teachers. If you’re a teacher, and you’re letting someone else design your final exam (a questionable situation in the first place), and you don’t know exactly what’s in that final exam, then you’ve failed at your job.

And if you do know what’s in that exam, and you don’t teach it? You’ve failed at your job. And if you agree to teach a subject knowing that you can’t teach it in the time allotted? You’ve failed at your job. And if you don’t take a few hours at the beginning of the term to get a handle on exactly what you need to teach and how much time you’ll have to teach it? You’ve failed at your job.

And if you do all of the things you have to to succeed at your job, and you recognize the $#!+storm coming down the tracks, and you recognize that you are not in fact going to be teaching your students something on which they will be tested by the community, and you take the community’s money knowing that you can’t possibly do what’s being asked, why then you’re a fraud and a coward.

Now my purpose isn’t to rag on teachers, here. My purpose is to explain that the district seems to be putting out a story in which the best-case scenario is that every single one of their Algebra I teachers is entirely unfit for his or her position as an Algebra I teacher.

In the first case, I hope that the teachers realize this, and object. In the second case, I doubt it’s true. I smell a rat.

UPDATE: Fixed an effect/affect error.

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.