To fix college, ban ‘I feel’

Among One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education collected by the National Association of Scholars, Naomi Schaefer Riley proposes a campaign against narcissism. She recalls a reality show called The Scholar in which ten high school seniors competed for a college scholarship.  Asked what famous person, dead or alive, she’d like to have dinner with, Melissa answered Plato. She said she’d “read his story about the cave” and wanted to “discuss her own ‘process of self-discovery’ with him.” Melissa won the scholarship.

Everything about college and the process leading to it makes students believe that their innermost feelings are of the utmost importance. Professors (the good ones, anyway) complain that students begin every answer with “I feel.” This is emblematic of a certain self-absorption combined with postmodern fuzzy thinking.

. . . Every paper turned in during the first year of college should depend entirely for its argument on the writings and thoughts of others without any reference to the student’s personal experience. The writing should include a general thesis backed up by specific quotations or examples from third parties. The only way to make eighteen-year-olds into intelligible writers and speakers is to force them to look beyond themselves.

Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For.

Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute calls for banning grade inflation: ”Pass a federal law that no teacher in a college or university that receives federal funds shall be allowed to award an A to more than 7 percent of the students in any course, and a B to more than an additional 18 percent.”

I’d like to tell ninth graders whether they’re on track to earn a bachelor’s degree, train for a skilled job, flunk out of a community college remedial course or drop out of high school. If they knew early enough, they could work harder to improve their odds — or set more realistic goals. Colleges wouldn’t have to provide so many remedial courses, which usually come too late to help.

Grammar is back

A growing number of teachers are “bringing grammar, the forgotten spinster of school subjects, back to the party,” writes Elise Hahl  in Education Next.

In an honors English class at Needham High in Massachusetts, students rip apart a verbose letter by a 15K race coordinators trying to explain why he misdirected racers and forgot to supply water at the finish line.

“‘In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday’s events,’” Max quotes, “‘I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all.’”

. . . “He just throws in words!” Max says. He goes on to finish the opening paragraph.

“‘While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:’”

“He ended with a colon,” says a boy who didn’t shave that morning.

. . . A stocky kid named David chimes in. “That’s not just bad grammar,” he says, indignant. “That’s, like, bad PR.”

His comment catches the attention of (teacher Andrea) Bassett, who is making rounds to each cluster of students. “David,” she says, “the life lesson here is that bad grammar is bad PR. You guys remember that.”

Needham High English teachers decided to coordinate grammar instruction so their students would no longer graduate “without knowing the parts of speech or parts of a sentence” or the need to capitalize “I.”

Brent Concilio, a young, Dartmouth-educated teacher, says the push to make classes “relevant” meant more time discussing students’ feelings about contemporary novels and less time for “the systematic teaching of grammar.”

Grammar was considered oppressive by some teachers, writes Hahl.

The Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1972 stated that students had a right “to their own patterns and varieties and language.” The resolution, which was adopted in 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), went so far as to say that correcting language was “immoral” because it was really an attempt by one social group to exert dominance over another.

With colleges complaining about students’ lack of writing skills, the SAT has added grammar questions, Hahl writes. Needham High parents want their kids to learn grammar, even if they didn’t learn much when they were in school. The school’s teachers believe students will benefit from learning how to communicate clearly in what’s considered the “correct” way.

Needham serves students from affluent, educated families. I wonder if grammar is back in schools with disadvantaged students, who have little hope of learning to write clearly unless they’re taught the fundamentals.

The ‘me’ curriculum teaches nothing

The “me” curriculum is undermining learning, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In its attempt to implement Common Core’s new standards, the Georgia Department of Education is telling teachers that narrative writing is all about me, all the time. A recommended writing prompt for 11th graders:

The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”

The prompt asks students to “reveal things about themselves, not analyze” the story, Bauerlein writes. It’s typical.

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.

“Demonstrating character” cites the Cuban Missile Crisis and asks seventh graders:

If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start or stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.

A president has the power to make laws and end hunger?

“As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments,” writes Bauerlein. Students don’t develop the analytical, reading and writing skills they’ll need in college or an eventual job.

The units claim to align with Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which Bauerlein helped develop. Teaching students to write about their navels is not what he had in mind.

Common Core’s critics are pushing states to withdraw approval, reports Ed Week. The campaign is focused on on Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana.

Alabama is withdrawing from the two consortia developing core-aligned tests.

 

Kindergarten demands ‘algebraic thinking’

Kindergarten is too tough for little kids these days, New York City teachers complain to the Post.

Way beyond the ABCs, crayons and building blocks, the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.

Under newly adopted Common Core State Standards, kindergarten teachers read aloud “informational texts,” such as “Garden Helpers,” a National Geographic tale about useful pests.

After three weeks, kids have to “write a book about what they’ve learned,” with a drawing and sentences explaining the topic.

In math, kindergarteners learn about the “commutative property.”  (I recall learning that in middle school.)

 The big test: “Miguel has two shelves. Miguel has six books . . . How many different ways can Miguel put books on the two shelves? Show and tell how you know.”

Teachers rate students’ performance as “novice,” “apprentice,” “practitioner” or “expert.”

An “expert” would draw a diagram with a key, show all five combinations, write number sentences for each equation, and explain his or her conclusions using math terms, the DOE says.

Cathleen Vecchione, a kindergarten teacher at PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has taught her students to count by 10s, but hasn’t started teaching addition.

Her students are expected to write simple sentences, such as “I have a pet.”

I tutor first graders in reading and I once volunteered in my daughter’s kindergarten class. Writing is very challenging for little kids. Some can’t form letters. Most can’t spell. It’s especially tough for boys. And I haven’t met many five- or six-year-olds who are ready to write equations.

In fact, I’m 60 and I’m a little puzzled by Miguel’s book options. The Post suggests there are five combinations. I get 14 ways if it’s just about how many books go on each shelf. (Zero books on Shelf A and six on Shelf B and so on, then zero books on Shelf B and six on Shelf A and so on.) But what if Miguel is putting some books on their side, and other backwards and . . . Is he organizing by subject matter? Perhaps he’s got his physics books on Shelf A and his philosophy books on Shelf B.

In Developing the Habits of Mind for Algebraic Thinking, Barry Garelick implies that fifth graders aren’t ready to write algebraic equations. “Giving students problems to solve for which they have little or no prior knowledge or mastery of algebraic skills is not likely to develop the habit of mind of algebraic thinking,” he writes.

Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to success

Does confidence really breed success?  “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” says psychologist Jean Twenge. ”Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

More students say they’re gifted in writing ability, yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s, says Twenge.

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

Self-esteem doesn’t lead to success, says Roy Baumeister, a Florida State professor who’s studied the topic for years. ”Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success,” he says.

In one study, university students who’d earned C, D and F grades “received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.” They did worse than students with similar grades whose self-esteem had been left alone. ”An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,” writes Baumeister.

Who belongs in remedial courses?

Most colleges use placement tests alone — not high school grades — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns the exams aren’t accurate.

Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Reformers believe the remedial courses are part ofe problem — not poor preparation.

At one community college, high-level remedial writing students are more likely to succeed in English if they’re placed in college-level classes than in remedial courses.

3 million open jobs, but who’s qualified?

There are 3 million open jobs in U.S. because workers lack skills, reports 60 Minutes.

With a solid basic education, people could learn vocational skills, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week.  Instead, people are leaving high school and college without the ability to ” read complex material, write clear expository prose, analyze problems and solve them” and use high school-level math.

A Nevada company called Click Bond needs workers who can program computer-controlled machines, fix them and ensure fasteners are made to precise specifications.

They are having a very hard time finding people who “read, write, do math, problem solve,” says Ryan Costella. “I can’t tell you how many people even coming out of higher ed with degrees who can’t put a sentence together without a major grammatical error…If you can’t do the resume properly to get the job, you can’t come work for us. We’re in the business of making fasters that hold systems together that protect people in the air when they’re flying. We’re in the business of perfection.”

. . . Click Bond, desperate for help, banded together with other employers to set up a program at the local community college. They took unemployed people—and Nevada has a very large supply of such people—tested them for aptitude, interviewed them for attitude, and then trained them for the work that was available. The students were taught to operate the computers, read blueprints, learn trigonometry to make precise measurements—all in sixteen weeks.

But it cost $60,000 to train 20 workers.

Education requirements are climbing, say many employers. In the future, an administrative assistant probably will need an associate degree.

Shakespeare or Stein?

Instead of reading Shakespeare, students of the future will analyze the writing of Joel Stein, writes Joel Stein in Time. It makes him nervous. Common Core State Standards will shift reading lists to non-fiction, Stein writes. By reading analytical essays, they’ll learn to write analytical essays — instead of journal entries about their feelings.

Stein reads Faulkner or Joyce to improve his writing. CCSS urges students to dip into FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.” Which is not quite the same.

Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can’t tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

Education isn’t just training for work, Stein writes. “It’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”

If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.”

Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with.

That’s “something he could have learned by reading Othello,” Stein concludes.

Wanted: A geezer with grammar skills

If you’re 70 or older, lucid and literate, there’s an (unpaid) job for you in Portland editing the autobiographical stories of a 79-year-old “geezer.”  Why the age requirement?

. . . I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills.

In addition to “possessing intimate knowledge and understanding of correct composition, grammar and punctuation,” he’s looking for someone who will work for satisfaction rather than money.

Why should those young punks learn to punctuate if there’s no money in it?

The ad was highlighted by Jim Romenesko, who also spotted Chicago Craigslist ad seeking a ghostwriter:

I would like to write a book, but find myself without the time or expertise to write it.

Age isn’t mentioned. (Neither is pay.) The successful applicant “must possess various abilities, powerful writing skills, knack for putting ideas together, experiences and information into words and can write about any topic.”

Tutors or cheaters?

Wealthy parents are hiring “tutors” to do their children’s work through private school — and sometimes college, reports the New York Post. Eager to get their kids into elite colleges by any means necessary, parents go online to find “legit and not-so-legit tutors, homework helpers and ghostwriters.”

“Charles” put himself through medical school and put a down payment on an apartment with $150,000 he earned over six years of ghostwriting for a single student.

The mother — a college professor — demanded Charles “tutor” her 15-year-old sophomore son by completing every homework assignment and writing every paper and college essay. . . .

Once the boy was off to his out-of-state private university, he flunked out after less than one year without the coddling of a tutor.

. . . And when the student was enrolled at a less-competitive school back in New York, Charles was pulled back in at the mother’s urging: “I was back in the picture in the same way as before: coming over five or six days a week. They paid for my apartment,” he says.

Teachers notice when mediocre students turn in “grad-school-like” papers, a private school teacher tells the Post.

“We would have staff meetings to discuss tutors: How do we grade this essay, knowing a tutor is crafting it? It puts teachers in an awkward position, because you don’t want to accuse the kid. Teachers can’t keep up with all the ways kids are cheating these days.”

It sounds as though private schools don’t want to confront parents who are paying the tuition bill as well as the ghost-writer’s bill.

College admissions officers also see a lot of ghost-written or mom-written essays. I wonder if there’s any point in requiring an essay.