Scything the Hot-house Flowers: Failure IS an Option

failure (n): a key to success. ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control … you get … through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’—Dominic Randolph, Headmaster, Riverdale Country School, New York. ‘Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential’—J. K. Rowling in her commencement address at Harvard.

—from the Didact’s Dictionary

Educators, popular writers, psychologists, and twelve-step programs: all these say that we must work through our rock bottoms, our nadirs, and our difficulties. Yeats adds his poetic testimony in the lines “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” In the face of what Richard Hofstadter called “the collective experience of the human race,” many schools in the US, and perhaps some universities, are offering the infantilizing alternative that “failure is not an option” and replacing “the fascination of what’s difficult” (Yeats again) with “the menace of what’s difficult.”

From this premise some people question the sense in allowing accomplishment that might entail challenge or danger. I do not mean unreasonable danger; I mean any danger at all. Take as a first example physical danger. An old headmaster of my acquaintance, teaching in the Pre-Cambrian Era, allowed at the school he headed a number of tree houses in the schoolyard. I asked him once whether he was worried what would happen if a student fell out and broke an arm. He said, “No, we would get them a cast and in a few weeks everything would be fine.” Any child allowed in a tree house is enchanted by them, hence their (former) popularity. Any child with a memory of tree houses who reads in The Lord of the Rings about Lórien finds the land’s first enchantment is that its inhabitants live in tree houses.

By contrast I have in mind a friend’s young daughter, who decided she wanted to learn to roller-skate. The poor thing was swathed in shin guards and pads and lumps and braces till she looked lie a mini-Michelin Man as she tottered down the 2% grade in front of her parents’ flat. She never scraped a knee, but what else did she never do because abrasions were not an option?

The second kind of example is academic danger. Here we enter the realm of institutional make-believe, but also a world in which students are warned off intellectual challenges or padded against them. I have written about one American school, which hedged its own IB program with such off-putting warnings as “demanding,” “challenging,” “strict” and “stringent”. But there are programs out there that don’t even offer challenges with the hedging. Hence Poor Vanessa, who aced her high-school math tests without study but found herself foundering in college. And hence university students who read at the 7th-grade level. Failure has not been an option for them either.

Or has it? The New York Times reports a third danger in an upturn in cases of anxiety reported at US universities. One of the main causes is evidently that students who were swathed in protection for twelve years don’t know what to do when the prospect of real, authentic failure appears before them. Sometimes it is not failure: sometimes it is just getting the C that will “shatter” the fantasy prospect of medical school for a student who starts to crumple when assigned five hours of homework a week—not just per course, but in its entirety.

One wise teacher of my acquaintance used to tell his students, “You can pay now, or you can pay later.”  The thing about failure suffered early on in relatively supportive conditions is that “paying now,” even when somewhat painful, becomes a part of an education that insures against the worst effects of “paying later”. Students who have been given sixteen years of magic shows instead of education are unlikely to be accepted at medical school, but if they were, what would they do when faced with the Anatomy Lab (to take an early challenge) or their Internship-Residency (to take a later one)? What will flowers raised in a hot house do when the weather gets a bit nippy?


Still Teaching after Fifty Years

Today I attended a meeting of teachers from the Anglican schools of Hong Kong and Macau (there were thousands of us from over a hundred schools). It is worth remembering while reading what follows that Hong Kong’s students are highly successful on the PISA and OECD tests of educational attainment.

The speaker from the Hong Kong Education Bureau opened by criticizing the idea that teachers are “providers” and that education is a “product” or a “service.”

The keynote speaker, the vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, might have been expected to quote modern academic educationists—but no, he quoted Confucius and Jesus. At one point he discussed his early teaching career and summarized it by saying that he realized, “I was not a very effective teacher because all I was doing was transmitting knowledge.  With such thinking we are in an alternative universe to the world of pink slime education.

The high point of the meeting came when the Archbishop of Hong Kong presented a gold medal to a man who is now completing his fiftieth year of teaching. Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest life expectancies (the US’s is nestled in the high thirties between Costa Rica and Cuba), but Hong Kong’s ‘elders’, as senior citizens are called here, are both long-lived and sturdy. So our long-serving teacher seemed as he walked out with a spring in his step to greet the Archbishop.

He was cheered to the echo.


Working and Learning


It’s certain there is no fine thing

Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.

—W. B. Yeats

This being Labor Day Weekend in most of the world, I was thinking about labor in connection with teaching and learning. The first thing to be said is that education is one of those fine things Yeats was talking about, or should be. Of course there are Potemkin schools, in which movie-set schoolhouses and universities offer movie-set degrees, but a serious inspection of them would show how little work is really going on.

I mean work by students, though some teachers are not above reproach. It pains me to point the finger at such teachers, given that most of them—us—work our butts off; nonetheless, there is a real problem. A more serious problem is that they or their schools’ administrators have often replaced the assignment of solid work with idiot work[1]. Educational solids include setting and thoroughly grading student essays, conducting Socratic discussions, and preparing good lectures when lecturing is what is needed. Idiot work includes preparing for and taking multiple-choice tests, and the assignment of free-form “creative” “compositions” that are really only a cover for the flight from discipline and thinking. George Orwell thought that the “test preparation course” offered by his prep school was a “preparation for a confidence trick“, a judgment thought to be true of “test prep” at least till 1975, when Donald Campbell formulated Campbell’s Law of the corruption of “quantitative social indicator[s].”

The flight from thinking by students is a serious problem. If a student collapses under one or two Socratic questions, there is trouble; but the problem begins before the stage of accountability. What can we say of the staying-power of individual thinkers when a Harvard study reports that spending fifteen minutes of quiet time is so aversive to Americans that a majority of its male subjects would prefer receiving electric shocks to enduring that trial? It is not helped by schools where “failure is not an option”—schools in which rubbish can receive passing marks. So thoroughly has “failure” been banished that for a while it was even possible to “pass” New York State promotion tests with random guessing.

It is possible that students do poorly because they suffer from mental impairments like ADHD, but even that claim needs careful inspection. While the ADHD rate in the US approaches ten percent of students, in France it is half a percent. This difference is not due to the native psychic toughness of Frenchmen but to differences in child-rearing and educational practices in the two countries. French parents tend to set firm limits on children’s behavior and not to shrink from punishing transgressions. They also frown more on debilitating junk food and incontinent snacking. When an intervention is necessary, a French psychologist tends to analyze what in the afflicted young person’s family and environment needs addressing rather than prescribe drugs. The parents are in charge of the students rather than the other way around.

Of the latter way a friend gives an appalling example. At a conference with a low-scoring student and his father, my friend, the boy’s teacher, said that the boy would do better if he studied properly and did his homework. The father said, “I think you had better stay home two nights a week in order to study.” Junior replied, “Fuck no! I’ll go out if I feel like it” (with the car Dad provides him). The father acquiesced, and the student continued to do poorly. (Such a well-trained father may be abdicating his responsibility to bring up his child properly, but when the VAM scores come back, the teacher will be blamed.)

Education is not or should not be a magician’s trick. No spells and charms gain their users anything. The only thing that seems to work is work itself.



[1] The extent of the replacement is exemplified by the blurb one American school of my acquaintance has for its International Baccalaureate program, which is described as “demanding,” “challenging,” “strict,” and “stringent.” Students are reassured that they do not need to take the full diploma program. My readers should know that in Hong Kong the IB program is widely seen as easier than the Education Bureau’s curriculum, though that perception may be erroneous. My own students, every one of whom is in the full diploma program, think it is.


Discernment vs. Racketeering

The conviction of teachers and administrators in Atlanta of racketeering should caution us all about the dangers of value-added metrics and high-stakes testing. There is no reason to think that the convicts were uniquely depraved. There is, however, abundant evidence to show that they worked within a misguided and poisonous institutional culture that was both depraved and stupid. Many succumbed to the poison.

The depravity is exemplified by an administrator who wore gloves while changing students’ answers at her school, though I don’t mean to say she would have been ‘less’ guilty if she had not worn gloves.

But the stupidity! An abundance of testimony confirms that the attention of the district was morbidly fixed on test results, which common sense and research could have told them was counterproductive. These results give a skewed picture of what students know, and their use in making consequential decisions was an invitation to corrupting pressures, which, sure enough, came to be exerted and felt.

The New York Times has almost figured this out—but not quite. It took an economics reporter to sniff out the problem, for the Times’s education reporters, since the removal of the much-missed Michael Winerip from the education beat, have as usual failed to get the story. The discovery of the problem in its economic and sociological aspects goes back to the academic ‘lawgivers’ of the mid-1970s who gave us Goodhart’s Law (economics) and Campbell’s Law (sociology). The problem is that when a measurement is used not just to measure but also to make consequential decisions, the users exert a corrupting pressure on the process of measurement. The Times reporter amusingly but incorrectly says that Goodhart’s Law means that “a performance metric is useful as a performance metric so long as it isn’t used as a performance metric.” Actually, it means that performance metrics are useful when they are not tied to consequential decisions. To put the seeming paradox correctly we should say, “a performance metric is useful only so long as no one uses it to reward or punish people.”

A performance metric should be reliable, which VAMs are not; but the main issue of this posting is not the inherent unreliability of standardized testing to determine what students know; it is that misconceived and misused evaluations of students’ performance can lead to corruption. The Atlanta verdict shows that this corruption can be criminal.

And the alternative to corrupt and worthless ‘metrics’? 1) Suck it up and turn down the RAT[1] grants. 2) Return from evaluations of teachers based on ‘metrics’ to evaluations based on discernment. 3) Dust off your Deming:

•     Drive out fear

•     Eliminate slogans, exhortations, targets.

•    Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

[1] RAce to the Top


Education and Cannibalism

There was an Irish journalist living in the US who used to assert that the way American media deal with contentious issues is to oversimplify and to omit important elements of the issue from their ‘discussion’. His hypothetical example, given tongue in cheek, was a media ‘debate’ on cannibalism, in which ‘one side’ contended that it should be permitted while ‘the other side’ contended that it should be regulated. I was reminded of the ‘debate’ on cannibalism when I glanced at a New York Times ‘debate’ on how to raise students’ test scores by producing better teachers.

The resemblance of this ‘debate’ to the mythical regulation of cannibalism lies in what is left out of the discussion: producing better evaluations of teaching and learning, producing better administrators, producing better funding, producing better working conditions, producing better models of school operation, producing better attitudes towards quick fixes, particularly e-fixes, producing better schools of education, producing better parents, and producing better students. Any ‘debate’ or program that addresses only one or two of these desiderata will be inconclusive or come to grief. Any program that punishes ‘bad’ teachers without producing the other necessary conditions of teaching and learning will be bound to fail.

An illustration of what I am talking about occurs in a blog posted in The New York Times this morning. The headline promises a story about a New Electronic Product that makes math teaching more effective. However, the blog tells a different story to someone who opens out the focus. It seems that in the course of making the e-stuff work, the school featured in the blog has found out some of the methods used in Finnish schools.  Online learning is one of the edbiz’s and the Times’s debating points, and so the interesting Finnish-style classroom arrangement (though with four teachers for 120 students instead of the twelve that that number would have in Finland) receives notice but not focus. Since Finnish schools cost the government a fraction of the typical US school, and since the proprietary software is very expensive, we should expect a discussion of this innovation to investigate these other possibilities too. Without a proper investigation, the software may turn out to be like one of those breakfast cereals of empty calories that provide nutrition when eaten with milk, fruit, wheat toast and no sugar. Instead, the blogger focuses on ‘proving’ the software.

It would be interesting to know whether the teachers could be given the prep time that Finnish and Japanese teachers get. These teachers are in the classroom about 55% of the time that American teachers are, and use that time to prepare good lessons, not needing to rely on expensive proprietary software to get them through their bloated workload. But giving teachers less classroom time is not a part of the ‘debate’ either.

Far from it: the ‘debate’ focuses on the charter schools, but not on their unsustainable depredations on the ranks of teachers-to-be (24% annual turnover on the average). This style of crap-through-the-goose personnel administration needs more examination than it is getting, as do the working conditions that lead so many young persons to flee the field of education. But the problem affects not-so-young teachers even more: teachers with family responsibilities who don’t want to spend eleven hours a day at the school and then two or three hours at home doing ‘homework’. Today’s Guardian has an anonymous story by a teacher who with her husband committed career suicide in order to have family time with their daughter. The biggest reason was the unreasonable working conditions, but can you imagine an article in an American paper featuring a teacher subjected to similar or worse conditions? It’s not part of the ‘debate’. Indeed, so far from the ‘debate’ are teachers’ working conditions that reporters can misreport research showing how high the stress levels of teachers really are.

Far from the stressful crowds of teachers lie salvific foundations like the Gates Foundation, which spent $45,000,000 to promote a radically defective system of ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ that is bound to fail when it is used in the RAce to the Top and the foundation’s findings are used to support huge payments to education companies for defective systems of testing. None of this defectiveness has received attention in the mainstream media. The shortcomings of foundations were analyzed keenly by Barzun in his book The House of Intellect (1958), and those of standardized tests by Banesh Hoffmann in his Tyranny of Testing (1962); but these findings have also been largely ignored.

And few people are discussing, or want to discuss, the role of bad child-rearing and administrative practice in producing defectively educated children. Parents who hire lawyers when Junior fails his assignments and administrators who tell their teachers that ‘failure is not an option’ are depriving young people of the kind of learning ‘opportunity’ that they will face on the job if they have not learned how to think and do a job of work—and face in less supportive conditions than those at school.

What all this narrow focus and glossing-over ensures is that the narrow solutions thrown up by ‘the debate’ will be inadequate to the task.


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.


Synthesizing and Pelletizing

The grade 12 students in my school’s IB program have just finished their 4,000-word Extended Essays, and their supervisors, including me, have held the viva voce sessions with our individual essayists that the program mandates. While a part of the contemporary purpose of the viva voce[1] should be congratulatory, the traditional purpose of this exercise, going back to the Middle Ages, is mainly to establish that a student really understands what he has learned[2]. The EE supervisor, in the course of a student’s work on the EE, can often size this up with partial effectiveness by discussions during the production of the essay; but there is nothing that is so good at testing the student’s power of synthesis and grip on the material synthesized as a spontaneous probing discussion at the end.

The viva voce is therefore a special case of spoken discourse in its educative aspect. By contrast, as I have argued in these postings, simple knowledge-as-recognition, without understanding, is thin stuff. A good example is Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon showing a man pointing at a dog and talking. The dog is named Ginger, for the dialogue balloon says, “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah…” Our aim as teachers should be to help students cut back the blahs and fill in the blanks, and we are not doing that if we don’t check for understanding by questioning our students in our live voices.

E-voices won’t do because they cannot pick up the strands of a student’s thinking and handle them in real time. There is also something more compelling in a live human being than in a screen or a squawk box (or there should be: consider Ferris Bueller’s history teacher as a counter-example). But such considerations won’t stop “education” companies from trying to insinuate their gadgets and labor-saving devices in places that should be occupied only by living beings. The key question of such companies is not “How can we give students an education?” but “How are you going to monetize those users?” There will be pressure to recognize machine-gradable or algorithmically gradable learning as the chief kind, but it must be resisted. The key counter-question to be asked by believers in education as a philanthropic enterprise is “Why don’t you get out and stay out?”

But there is another problem that big assignments pose: how to manage something requiring large-scale synthesis. Ideally the EE supervisor and the student meet a number of times to consider how to make disparate material hang together, how to draw an idea out of a collection, how to test the idea by submitting it to the control of facts and questions, and how to produce coherent results. I have heard that some people handle their EE’s using “scaffolding” whose product is from a template and not just the student’s mind. While that is unfortunate, it at least takes the student through some steps leading to a large-scale production.

There should ideally have been some preceding exposure to work that is similar in kind if not necessarily in extent and depth. Our own school sets something in Grade 10 that we call a “Mini-EE”, which is due in Mr. Z’s box at about the same time that the actual EE’s are due to be turned in to the supervisor. My own experience confirms the value of a double pass-through. I used to set research papers for my students in two successive years at one school where I had my students for all four years. The first time through was a “learning experience,” as we say: it was only on the second try that most students produced creditable work.

They certainly won’t learn to manage something big if their only experience of being examined is the scourge of Scantron or the miasma of multiple choice. Such “tools” ensure that learning is pelletized, and they work against learning with continuity or context. Garret Keizer’s experience is instructive. In his book Getting Schooled, he reports his effort to get students to write a research paper. The exigencies of his teaching ordained that it must be taught in an inadequate time, though he and the tutors did their best to communicate what was needed and to shepherd their students along.

To his chagrin, he discovered that some of his students did not use his required checklist of things to do, or they checked items as done that they had not in fact done at all. Others handed in papers late or not at all. But he was most deeply troubled by the number of students who simply ignored everything he told them in his editing comments and conferences. They seemed not to understand the difference between a second draft and a reprint.

They took their interaction with the teacher to be of no account, and they took their first production as final, not tentative. Of course, that is the way it is with pelletized learning leading to pelletized productions. For students who have spent ten years in discourse like C B D C A B, or who hear the teacher’s words as blah blah blah, what else can one expect?

[1] Latin for ‘live voice’

[2] In our age of copy-and-paste it can also smoke out plagiarism.



The Bubble Reputation

I recently interviewed an applicant for admission to my alma mater. As always when the candidate is highly intelligent and engaged, this was a fascinating exercise. My applicant hopes to study astrophysics and notes that the student/faculty ratio in that department is about 3/2. One of the attractions she sees in such a favorable ratio is the opportunity she will have to work closely with her teachers and mentors. With that ratio, she certainly won’t be able to dodge them!—not even on days when she is sleepy.

Her comment reminded me of what I had heard about the physicist I. I. Rabi, who often taught by having chalk talks and coffee with colleagues and students in Pupin Hall. These talks were said to be formative by those who attended. Interestingly, my applicant went further along this line of thinking when I asked her what is most likely to lead to a successful course.

She said, ‘a teacher who is interesting and makes the subject interesting.’ She added that it helps when students have a generally positive attitude towards the teacher. I guess that if she is successfully studying AP physics and math, this same teacher must lay down and uphold a high standard of work. As a teacher I would add to the mix a readiness to meet a halfway interesting teacher halfway. It would also help that the interactions between such students and teachers took place at schools that support genuine teaching and learning.

That is not what is happening in schools that have to assume the position of recipients of money from programs like RAce to the Top, or other mandates for mastery or university readiness. My applicant is going to be ready for university and scientific work with leaders in her field because she has been made ready through her efforts to work with engaging teachers on material that lays the groundwork in knowledge, skill and understanding that she will need in university. She will not be made ready by being turned into an exam weenie who sacrifices the Big Three for ‘test-taking skills’.

For that is what happens when schools are sized up using the wrong kinds of test. Studies have been done showing what the right kinds are, and they have shown why the wrong kinds are wrong. (There is also the educational experience of the human race, in case something were wanted to supplement quantitative methods.) You won’t need three guesses to tell which category the RAT and Common Core tests fall under.

But there is another problem—one discussed by Garret Keizer in his book Getting Schooled. This is the tendency of large mandatory programs and systems to suffocate the teaching they ostensibly ‘measure’, and its effects extend beyond just high-power programs.  Keizer’s wife and daughter are special-education teachers who labor under crushing bureaucratic burdens that almost guarantee their students will not have their special needs met.[1] These include shape-shifting  ‘programs’ and ‘software’ that ‘monitor’ teachers, provoking Keizer to assert that the two top trends in public education are

‘the rate at which pedagogical conundrums are being replaced by technological ones,’ and

‘the alarming rate at which educators are losing their ability to tell the two apart.’

What educationists should be doing is seeking to provide the training and working conditions in which good-quality teachers are supported in their efforts to help students like my applicant become really ready for university—that is, really ready to think, write and act, not just to bubble.

[1] See pp. 189 – 190 of his book.



Reading Flannery O’Connor aloud is wonderful because her stories almost read themselves—almost, but not quite, for the reader has his job of understanding to manage, and getting the timing and cadences right. It is sometimes easy to miss the point of her writing. She knew it and admitted it, sometimes sardonically and sometimes slyly, as when she said her story “Good Country People” is about a “lady Ph. D. who has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman she is trying to seduce.” I created a stir at a reading group one time by reading aloud her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which a family and their cat Pitti Sing take a drive trip in which they end up being methodically shot one by one by a killer called the Misfit. After I finished the room lit up with discussion.

That can happen with students, too. One time I was conducting a discussion of her story “Revelation” and asked whether it was right for the Ugly Girl to throw her book at Mrs. Turpin and try to strangle her in the doctor’s waiting room. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, by how many of them said yes. An excellent discussion ensued. Another time I read aloud the ending of “The Enduring Chill” with its hero lying weakened to motionlessness by disease and terrified as he is pursued by his implacable adversary—the Holy Ghost. Reading the last paragraph aloud took some care, but the result was entirely satisfactory: I could hear breaths exhaled after I finished the last sentence.

Yeats is also good to read aloud. I have had excellent results with “Lapis Lazuli” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—one of them upbeat, the other gloomy. His emblematic poem “The Second Coming” is a tougher go, but I was assisted by Mother Nature one time while reading it in South Africa. That part of the country has the most lightning strikes of anyplace in the world, or so I have been told. One afternoon the clouds were building as I started to read. I got to “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” As I finished that couplet a tremendous thunderclap broke over the school, and for the only time ever, the rough beast’s slouching towards Bethlehem was an anticlimax.

All this reading illustrates the truth that our live voices, which are our live presences in their communicatory aspect, bring something essential to the upbringing of children, including big ones. A recent study shows that reading aloud to young people even up to the age of eleven was associated with their decision to read more on their own. No benefit was shown for reading to teen-agers, but I guess that if they are more receptive to the printed word they will be more receptive to the spoken word too. And the receptivity of both ages is more strongly anchored in shared humanity, which children value; for the study shows that they regarded as “special” the time they shared with a grownup who read to them.  It doesn’t seem farfetched to suppose that the experience of such comforting time is cast forward at least to some extent into subsequent reading time.

It should then be obvious why the same results will not obtain when children are read to by screens and machines, whether set up by zealous mechanist parents or by profiteering “education” companies. Both are in the grip of the false doctrine that education is a process performed on children as feeding is performed on a henhouse of battery chickens.