Visionary Gleam in Flight

When Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers made the original proposal for charter schools, he saw them as potential sources of innovative practice where unionized teachers and co-operative administrators would work together to produce the conditions in which good education could take place. His model was a public school in Germany where “[t]eams of teachers had considerable say in how the school was run. They made critical decisions about what and how to teach and stayed with each class of students for six years.”  It need hardly be added that German teachers are well paid compared to American, and that consideration could not have been far from Shanker’s mind.

Professor Richard M Ingersoll of Penn notes that three main reasons for teacher turnover are insufficient pay, lack of administrative support, and lack of influence in how schools are run. These are the features of schools that Shanker’s vision sought to correct. A fourth is ‘student discipline problems’ in schools that are troll havens. If the conditions Shanker sought had been realized in troll-free schools, the visionary gleam might now be a reality comparable in quality to Finnish schools.

Sadly, this has not happened. Instead, charter schools have, with a very few exceptions[1], turned into little Walmarts of learning, run top-down on the cheap, giving an undistinguished ‘education’ at a fearful price. Even though the charters have reduced the troll problem, the undistinguished education still occurs: by most measures, most charter schools do no better than public schools. The fearful price is twofold: 1) increased economic and racial segregation (something the Catholic schools they are replacing managed to avoid), and 2) an average loss of 24% of their teachers each year, twice the public schools’ rate. Compared to that, a goose would be a model of continence. The pool of people available to teach is not infinite. How many of them are gone through in the ‘human-resource’ wreckage typical of charter ‘education’?


Reptiles of the Mind

William Blake said that “a man who never alters his opinions is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.” I made a visit one day to a crocodile farm[1] in South Africa. We walked along an elevated boardwalk, beneath which the crocs lay basking motionless in the shade-dappled pools. Our guide told us that the largest crocodile, called Arnie, would sometimes snap out of his stillness long enough to attack, eating just enough of his victim to be satisfied while leaving the remainder alive; and that some crocodilian adults would perk up to eat the young[2]; but most of the time they kept a primitive equilibrium. We were invited to toss the chopped remains of a dead crocodile from the boardwalk to feed the live ones. As each chopped piece fell, the nearby animals would rush forward to snap it up, and then resume their motionlessness.

Reptiles of the mind must therefore be backward, unproductive and predatory habits or systems of thought that play out like primitive life forms and are impervious or hostile to improving influences.  That being so, much of the field[3] of education in the United States has figuratively come to resemble a large crocodile farm where trying to replace destructive practices with good ones is like trying to approach Arnie. An article by Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU traces part of the problem to the unfathomable idea common in the US—but not in Finland—that teachers do not really need to know the subjects they are teaching, and even that any good teacher can teach any subject, or at least facilitate at an on-line “school.” Hence abysmal ‘normal schools’ like Southwest Texas State University, which could produce ‘trained’ teachers who were functionally illiterate. Hence “faculties” whose members did worse on reading & math tests than suburban sixteen-year-olds. It is said that “at least” these places give their student teachers a grounding in “theory”, but even that claim is false; for what they give is a set of slogans to be repeated like “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The problem will not be solved, says Zimmerman, by closing down lousy teacher education programs and insisting that teachers receive arts-and-science degrees. The reason is that many of those programs are also degraded. A report flagged by my friend at a state university notes that many colleges lack serious professional development programs that would help their professors be better teachers. Instead, the tendency in professional development is to help them build their résumés and achieve tenure. At the same time, continues Zimmerman, their students go through mediocre programs that do not really build solid understanding of any field, while enjoying a kind of firing-power conferred by teacher evaluations that lead to personnel action against teachers with the temerity to make demands of them. It could be argued that such young are eating their elders, but it is the elders who will remain tenured and the young who will be indebted and jobless. Maybe they are eating each other.

Presiding over the feast are state and federal education offices that set dinner fields of their own with programs that arbitrarily close schools and fire teachers, “making our best teachers do their job worse.” Zimmerman closes his article with a discussion of an excellent teacher who returned to education after a fourteen-year hiatus. Under the reptilian RAce to the Top program with its “accountability,” he lasted only a year.

[1] Crocodile meat is served at table in that carnivorous country. I once went to a restaurant called The Carnivore that served assorted ‘venison’: zebra, wildebeest, kudu, springbok, etc. You could also get beef, lamb & pork if you insisted, and vegetables if you pounded the table.

[2]The New Yorker once had a cartoon showing two old crocodiles seated in rocking chairs and wearing old people’s clothes. One looks up from her knitting towards the other and says, “Mothers’ Day cards remind me of the old days before I ate my young.”

[3] But by no means all


Beware of the Bumfalo

When Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines a creature such as a griffon, a basilisk, or a gorgon, it usually opens by describing it as a ‘fabulous monster,’ that is, a monster found in fables and tales. Fabulous monsters can be scary, but scarier by far are factual monsters. At one point in The Importance of Being Earnest Jack at first describes Lady Bracknell as a gorgon, but then changes his mind: ‘she is a monster without being a myth, which is rather unfair.’

Teachers will identify with Jack in his despondency because they are also plagued by monsters that are not myths. We may be grateful that some, like the Secretary of Education, exist in only one (highly destructive) specimen. Others, I am sorry to note, have multiplied in the field of education till they have encroached on or endangered ‘competing’ species such as teachers.

As I reread details of an Education Department grant application that takes 2735-1/2 hours to complete (I love that extra half-hour!), the name of another factual monster came to the Didact’s Dictionary: the

bumfalo, n. [from British bumf or bum-fodder: useless administrative paperwork]: a factual monster endemic to educationist ecologies. Its usual habitat is administrative offices and five-star hotels, but never classrooms. Its chief prey is teachers, whom it destroys by force-feeding them data and paperwork until they perish from explosion or inanition (e.g., sightings are attested of bumfalos requiring teachers to spend twelve hours on a single lesson plan and then rejecting it). It sometimes paralyzes its prey before killing it by displaying PowerPoint presentations and pie charts. It has a number of characteristic calls, repeated at random: “articulation”; “robust”; “curriculum alignment”; “hard data,” etc. The US government is in the process of granting it ‘protected species’ status even though the government has not yet declared the teacher an ‘endangered species’.


A Day in the Life beyond Testing

Today (a Saturday) I went to the school office to leave a message with one of the clerks. Seated at another clerical cubicle was one of the deans or assistant headmasters. Because the two clerks were otherwise engaged, he was putting the finishing touches on a handout notifying 7th-graders of an optional weekend course. The subject is classical Chinese. I asked him whether they might be studying poets like Du Fu and Li Bai (8th Century), to which he smiled and replied, ‘Much older: it will go back to the origins of the Chinese character.” He went on to tell me why learning Chinese characters is not as hard as ‘some people’ think it is: “Everything depends on how they are taught.”

Outdoors the stalls and pavilions are going up for the “Garden Fête,” a well-attended annual fund-raising event. In the two covered playgrounds, table tennis tables have been pushed aside, and students are busily working at getting signs and other materials ready for their grades’ and clubs’ stalls, which will be set up tomorrow morning.

Outside one of the covered playgrounds the school’s Boy Scout troop was putting itself through the finishing touches of close-order drill, accompanied by snare drum, that they will have needed to master by tomorrow, when they proceed with a poppy wreath from the school’s chapel to a memorial to graduates who died fighting Japan in World War II. (The school housed Japanese soldiers instead of students during the war.) They lay the wreath at the memorial tablet.

As the Scouts paraded, students from the Drama Committee [club] came out of the Drama Store Room to watch. They were working on one of the year’s dramatic productions and getting ready to sell DVDs of last year’s productions at the Fête. The rehearsals of the school’s musical groups, which are usually conducted on weekends as well as school days, are canceled this weekend.

During the week the boys publishing the IB Herald picked up our print run, also to be sold at the Fête, and presented a copy to the IB Coordinator. We finished working up the sales schedule, and among today’s off-campus errands I went to get change in case the vendors need to make it. (Some, but by no means all, of the Fête’s visitors say, ‘Keep the change” when paying for things.

My other group of visitors during the week was IB students beginning the 4,000-word Extended Essay that they will need to turn in at this time next year. Most are in English, but one will be in film.

I mention all these things because earlier this week I read a review of a book condemning China’s education as being obsessed by exams and place-hunting. I wouldn’t deny that Chinese students want to do well on their exams, but I do suggest, and have tried to show, that other kinds of activity characterize Chinese students too. Where I agree with the reviewer is in the dim view we take of the test-mania that is sweeping across the U.S., which will be certain to end up producing the worst of both worlds. President Kennedy is supposed to have said that Washington DC combined Southern efficiency and Northern charm. What would he say of Duncan’s Dream?