Sister Mary Richard vs. “The Focal Point”

A friend sadly reports that an old mentor of hers has died.  Under Sister Mary Richard’s guidance she “studied Carlyle, Ruskin, Thackeray, Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, and a host of others. The fact that I still remember some of the lessons and how they made me feel speaks volumes to things that cannot be measured on a test.” And Sister was as exigent as she was memorable: she “required not only frequent composition, but also what seemed like endless re-writing of poor work.”

It speaks volumes for the ethos of schooling where Sister taught that if she required rewriting, her students would do it. Contrast this with the ethos reported by Garret Keizer, in which students simply ignore his demands and reprint unchanged the compositions he marked up. It also speaks volumes against value-added metrics that they might select Sister as a good teacher and Keizer as a poor one, regardless of the ethos that informs their students’ work.

My friend was bound to tell what she knows in Sister’s class because of those frequent compositions and the meetings where she discussed them. This is by contrast to students who memorize little gobbets of learning and fill in blanks or point to letters of the alphabet on their assessments. Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know,” but multiple-choice (or multiple-guess) testing is rendering Emerson sadly obsolete.

It is also, equally sadly, rendering teachers like Sister Mary Richard obsolete, and teachers like Garret Keizer: teachers who insist that students revisit their work in order to make their thinking and writing on it the best it can be.  Such abdication may explain why the freshmen at many ‘colleges’ read at the 7th-grade level. Professor Barzun reports that a graduate student of his came to him in tears after her third failing grade. Conversation revealed that her other teachers had made the same comments he made, but “the comments didn’t matter.” Barzun forced his student to be responsible till she learned what she had to do. To those who object that schooling should be a tepid bath, the answer of our three teachers is that education, like ambition, should at least at times be made of sterner stuff.

What kind of teacher is favored under the VAM[1] regime? I had a clue offered recently when visiting a school I used to be familiar with, but that has become nearly unrecognizable. Its teachers are disaffected, which they did not use to be; and its current Chief Executive talks a line that includes the importance of VAMs. The way success is judged is by standardized test results. The Chief Executive says[2] that the kind of teacher he wants is someone who has taught little or not at all and can be “molded”—and, presumably after a few years of teaching to tests, discarded and replaced (the annual turnover rate of teachers in charter schools is 24%). An experienced teacher’s skill and discretion at teasing out the best thinking, speaking and writing are not needed because these powers are not demanded of students who bubble in their learning on Scantron sheets.

What is more, he intones that “failure is not an option.” He does not say this to the students to exhort them to do their best. He says it to the teachers so they will not act like Sister Mary Richard or Professor Barzun when students need reproof or a severe judgment. Barzun notes that reproof must be accompanied by encouragement, not that encouragement may not include reproof.

There is an eerie parallel between the formless failure-free processing the CE wants in lieu of education and the school’s campus as it has changed under his direction. The old school, as it might be called, had a low-profile look, which suited its situation; for the classrooms were more evident as such, and the upper buildings allowed the people there to take in lawns, fields, hillsides and a splendid big picture that was especially fine in the afternoon. I remember sighting a comet from the corner of one classroom and a tropical sunset from another. The new construction has made that comet- and sunset-viewing obsolete. Near the center of the campus is a purpose-built “focal point”, a weird erection in canvas scraps and bars that looks like a wrecked catamaran if it looks like anything. As such it is the precise physical equivalent of an educationist Big Plan signifying nothing. I am not interested: I prefer the big picture, and I think I’d rather have focused on what Sister Mary Richard and people like her were able to teach.

[1] “Value”-“Added” “Metrics”

[2] In front of teachers! It reminded me of the administrator who addressed the faculty as “you people.”


Where Is the Tropopause When We Really Need It?

The botanical phenomenon known as tropism shows how even vegetal life sometimes changes itself in response to primitive stimuli such as light. The classic example is a field of sunflowers that face east in the morning but look westward in the afternoon. I sometimes think that the ‘discourse’ over the ‘reform’ of education is a kind of tropism. I mean not just vegetal action but the –ism of tropes, that is, bromides and caked wisdom, as Barzun calls it.

Typical of the tropism I’m talking about is an article appearing in the most recent issue of The New York Review. Its subject is Joel Klein (“Mr. Klein talks lots of bunk and / More bunk comes from Mr. Duncan”). Now, Mr. Klein’s bunk has been debunked often and at length in these postings and elsewhere[1], but for the writer of the article, it is as if that part of the ‘debate’ never took place. He opens breathlessly with a comment supposedly made to Klein by the late Bruno Bettelheim shortly before the tragic end of his life. That rather ambivalent comment includes the statement that Klein ‘ignores yesterday in order to keep his eye on tomorrow.’

Like George Santayana, I take a dim view of people who ignore yesterday in order to do anything, and have shown in these postings how misguided education ‘transformationists’ have caused more trouble than they’ve cured. But our reviewer actually subsumes tomorrow into the present, asserting against much of the evidence that Klein has already transformed New York’s schools.

One of the properties of tropism is that it functions below the level of consciousness and intelligence, and that seems to be what is happening in this review. Like the Orwellian animals that call out “Four legs good, two legs bad,” our reviewer uncritically presents again all the debunked evidence, though not entirely without a new approach. The novelty is a kind of ad hominem attack on Diane Ravitch, related more in sorrow than in anger.

Joseph de Maistre said that a country gets the government it deserves. After reading something like this review, he might be tempted to assert the corollary that it gets the schools it deserves too. I hope he was wrong.

[1] See for example Exorcise for Health, in which I question value-added metrics; A Philosophy of Baloney, in which I present the criticisms of VAMs by a noted Stanford professor; The Phantom VAMs, in which I present research studies showing that standardized testing does not yield reliable data about students’ learning; Data, Schmatta, in which I present a thorough debunking of the Gates Foundation’s ‘Measures of Effective Teaching’ project; and, finally, Failure by the Numbers, in which I present evidence by New York City’s own Independent Budget Office that Klein’s programs did not produce much of value.