Thursday, October 15, 2009

You Can't Win

By Claus von Zastrow on October 9, 2009

What's wrong with public schools? Take your pick:

* Schools are still the drab indoctrination factories they were 100 years ago.
* Schools have become squishy progressive learning communes where students spend their days building yurts out of tongue depressors.
* Schools are test-prep sweatshops where children never see the light of day or catch a breath of fresh air.
* Schools are discipline-free zones where students dither their time away rather than focusing on the task of learning.

I could go on. These days, stories of school failure come in all the colors of the rainbow. Got your kids sitting in rows? Someone will call you a failure. Have them working on a project in groups? Failure. Are you de-tracking? You're neglecting the superstars. Tracking? You're stifling the most vulnerable students.*

Everyone has strong opinions on education, and woe unto them that stray from those paths of righteousness. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to become an educator. Before long you'll commit some act that will confirm someone's dim view of you in particular and the education system in general.

Case in point: The economist Thomas Sowell lashed out at a fifth grade teacher who had students write to public figures with questions about current events. What did he do after receiving receiving a child's note with questions about the economy?

I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students’ time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers’ names have appeared in the media. It is of course much easier — and more “exciting,” to use a word too many educators use — to do cute little stuff like this than to take on the sober responsibility to develop in students both the knowledge and the ability to think that will enable them to form their own views on matters in both public and private life.

For the moment, let's put aside questions about Sowell's character. (What kind of person essentially ridicules a fifth-grader in a national journal? He named the school so the child, parents and teachers could all feel the rebuke. Hardly a gracious performance.)

Sowell uses this innocuous event as an occasion to bash all schools for "frittering away time on trivia" or "spending precious time in classrooms chit-chatting about how everyone 'feels' about things on television or in their personal lives." He even strongly implies that the child's parents are too ignorant to see anything wrong with this.

Leaping to conclusions are we? Like so many others, Sowell rushes to judgment after grasping the barest sliver of evidence. How can he possibly know the fuller context of the child’s assignment? How can he know what happens in that child’s classroom, or how the child's parents support his/her education? It's enough for him to get a whiff of something he doesn't like and then go for the jugular.

That reaction is unfortunately typical. Education ideologues of every stripe are quick to punish the slightest breach of their sacred code. Teachers and principals: Beware!

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