O horrible, o horrible, most horrible!

The school where I began my teaching career required all 9th-graders to be able to write a five-paragraph essay and all 11th-graders to write a successful research paper under the dual guidance of their English teachers and one other-subject teacher. I am not a great fan of the five-paragraph essay because I hold with Barzun that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.’ Even so, I see the need for some students to start with training-wheels, as it were, before the unaided bike ride actually begins.

I was therefore deeply shocked to hear about a new-teacher orientation at a state university in which the following exchange took place. One new teacher asked the Director of Academic Technology what to do with students who ‘struggle with the five-paragraph essay’ and do not like writing at all. The director replied that the teacher might make an alternative assignment ‘like a poster’. (No advice on buying crayons and scissors was given.)

The principal of my first high school would have had a better answer to that question. It would have been to advise the teacher to help the students learn the five-paragraph essay. If a student had been foolish enough to assert to that principal that he did not like writing at all, the answer would have been very clear: If you want to be a sophomore, you will learn how to write a five-paragraph essay whether you like it or not.

If students at this university can avoid learning to write because they ‘don’t like it at all,’ what do they have to look forward to? The university’s president said at the same convocation that he wants students to ‘own their own minds.’ What a statement! Fan away the misty cliché about ownership and it becomes perfectly meaningless and unintelligible. If a student doesn’t like writing and therefore doesn’t have to do it, if he doesn’t like reading more than a few pages a day, if he doesn’t like demanding teachers and savages them in the course evaluation, if he likes computing but not counting, and if he can’t hold up for thirty seconds in a Socratic discussion, what kind of mind will he ‘own’?


Strategic Planning for Goodness

Regardless of what verdict may be returned in the case brought against a former upperclassman of St Paul’s School for raping a freshman, the rector’s public reaction to the case is unsettling. On the one hand, he assures parents and students that the school remains ‘committed, as always, to ensuring our students’ safety and wellbeing [emphasis added].’ On the other, in the face of allegations that the school appears to turn a blind eye to sexual predation in certain circumstances, he says that ‘we could be doing better’ to plan and structure preventives to such things as ‘relational violence’.

‘Relational violence prevention’ is one of the eeriest euphemisms I have heard anyone use in connection with secondary education. It is possible that the rector is merely walking on eggshells, but yet another statement of his suggests a deeper problem. The New York Times reports that he said, ‘[the alleged rape] provides us with an important opportunity to reconsider elements of our shared life that do not appear in our strategic plan.’

Strategic plan? St. Paul’s School is an Episcopal school, or professes to be. The times being what they are, everyone professes need for a ‘strategic plan’, though organically constituted communities can manage without them, as did another Anglican institution, the University of Oxford, in its 19th-Century reform movement. More to the point is the implicit admission that strategic planning is not a be-all and end-all. How anyone could have thought otherwise?

Part of strategic planning is to identify opportunities and threats and to consider what might be done to take advantage of the former and keep the latter at bay. Anyone who has participated in this part of the plan knows how much fantasy and wishful thinking matter in the final lists and plan. Suppose you are in a planning group and you say, on the basis of evidence available to you, that one threat to a school is destructive and violent behavior by students countenanced or tolerated within the school culture. The chances are that within an insecure or disingenuous corporate culture your warning will be dealt with ineffectively or, worse, will be dismissed or derided.

But all this discussion should be beside the point. Schools should have moral compasses, which are one of the things that happily distinguish them, or should distinguish them, from educational software. By moral compass I do not mean the one that identifies bad conduct as ‘inappropriate behavior’. That sorry category makes date rape sound like a faux pas.

If the allegations now on trial should be proved true, and if as claimed the school’s culture is shown to have led to the behavior alleged, it will suggest strongly that St. Paul’s moral compass is faulty. That is a pity, for an effective traditional guide to conduct is available to St. Paul’s. It is called the Spiritual Works of Mercy. If that seems too sectarian, there is yet another guide available. It is called the law.


In the Meantime…

Now that the unfortunate Motoko Rich has reported in The New York Times that there’s a teacher shortage, and Frank Bruni has editorialized about making teaching jobs more attractive, we can repose in the stability of inertia, one of two normal responses to trouble in the ed biz.

(The other response is to launch a futile and abortive revolution such as NCLB or RAT. The Didact’s Dictionary proposes a definition of inertia (n.): The normal state of education. The revolutions usually said to punctuate inertia are in fact extensions of it because nothing continues to change.)

Nonetheless, I have a few suggestions for dealing with the teacher shortage.

1.    Determine that public schools are a public good and that their teachers, like soldiers and police, should be shielded from the worst effects of the business cycle.

2.    Do something about the fact that teachers are dead last among jobholders for their relationship with their supervisors.

3.    Get rid of the demonstrably worthless ‘metrics’ used to impose false accountability on them.

4.    Train them truly and then trust them truly, as the Finns do. No fake teacher education, and no top-down management.

5.    End wasteful and unsustainable personnel management (e.g., lower 24% annual turnover rates to acceptable levels).

6.    Take school administration out of the hands of incompetent monsters of the deep.

7.    Bring up children like Jane Eyre’s Adèle, to be obedient and teachable.

8.    Do not impose unreasonable teaching burdens. Instead, like the Finns & Japanese, allow teachers time to do their work at school.

9.    Do not entertain false notions about the ease and simplicity of teaching, or think by reductive fallacies that it can be reduced to a series of steps that can be captured by software.

10.    If you insist on leaving teaching a miserable job, at least provide good pay and job security until that time in the unimaginable future when the world beats a path to education’s door.


Touts at the Schoolhouse Door


At one end of San Francisco’s Broadway in a quiet neighborhood stands the Sacred Heart Convent School for girls, the soul of discretion. Its Wikipedia entry is only a few lines. It knows what it wants to do, as do its students and their parents.

At the other or neon end are (or used to be) the city’s topless and strip clubs. True, you could get gnocchi al pesto at Enrico’s or hear Tom Lehrer or Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, and you can still buy ‘Howl’ at City Lights Books, where it was notoriously published sixty years ago. But for many people from the 1970s to the 1990s it was the topless joints that made the street famous. People would stroll by the topless clubs, each with its ‘barker’ outside touting the delights to be found within, such as ‘live girls’. (Gary Larson in The Far Side imagined an insect topless joint featuring ‘live females’, but that joke is less understandable today, when people often refer to men and women as males and females, than it was when Larson published it.)

The polarity of Broadway has its analogous polarity in education. At one pole are the schools that simply get along in their completeness, giving information to those who inquire and simply attending to their missions. Those missions are themselves simple and free of gongs and sirens. One school I know of has the mission ‘to provide a liberal education based on Christian principles’. One can hope that such a mission is free of baloney and that people are attracted to the school for all the right reasons.

At the other pole are the schools that ‘market’ themselves like barkers, inviting the young to sample the delights within, delights that usually fall far short of the barkers’ hyperbolic promises.  One such school, absurdly named Quest to Learn, even managed to get The New York Times to do its barking. I was not very hopeful that the children gulled into attending would come out with much to show for their efforts, assuming efforts were required. (This is not a sure thing, especially where ‘failure is not an option’.)

As my summer holiday continues I visited a former colleague who found a teaching job at one of the more ‘prestigious’ (what a word!) schools in the city where she lives. She has just quit, telling me that she is tired of an administration that seems more intent on barking than teaching. Part of the school’s ‘problem’ is that it and other schools ‘compete’ for the same students and try to catch them by pitching ‘the delights within’. It sounds less like admissions than like hunting season. I think the last straw was being commanded to make students take notes on computers only, not by hand, so the school would be 100% computerized. Since there can’t be any reason for 100% computerization that forbids handwriting, it must be to accommodate their pitchmen.

One mark of a potentially good school (there are others) is that it can be found at the right end of Broadway, so to speak, far from the barking crowd.