Where Are the Deserts of Yesteryear?

Those of us who love the movie Lawrence of Arabia remember Lawrence’s surprise attack on the coastal town of Aqaba after a brave crossing of the Nafūd Desert. I was thinking about the Nafūd, which I had driven around in 1979, and as the stream of my consciousness moved unaccountably to memories of my teacher education, I remembered a course taught by a Chinese-American man who was the principal of a school in a nearby city.

Mr. C offered insights into school administration (the ostensible subject of the course) and his life as the son of a Chinese father. In the pre-grade-inflation days when he went to school, a B was a respectable if not ideal grade, but for Mr. C’s father a B didn’t exist: the only possible grade was an A. He said it was typical of Chinese parents to insist on proficiency, but he also said that another explanation of Chinese students’ success in academics was the inculcation of an implicit bargain with the system: “You tell us the rules, and we will play the game.”

This view jibes with a more recent one[1] by Amy Chuan, a Chinese-American mother who also would not tolerate Bs and insisted on playing the game: “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen,” she said, “the devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.” Even discounted for some wry hyperbole, this is the testimony of a parent who plays the game. She certainly isn’t criticizing test-based education if she coaches her children with spare tests to get their scores up. And to judge by reactions to the book, whatever else she may be, she has an uncommon determination to see her daughters become proficient at taking them.

An acceptance of the need for success in test-based education also informs the view of a report recently released by the “Education School Project,” which notes that “states now set minimum acceptable achievement levels, the highest in history, that students must attain, and mandate testing regimens to assess whether students are actually meeting state standards[2].” What is more, “all students are expected to achieve these outcomes,” which are usually described as “proficiency.”

There are riddles here. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School, a public “magnet” school, admits students on the basis of academic records and performance on an admission test. Nearly 60% of its students are from families of Asian backgrounds. Lowell is in this respect a microcosm of California, where Asians constitute between 40 and 55% of the students at the nine University of California campuses, though they constitute only 12% of California’s population. It would seem that not only do they “play the game,” as Mr. C. would say; their play is proficient. Riddle number one: why is this so? But riddle number two lies in a decision by the University of California to revise its admission procedures in 2012 to reduce the number of SAT subject tests required for admission and to lower the number of students whose positions will be guaranteed by test results. Why have they done so if what matters is performance on tests?

The riddles do not stop at Sather Gate[3]. The report on teacher education mentioned above gives a puzzling reason for improving the US’s largely deplorable teachers’ colleges[4]. It is that “information societies seek common outcomes” and mediocre or old-fashioned preparation leaves teachers unfit to produce common outcomes. Riddle number three: what were the teachers (and the parents!) of the past doing in the 2,500 years before we became an information society in order to produce the outcomes of students at Lowell High School, or for that matter, the Academy, or Amy Chuan’s children, or Mr. C? Were the teachers (and parents) involved somehow culpable because not everyone ended up proficient? (And, by the bye, a riddle of final cause: why should mediocrity in teacher education become unacceptable because it runs counter to the needs of an information society? Whose needs, including those of “prior” societies, does mediocrity not run counter to?)

If doing well on tests were the be all and end all, why would the University of California decide to downplay test results? Why would Amy Chuan insist with equal vigor that her daughters get As on tests and that they become proficient at Chopin? Why would UC’s requirements stay changed in spite of Asian-Americans’ objections that the rules of the game were being altered? Why do many first-rate colleges accept evidence of applicants’ qualities other than their test scores? Why do a few[5] not even look at test scores? Is “the game” more complex than simplistic mythologies make it?

See the last paragraph of this posting of mine for a brief discussion of part of what I think is involved in helping a student achieve understanding. If I am right, the Road to Universal Proficiency on Tests will be harder than Lawrence’s way to Aqaba. I mean not just his actual way, but also the mythic one portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia, for the victory did not happen as shown. There is no place called the Devil’s Anvil near Aqaba, which is hundreds of kilometers from the Nafūd, a desert of shifting sands unlike what the movie shows. The reason Lawrence’s victory at Aqaba persists as a myth of endurance and success is not that people don’t have the right information about it; it is that the broad outline of the story is true and inspiring and that Lawrence’s achievement was uncommon. We the commonalty will find many very non-mythical Devil’s Anvils along our way to universal proficiency.


[1] See Diane Johnson’s review of the book in the August 18 issue The New York Review of Books. It discusses not just the book but the reaction to it.

[2] p. 12

[3] The portal at the old boundary of the UC Berkeley campus

[4] Op cit., p. 13.

[5] Like Bowdoin



It’s So, Joe

Two strands of school maladministration converge in the scandal of cheating within the Atlanta city schools. One is the inexorable effect of Campbell’s Law of corrupting influence, given the district’s use of test scores to make “consequential decisions,” as Professor Campbell called them. (The other I will deal with below.)

Of corruption two kinds have been found. The obvious one is evidence that many schools in Atlanta altered their students’ answer sheets, sometimes in ways that would be ludicrous if they were not criminal. Stephen Jay Gould once said, “If the data seem to good to be true, it’s because they probably are,” but we wouldn’t have had to take Gould at Harvard to be suspicious when a class goes from a 24% proficiency rate to 86% in one year. Also, these same data enabled Atlanta’s superintendent “to collect $600,000 in performance bonuses over 10 years to supplement her $400,000 annual salary,” which suggests another kind of corruption. An investigation reported that one middle school took reprisals against teachers who did not participate in “changing parties” where wrong answers were erased and right answers replaced them.

But another strand in the administration of the Atlanta schools needs mention too. I am not quite sure what to call it, but after describing a couple of circumstances of the superintendent’s leadership, I will try and supply a label. It entailed the elevation of Herself and, under her administration, the belittling of “noncompliant” teachers.

The superintendent would have annual gatherings at the Georgia Dome, with seating arranged by school according to the schools’ performance on standardized tests. The “worst” schools’ employees were not allowed to sit on the field but instead had to go to the stands. It is not reported that they had to wear dunce caps, but you get the idea. At one school the “worst” teachers were required by their principal to crawl on all fours under a table. The degradation! They might as well have had to wear signs around their necks saying, “I am a worm, and no man[1].”

By contrast, the “best” schools’ employees at the Georgia Dome had seating reserved for them near The Presence. I use the word advisedly because The Presence was highly insulated at the district offices, where visitors had to use two security cards and get past a receptionist to make a visit, or should I say have an audience? People allowed in The Presence (or near it at the Georgia Dome) might have felt like Louis XIV’s courtiers who had the petites and grandes entrées into the Monarch’s Presence at Versailles, or who were allowed to accompany him to his holiday chateau at Marly[2].

The mixture of such kinds of exaltation and abasement with corruption should be considered “a deed without a name,” but in the best tradition of Educationist Baloney I will call it Stratification Based Records Adjustment Administration.

Name aside, two things here are seriously rotten: one is corruption, and the other is warped professional relationships. Though arrests can, should, and will be made for cheating, I hope that the criminal investigation will be paralleled by an educational investigation into what sounds like a sick organization.

[1] Paul Fussell, the Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Penn, has a harsher name for this kind of gratuitous abasement or harassment, which he analyzes in another context in the chapter “Chickenshit, An Anatomy” of his book Wartime.

[2] The King even made abasement a part of the holiday. He would not issue invitations to Marly, but required his courtiers to bow to him in public and ask, “Marly, Sire?” and thus risk the humiliation of a refusal if they were not in his good graces. The King had many such ways of putting people in the doghouse.



Plain Speaking from Jane Eyre

[Adèle] was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as she was committed entirely to my care, and no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for her improvement, she soon forgot her little freaks, and became obedient and teachable.  She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it.  She made reasonable progress, entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other’s society.

This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion: but I am not writing to flatter parental egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth.  I felt a conscientious solicitude for Adèle’s welfare and progress, and a quiet liking for her little self…

Jane Eyre, Chapter XII


Today’s guest writer was a first-rate novelist, and her words are instructive because she also happened to have been a teacher. The extract from Charlotte Brontë goes back to the 1840s, long before even Teachers College was founded, but it is worth a second look for what it says about perennial conditions of teaching and learning and about discourse on education.

Brontë spent a number of years as a schoolteacher and a governess, the experience of which gave her an understanding and clarity of thought that she shows in what she says about her pupil and “herself,” if we may call Jane that; for Jane, like Brontë, was earnest, grave, and reserved. Let us take a look at her observations and conclusions.

We see first of all that Adèle had to accept Jane’s authority and give up her waywardness and “little freaks.” Given Brontë’s own (brief) experience in an abusive school, we may be sure that Jane would not have wanted to impose an abusive regime on Adèle, but merely to insist on a certain tractability or readiness to meet her governess’s reasonable expectations in order to become “obedient and teachable.”

What expectation did Jane have of Adèle? Not that she “achieve proficiency” in her subjects; not that she engage in “mastery learning;” not that she become a Baby Einstein: no, Jane expected her to make “reasonable progress.” There was no question of saddling with unreasonable expectations a girl whom we in a modern mathematical metaphor would call “average,” a word Brontë would not have considered using. Nor, we feel, would Jane have let Adèle get by with work below her capacity.

Finally, Jane had an expectation of reciprocal regard and care: that Adèle would entertain a “vivacious, if not very profund, affection” for her; she, in turn, became attached enough that the two of them could be content in each other’s company. At a school where I taught, the governing emotion was said to be “unconditional love.” That seems too extravagant to be normative, but some kind of emotional tie must exist between teacher and pupil.

These seem like reasonable goals for an ordinary pupil, but they would have to maintain their integrity against five ways of thinking inimical to good teaching and learning, which Brontë names (I give them here in her order):

1.  Thinking that children have “angelic natures.” We may reject St. Augustine’s belief that children in their natural state deserve damnation[1] and yet still have some reservation about how naturally good they are[2]. This reservation is a basis of our rationalizing and justifying punishment or correction, and it helps any good teacher keep a weather eye out for trouble.

2.  Conceiving an “idolatrous devotion” to one’s children or pupils. We have in this kind of mistake the starting-point of much mischief, including what some educational psychologists call the “permissive-indulgent” style of child-rearing or teaching.

3.  Flattering parental egotism. Given the difficulty of letting down a parent who thinks Junior walks on water, leaps tall buildings, and understands string theory, the alternative has a certain attractive but dangerous appeal. Three dangers lurk in it: The parent is abetted in forming unrealistic expectations of Junior, which he or she then sometimes expects the teacher to abet with or without justification; the school is suborned in various kinds of academic fakery; and the teacher is accustomed to misrepresentation of Junior’s accomplishments. All teachers, but not all parents, recognize the first danger. Of the second we may instance cases of schools’ offering “accelerated courses” to students who can’t handle them because parents demand them. Of course the jig is up when, say, the AP test scores come back and 40% of the students taking the test get a 1 or 2. But forces other than just parental egotism lead to such impostures, so we should not just blame parents—or our attitude towards parents—for them. But teachers (and their administrators!) should find ways to keep these dangers from becoming real by giving honest assessments tempered by humanity.

4. Echoing cant[3]. This old-fashioned but excellent word refers to a kind of baloney all too common in the Ed Biz when The Biz is not echoing nonsense. A good example would be the way that Jerome Bruner’s thinking was (over)simplified or misrepresented to justify “mastery learning” and to make doing so an onus on the teachers, some of whom did not have the nimbleness of conception necessary to adapt singlehandedly a structure of learning to every pupil’s developmental needs. The basis for this onus was the cant expression that any subject can be made teachable to any pupil at any stage of development, a manifestly false position.

5. Propping up humbug. It’s too bad that the only person to use this word besides Jane is Scrooge, for humbug is forever, though its details may change from time to time. But humbug becomes dangerous when it is made into law. What else are No Child Left Behind’s demands for “proficiency” and penalties for poor performance on “value-added learning” tests than a gigantic prop to humbug? What else are the instances of Campbell’s Law in corrupt school districts that we have read about in the last two years?

To these five ways of thinking Brontë offers five antidotes: reciprocity, attachment, expectation of reasonable progress, telling the truth, and conscientious solicitude for students. To me it is no contest.


[1] St. Augustine could be severe. To a questioner who asked him what God was doing before he created the heavens and the earth, he answered, “He was creating hell for people who ask foolish questions”

[2] Thus my colleague the geography teacher had a small lidded earthenware pot near his classroom door labeled “ASHES OF TROUBLESOME STUDENTS.”

[3] the expression or repetition of conventional, trite, or unconsidered ideas, opinions, or sentiments; especially : the insincere use of pious phraseology. “cant.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (16 Jul. 2011).


Spray That Boy!

Sometimes a report from the schoolhouse needs a careful second look with questions to follow. When the report is appalling, that need is urgent. Such is an article on “restraining” students just published in The New York Times, with its report on the pepper-spraying of a first-grader and his being “involuntary committed” to a hospital by police in San Mateo, California.

The first-grader was said to have an “anxiety disorder.” I would like to know under what conditions six-year-olds with diagnosed psychiatric disorders are admitted to public schools and how their teachers are taught and helped to take care of the troubled kids they teach. I would particularly like to know how this training and help are surviving California’s axe-murder of public education.

The report said that the student “wandered away from campus.” Did he open doors or climb fences to “wander away”? Was a student with a psychiatric disorder allowed to play unsupervised in an unfenced playground, and did he “wander away” from it? Or did he “wander away” from a supervised playground? The Times said that he was “restrained” by “teachers” who returned him to school. Why did more than one teacher go out to fetch the wayward boy? Where were they when he “wandered away”? How far did he wander before he was noticed missing? Did he leave the sight of the school? The opening of the article has a series of drawings of a man being wrestled to the ground by another man, labeling it a “restraint technique.” Why did the reporter say that the teachers “restrained” the boy when they found him instead of saying that “they took him by the wrists [or however they did it] and led him back”? Did they treat him like the restrained person in the pictures?

After they “returned him to school,” he then “climbed on top of a cabinet and refused to get down.” Was this cabinet in the school’s office or in a classroom? If a classroom, why wasn’t he taken to the office? Did the same teachers who “restrained” him and returned him to school find themselves unable or unwilling to stop a six-year-old boy from climbing a cabinet or to remove him from the top once he got there? Was the top of a cabinet within his climbing distance out of the reach of the adults in the room? Did he menace them with his bared teeth or endanger them by kicks towards the face from steel-toed boots?

The teachers “called the police.” Where were the administrators? Where were they when “teachers” were out looking for the wayward child? Why didn’t they call the police, assuming that calling the police onto a school campus is an administrative decision?

When the police came, did they try to remove him from the top of the cabinet before pepper-spraying him? Were they unable to reach him? Do the police need guidelines for the use of pepper spray on six-year-olds? By saying that the police “involuntarily committed” the boy to a hospital, what does the reporter mean? Why did the police think the boy needed hospitalization? Why was he not taken there in an ambulance but “committed” there by police? Why did the hospital admit him without the parents’ approval?

The article ran this item as part of a discussion of the political difficulty of regulating “restraint techniques” used at schools. Far more urgent to me seems the need to discuss how such an incident as this one could proceed as far as it did. The politics of education are dismal these days, but something else here is more radically awry.



Shéer plód makes plough down sillion shine

Harold Bloom reports that when he first read Blake as a boy, he was attracted even though he couldn’t understand. Kenneth Koch says[1], “Once you can enjoy [poems], understanding is on the way, for pleasure, in reading a poem, is the first sign of it.”  The common thread is that poems’ attractive pleasures beckon us more immediately than (the promise of) understanding. Koch goes on to say that “different poems offer different immediate satisfactions,” and then contrasts Yeats’s “The Choice” and Stevens’s “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” as examples.

Bloom and Koch are on to something that teachers ought to remember in their teaching, but before discussing in particular what it is, we should examine Koch further. He says, about Williams but truly of all poets, “The secret is to keep reading and to take whatever a poem gives first as what it gives first, and stick with that, and see if there is more[2].” The advice that follows then stands to reason: “Certainly you don’t have to be embarrassed by not understanding a poem right away. If teachers have taught you to be, they have done a disservice, and in fact many people, because of such teachers, have been scared away from poetry. The cure is simply to forget the bad instruction and to read some poems.”

It may be simple, but it is difficult, to forget bad instruction in poetry. It is just as difficult and rather more complicated to give up bad teaching of poems. First one has to recognize that one is doing it. What are some signs?

1. The students sometimes explain by prefacing an explanation with “the poet is trying to say….” I forbid my students to use this formula, telling them that what the poet was trying to say is what he or she actually said. If they get used to this way of “explaining,” they get used to the idea embedded in it: that their, or their teacher’s, comparatively dull, second-rate, prosaic equivalent is somehow intellectually truer and therefore better than the poet’s own words. If that is true, why did the poem, but not the explanation, take the top of my head off?

2.  The students buy into the “Hidden Meaning assumption[3], which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried amid the words and music.” That some poets write acrostics and that Bach used the letters of his name as the notes of a fugal subject, which are hidden from ordinary sensory apprehension, are exceptions that prove the rule: poets and other artists want to show, not hide, their work. More to the point is Koch’s dictum that poems ”say what they say and suggest what they suggest.”

3.  They tend to think it better to read an “interpitation” (O’Connor’s word) than to come up with their own insights into a poem’s meaning. There may be three reasons besides laziness for this shutdown of brainpower. The first is that they have not been taught how to read closely, how to parse, how to scan, and how to justify an explanation, especially an explanation of something ambiguous; and they therefore accept someone else’s. Second, they naïvely accept the Hidden Meaning flourished before them in the “interpitation” like a rabbit from a hat—accept the trickery as genuine magic and the illusion as equivalent to insight. Third, their thinking has been debauched by deconstructionism[4] or reader-response theory to the point where they think that any explanation will do because any explanation is as “valid” as any other.

4.  They are confused by the contradictory teaching sometimes found in school, that poetry “has” all sorts of “elements” like lines, rhyme/rime[5], rhythm, tropes, and imagery requiring disciplined or focused background to marshal and write and that it is a “creative” holiday from the discipline of prose. How can it be both? The answer sometimes given—that poetry can be anything it wants to be—is empty and explains nothing.

Then what will good instruction do? A friend of mine who used to be the editor of a poetry magazine tells me that his favorite teacher in college was talking about Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” a portion of which serves as the title of this posting. He invited the students to look out the window at the saturated clayey soil and observed that plowing it on a sunny day would pressurize it, causing the water to extrude slightly and flash in the sunlight suddenly and briefly as the plow passed, the flash-point moving with the plow. A miraculous comment, though of course it was helped by there being saturated clayey soil outside the classroom window. Suddenly this strange line is possible before the students, real and as palpable as they care to make it.

Sillion? Try looking it up in a dictionary and see how far you get. The excellent website to which I just linked you gives one definition, but the Oxford Authors Gerard Manley Hopkins gives another: “a strip of arable land usually worked by a tenant farmer.” And those who know Hopkins know that he invents words and uses obscure words from dialectal English. Did he want one because it rhymed with “billion”? I think not. This British website on farming has a page called “What is sillion? A farmer’s explanation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ most famous poem.” I winced when I saw it say that the poem is “about birdwatching,” which of course it is, in a way[6], but I got past that very quickly: it confirmed the view of the poetry website, and it makes sense. The imagery of plowed soil flashing at the plow’s cut is almost exactly parallel to the following image of coals’ glowing insides being suddenly revealed by a fall, a gall, and a gash. I hold with the farmer and the poets’ web site and think I can explain why.

That is what I would like my students to be able to do when they set out to “explain” a poem. If “The Windhover” demands too much of their exploratory skill, others are available. It is better to find those others first and let them gain confidence with them than to plop a poem down in front of them and then supply them with an explanation by magic. And thus we have another way to look at “shéer plód” than as unalloyed labor: when something is sheer, it is transparent and contains nothing Hidden. How much better this effort would then be at making their own understanding shine.

[1] In Making Your Own Days, p. 110, in the chapter on “Reading” poetry.

[2] Ibid, p 113

[3] Ibid, p. 111

[4] “Other ideas, possibly even more deleterious, are that poetry is of interest mainly as some sort of mechanism that has to be taken apart (and this may be to look for meanings that not even the author was aware of), or that poetry is important mainly in relation to its historical context: one might read, then, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets as reflections of Renaissance dual sexuality. The trouble with such approaches to reading is that they concentrate on what is not there at the expense of what is.” (Koch) No wonder the students are baffled: We ask them to see what is not there.

[5] I use the second of these to help my dyslexic students and to lessen confusion among all students about these two easily confusable words.

[6] Though it is also about Christ-watching. See Flannery O’Connor’s description of a story of hers at the beginning of my posting two weeks back.