Letter to Jerry Bracey

Gerald Bracey may be the best friend that the public schools have ever had. Anyone who would be critical of the schools, and in particular, anyone who would make the schools any less "public," by returning to the people, say, the power to choose their children’s schools, public or private, well this person or group will find itself the object of Jerry’s verbal onslaught. The most recent target of Jerry’s wrath are the recommendations of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calling for the biggest changes in American public education in a century.

Click here to read Bracey’s onslaught.

Here is my reply to Bracey:

You know, Jerry, I find that I agree with your put-down of Tough Choices or Tough Times. And in particular your put-down of those who would lay the principal responsibility for the future success of our country on the schools. At the same time I’m sure you would agree with me that neither the schools, nor anyone of us, lives up to being all that we could be. Imperfection is very much with the schools and with us. And therefore, you’re right, not to single out the schools for special blame, the schools being just one of a host of imperfect institutions that make up our country.

Where I think you’re wrong is that you seem to believe in the existence of a conspiracy out there to destroy the public schools, supported in particular by ‘research’ emanating from the bad guys, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan and Heartland Institutes, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, et. al.

I think you give these think tanks and their thinkers too much credit. There is no conspiracy. They’re not hiding anything. I believe that they believe in the rightness of what they are doing. Education in this country has always been saddled by those who would reform it, and reform is what they are all about. Reforms are what drive them. They’re not out to destroy our present system of education, just make it more effective. I’m sure you would admit that the present system could be improved.

I too might criticize the reformists, these and others. They believe a bit too much in the rightness of what they are doing. They are yet one more group of true believers in this world, of which there are already too many. What we really need are a few more skeptics, reformers yes, but reformers who would proceed more cautiously, more humbly, more tolerant of the views of others while going about proposing their reforms. As it is too many people believe in too many different and opposing things, and would impose their partially correct solutions on everyone, with the result that all of us coming together for the common good, in this case for the benefit of kids, seems to happen less and less.

Education is an enormously complicated process to get right, even for just one child, say my grandson, but when it concerns, how many, 50 million kids in our nation’s schools? well then we approach the degree of complexity that places other familiar phenomena, such as the weather and currency evaluations, beyond our ken. Isn’t the nature of the best education for all in important respects also beyond our ken? So far it seems to have eluded all our attempts to put it in a box.

Finally, I agree with you that our country, compared to other countries, is doing quite well in many if not most important respects, and that our present system of education with all its faults compares well with the systems in place in the other developed countries. And I also agree that our country’s failings probably stem more from the failure of our leaders than that of our schools. It’s interesting that our leaders are often the products of our best schools, sometimes even the same one, Yale for example. I haven’t yet heard anyone blaming Yale.

Comments of the Commision Members:

“Anyone who hopes to hold a job in the next several decades should read—if not memorize—this extraordinary report.” —Norman R. Augustine, Retired Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation

“This penetrating, scary analysis and these astute,
far-reaching recommendations amount to A Nation at Risk for the next
generation.”—Chester E. Finn Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

 “Bold, inventive, analytic, and piercing.”—Sharon
Lynn Kagan, Virginia & Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood
and Family Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University

proposal is radical? Yes. Hard to achieve? Of course. Essential?
Absolutely. Our nation’s schools are failing to educate our children,
and that has to stop—else we condemn our own kids to ever lower
incomes. We must act—now!”—William E. Brock, Former Secretary of Labor, Reagan Administration

“Fascinating and thought-provoking read that is sure to get the American educational establishment talking.”—Charles B. Reed, Chancellor, California State University System

report lays out the kind of drastic change to the system that is
crucial if we are to remain a viable economic and political leader in
the world.”—David P. Driscoll, Commissioner of Education, Massachusetts

For More responses to Tough Choices or Tough Times, click here, and then here to read Jay Mathews’ piece from the Washington Post.

Harold Howe on Standards

We have not yet figured out how to educate our children, all of our children, and it’s not as if we haven’t been trying. As evidence for this statement, two observations.  One, the nearly 50% dropout rate from our inner city schools (25% nation wide) and two (this an example of anecdotal evidence so overwhelming that it becomes statistically meaningful), that large numbers of those who stay in school through highschool still cannot read, write, or figure well enough to either go on to college and finish college in a reasonable length of time, or obtain anything but menial work following a job search.

At the present time there is only one proposed “fix” for this situation, and that is the standards movement, meaning that all children be required to meet and master standards in math and language arts by the time they graduate from highschool, or, in other words, that all students be judged “proficient” in these two areas. On the face of it the fix, the standards movement, seems not unreasonable. Richard Riley, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, in 1989, wondered why we shouldn’t first
determine what a child should know and then develop tests to
determine further if that child is learning what they should know.” Highly reasonable.

But our leaders were not always so reasonable. In September of 1989 President Bush and the nation’s governors called an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a follow-up to the Summit came the National Education Goals Panel of 1991 and a number of the goals were closely allied to the standards movement. For example, "By the year 2000, American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy." A bit extravagant, that, but others even more so, for example, Goal 4:  "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement." What does being first in the world in math and science have to do with the education of all of our children?

In her book, National Standards in American
Education: A Citizen’s Guide, 1995, former Secretary of Education Diane Ravitz, had this to say, among much else regarding standards: “Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected.” One needs to be far away from the classroom to make a statement like that. Faced with 25 to 30 children right there in the room with us how many of us have ever been able to "clearly define what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected" from all of them. It can’t be done, I don’t think. That’s perhaps why we have, up until now, failed to improve things for kids in the classroom.

In the new century with the new Bush presidency came the No Child Left Behind Act of Congress, a further and much more substantial step in applying the "standards fix" to our children’s schooling, but stirring up with its passage, and even more with its initial applications, more substantial opposition to the standards movement than ever before.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of national standards is the fact that so many other countries, liberal developed democracies no less than we, have them. In France, for example: “a French math text for 16-year-olds begins by spelling out the national curriculum for the year so that all 16-year-olds know what they are expected to  study…. the text makes frequent references to math  exams the regional school districts have given in the past. Students practice on these exams to help them prepare for the exam they will face; they know where to concentrate to meet the standard.” We certainly ought to look more closely at the French experience.

What is the source of the growing opposition to the standards and testing? Are the opponents being unreasonable? Why is it that the full scale adoption of national performance levels in our country is still today, after all these years, very much a long shot?

I don’t think it’s primarily because we don’t want to lose local control of education to the Federal government. In my experience local educators do not shut themselves off from the outside world, but have always easily adopted and benefitted from best practices from elsewhere. Rather, I believe, it’s because we sense that national standards will inevitably create what some have called an educational apartheid. For under any system that applies the same achievement benchmarks to all there will always be a good number of children who will not reach those achievement goals, and will be even more left behind, separate from their more successful peers, than they are now. It’s ironic that those who created NCLB would have most of all prevented this from happening. It was in their plan to bring up those now at the bottom of the educational ladder, not leave them further behind.

What is it about our children that the standards movement with its performance levels is overlooking? Harold Howe, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education while addressing the reauthorization of the NAEP in 1988, gave what is for me the best reason to oppose the same performance levels for all:

"The NAEP was created to be a service to tell  Americans what young people know and can do in  certain important areas of learning and how it is changing. The main objective of the new legislation  was to extend that purpose to encourage state level use of NAEP. Those of us who recently supported the  new legislation and its funding had no intention of creating a new authority to tell all  American schools what to teach in each grade or even that schools should be organized by grades. More importantly, most educators are aware that any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons. To suggest that there are particular learnings or skill levels that should be developed to certain defined points by a particular age or grade is like saying all 9th  graders should score at or above the 9th grade level on a standardized test. It defies reality."

What I take away with me is this: "…any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons."  Why isn’t this bit of wisdom, or common sense, in the forefront of our thinking about how children learn, and about how best we may evaluate that learning, and for their benefit, not for ours?

The Goals of Education

The history of education has seen a struggle between those who would grow children en masse, the way one raises pigs in Denmark, or tulips in Holland, and those who would begin with each individual child, and the education that best suits that child.

At this moment in history the former seem to have the upper hand, be it those of the NCLB, or narrow standards movement concentrated on the 3 R’s, or be it the reformers, such as Richard Rothstein and many others, who would make the standards movement as broad as possible by including a much larger gamut of school subjects, music, art, sports, citizenship et al., as well as a diminished emphasis on testing and accountability. Unfortunately the best of those who would take us a third way and have us look closely at each individual child, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Holt, Milton Friedman, and a few others, are no longer with us, and no one is loudly defending their position in the current debate over standards, accountability, and the goals of education.

Does it make sense to speak in general of the goals of education, other than what is best for the individual child? I don’t think so, yet what a lot of books have been written thereupn. Shouldn’t there be almost as many goals as there are learners, with these goals becoming more and more distinct from one another as the learner matures? How many college seniors have you ever met with the same goals? So we know that this is what is to come. In the elementary grades shouldn’t we begin the process by helping each individual learner to find his or her own way?

To speak of shared goals for an entire population may very well be appropriate for populations of pigs and tulip bulbs, and other such species of life totally subjugated to our interests. In all such instances we choose not unreasonably to disregard individual characteristics (except when we would improve the strain) and apply the most profitable pig production techniques to all pigs, and similarly the most profitable tulip productive techniques to all tulips. The result is that the pigs from Denmark, all 13 million of them, are all success stories, as are the hundreds of millions of tulip bulbs from Holland. We made them exactly what we wanted them to be.

When it comes to children, however, failure is common and successes are exceptional. At best there are a relatively small number of individuals at the top, who have turned out to be just what we wanted, those who have gone on to higher education and become themselves entrepreneurs holding important roles in the growing knowledge economy. Then there are those, many more of them, in the middle who read, write, and figure well enough to become knowledge workers, and who, if there are remnants remaining of their individualities, may even indulge themselves in being what they are in moments away from the job. Finally, there are the large numbers of those who have dropped out of school and at best get back in on the fringes of society, in the shops and the trades and the service industries, and at worst find themselves without a job, or home, or stable family situation, often turning to destructive behavior, to lives of crime and/or drugs.

I readily recognize that things are much easier in regard to the rearing of pigs and the cultivation of tulip bulbs. For those that don’t correctly respond to our production schedules are simply cut from the stock, eliminated, and we hear no more about them. Of couse there are always maniacs, such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao et al., who would do the same for men as for pigs and tulips, eliminate those that resist taking on the form intended for them. But happily up until now the maniacs have either been defeated or have died without true followers.

Today in the developed world the rulers respect individual lives enough to allow them to go on living. But, of course, just staying alive, in ghettos, bidonvilles, squatter cities, shelters, Parisian suburbs, jails etc. is nowhere near enough, and although we know all that well enough we seem unable to do more. We are constantly waging wars against poverty, illiteracy, sickness, homelessness, joblessness etc. because even we, living in the richest country ever, are beset with these scourges. But who would ever say we are winning these wars, that what we are doing is at all effective? We’re not, and it isn’t.

I believe that in important respects our problems stem from our insistence on raising our children in regard to what’s best for us, or at least what we think is best for us, by placing them, mostly separated by age in classrooms in schools. The latter can never be right for all, and are probably most often wrong for most.  Somehow we have to spring the individual child loose from the school environment, allow it to become what ever lies within its power to become, because all children have within them the potential of becoming real people with their own important contributions to make to their fellows.

How can this be done? I like what Milton Friedman proposes. Give the full per capita cost of public schooling to the parents ("universal vouchers"), and allow the parents, until the child is old enough to do so for himself, to seek out the learning environment that is best for the child. Let a million different flowers bloom (to employ one of the bits of wisdom from one of the maniacs referred to above). This is what we should be writing and talking about. It ought to be evident by now that reforming the schools is not going to do the trick. Haven’t centuries of failed school reforms demonstrated this? And please, no more endless chatter about the goals of education. Talk rather about the goals for each individual child.

Csikszentmihalyi and PlayStation 3

There are some things that can never be said or heard enough, Moses’ Ten Commandments, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and almost everything Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has to say about how kids learn.

For example, these passages from an article of his in Daedalus, Fall, 1995:

"Whether or not children will learn does not depend primarily on what happens in school, but on the experiences, habits, values, and ideas they acquire from the environment in which they live."

"Education is the result of a continuous process of interaction between individuals and the environment. Children are formed by their experiences with parents, teachers, peers, and even strangers on the street, and by the sport teams they play for, the shopping malls they frequent, the songs they hear, and the shows they watch."

"Each of the young person’s experiences contributes to the shaping of his mind and character, sometimes vastly out of proportion to the time spent in the activity. One song heard on the radio or one conversation with a friend can have a more profound effect on a child’s future than a thousand hours spent in school."

"Most of the time adolescents are either alone or with friends and classmates. Very little time is spent in the company of adults. The typical American adolescent spends only about five minutes a day alone with his or her father–not nearly enough to transmit the wisdom and values that are necessary for the continuation of a civil society."

We know what Csikszentmihalyi says is true. We know that his words are an accurate description of kids’ lives. Yet we go on speaking and acting as if school, and not everything else, was the most important shaping influence in the adolescent’s life. And furthermore we even blame the schools for the kids not learning what the schools are teaching. What the kids are in fact learning, because they are learning all the time, by and large escapes us. 

Why don’t we start with what Csikszentmihalyi tells us about the the formative experiences of the adolescent’s life and go from there? For whatever reason we don’t do this and instead always start with the schools and what they are teaching. We continue to “tinker” with the curriculum and everything else, thinking that by our changes we will  improve the outcomes for the kids, higher test scores, for example. The tinkering goes on and on but the outcomes don’t seem to ever change. In our frustration we look back and talk about an imaginary “golden age” when things were better, or we look ahead to the next great hope from the political party out of power, believing that this time we will really have an education president.

If you’re not convinced by what Cskiszentmihalyi has to say about what are the formative influences in kids’ lives read the account in today’s NYTimes of the long lines of young men and women, many still in school, waiting through the night to be first for the store opening and the sale of Sony’s new PlayStation 3. The real passion that young people, not just here, but everywhere throughout the developed world where people are wealthy enough to be able to buy these games, the real passion that young people show for these games must have begun much earlier, certainly while in school. Computer games, the internet, popular music, popular culture, the culture of the mall, all that sort of thing, friends, just being with friends, hanging out, these are the things that were probably most alive for them while they  were in school. School at best was someting they had to do, an obligation, a payment to be made in order to do what they wanted to do, their school experiences probably having little real meaning for them and certainly never, like PlayStation 3, arousing their passion.

More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

Most education writers write as if the students who would profit from what they have to say were a single, monolithic group of learners, and that whatever they were saying about education were appropriate to the entire group, say kids learning to read, or kids being introduced to algebra or geometry. The reason the education writers differ so much among themselves is that only the needs and abilities of certain students, say middle class kids from two parent families living in the suburbs, or impoverished, immigrant, and minority kids from single parent families in the cities, are most on their mind, whether consciously or not, when they promote this or that method of what and how to teach. Instead of writing about, say, the best way to teach reading and math, these people should be writing about the different needs of different groups  of students, all the ways that students differ among themselves, the widely differing ways in which they best learn, and perhaps most important of all, the differing ways in which they are ready or not ready to learn. Most of what the education writers have to say would be perfectly reasonable and appropriate with this or that group of students. Most of what they have to say is not appropriate for all kids.

This is why some educational disputes seem to never reach a resolution. Take, for example, the disputes over how best to teach math. There are those who push for the basics. There are those who push just as hard for the so-called new math. There are those who swear by applied mathematics. And there are those who back “general math,” or an understanding of numbers in every day life. Now it may be true that all kids can learn, and that all kids can learn to handle numbers in some useful and profitable manner, but it is no more true that all kids can function at the highest levels of abstract mathematics (which can begin at a very early age, such as in the Math Olympiad competitions for elementary school students) than they can reach master level play in chess. Suppose for a minute that it was chess, not mathematics, that made up along with language arts the most important subject matter of schooling and testing. Wouldn’t it be clearly absurd to expect all kids to proceed ahead in pretty much the same fashion towards chess master play? We know it wouldn’t/couldn’t happen. Yet don’t we now expect all kids to proceed in pretty much the same fashion, be this integrated or traditional or applied math, towards math proficiency? We also know that wouldn’t/couldn’t happen.

Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

Milton Friedman is dead. His voice, now quelled, was probably the strongest voice ever raised in this country, or anywhere else, for doing away with the government monopoly on education. During his lifetime he was listened to in this regard, but not nearly enough.

For example, vouchers were one of his ideas, but vouchers haven’t yet been tried in any meaningful manner. The latter meaning that the student, or the student’s parents, receive a voucher at least as large as the dollar cost of each pupil to the local school system. This didn’t, and hasn’t happened. And as long as vouchers are small, both in numbers and amounts, there will be no definitive answer to the question, will vouchers solve some of the worst problems of the public schools, especially those within our inner cities where failure is common and drop out rates are high.

"As a libertarian, Mr. Friedman advocated legalizing drugs and generally opposed public education and the state’s power to license doctors, automobile drivers and others. He was criticized for those views, but he stood by them, arguing that prohibiting, regulating or licensing human behavior either does not work or creates inefficient bureaucracies." (See the obituary in today’s NYTimes.)

Friedman liked to say that, "unimpeded private competition produced better results than government systems. ‘Try talking French with someone who studied it in public school,’ he argued, ‘then with a Berlitz graduate.’"  He might also have said, try testing a fourth grader’s knowledge of the times table and other math facts, and then those of a Kumon student of the same age. Although he probably oversimplified the issue, in regard, for example, to the reasons for the Berlitz graduate’s success, those of us who have taught in the public schools would have to admit that our students were never learning more than a fraction of what they could have learned if they had  been motivated and interested.

OK, you’re right. Even more important than the public-private thing is the motivation of the learner.  Friedman seemed to assume that on the part of both teacher and learner in a private school environment motivation and interest would be highest. Maybe so, although we haven’t found that out yet. But isn’t it true that ownership, meaning in this case owning one’s place in the learning environment from having paid the purchase price, is more apt to result in hard work and the assumption of responsibility on the part of the learner? In any case there is very little of both, hard work and the assumption of responsibility for one’s learning, to be found in our failing inner city  schools.

Groundhog Day and a New Push for the Basics

[EDDRA is dedicated to analyzing reports, dispelling rumors, rebutting lies about public education in the United States. It represents an online version of the work that Gerald Bracey has been doing since 1991.]

An article from today’s (11/14) Times (As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics, By TAMAR LEWIN) seems like a good subject for EDDRA commentary.

First of all wouldn’t one have thought that not once again could we have been subjected to “a New Push for the Basics.”  For how many times can one write about this and expect to be noticed and read, let alone believed?

As I skimmed the article I right away thought that we were one more time caught up in the situation depicted in the movie Groundhog Day. We were to again live through the same day, knowing it was a repeat of the day before, while the other actors on the set with us, Tamar Lewin et al., seemed convinced that they were living the day for the first time.

We know better. Jerry Bracey himself reminded us on an earlier occasion how common it is among those who write about the schools to repeat, seemingly unaware, what past writers on the same subject have said: “About schools, the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again.”

In the movie Phil Connors (the actor Bill Murray) finds he’s doomed to repeat Groundhog Day — again and again — until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome.  In regard to math education in our schools is there some way that we also can break out of the cycle of repeating, in this case the same reforms over and over again? Is there an action that we might take that would change the outcome, move us onto something new, something that would restore our confidence in the way math is taught in the schools? Well, evidently not yet. As of this time our groundhog day movie has no resolution,

Perahaps EDDRA might want to comment on the accuracy of a number of (unsupported) statements in the article, as well as the general applicability of a number of the quotations from the various people interviewed. Is this Misinformation?Disinformation? [What’s the difference between the two?]

“students’ lagging performance on international tests”

‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.”

“…recommending a tighter focus on basic math skills and an end to ‘mile wide, inch deep’ state standards that force schools to teach dozens of math topics in each grade.”

“Many point to California’s standards as a good model: the state
adopted reform math in the early 1990s but largely rejected it near the end of the decade, a turnaround that led to rising math achievement.”

“…at a time of increasing globalization, the math skills of children in the United States simply do not measure up: American eighth-graders lag far behind those from Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international test.”

“It [traditional math, whatever that is] produces people who hate math, who can’t connect the math they are doing with anything in their lives,…”

“In Asian cultures,” she added, “the assumption is that everyone learns mathematics, and of course, parents will help with mathematics.”

“….the whole country has been in denial about mathematics, and now we’re sort of at a second Sputnik moment.”

Now I realize as I take certain statements from the article, that it’s really the whole article that is mis-, disinformation. Furthermore it probably could have been written with few or no changes in any year since when, the sixties?  If I hadn’t seen it in today’s Times I’d be probably unable to say when it was written. Just as Phil Connors woke up again and again to the same day, I’ve been reading this article throughout some 45 years spent in or close to education.

Down with the Age Graded Classrooms

Before the Civil War the one room school house was common, being nothing more in the small towns and villages than a structure about the size of a single large classroom. In the cities where the students were more numerous it took a much larger building to house them all together. But in both the students were not separated into groups by age. What did this mean for the students? Did they learn better when they were in close contact with those both older and younger than themselves?

We don’t know if they learned more. I suspect they did from what I know about large families. We do know that reform, unable to leave things as they are, came along and changed things. The first and most significant reform, and one which is still very much with us, was the graded school. No longer those large rooms with students of different ages learning together but students stil in a large room but with others of the same age. David Tyack (in Tinkering Toward Utopia) says that this reform came about because school superintendents and school board leaders were impressed with the division of labor and hierarchical supervision common in the brand new factories, and sought to adapt this tidy and efficient system to education.

The change to graded classes came about quickly and just as quickly came the unintended and what would prove to be much later in the mid twentieth century disastrous consequences for our schools.  For while the graded school may have succeeded with a few, with those whose abilities and family and cultural backgrounds fit the school environment and curriculum, for too many others the graded school didn’t work at all.  For difficult now to understand reasons we had put students equally ignorant all together, expecting what, that they would all learn to swim? They didn’t.

This is our situation today. The graded school didn’t and doesn’t work for those kids who come from impoverished and disadvantaged inner city and rural areas. My conclusion? If you want to improve the schools, get rid of our age graded educational system.

There is actually one current reform movement that could help to bring this about. That is school choice. There should be many different schools out there, including no school at all, and those not based on the age of the student, for children and parents to choose from. And the many schools of choice ought to reflect the diversity which is no less great among students of the same age as it is among students of varying ages. Other current reform initatives such as the longer school day and year, merit pay, better teacher preparation, and the movement for higher standards and accountability, in particular No Child Left Behind, won’t do it. Keeping students equally ignorant and widely differently endowed together in an age graded classroom will prevent these reforms from ever having the desired result.

Learning succeeds best when the kids have been separated from one another, not by their age but by what they can do (the Math Olympiad), like to do (play soccer, piano, other games), want to do (write, collect, speak) etc. As long as we keep them all together, simply according to their age, as long as we disregard their enormous differences, say, of interests and abilities, there will be those who understand the lesson and those who don’t, as well as all those in between. There will be those who succeed, and those who fail and are held back, and those who drop out. Now it seems to me unbelievable that this situation has been with us, for at least 100 years, and we haven’t tried to change it, let along do away with it (home schooling being an exception to this), but have kept it pretty much intact, even while changing everything else.

The kids themselves are aware of this situation by the fourth grade if not before. In the fourth grade large numbers of them lose their excitement and interest in school. The classroom activities are now more boring than anything else. The situation is much more pronounced in the “common” or public school classroom because many of these children, coming from poor and immigrant families, especially in the cities, are much less prepared for the learning activities that the school would have them do. So in addition to the differences of interests and abilities among them there is also the difference between the culture of their home and community, and the new learning culture of the school. The situation although present is less pronounced in the private schools, or in schools where the students are selected, because in these instances there is a better match between the culture of the home and that of the school.

So what is to be done? As early in the learning process as possible, certainly by age 8 or 9, that infamous fourth grade, we need to have fashioned for each child individualized learning environments, not tracks, but sets of expectations and opportunities, that take into account each child’s inherent talents and interests. I admit that what I am proposing can’t be done without fundamental changes in our outlook. First and foremost learning has to be taken out of the school, and put back into our lives.

If we continue to do nothing, if we don’t “reach” the child at an early age, when he is still ready to listen, we are probably going to lose him for whatever number of years he does remain in school. This is what is happening now. While gaining the few who take well to the age graded classroom we are losing the many who don’t. You can see this clearly if you follow closely a group of middle school students (that time when most kids are lost to their education), say, in any one of their subject area classes such as math or foreign language. How many children in the class will clearly have no interest in, let alone achieve evident mastery of, either one?

The mantra that you hear everywhere among school people is that every child can learn, every child succeed, that every child can go to college. I too believe that every child can succeed, that every child can go on to higher education, but not, as now, by following the same track. We need many different tracks to success for our kids and now we don’t have them. We have only the one with the result that everyone is required to get over the same obstacles, such as state requirements for high school graduation and college entrance examinations. And of course it’s not going to happen. Everyone doesn’t get over these obstacles. A third of our young people nation wide will drop out of high school, a third or more of our college students will not finish. And to this situation so far we have only one answer, more and better test prep.

Now our educational system awards with first good grades and then good jobs those young people who are particularly endowed with either math of language abilities. When they have both they gain admittance to our most prestigious universities. But these abilities are just a part of what we are as human beings. That is, they are not what we are, as sometimes our tests would seem to be saying, but just a part. Together they represent just two of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the logical-mathematical and the linguistic. We know that if we tested those fourth graders for mathematical ability that the result would be a Bell curve for student performance. There would be those on the left showing little ability in the area tested, those on the right with great ability, and the many with average ability in between.

We know all this about our students (and about ourselves) and yet we go on year after year insisting that our students go on year after year being painfully made aware of their respective positions in relation to the logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. Why should either one, or both these particular abilities, have such great power over the individual without them? Once it was asked of high school dropouts just why they had dropped out of school. The most common response was math class, algebra, something year after year they were required to fail at. For many of us who were only average we can understand their dropping out for that reason.

If we really do believe that all children can succeed we ought to make sure that whatever each child has in the way of a gift, be it one of the two mentioned, or one of the other of Gardner’s seven (now eight?) intelligences, the musical, the bodily-kinesthetic, the special, the inter- and the intra-personal, that this gift be recognized and given a favored place in the child’s home and school learning environment. Because it will only be through this “intelligence” or particular gift that the child will ultimately learn and be successful.

The learning environment of the school ought to directly reflect the interests and abilities of the children, not as now their ages. When children are in fact doing what they most like to do, acting in a play, playing on a team, being a part of a musical ensemble, staffing a computer clubhouse the age differences are disregarded. Isn’t this fact telling us that the school itself needs to structure its activities not on age, but on what the child most wants to do, and through which activity the child will most learn? A no-brainer, yet look at what we are now doing.

Finally, to expect that all kids can become proficient in math and language, if proficient does represent a real standard of excellence, is as ridiculous as expecting that all kids can reach the master lever of chess playing. It won’t happen. But to expect that all kids want to learn, that all kids have within them a spark that once identified will fire up their school years and take them right on into meaningful and successful lives, that may happen if we change the way we’re doing things in our schools.

Asking Charity to do the Work of Social Justice

In a recent article in Slate Magazine City University professor and historian David Nasaw (the author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst) questions, for the most part the unquestioned, respected, and admired place of private philanthropy in the life of our country. Why, it was great news all around, wasn’t it, when we learned about Warren Buffett’s planned 32 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation? The Foundation already had some 32 billion dollars of its own, and was to be the recipient in the near future of another 32 billion, again from Gates himself, in the form of Microsoft stock, all that together totaling some 96 billion dollars! The largest sum of private money in existence, easily beating the combined endowments of the Vatican, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas, although still only about 3% of the 2007 budget of the United States.

But how does David Nasaw put private philanthropy, this year amounting to about $280 billion, how does he put all this private giving into question? First of all he reminds us that early in the last century self-perpetuating private foundations were said to pose a “menace to the country’s future” because, as it was claimed anyway, “the private foundation, was a profoundly anti-democratic institution, one that concentrated too much wealth—and power—in the hands of trustees who were neither elected nor accountable to the public.”

Then Nasaw reminds (well not really “reminds” us) but tells us of the Colorado coal miner who complained loudly at the time about $250,000 of Rockefeller Foundation money that had been allocated for a retreat for migratory birds. The miner insisted that the Rockefeller money was the product of his and other workers’ labor and that he and his fellow workers ought to have a say in how it was spent. Why migratory birds? Why not a safe retreat for his wife and his children? And closer to home, why AIDs in Africa? Why not failing inner city schools?

Nasaw ends his article by quoting William Jewett Tucker, a future president of Dartmouth College, who in 1891 while criticizing Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, declared that “a society could make no greater mistake than asking charity to do the work of social justice.”

Wow, I said to myself. Isn’t this exactly what has happened? This is our country today. A lot of private charity, certainly, but no where near enough to satisfy the claims of social justice. And new charitable foundations, such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates, are the insurance that this visibly deficient method of accomplishing “social justice” will continue to prevail. Most of all the Gates Foundation will enable governments even more than in the past to do less in the future.

Now no one really expects Foundations to do all the work of social justice, not even most of it. For the social justice work of Foundations can go no further than their charitable contributions can take it.

Let me give you an example. You have an inner city school system with some 10 elementary schools, each with some 500 students. The kids are in school all morning and while there they are mostly preparing for tests because of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001. They get out of school between 1 and 2 and they have very few good places to go, good things to do during the long afternoon hours. Art, music, shop, and sports activities, the sorts of activities that are the rule in private schools, are almost non existent for them, until some Gates or other private foundation money turns up. But that money is only enough to enable just one of these schools to create afterschool activities such as theater, a boys chorus, a girls soccer team. The other nine schools will go without.

The one program in the one school is presented as a pilot program, that is, a program from which kids in other schools will eventually benefit when the program gets beyond the pilot stage. But it never gets beyond that stage, and after 2 or 3 years it may even lose the continuation of that initial funding. Now the school system is not at fault. For everyone is of the opinion that this is the sort of thing that only private funding can bring about, and there’s just not enough of that. No one’s at fault. That’s just the way things are.

So what has happened? The government is off the hook, meaning that the public authorities don’t have to face up to the inadequacy of their work with inner city
children. The authorities don’t see as their responsibility to provide the vital, asset and confidence building activities that children need. Instead they pass this responsibility by default on to the philanthropic community. But this community, as we have seen, can not do more than a small portion of what is needed, with the result that things go on much as they always have. And for too many kids in our inner cities the conditions of their lives don’t get any better.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Gates money, and charitable giving in general, may not be the great blessing it’s taken for, but rarther an insurmountable obstacle to the public’s acceptance of full responsibility for the health of our children living with unmet needs in our impoverished inner city neighborhoods.

Good, but not Enough

The off-year election results are now in. Well almost. The House is in Democratic hands, but we don’t yet have the results of Senate races in Montana and Virginia. Democratic wins in both would give the Senate majority to the Democrats.

So far this is what I like most about the election results:

First, the defeat of the anti-immigration "bully" and republican representative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona. For me he represented the worst of the reactionary, far right conservatives in the House.
Second, the replacement of Dennis Hastert by Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Nancy is a cut  above Dennis in every respect. The men have done such a poor job governing our country that it is time that they be replaced by women. I hope that Nancy is the head of a movement in this respect.
Three, the defeat of Senator Rick Santorum, a far right on social issues Republican in Pennsylvania, by the Democratic moderate Bob Casey.
And four, the apparent movement to the Center of the newly elected Democrats. This is good for the country, and should even help to bring the Centrist Republicans, scorned by their conservative colleagues on the right, back into governing the country.

So far this is what I like least:

The defeat of Harold Ford, a five-term congressman from Tennessee, who was trying to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, by Bob Corker, a Bush republican. The country needed Ford. The "Corkers" and their ilk have failed the country for a long time.
The reelection of Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and Robert Byrd in West Virginia. Both should be reclining in lounge chairs in Palm Beach, pontificating on the significance of this election, no longer a part of it.
In Massachusetts, the failure of the supermarket chains to gain the right to sell wine in their stores. This is especially surprising since we’ve just recently learned that red wine in particular will increase our longevity. A vote against longevity?

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité