CES Common Principles

The Coalition of Essential Schools share a common set of beliefs about the purpose and practice of schooling, known as the CES Common Principles.
I have restated these ten principles down below in bold, and to each one of them I have added commentary of my own in itallics. You will quickly see that I’m not as convinced as the CES that their principles are based on a valid reading of how children will best learn. In fact, I leave little of their language untouched and still whole.
Also, if we assume for the moment that there are such “common principles,” I would insist that the number of them not be limited to 10, nor even to 100. For learning is only in small part what goes on in the school. Learning is much, much more. Learning is life, and life is learning, and you can no more reduce learning to a set of principles than you can life itself. The coalition ought to have been content to simple recommend some changes in school practices, reform a few abuses, because there’s no lack of such in our schools. The coalition ought not to have tried to impose their own partial vision of what schooling is all about on the rest of us. For we, if we’ve thought much about it, have other, and no less valid ideas of what school should and could be at best.

1. The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. Schools should not be comprehensive if such a claim is made at the expense of the school’s central intellectual purpose.

[The problem that I find with this is that it’s simply too vague, open to too many interpretations, and as such not much help to the teacher or school administrator, let alone the student. “Helping young people to learn to use their minds well.” Of course, but what does that mean in regard to what you do in the classroom? Rather I would say that students ought to read a lot, and do a lot of work with numbers and as soon as possible with mathematical symbols. And if students are properly taught, if they learn to read well and to handle algebraic symbols, they will in the process be using their minds well, for that’s exactly what these sorts of activities demand of them. No need to say “use their minds well,” and in any case that’s never an answer for the teacher who wants to know what to do Monday.]

2. The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic disciplines, the program’s design should be shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that the students need, rather than by “subjects” as conventionally defined. The aphorism “less is more” should dominate: curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content.

[I have even more problems with this one. The first sentence implies that the student will not master some of the essential skills, or perhaps it means that there are only a limited number of essential skills? In either case who on earth could say with confidence that these are the essential skills, and these others are not essential? For example, reading a musical score is or is not an essential skill? How about being able to break down a diesel engine? I could very well accept that one’s education should primarily consist of learning to read musical scores and being able to diagnose the problem and then repair a diesel engine, that these both were essential skills. And for both of these pursuits doesn’t one make good use of one’s mind? Furthermore, if you ever met a diesel mechanic who spent his spare time reading Mozart opera scores would it ever occur to you to say that he wasn’t educated? Rather might you not say that here was an educated man?
But there’s a lot else wrong with number two. For who is prepared to say what a student needs? It turned out that my own son needed most to learn to swim, for it’s through that activity that he has lived most intensely in his adult years. With us he almost never swam, but played basketball, that which he never plays now. Also, we “made” him speak French all his life, and he is now bilingual, but if you asked today he probably wouldn’t say he needed that language. He probably would tell us that if he needed an additional language it would be (and should have been) either Arabic, Hindi, or Mandarin, for now he finds himself traveling among the peoples who speak these languages, as much, or more, as among those who speak English and French.]

3. The school’s goals should apply to all students, while the means to these goals will vary as those students themselves vary. School practice should be tailor-made to meet the needs of every group or class of students.

[I suppose this principle stems most of all from the authors wanting to be inclusive, for now-a-days that’s what one is supposed to be. As in “everyone should go to college.”
But at the same time if the means to these goals vary, and if school practices should be tailor-made to fit the students, how will the school’s goals ever be successfully applied to all the students, except on paper as in this list of principles?]

4. Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.

[Because teachers used to see 120-150 different students in one day’s time, this seems like a real reduction in teacher responsibilities, enabling more one on one time between student and teacher. For of course if teachers have daily contact with fewer students these fewer students will or should get more of their teacher’s time. O.K.
But what has this to do with the other common sensical statement in the same paragraph that the choice of teaching materials etc. be in the hands of principal and staff? This shows how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction if this even has to be said about the governance of our schools. Is it really different from saying that parenting ought to be done by parents than to say that teachers and principal ought to make together “the decisions regarding the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of materials?”]

5. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

[This is the first principle that I would wholeheartedly agree with, although I’d say “learner” rather than “worker,” simply because for most people the word worker doesn’t refer to students in school. No sense in battling with language usage. There are enough problems without creating new ones in regard to the meanings of words. But I do agree that school should mostly be about students who are learning and about teachers who are helping them to learn. In other words, students should be going to school because they want to learn something, not simply to spend x hours doing what they’re told before they’re sprung loose in order do what they want later. So yes, I’m all in favor of students teaching themselves. In Russian the word meaning to teach is ssss (sorry, I haven’t figured out how to get cyrillic letters into my Blog); and to learn, it’s ssssss, or to teach oneself. So in Russian there’s only teaching (or only learning). And it was with their educational system (and in particular with their mathematics and Physics) that the Russians living in the former Soviet Union had their greatest successes.]

6. Teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks. Students not yet at appropriate levels of competence should be provided intensive support and resources to assist them quickly to meet those standards.

Multiple forms of evidence, ranging from ongoing observation of the learner to completion of specific projects, should be used to better understand the learner’s strengths and needs, and to plan for further assistance. Students should have opportunities to exhibit their expertise before family and community. The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation – an “Exhibition.” As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school’s program proceeds with no strict age grading and with no system of credits earned” by “time spent” in class. The emphasis is on the students’ demonstration that they can do important things.

[Here, I believe, we run smack up against the greatest problem with the principles. According to this principle the student will not be tested in the usual manner (although in order to determine the student’s “appropriate level of competence” what other means is there?) but will be asked to demonstrate his or her knowledge to the entire school community. But this is a “performance,” acting, theater, showmanship, and draws on other skills than the knowledge of a subject matter. Real knowledge of that kind can only be “demonstrated,” if at all, over a long period of time, staying with a task, staying in school, finishing school, going on to college, and graduating from college, successfully holding down a job, certainly not in a half hour or so of showing and telling in front of the other students and school community members. The “exhibition” will at best only reflect the preparation for that single happening, certainly not tell us what the student has learned of the entire subject, any more than the correct answer to a single test question will be an accurate reflection of what the student knows. I’ve witnessed these exhibitions, and have been impressed occasionally with the real ability of some students to communicate well on their feet in front of an audience. Many others don’t have this ability and it’s at best tedious, and at worst embarrassing to sit through the entire exhibition.]

7. The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation (“I won’t threaten you but I expect much of you”), of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance). Incentives appropriate to the school’s particular students and teachers should be emphasized. Parents should be key collaborators and vital members of the school community.

[Of course, but this was not less true, or should have been true, of the traditional school. Who would ever deny the essential place of trust, decency, fairness, generosity, tolerance et al. in any community, including that of the school?
Parents welcomed in the school? Well that depends on the parents. There are some parents that you would never want to see in the school, let alone as “key collaborators and vital members of the school community.”]

8. The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars in general education) and specialists second (experts in but one particular discipline). Staff should expect multiple obligations (teacher-counselor-manager) and a sense of commitment to the entire school.

[I would reverse this, at least as regards the teachers. Teachers should perceive themselves first and foremost as knowledgeable in a particular discipline (let’s avoid the word “specialist” which has the wrong connotation for a community of learners). It is the teacher’s particular knowledge, whether it’s being able to read musical scores or being able to take down a diesel engine, that will first and most powerfully reach the student. Generalists are not apt to touch the students, because students can’t be generalists, and therefore probably can’t understand generalists, whereas they can become quite knowledgeable in one particular subject area, especially when the teacher is their role model, and as a result feel close to that teacher and profit from that closeness.]

9. Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include, in addition to total student loads per teacher of 80 or fewer pupils on the high school and middle school levels and 20 or fewer on the elementary level, substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff, and an ultimate per pupil cost not to exceed that at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. To accomplish this, administrative plans may have to show the phased reduction or elimination of some services now provided students in many traditional schools.

[If the Essential Schools Movement hasn’t been more successful it’s probably because of this principle, number 9. For if the reform, whatever it might be, is going to cost more it’s going to lose the interest of many communities simply because of that. And if the reform also means eliminating some positions it’s going to lose even more interest and support. It there are two things that entrenched powers don’t want it’s budget increases and program cuts.]

10. The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strength of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity.

[This number 10 is of little or no interest. It’s simply being politically correct, kowtowing to the authorities. It would stave off such things as an IRS investigation or a suit by a disgruntled parent, townsperson, or other.]

An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey

An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey
Jerry,
Today I happened to read the interview with Jaime Escalante in Ed Week. His criticism of our public schools (and what he said didn’t depend on the schools being public, except that’s what most schools are) struck home with me. He simply said that not enough kids were in school because they wanted to learn, and as a result the school and classroom lacked the atmosphere of discipline and respect without which learning could not take place.

Here are some excerpts from the interview with Jaime, and in what he says he does make, it seems to me, a valid international comparison, although I’ve never been to Bolivia. (I have been to France and the French classroom is often just as unruly as ours.)

Q. You taught there for 12 years before you came to the U.S. How would you compare teaching in Bolivia with what you experienced in California?
A. First of all, we don’t have gangs. You don’t have discipline problems. The kids follow directions. And they don’t have [textbooks]. You have to copy everything from the chalkboard, whatever the teacher is telling you. This country gives [out] new books, and soon the books are full of graffiti. In Bolivia, the kids appreciate education. They want to be something. Over here, education is, for some students, a punishment. Over there, it’s a privilege.

And a bit later in the same interview:

Q. What should schools be doing for students that most aren’t?
A. At any school, the first thing that you have to do is, like in Garfield, to show [and] teach respect, hard work, and discipline, and today, they are not doing that.

Isn’t Jaime blaming failure on a failed learning atmosphere? He is not blaming it on poverty, single parent homes, lack of proper mental health, social, and other services etc., as the liberal would do. Nor is he blaming the failure on the lack of school choice as the conservative holds. He is blaming the failure on the lack of classroom discipline, meaning in its highest form students being in the classroom because they want to learn (its lowest form being school uniforms and all that sort of thing, perhaps also necessary in some schools).
His analysis from the gut strikes home with me because I see schools where the poorest and most at risk kids are learning because the teacher has somehow (by magic, I admit it’s not easy) created that necessary, disciplined learning atmosphere in the classroom. In Boston where I work there are Nativity, Pilot, Charter and District Schools (all serving extremely poor and highly at risk kids), where this learning atmosphere exists, and where students learn. Such an atmosphere is what Jaime created in his math class at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, although not by himself, but with, as he stresses, the help of the whole school. He is the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it without that help.

I mention all this because most of our discussions — more often quarrels and disagreements, revolve around the validity of the criticisms from the left, from the Kozols, the Meiers, the Kohls, the Berliners, or around those from the right, from the Friedmans, the Bennetts, the Petersons, et al…. I find that the names of those on the right don’t come as easily, are there fewer of them? (By the way, where do you stand? In regard to NCLB, you’re definitely on the left, but in regard to the students themselves being held accountable, there you’re on the right perhaps?)

But what I really want to ask you is this: "Aren’t all these discussions regarding our public schools missing the essential? For isn’t it the discipline, stupid.” When that’s there, and only then, does learning take place. And again, I don’t mean by that the discipline of the boot camp, although that also has its place, but the discipline that emanates from people who are together because they want to learn together.

When the conservative says that throwing more money at the problem won’t help, isn’t it because the discipline problem is not usually addressed let alone solved by the additional expenditures? When the liberal says that vouchers won’t help, that charters won’t do the job, that educational management organizations won’t succeed any better than the failing schools they would replace, isn’t it because none of these solutions stress enough the prime importance of the attitude that the student brings with him or her into to the school and classroom? The best example of the failure of money to solve the problem is probably Kansas City Public Schools (could this have been one of the few things that John Stossel got right the other night on ABC’s 20/20?). The best example of the failure of charter schools is probably Washington DC when the same disorderly and undisciplined classrooms are born again in a new guise.

You must talk with teachers who leave the profession, especially the young idealists who last just a few years, perhaps those from Teach for America. Don’t they often say they left teaching because the kids in their classrooms didn’t want to learn? Wouldn’t it be better if all our discussions of school reform were centered around the single issue of how to “get the horse to drink?” Furthermore, who cares about anything else when the thirsty horse starts to drink? Who cares about the class size, the length of the school day, the degree of autonomy of the school head, whether or not there are school vouchers,… when the student right there in front of you wants to know what you’re going to do to help him to learn.

I know things were never as we think they were, but wasn’t there ever a time when the students wanted to learn and you didn’t have to fight with them to get them just to pay attention? Perhaps when we were hunters and gatherers? Perhaps in the workshops of medieval Europe? Perhaps now in the homes of some of the home schoolers?

I like to read you. You know more than I do about all this. And I like very much when I’m able to follow your reasoning in one of your books or Bracey Reports for the Kappan.

Reply from Gerald Bracey
1/27/06

If I were interviewing Escalante I would ask "Jaime, how come you think you know anything about Bolivian education? You left in 1964, that’s 42 effing years ago. Even late in the 1980’s, the secondary school graduation rate was only 5%. You were teaching an elite, man. Anyone can teach an elite."

That said, school probably is seen as a punishment because too many teachers make it far too boring. Maybe universal secondary education doesn’t work. We didn’t try it until well after World War II (our graduation rate then was about 50% and a lot of people derided "book learnin’).

As I recall, the principal reason teachers give for leaving is that there was no process for showing them the ropes, no mentoring. TFA is a special case since they are recruited to teach in urban slums, but a surprisingly high percentage of them (to me, anyway) stay on well after their 2-year commitment is over.

JB

Doctors and Teachers

While creating and establishing its present system of public school education this country made two huge mistakes of which we are still sufffering the tragic consequences.

First of all, probably at some time during the latter part of the 19th. century, medical doctors were given or assumed what should have been just as much or more the rightful of teachers in regard to the respect and remuneration accorded them by the population. The result is that people now look up to doctors and pay them accordingly, whereas teachers are looked down upon and are poorly paid. If you’re a parent who should be more important in the life of your child, the teacher or the doctor? It’s strange that we need even ask this question, and not be sure of the response. A symptom of the problem our country is up against in regard to the education of its children. We’re probably the only developed country in the world where teachers are not held in high regard, respected even more than medical doctors. Why this came about is for another, probably book-length post, but it did come about, and we’re still paying for the consequences, on the one hand with the exorbitant cost of medicare care and the resulting absence of health insurance for millions, and on the other hand with the mediocre achievement of our schools over all, and their failure in particular among the poor and the disadvantaged youth of our inner cities.

So in the 19th. century our teachers saw the position they should have had go to the doctors, although this didn’t have to be a competition, or a zero sum game. Both could have been well remunerated and well respected. Then in the 20th century, in spite of their loss of respect among the population as a whole, the teachers gained many more students as state after state provided free schooling, from Kindergarten through high school, to every child. It was at this point that our country made its second big mistake. For some reason the schools placed the burden of the child’s learning on the teacher, the curriculum, and the conditions of the classroom, and not on the child. Was this a conscious decision on the part of the school authorities? I don’t know. But the children were not made to understand that if they learned anything at all it would be mostly through their own efforts, and that the school and the teacher could help, but could never replace what they had to do for themselves. The children were never told that they would learn only to the extent they made an effort to do so. So they ended up, huge numbers of them, going to school and waiting to be taught, and in many cases, when they realized they were not learning, dropping out of school along the way, often well before finishing high school.

Now this is a tragedy because lives, those of teachers as well as students, are still being lost, and we seem powerless to turn things around. The doctors are still well paid (although less so today than yesterday) and are well respected, and the teachers are still poorly paid and not respected. Americans are constantly hearing about all the efforts, one after the other, on the part of politicians, business leaders, school superintendents, principals, and teachers to reform and improve teaching and learning in the schools, and then they invariably see how each reform effort brings about little or no substantive change for the better. And the students, instead of being confronted with the fact that they are responsible for their own learning, go on, mostly at ease, and probably amused, while observing the reform efforts made constantly in their behalf. The fact that children during the first few years of school do seem to be learning illustrates this point, for very young children haven’t yet learned to attend school and class waiting to be taught by the teacher. Instead, they go to school at that young age still carrying their natural learning with them. After a few years they do learn otherwise, that school really isn’t about their learning, and they become disillusioned and for good in some cases, and for bad in others, look elsewhere to learn other things not taught in the schools.

Failing Schools and International Competitivenes

I sympathise with Jaime Gass. See "Rounding out our future work force" in today’s Boston Globe. No one would disagree that our schools, in particular the failing public schools in our inner cities, should be improved for the kids who attend these schools. However, to make a connection, as so many including Jaime Gass seem to do, between these failing schools and our economic competitiveness, is totally without basis in fact. We are living in, and we have been for at least two generations or more, a society where these failing schools are the norm (a situation, by the way, which no one so far has been able to change for the better, probably because it’s a social, economic, and cultural problem combined, more than just a problem within the schools themselves). And in spite of this, in spite of the large numbers of failing schools, large numbers of high school and college dropouts, and all of these and other deplorable statistics, it’s a fact that during this period the United States has led the world in creative entrepreneurship and resulting increased economic productivity (witness the recent comment by the Singapore foreign minister pointing to the great success of their kids in school, but then their failure thereafter relative to Americans no longer in school but now in the workforce).

Gass says that the “decline of American manufacturing and job losses due to outsourcing are exacerbated by the lack of academic excellence and the inequality of opportunity in too many school districts.” But there are absolutely no statistics that back this up. Indeed, more and better educated high school graduates would probably mean even greater losses due to outsourcing (and, perhaps even more detrimental to our economy, fewer highly educated and capable immigrants, although for obvious reasons this would most likely not happen), because the latter is most of all looking for a cheap (capable, but not necessarily well educated) labor pool, and well educated graduates are certainly not the cheap labor pool that the outsourcers go to Mexico, China, India et al in order to find. Outsourcing stems from a basic principle of economics, that which says that companies will always seek the most cost efficient means of making their products, whether the latter be wooden matches or sewing needles, computers or automobiles. The only way to stop outsourcing is to have equally expensive/inexpensive labor pools throughout the world (and then the world would be “flat”). The highly desirable goal of improving our schools for our most disadvantaged kids should not be confused with the no less desirable goal of insuring that our economy continues to compete successful with the growing economic juggernauts of India and China. So far not the quality of the graduates of our inner city high schools, but, and I admit the irony of this, the steady stream of highly educated immigrants to our country, has been probably the most significant factor enabling us to remain competitive.

Not the Golden Age of Pirates

Today the BBC news service tells us that the US navy has captured a number of suspected pirates in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. The guided missile destroyer USS Winston S Churchill went in pursuit of a suspect vessel after receiving a report of piracy. The Churchill shadowed the vessel, and tried to make contact over the radio before resorting to aggressive manoeuvring in an attempt to stop the vessel. When this failed, the Churchill fired warning shots across the vessel’s bow and the vessel cut its engine and went dead in the water. Later an unspecified number of sailors/pirates were taken off the vessel and a quantity of small arms was recovered.
Piracy, including hijackings and hostage-taking, has become common off Somalia where there has been no effective central government since 1991. Indeed, Somalia’s the most dangerous place these days. The Malacca Straights (Sumatra) used to be one of the worst in regard to piracy, and the waters off Nigeria and Iraq are currently bad. But Somalia’s now we’re told that Somalia’s the worst of all. Shipping companies say there have been 35 incidents of piracy off the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia in just the past nine months. The Somali government, one of the Somali governments because there are at least several, has signed a $50m two-year deal with a private US marine security company to carry out coastal patrols. I don’t believe the Churchill was a part of that.
Somalia, of course, is on the Horn of Africa, in fact the country is the Horn. What a fascinating location (see the map below). Being where it is the country is right up on the edge of a number of critically important shipping lanes. Because of its truly splendid location on the eastern African shore, jutting out into the Indian Ocean opposite Yeman at the southern most point of the Arabian land mass, it would be a dream American naval base. However, as it too often happens these days, the locals are not willing to join the American Imperium, and instead go on waging wars among themselves. What a waste!
In history pirates always seem to turn up where the shipping is most concentrated. During what is called the Golden Age of Piracy, in the waters of the Caribbean frequently referred to as the Spanish Main, some of the pirates became quite wealthy stealing treasure and cargo sent to and from the New World. At that time Port Royal, Jamaica had become the unofficial pirates haven. But this so-called Golden Age, celebrated by both the National Geographic and Walt Disney is probabaly not being repeated in the waters off Somalia. These 21st century pirates seem to be bandits, and nothing more, and as far as we know we’re not going to experience a new Golden Age that we can share with our children.
During the mythical Golden Age brave men called pirates sailed the seas in search of both fortune and fame. During these times villains were also heroes and rose to world wide fame, and still “prey upon” our children in books, movies and on television, figures like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Captain Avery, Captain Morgan and many others. In their time they were the anti-heroes, much like the rap and rock stars of today.
There was also an historical period from roughly 1680 – 1730, when large numbers of Anglo-American mariners were engaged in piracy and privateering, often against Spanish or other targets of opportunity in the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. A great challenge for modern historians is to separate fact from fiction, since the mythical time and the historical time of the Golden Age of Piracy are so intertwined in both the historical sources and the collective consciousness of our culture.
At the present time there seems to be little myth or fiction attached to what is going on. More like ugly reality. There are bandits operating off the Somalian coast and no one yet is attempting to celebrate their exploits. Typically today, and not just in the waters off the Horn of Africa, but in many places throughout the seas and oceans of the Globe, armed thugs will sneak on board a ship and overcome the crew in an attempt to steal the cargo. And today also the pirate sloop has been replaced by small motorboats and often ships are attacked while docked and most of the crew is away. Today’s pirates are armed with axes and long knives, and occasionally some may have guns. They tend not to fight hard and prefer to flee if the crew manages to organize any kind of defense, such as happened late last year during a pirate attack against a luxury cruise liner that was successfully repelled by the crew’s setting off an ear-splitting acoustic device. The loud noise sent them scurrying away. No Blackbeard or Captain Kidd among them.
What’s happening today in the waters off Somalia and elsewhere is a lot like what happened from the 16th to the 18th century in the waters off North Africa, when the weakening of Turkish rule resulted in the virtual independence of the Barbary States of North Africa, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These States so tolerated or even organized piracy that they came to be called pirate states. Today the Somalian nation is weak, broken up into a number of separate regions ruled by local tribal leaders or war lords, a situation that allows the “pirates” to operate with impunity. And just as today when we read accounts of the action taken by the USS Winston S Churchill, similarly in the early 19th century the pirates were only eventually suppressed by successive forceful actions taken by American, as well as British, and French forces.

Eastafrica

Some More Ignorant Than Others?

B. has just brought it to my attention (“What on earth is going on in the classrooms?”) that “college students lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. This conclusion comes from a study carried out by the American Institute for Research, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, and reported by the AP Education Writer, Ben Feller, all reputable and responsible institutions and individuals. We’re told that as many as half the students at four year colleges, and three quarters of the student body at two year colleges lack the skills to perform “complex literacy tasks,” such as not being able to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. A much smaller percentage, perhaps 20% of these same students, can’t do even simpler tasks, such as estimate if their car has enough gas to get to the service station.
Now I react differently from B. I don’t even find this subject newsworthy. Probably because 100% of these students don’t speak Arabic, or Chinese, and we don’t make anything of it (although with the combined threats of China and Al Qaeda we are just beginning to… “Do you want to avoid war? Learn the enemy’s languge”).
Did you ever think that kids, like us adults, don’t know things unless they are being tested and are studying for the test, or, better, unless they are using these things, that is, unless these things are a part of their daily lives (such as speaking English, or Spanish, emailing, surfing, and watching network television, in regard to all of which they are far more literate/knowledgeable than I am, than we are).
To take only the examples given, and without seeing the actual materials used in the survey, I might have considerable trouble with a blood pressure/exercise table myself. I can’t remember ever having seen one, and I have high blood pressure. Then in regard to understanding, or rather not understanding the arguments in a newspaper editorial. If the argument is something that the young person is encountering for the very first time why would you expect him or her to understand it? Even those of us who read newspaper editorials may have trouble sometimes with the editor’s poorly reasoned positions on current events and other topics.
But going on, does anyone understand the credit card offers in respect to interest rates and annual fees that bombard our email server almost hourly? And “summarize the results of a survey about parental involvement in school?”?! C’mon now! Being without the actual survey in hand I can’t confidently say anything at all. However, I know enough about parent involvement, or lack of involvement, that I would say with confidence that the results of a survey of this nature would be highly suspect, probably totally unreliable and/or probably incomprehensible.
Finally, the ability to calculate whether or not you have enough gas to reach the service station is only a simple operation on the face of it. In fact it’s enormously complicated because of the large number of variables that come into play, and for which the value is not readily and easily determined. For example, your whereabouts on the road, the exact location of the service station, your car’s miles per gallon number for both city and highway driving. And even with all this information, you still have only the gas gauge on the dashboard to tell you how much gas you have left, and the accuracy of that is not greater than, say, one half gallon (unless you have a long experience with the indicator and can read into it greater accuracy based on that experience), and one half gallon that you may or may not have remaining may be enough, but you can’t determine from the gauge whether you have it or not.
Ben Feller, the Education writer for the Associated Press, seems to like this subject. And he’s not alone. In fact, how many times in a given month or year doesn’t someone tell us how ignorant we are. On the other hand Socrates used to say he didn’t know anything at all and no one found that appalling.

Literacy

Ben Feller, the Education Writer for the Associated Press reports that “college students lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.” This conclusion stems from a study carried out by the American Institute for Research, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, both reputable and responsible institutions. We’re told that as many as half the students at four year colleges, and three quarters of the student body at two year colleges lack the skills to perform “complex literacy tasks,” such as not being able to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. A much smaller percentage, perhaps 20% of these same students, can’t do even simpler tasks, such as estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station.
Now I react differently from the reporter. I don’t even find this subject  newsworthy. Probably 100% of these students don’t speak Arabic, or Chinese, yet we don’t make anything of it. Kids, like us adults, don’t know things unless they are being tested and are studying for the test, or, better, unless they are using these things, that is, unless these things are a part of their daily lives (such as speaking English, or Spanish, and watching network television, in regard to which they are far more literate than I am).
To take only the examples given, and without seeing the actual materials used in the survey, I might have considerable trouble with a blood pressure/exercise table myself. I can’t remember ever having seen one, and I have high blood pressure. Then in regard to understanding, or rather not understanding the arguments in a newspaper editorial. If the argument is something that the young person is encountering for the very first time why would you expect him or her to understand it? Even those of us who read newspaper editorials may have trouble sometimes with the editor’s poorly reasoned positions on current events and other topics. But going on, the results of a survey about parental involvement in school?! C’mon now! Being without the actual survey in hand I can’t confidently say anything at all. However, I know enough about parent involvement, or lack of involvement, that I would say with confidence that the results of a survey of this nature would be highly suspect, probably totally unreliable and/or probably incomprehensible.
Finally, the ability to calculate whether or not you have enough gas to reach the service station is only a simple operation on the face of it. In fact it’s enormously complicated because of the large number of variables that come into play, and for which the value is not readily and easily determined. For example, your whereabouts on the road,  the exact location of the service station, your car’s miles per gallon number for both city and highway driving. And even with all this information, you still have only the gas gauge on the dashboard to tell you how much gas you have left, and the accuracy of that is not greater than, say, one half gallon (unless you have a long experience with the indicator and can read into it greater accuracy based on that experience), and one half gallon that you may or may not have remaining may be enough, but you can’t determine from the gauge whether you have it or not.
Ben Feller, the Education writer for the Associated Press, seems to like this subject. And he’s not alone. In fact, how many times in a given month or year doesn’t someone tell us how ignorant we are. On the other hand Socrates used to say he didn’t know anything at all and no one found that appalling.

I link here to the recent Ben Feller articles on this subject. The first one and the one I’ve talking about: Study: Most College Students Lack Skills, AP, January 20, 2006
And then an earlier one,
Study: 11M U.S. Adults Can’t Read English, AP, December 15, 2005

Martin Luther King Day

More or less on this day the stores are open and the schools and offices are closed. Here in Boston the Globe tells us that the liquor stores, taverns, bars, supermarkets, and convenience stores are all open. Why is that? Well perhaps because it’s a day of celebration and eating and drinking is what we do to celebrate.
But we’ve never made it clear when we honor a great man or woman, no longer alive and among us, whether we are honoring and celebrating a life, or mourning a loss. Probably both. The banks are closed, but the bankers themselves probably see this as another long weekend and nothing more. The government offices are closed, as they have to be because this holiday is the government’s own creation, and furthermore nothing important is lost by their being closed. The stock market is closed, and why not. The libraries and schools are closed, and that’s a pity because by keeping them open we would then be showing our respect for learning and education, the things that King himself most valued and respected.

Monday, later on in the afternoon.
I have lived a good part of my life, some 60 years, with the knowledge that we could be blown to smithereens by a nuclear bomb. In the beginning the atom was ours, and the threat was only from ourselves in the form of a nuclear accident. But very soon thereafter the Russians acquired the bomb, probably stole it, and during the next 40 years or so I like everyone else had to build my own life in the deep shadow of the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and ourselves and our European allies. That tension was always present, and we could never relax. Then suddenly the Soviet Union was no more. And we were no more prepared for that than we were for Katrina. Why is it that so many of the most important happenings come upon us without warning? Was anyone prepared for the fall of the Soviet Union? Perhaps the dissidents within the Soviet Union, who saw that system up close and saw all the cracks that foretold its inevitable collapse. Well even unprepared we rejoiced. We thought now there would be peace on earth, good will to all men. But, alas, very soon we realized that this was not to be. History was not at an end. All too quickly we became aware of a new and even more deadly state of affairs among the peoples of the earth, more deadly because the enemy now, unlike the Soviet Union, was willing to lose all in order to destroy us and thereby save himself (one thinks of the early Christians?). This time, according to some, the deadly confrontation would be between the haves and the havenots, according to others, between the believers and the non-believers. And then there were those who saw the principal fault line as lying between the West and the rest. Whatever the new division was, the believers very quickly restored the world’s tension, that for one delightful moment, in Berlin, as the wall came tumbling down, had been relaxed. The new (to us) believers springing from the Arab Middle East and picking up, in part, the language of the sword, and in part the language of the Koran, told us by their actions that no more would they remain under our domination. And this is where we are now. And the question now is will we make them like us, into consumers, or will they force us to back off and slow down what does still seem to be the inevitable march of globalization.

Note to Joseph’s friend, Steven Strauss who is dying of cancer

In particular a brain tumor.

Talk about not knowing what to say. This is that kind of a situation. Sure you and I, Steven, are in the same boat with not a lot of years to live, the two of us, by my age and your brain tumor, but I know it’s not the same.

I do admire your calm, your ability to carry on at the NIH, and even though I know there’s really nothing else we can do, there are not too many who are able to do even that. While my mother who died in her sixties did, my father, in his nineties when he died, did not. Although from that experience one cannot conclude, of course, that women face up to things better than men, although sometimes I think they do.

But I wanted to say in this note that if you ever want to share your thoughts with someone who really wants nothing more than to be a listener, and only respond when he has, or thinks he has, something useful or valuable to say, then I’m that guy. I’ve always been a believer in dialogue because at best this form of communication is a great comforter. It could make us realize that we are together, in spite of lifetimes of going our own individual ways.

I was thinking the other day that this is really where the “Left” or those who stress our being a part of a larger community, and the “Right” or those who stress the rights and responsibilities of the individual, come together, through dialogue, while hopefully reaching by that means a shared position which enables them to go on together. When they don’t we have a President of one Party and a Congress of the other at loggerheads. Although not yet, at least in this country, is there rebellion or war or something worse.

But I don’t even know if you like to write. Do you, are you a writer? If you’re not I apologize for this intrusion into your life. I know our friend Joseph is not a writer. Nor is my own brother. Whereas I am, or at least I write. Why is this? Perhaps now, given my poor hearing writing may become a spoken dialogue, but if you, or Joseph, or my brother, and so many others don’t write with my hearing loss communication ends.

I’ve lost contact with so many of my friends of earlier times simply because of this difference. When I was young I didn’t seem to have many writers among my friends. And now that I’m old my writing, being a kind of one way street, is not enough to bring my non-writing friends back and thereby renew old friendships. Or something like that. (My wife, Josée, doesn’t agree with me about this, and tells me there are many things I could have done to have kept up those old friendships.)

Writing in my journal, and now on my Blog, even though I’ve never written a book (I told you that I wanted to write one before I died, and I don’t yet despair of doing so) has always been the source of my greatest satisfaction. Writing was what I was doing yesterday evening, New Year’s Eve, and now it’s what I’m doing this morning, the first morning of the New Year.

We know it’s of no significance, don’t we, the start of a new year. Yet we need to give it importance, just like all the other little traditions of our lives, all those things, trivial in themselves, that do add up to something important. Life is important.

Steven, as I said, I am thinking about you, and the only way I’ll know anything about what’s happening with/to you is if you, or Joseph tells me. I certainly wish you the best.

Philip

The high-school problem is nothing new.

The Adolescent Society

James Coleman’s still-prescient insights

Education Next, WINTER 2006 / VOL. 6, NO. 1

James S. Coleman
James Samuel Coleman May 12, 1926 to March 25, 1995

The high-school problem is nothing new. In one of his early writings, excerpted in the following pages, James S. Coleman, the brilliant sociologist who later wrote the famous report on the equality of opportunity for education (the “Coleman Report”) and the first study of public and private schools, identified the essential high-school problem: “our adolescents today are cut off, probably more than ever before, from the adult society.” Thus the title of his classic work, The Adolescent Society, published in 1961, the germ of which first appeared in the Harvard Education Review in 1959 as “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition.”

Writing about schools as they existed in the latter half of the 1950s, Coleman showed the ways in which the organization of school life reinforces teenage anti-learning norms. Except for some quirks of that time and place — the subordinate place of “girls” in American society (which Coleman seems to be tacitly questioning) and the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to people more generally, for example — his essay has a timeless quality, as worth reading today as when Coleman put pen to page.


From “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” James S. Coleman. Harvard Education Review, Volume 29, No. 4 (Fall 1959).

In secondary education … we are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one’s life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent “society of adolescents,” an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school.

Are these conflicting tendencies “natural” ones, irreversible processes resulting from changes in society? Is the nonchalance of the adolescent culture toward scholastic matters, its irresponsibility and hedonism, simply because “teenagers are that way”? Is it something which must be accepted? If so, then the hope of developing students truly interested in learning lies in “rescuing” from the adolescent culture a few students who accept adult values, set their sights on long-range goals, and pay little attention to the frivolous activities of their fellows. This approach is very nearly the one we take now, in our emphasis on special programs for “the gifted child,” our concern with selecting the most intelligent and setting them apart with special tasks which will further separate them from their fellows.

Coleman calls this approach “too simple” and suggests that it would be giving in to the “hedonism and lack of interest in learning of the adolescent culture” to do so. Besides, he says, this approach “probably misses far more potential scientists and scholars than it finds.”

If we refuse to accept as inevitable the irresponsibility and educational unconcern of the adolescent culture, then this poses a serious challenge. For to change the norms, the very foci of attention, of a cultural system is a difficult task—far more complex than that of changing an individual’s attitudes and interests. Yet if the challenge can be met, if the attention of the adolescent culture can be directed toward, rather than away from, those educational goals which adults hold for children, then this provides a far more fundamental and satisfactory solution to the problem of focusing teenagers’ attention on learning.

James S. Coleman
Adolescents Don’t Like School

Coleman then describes his two-year study of the “climate of values” in nine public high schools that gave rise to his conclusions about this “adolescent society.” The schools were all in the Midwest and included those from small towns, suburbs, and cities. Varied in size and in the social classes of their students, they represented, he said, a healthy sample of American schools. Though racial and ethnic breakdowns were missing from his data, what Coleman discovered, and documents with some detail, is that students didn’t care much about scholastic things; that, in all the schools, they cared more for “good looks” and “being an athlete” than they did for “good grades” and “being smart.”

Far less important to the adolescent community are the activities which school is ostensibly designed for: scholastic achievement, leadership of academic clubs, and the like. For example, the question:

“If you could be remembered here at school for one of the three things below, which one would you want it to be: brilliant student, star athlete, or most popular?

Boys responded star athlete over 40 percent of the time, and brilliant student less than 30 percent of the time. This despite the fact that the boy is asked how he would like to be remembered in school, an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.

It is clear from all these data that the interests of teenagers are not focused around studies, and that scholastic achievement is at most of minor importance in giving status or prestige to an adolescent in the eyes of other adolescents. This is perhaps to be expected in some areas, where parents place little emphasis on education. Yet the most striking result from these questions was the fact that the values current in the well-to-do suburban school … were no more oriented to scholastic success than those in the small-town school or the working-class school.… In every school, more boys wanted to be remembered as a star athlete than as a brilliant student. And in six of the nine schools, “good looks” was first, second, or third in importance as a criterion for being in the leading crowd of girls.

Jails, Boot Camp, Factories, and Schools

Even in those instances where scholastic success was valued, Coleman reported, it came with a price: “the success must be gained without special efforts, without doing anything beyond the required work.” In effect, then, even if a school could “immunize” the academically inclined student against the unscholastic larger culture, that student remained isolated from “the crowd.” The answer to this untenable situation, said Coleman, was to change the norms of that culture within the institution, the school, that the adolescents found themselves inhabiting. Coleman offers an analysis of “institutional demands and group response” to set the stage for his suggested solutions. He specifically mentions schools, jails, the military, and factories as institutions in which “an administrative corps” makes demands and a larger group (students, prisoners, soldiers, workers) responds. The “group norms” in the response are particularly important to Coleman.

The same process which occurs among prisoners in a jail and among workers in a factory is found among students in a school. The institution is different, but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands. This response takes a similar form to that of workers in industry —holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all. The students’ name for the rate-buster is the “curve-raiser” … and their methods of enforcing the work-restricting norms are similar to those of workers—ridicule, kidding, exclusion from the group.

Against the Grain —Against the Grade

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t “scholastically oriented subgroups,” says Coleman. The problem is that, as a subgroup, “intense effort” is required to go against the norm.

In a high school, the norms act to hold down the achievements of those who are above average, so that the school’s demands will be at a level easily maintained by the majority. Grades are almost completely relative, in effect ranking students relative to others in their class. Thus extra achievement by one student not only raises his position, but in effect lowers the position of others.

This group response, Coleman says, is “purely rational” and has many of the same characteristics as other endeavors that combine “to prevent excessive competition.” What Coleman suggests, however, is a different way of organizing the competitive instincts and incentives in a school. He points out that there is a difference in the outcomes if the competition is organized through groups rather than between individuals. While what he characterizes as “interpersonal competition in scholastic matters” generates social pressure not to excel, “interscholastic competition in athletics has quite the opposite effect.” In fact, he cites athletics, where “there is no epithet comparable to ‘curve-raiser,’ there is no ostracism for too intense effort or for outstanding achievement,” as a model for the kind of competition he believes needs to be introduced to a school’s scholastic endeavors.

One obvious solution is to substitute interscholastic (and intramural) competition in scholastic matters for the interpersonal competition for grades which presently exists. Such a substitution would require a revision of the notion that each student’s achievement must be continually evaluated or “graded” in every subject. It would instead make such evaluations infrequent, and subsidiary to the group contests and games, both within the school and between schools.

Changing Institutional Norms

Coleman knows that it will take some “considerable inventiveness” to find the best group competitions to change the cultural norms of the high school. But he nevertheless suggests some: “intellectual games, problems, group and individual science projects … debate teams, group discussion tournaments, drama contests, music contests, science fairs … math tournaments, speaking contests.…”

There are many examples in high schools which show something about the effects such competition might have. As an example, one of the schools I have been studying is too small to compete effectively in most sports, but participates with vigor each year in the state music contests. It nearly always wins a high place in the statewide contest. The striking result of this successful competition is the high status of music among the adolescents themselves. It is a thing of pride to be a trombone soloist in this school, and the leading boys in the school are also leading musicians—not, as in many schools, scornful of such an unmanly activity. This is despite the fact that the school serves a largely farming community.

Finally, Coleman believes that these shifts in the competitive structure of high schools can change the norms and values of the institution, for the better, to encourage academics. “If the activity, whether it be debate or math competition or basketball, receives no publicity, no recognition in the newspapers and by the community generally, then its winning will have brought little glory to the school, and will bring little encouragement to the participants.” So, says Coleman, change the competitive structure of the high school and we can change them from places of athletic to academic prowess.

The present structure of rewards in high schools produces a response on the part of an adolescent social system which effectively impedes the process of education. Yet the structure of rewards could be so designed that the adolescent norms themselves would reinforce educational goals.


James S. Coleman, 1926–95, American sociologist, was born in Bedford, Indiana, and taught at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité