Where have all the fathers gone?

I’ve only recently seen the results of the MCAS examinations for the Boston public schools.  And it took awhile for them to sink in.  Why, because they’re quite simply unbelievable.  Sure, we’ve all heard that our inner city public schools are in trouble.  But these results, well, why, I asked myself, are the schools still open?  Shouldn’t the schools where these results were obtained have been shut down while the city fathers decided what was to be done?  Didn’t the results of these tests demand some other way of doing things, nothing less than a complete course correction?  Instead, the exam results seem to have had no more lasting effect than the lines written below the fold in yesterday’s Globe.  Kids, teachers, and school administrators continue to go about their business as if nothing had happened. 
There are, if we exclude the students in the exam and special needs schools, some ten thousand students, mostly African-American and Hispanic, with White and Asian minorities of less than 10% overall, who attend Boston’s ten largest public high schools.  The MCAS test results tell us that not a single one of these students scored at the advanced Level, or Level 1, in any one of the three subject areas tested, English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science and Technology.  There were just a few who reached Level 2, or proficiency, — 260 out of 10,000, in English, 80 out of 10,000 in Mathematics and 20 out of 10,000 in Science.  But the results that I found most unbelievable, and that ought now to be making us behave differently, are the numbers of students who fell into the lowest Level, 4, failure — some 9500 students in Science and Technology, 8700 in Mathematics and 8100 in English Language!  What other organization could continue to operate with these kinds of outcomes.  One thinks of some of the collective farms and heavy industries of the former Soviet Union that continue to turn out products that have little or no value to the Russian economy.
My next reaction was to blame the tests.  These tests were obviously not testing what the students knew.  Perhaps also they were irrelevant to the students’ lives.  I’d have to see about that.  I’d have to get copies of the tests and see for myself.  For that I went on-line, to the MCAS web site, and proceeded to download some 265 pages of text.  (This is a long down-load.  Using a 56k modem it took nearly 45 minutes to download and print the tests.)  I looked particularly at the English, Mathematics and Science exams for grade 10, the same ones that so many of our 10,000 senior high school students had failed.  I took the exams myself (with the benefit of the answers that came with all the multiple choice and short-answer questions) and was struck by how much I had to think.  There was hardly a question that depended on my having memorized a response, in my case having remembered a piece of information from years ago.  Sure, within each subject area there were words and concepts whose meaning I had to understand in order to answer the question, but the answer was not just the meaning of these words and concepts.  The answers would only come from my having carefully read and then understood a text in English, a problem in Math, or a theory in Science, and then by actual thinking, or making the proper juxtapositions within my mind that would lead to the correct answer.  In terms of content and difficulty and the kinds of skills, and aptitudes tested they struck me as being not unlike the SATs and the Achievement Tests, tests that these same students would have to take within a year or two if they wanted to go on to college. 
In sum, I thought they were good tests because they were asking the students to show their understanding.
I remember two questions in particular, two that I liked because the words and concepts used were not particularly specialized, and as a result one could come to a understanding of these words and concepts by thinking, and that therefore one wasn’t dependent on having encountered them before in class (as was the case with another question I remember on matrix algebra).  One question, a problem in mathematics, depended on an understanding of the concept, steepness.  That steepness has as much to do with horizontal movement, the "run," as it does with vertical movement, the height, or the "rise" is intuitively obvious and therefore one can come to this realization by thinking.   One doesn’t have to remember the class work concerning this topic, but one is going to come to the correct answer to the problem much more quickly and easily if one has done similar thinking in class throughout the school year.  The other question in the English exam was based on a close reading of a text of instructions for following a hiking trail on Pleasant Mountain.  The question asked the student to give her own directions for going back down the mountain.   I had trouble with it, but I was able to do it, because previous experiences had pushed my mind to be active in this way.  That’s the sort of thing that these kids should have been doing in class, thinking, or learning for understanding.
So, one, it’s a good test and, two, the kids in the Boston public high schools are failing.  What conclusions might we draw?  First, although a good test, it may be the wrong test for these kids.  Perhaps we should find out what these kids are learning, because these kids cannot not be learning, it’s their nature, and then let’s test them in that.  I’m an adherent of the theory of multiple intelligences, and these tests are testing primarily just two of Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences, the linguistic and the logical mathematical.  Given tests of musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, inter- and intrapersonal intelligences I’m sure that these kids would score much higher, and we would probably see much higher failure rates in the suburbs.  So the first conclusion might be to scrap the MCAS examination and create tests of musical and spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences.  But although desirable this is not possible, given the pervasive dominance of our linguistic and logical mathematical meritocracy.  Afterall, this is the society into which even these kids will have to enter.  We are left with a second conclusion — to do everything differently, since, in view of the failure rate, there doesn’t seem to be much that we would want to protect and preserve.  I have no doubt that these kids can learn the kinds of things that are being tested on the MCAS exams.  They are not now doing so.  We need to do things differently, really differently.  And for that, where are the city fathers?  Where have all the fathers gone?

Waring School Science Program, 1988

Kids seem to understand from a very early age that they can ‘make’ music; usually, however, they have not understood, even by the time they get to the Waring School, that they can just as easily “do” science.

Perhaps this is because young rock musicians are everywhere, on the tube and on the pages of the newspapers and magazines they read, whereas successful young scientists, such as the recent group of Westinghouse Science Prize winners, pass by pretty much unnoticed by the kids, as by the general public.

It’s probably a fact, that, of all the subject matters and activities that we would have students become familiar with while in school, music and science are the two most readily accessible to them at their age.

For one cannot be an historian, nor can one have much to say about literature, without having read an awful lot of books (thus limiting these activities by and large to graduate school and beyond).

Then, to write and to draw well take years of practice; at Waring only those students who keep sketch books and journals (those who practice) achieve anything significant in one or both areas.

Finally, both mathematics and French require years of study before one is able to think in either language.

If then science, like music, is indeed accessible to kids at an early age why is it that so few of them seem to be doing it? (Whereas so many of them, if not making, are certainly listening to music.)

In part the fault lies with the media as I mention above, and the attention given the one activity and the neglect of the other. But also to blame is the fact that teachers, students and parents are probably not of one mind as to what it should mean to “do” science in the schools.

There is no reason why the Waring School’s science program could not be just as strong as the programs in math, music and French, but teachers, parents and students would have to reach agreement among themselves as to what it is they (we) would achieve in this area of the school program.

Probably science for most Waring parents means lerning (memorizing) the elementary content of one or more subject areas such as biology, physics and chemistry, the content being presented both through chapters in a textbook and exercises in a laboratory manual. In other words, for many of you, having a science program means having the students both reading science texts and spending some time in the science laboratory.

Doing science in this way generally means memorizing information and learning laboratory techniques, that which obedient kids, especially those with good memories, do well, whether or not there is anything of the scientist within them.

But this is only one kind of science, probably the kind that turns so many kids off to doing any science at all while in school — it’s a fact that fewer than 10% of American high school students choose to take courses in physics or chemistry.

But doing science need not be primarily reading textbooks. In this science differs from history and literature. Doing science may include reading some books, but the books need not and should not come first (as they do now in most science programs in most schools).

Science should be first and foremost a unique way of looking at the world (different, say, from that of the poet, or the business man), and in so doing the looker acquiring a certain kind of (scientific) knowledge of that world. Indeed, to confine the activity of science to the acquisition of information from textbooks is bad science for a number of reasons.

First, one doesn’t learn to took for oneself, one accepts usually uncritically what others have said and discovered; second, there is just too much available information and no school science program can cover more than a small portion of this tremendous body of knowledge; and third, the state of our knowledge of the world is never at rest, and any given textbook description will, almost immediately following publication, be out-of-date.

Perhaps in its most fundamental form doing science means being curious about something, something you have noticed and which has struck your imagination. Richard Feynman’s life (as depicted in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman) is an endless succession of instances of his following up his own curiosity. I don’t think he would even bother to distinguish in kind between those instances which led to his Nobel Prize in Physics, and those which enabled him to pick the lock of one of the filing cabinets in a Los Alamos office.

Mr. Feynman’s curiosity leads him to such things as investigating a house painter’s claim that by mixing red and white paint he will get yellow, finding out just how much of the bloodhound’s gift he has within his own nose, discovering how the mindreader reads minds, how the ant returns to the hill, and comparing “human” cyclotrons at Princeton with “inhuman” ones at MIT.

Feynman shows us that absolutely everything and anything may become the object of scientific inquiry, that everything can be looked at scientifically. On the other hand this is why, perhaps, for many people, science is so frightening, — for it’s probably true that everything may be made subject to observations and experiments in order to discover patterns, trends, theories and laws.

To do science in this way, investigating methodically the object of one’s interest, was the intent behind our 7th. and 8th. grade science program this current school year. Each student was asked to choose a subject of interest to him or her and then follow up that interest in every possible way in order to gain thereby and then communicate to the rest of the class a greater understanding of the subject.

Some students have enjoyed this approach, choosing subjects such as pregnancy and birth (to which the student in question happened to be a recent witness), sketching ducks and observing their social behavior in a backyard pond, the workings of logic gates and gasoline engines. These students have kept science journals, the principal focus of their work, recording therein their observations, measurements, notes, questions, ideas, and sketches.

Other students who seemed uncomfortable with this approach would, at best, go to encyclopedias and texts and take information and the transfer that information to their science journals. And in fact it has been these latter students have since opted to study basic science in the more traditional manner.

Finally, here are my own ideas on what might be (ought to be) the six elements of science education at Waring. Do they meet with your agreement? We want to know.

1) First of all I would place mathematics within the science program because, besides being a science in its own right, it is, after all, the language of physics, of much of chemistry, and much of molecular biology.  Calculus (taught at Waring in AP form) did grow out of physics. It was invented, by Newton and Leibnitz, in order to better describe motion, being therefore in important respects the language of physics as much as a discipline in its own right.

2) Second, there are the familiar basic science courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, the kind of thing I describe above. But it is not often acknowledged that these, in spite of parents’ wishes, just like Harvard and Yale, are not for everyone.

Indeed, it is the experience of the Waring School that only a few students in any one of these classes are interested in and/or prepared or ready to begin their serious study. Those who are ready may do so at Waring, in addition, we make it possible for them to enroll as juniors or seniors (prior to that time they won’t have had enough mathematics) in one of the basic science courses offered to highschool students through the Extension School at Harvard.

The Harvard classes open to our students are the very same ones given to Harvard undergraduates and they therefore represent a tremendous opportunity to find out, while still in highschool, what a college course is like, as well as to receive a course credit that can be used later on in college.

3) There are the independent science projects, the kind of things that go on at science fairs and that may be presented in competition for Westinghouse Science awards. This is the sort of thing that comes closest, in my view, to “doing science” while in school.

The independent projects represent on the part of the student scientist an investigation into something for which there are not yet clear and thorough answers in the books. And while doing the investigation the student will inevitably learn a lot of traditional science, in addition to illuminating and acquiring an improved understanding of the particular problem that he or she has chosen to address.

The beauty of this approach to science is that the student may very well discover something new, see something for the first time, make clear a relationship that no one else had noticed, and therefore experience a bit of what it’s like to be a scientist. There are no prerequisites for doing science in this way, except the ability to clearly state what it is you’re doing, then to carefully observe, measure and record, and finally to correctly interpret.

Most of all the student must be able to think clearly about whatever it is he or she is investigating. And this ability is, I would like to believe, more or less within the capacities of all of all of our students, accessible to all of them.

4) Work in the laboratory is the fourth element in the Waring science program. Accompanying the basic science courses described above are any number of laboratory techniques and experiments with which the student must become familiar. But it is not expected that every Waring student do laboratory science. the time commitment is considerable and the student must be ready and willing to make it. Not all are.

For those who are it will be their responsibility to come to the laboratory with a particular goal in mind, such as learning a basic lab procedure, carrying out an experiment that illustrates this or that physical or chemical law, or one in support of his or her independent science project.

Laboratory science is a costly and often tedious activity and only makes sense if there is considerable interest on the part of the student to thoroughly prepare and meticulously carry out the proposed experiment.

5) The fifth element in the Waring science program is the history of science. (This also happens to be where my own greatest interest lies.) Also, and in important respects this is the school’s interest, because science considered in this way fits right in with the Humanities (history and literature), the discussions of the Great Books, the history of Art and Music.

Those high school students who have little interest, or who are without the necessary math skills, to study the basic sciences in the traditional manner described above might with considerable satisfaction and profit study science in this way. In any case, the great scientists, and the ideas and laws with which they are associated should, no less than Beethoven’s music or Monet’s art, become the possession of all of us.

6) Finally, there is science literacy. This comes about, just like literacy in any other area, through reading not only science texts, but also science newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. Waring offers no course in this area, but encourages students to be curious about what is going on right now on the frontiers of each one of the sciences.

In this regard the daily all school meetings will take up such subjects as mapping the human genome, theories of the K-T extinction, particle accelerators, and super conductors, all these and other exciting ideas and happenings that are currently taking place among scientists throughout the entire world.

On Being Public

From the Journal of the Waring School, Le Temps Retrouvé, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1986

We tell our students to be public people, to speak their minds, to make themselves known in the community of the school. The strength of our community, we say to them, is directly proportional to the number of them who have “gone public”. The students nod their heads in agreement (or to stay awake) but it seems to be the rule that nothing really changes as a result of our preaching. Or the change is so slow that I don’t see it. Either the students do not believe us, that being public is all that important, or, what is more likely, they don’t really understand what we are talking about, or, what is most likely, they are not yet ready to become public people.

This is too bad. The idea of the public man is an important one. For Josee and me, since the beginning of our school in Rockport, the notion of becoming and being a public person is what our school is all about. It is incumbent on me, therefore, to make clear my notion of what it means to be a public person. When I think about it 1 find that three principal meanings of the word public come to my mind.

First is the meaning with which all of us are most familiar being a public person means performing in public; it means going before the public with one’s accomplishments. In this sense of the word the students at our school become public people to the extent that they play on a team, act in a theater production, give a talk at a meeting, read aloud from their journals, publish in Le Temps Retrouvé, exhibit their sketches at a school function, defend their ideas in Humanities class etc. All of our students become public people in this respect because to some degree they all perform, and we encourage and expect them to do so regularly. In particular, the recently created Waring honors program is closely linked to this kind of public behavior: for one’s achievement to be given the honors designation it must become public, that is, in some way it must be shared with the community as a whole.

There are areas of our program in which public performance comes as a matter of course. For example, in sports, theater, music and art, the public is directly involved indeed, such activities necessarily demand a public for their completion. But students who make important progress in math, science, writing, language, literature and history should be no less public in respect to their achievement. For example, the student who can speak French should do so as much as possible throughout the school day thus becoming a role model and encouragement to those who don’t, the student who reads well should share his or her superior understanding with teachers and other students, the student who is good in math and science should help and influence others less gifted in their aptitude for these subjects. In this sense one’s private gifts should be shared that others may benefit from them. This, then, is the first meaning of being a public person: sharing with others, the other students and teachers and parents of the school community as well as those on the outside, what one does best, and thereby encouraging and motivating others by one’s accomplishment and example.

The second meaning of public, while perhaps readily understood, is probably only rarely embodied by students of this, or any, secondary school community. To be public in this way demands, perhaps, a coming of age, a level of maturity that our students, still in their teens do not yet have. On the other hand parents and teachers are of the proper age and readiness. Being public in this second sense of the word means to represent, defend and embody by one’s words and actions, the values and principles on which the life of the community is based. In order to be such a public person one has to know and understand these underlying values and principles. Children may know them, but they probably do not yet understand them. The role of parents and teachers is to help them reach such understanding. What are these values and principles? I think we all know what they are. In essential respects they are those of the American society at large. Like the latter they may be found expressed throughout the so-called Great Books of the Western World (they are to be found elsewhere, of course, but in their other manifestations they are less accessible). In particular they are found in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the U.S. Constitution, in the Old and New Testaments. The values and principles directly applicable to our own school community are written down in our mission statement in the school brochure as well as in our student and parent Handbook.

Our students are not yet public people in the sense that they are not yet (although some are more than others) public spokesmen for the values and principles of our community. Indeed, this is in large part what our school is all about, bringing our students to an understanding of the values upon which Western democratic societies, including this country and this school, are based. Only then, when they have acquired such understanding, will they have the courage and good sense to become public proponents and defenders of these values within the community in which they live.

If students are not fully ready to be public in this second meaning of the word, their parents and teachers are. In our school community parents and teachers ought to be the principal proponents and defenders of our causes and values. Take the honor system. It is my experience that very few of our students understand what we mean by this. We have said what it means on page 9 of the Handbook. The public role of the parents and teachers is to help the students understand its meaning and thereby bring about a community in which the honor system is working.

The third and final meaning of being public is the most important of all. Being public in this sense of the word results when the private and public man come together as one. That is, ordinarily one opposes one’s private life to one’s life in public, as if there were a difference of kind between them, as if they should never meet. I believe that they should meet and I would defend the hypothesis that the truly happy person is one in whom private and public lives are fully merged together. Such a coming together is what one experiences in the great works of literature: the great tragic heroes are at their most gripping and compelling when they are at once public and private people; think of the exchange of words between Priam and Achilles following Hector’s death, the dialogues between a Sophoclean hero and the chorus, Lear in the arms of his daughter Cordelia in the final scene of the play, the words of Don Quixote spoken from his death bed. One sees the same thing in the great moments of history: Abraham Lincoln is our most beloved and respected president because on numerous occasions, especially during the devastating war between the states, and in particular on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the depth of the private man joined and become as one with the breadth of the public figure, statesman and president.

This meaning of the word public encompasses meaning two. The public figure such as Abraham Lincoln, who not only eloquently articulates and defends the underlying values and principles of his country and people, but who also embodies them in his own private life, is the most influential and respected of all political figures. At the time of his death Socrates in the dialogue by Plato plays the perfect public person, sense two of the word. He defends with his life the laws of the state. Meanwhile his wife, representing the private person, comes to visit him in jail, is turned away, and is meant to understand that she is interfering in the more important business of protecting the laws of Athens. Socrates (Plato) makes it clear that she is only a private person with private concerns, such as what is going to happen to her when he is dead, that she is not up to, not at the level of, not worthy of the public nature of his, Socrates’, overriding concern and respect for Athenian law. I have always believed that the Apology and Crito would have been greater works if Plato had had Socrates somehow share his final moments with his wife. Was it necessary that he separate the private from the public man on this occasion? Socrates should have recognized the legitimacy of his wife’s private claims and concerns, just as he recognized the legitimacy of the claims of the city of Athens on him, one of its citizens. As in this instance too often the private and public man do not come together. Too often in our own century we find, on the one hand, the artist celebrating the private person (this was not true of the artists of the Renaissance), and, on the other, the politician mouthing the empty platitudes of citizenship in the modem state.

In respect to this third meaning of public what happens at the Waring School? We have already said that “performance” is our students’ most frequent form of “going public” and furthermore that our students need to be helped by our parents and teachers to become public defenders of our values and principles. What about the private person? Does it merge with the public in our school? On occasion it does, and when it does the community of the school is at its strongest. When students speak up in meeting for what they really believe, when they admit publicly when they have done something wrong, when they initiate a discussion of a subject that concerns all of us and whose resolution is important to the welfare of our community and involves making some difficult personal statements, then we feel that the school is coming together, that things are working, that the state of our community is healthy. When this doesn’t happen, when students are too shy and intimidated to say in public that which they may write in their journals or say in private conversation to a few close friends, when their real concerns are never known by the body politic, by the school community, both the school and they are losers as a result.

Now there is a danger in being public in this third way. Private thoughts may be detrimental to the public good. Baring one’s dirty linen in public is not always recommended. There is a fine distinction to be made between constructive and destructive criticism, something else that we want our students to learn. It is not always clear what should be said and what should be left unsaid. Speaking up from one’s private self may very well be positive and liberating, both for the individual and the school, but it may also be negative and confining, destructive of both the individual and the community. In other words, yes, there should be a merging of the private and public person in our school community, but only in the positive and constructive sense. Negative thoughts are just that, negative, and they subtract from the good of the community. One has to judge between the private thoughts that will replenish the life of the community and those that will not.

In my experience, students will tend to keep too many things to themselves, things that would benefit from public exposure. They need to take more risks with things that are important to them. Also in my experience, students will tend to share negative thoughts with small groups of friends, thoughts that were better left unsaid or, if need be, said in the context of a school meeting where their influence would be lessened by the number of other ideas, many of which arc different from theirs. Both of these tendencies on the part of our students need to be overcome if we are to succeed as a community.

Finally, to make one’s private world public, that which the greatest men have always done by definition, because otherwise we would never have heard from or about them, one has to be almost without inhibition and without fear; one has to be at the same time supremely confident and supremely humble, qualities not often found anywhere, let alone in this small independent school community in Beverly, Massachusetts, the United states of America.

Philip Waring, Head of School

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité