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Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Thought on Bad Teaching

Daniel Henninger wrote favorably in yesterday's Wall Street Journal about linking teacher pay to standardized test scores. He notes the success of grade schools in Little Rock, Arkansas that have moved to such a system.

I'd like to believe that student learning is actually increasing in those schools, but whenever I hear about such pay-for-performance schemes, I am struck by two ugly realities. The first is something my wife observed during her years of teaching in Detroit — even in the absence of bonuses, teachers in her school engaged in systematic cheating on standardized tests. They did this primarily by copying sections of the test in advance and helping students memorize the answers. They also erased incorrect answers and penciled in the correct ones.

The second ugly reality is that teaching performance is largely not a function of effort. Poorly performing teachers don't fail students because they aren't hustling. They fail students because they are unintelligent, and not competent to teach. They have not been adequately trained to teach. They do not have a coherent methodology or pedagogy for teaching. As a consequence, they busy themselves with a combination of babysitting and slogging through poorly designed materials and curricula.

Exceptional and even competent teachers, in other words, can't help but educate their students. True, at the margin, a bonus may motivate additional behaviors that may enhance education. A teacher may think longer, say, about whether her lesson plan is adequate, or work just a bit more with a struggling student. It is simply not the case, however, that poorly performing public schools are filled with competent teachers who currently refrain from making the effort because the money isn't there. They don't teach well because they can't.

Throw some money at them, however, in a system where they control the measurement instrument (to wit, penciled-in standardized test bubble sheets), and you will see improvements in test scores. Just don't look too closely.

A modest proposal, because I would love to be proven wrong: some well-meaning foundation out there should fund a study, in which objective monitors — not school employees — administer the tests, collect the answer sheets, and remove them to a neutral location for machine grading. I'd be interested to see how the "turnaround" schools profiled by Henninger respond to such a proposal.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Barbarians in the Den

I'll begin by admitting that I was a slacker during most of my high school and undergraduate careers. I coasted on horsepower. Had I possessed a scrap of self-discipline and vision, I would be wiser now. This matters to me because as I wrestle with big ideas, I sorely feel my inadequate education. This probably sounds like backhanded boasting to some, but those of you who are truly, classically educated understand full well what I mean.

I know firsthand, in other words, the difference between going to school and getting an education. Charles Murray has written a fascinating series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal this week, on the topic of intelligence and education. I suspect he may now need to enter a witness protection program. I once heard him remark in a speech that he had recently been booed, by a university audience, for saying that half of the population has below-average intelligence. We live in an age, in the West, where sentiment trumps reason.

One of Murray's arguments is that — insofar as we desire that colleges and universities provide a rigorous education — many students currently attending those institutions do not belong there. Society would be better served, he writes, by a system of vocational schools and skills certification. What happens instead is that university instruction is dumbed down in all but the most elite schools.

And yet, the dumbing process is apparently taking too long for some — witness the rise of websites, like Duenow.com, devoted to selling term papers and essays to students. In its typo-ridden FAQ page, Duenow boasts of "serving" five million students. As the Duenow sages tauntingly ask, "Do you have better things [to] do with your time than spend it writing a useless essay?" Absolutely, says Jeff, a student from Kansas, who writes in a testimonial on the website: "Kick ass site and papers dudes. You guys are the shizit!" There's also Missy, from New York, who promises to "definately [sic] tell my friends about you."

Please do, Missy. There are so many more important things to do, while spending your parent's money at college, than master basic writing and spelling.

Murray's thoughts on intelligence make me think that perhaps I shouldn't be so discouraged by the sight of people sitting in an airport lobby, staring at the television instead of reading. I shouldn't be depressed by the fact that many more people watch cable television regularly than read a quality newspaper or magazine. Half the people have below-average intelligence. They need something to do, and cable TV beats rioting and gladiator contests.

I am thankful that somehow I survived a peculiar trap that I think I see, which is children with above-average intelligence who become immersed in the dominant teenage and twenty-something culture of unintelligence. We probably all know at least one child like this, whose time is so absorbed in Myspace, Facebook, Xbox, and the regular diet of cable television, movies, and — this is my favorite — just "hanging" with friends, that he does not actually do very much of something that still appears indispensable if one is to rise above one's ignorance, which is to read. I am convinced that Russell Kirk had it right, when he famously seized a contraband television that one of his children had smuggled into their home, and threw it from the upstairs window.

This puts me in mind of a candidate for County Board of Supervisors where I live, who said in one of his campaign speeches, "While we all know it's the responsibility of the school district to educate our children, I believe the county government has a role to play as well..."

Yes, of course. It's someone else's job. The city, the county, the church, the college, the Congress, the president. Somehow we have delivered all responsibility from the shoulders of the three people who have the greatest control over a child's education, namely, the parents, and the child himself.

In this regard, I think Murray is missing something. The dilemma in American education is not only that we waste too many resources on students who are neither capable of nor interested in a true university education. The more frightening problem, to me, is that vast swaths of the students who are mentally capable simply have no interest, as evidenced by what they actually spend their time doing.

We are embarking, then, on a dangerous experiment. We are adding, to the bottom half of the intelligence ladder, intelligent people with inferior skills and a poor grounding in history, logic, theology, fine arts, and sciences. We are doing so in an age when news, entertainment, and politics are dominant and interchangeable, and when government is constrained less and less by constitutional parameters than by the whim of bureaucrats and judges.

Perhaps, were I better grounded in the history of civilizations, I might be able to conjure some hypotheses from all this. One thing seems clear, however. If the relatively short-lived American experiment in liberty and prosperity is ended in this century, thoughtful people picking through the rubble will know exactly whom to blame — every one of us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not Scared

We're watching The Polar Express, Caleb, Eli, Isaac, and I. It's cold and icy outside, and so we're jumbled together on the couch, watching the magical Polar Express sway and slide across thin ice.

A frightened expression has been forming on Isaac's face. He clutches his favorite ducky close to his cheek and watches the Polar Express try to avoid destruction. Finally, unable to bear the suspense, he pops down from his place on the couch and clambers up onto my lap. He holds his ducky up to my face. "Ducky scared," he says. "I not scared. Ducky scared."

I hold Ducky tight. Since Isaac is firmly wrapped around Ducky, I squeeze him too. The other boys inch closer. We are a tight bundle on the couch, transfixed by The Polar Express. We are safe from the world on this couch.

The train rights itself. Everyone survives. It is a beautiful, peaceful, happy ending. I know other kinds of endings are popular with some people, but this kind is the best.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, January 15, 2007

On Not Being the Only One

In the midst of his book review in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz makes this observation:

"Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was probably the most significant factor in making color television a fixture in suburban living rooms and helped assuage the peculiar melancholy of the school year's Sunday nights."

I was struck by his casual reference to Sunday night melancholy, because I've always assumed it was peculiar to me -- some evidence of mental illness kept at bay, the way shadows lurk around a light, waiting for its thin and fragile filament to snap. As if to underscore the commonality of it, the very next day I read this passage in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer:

"On its way home the MG becomes infested with malaise. It is not unexpected, since Sunday afternoon is always the worst time for malaise. Thousands of cars are strung out along the Gulf Coast, whole families, and all with the same vacant headachy look. There is an exhaust fume in the air and the sun strikes the water with a malignant glint. A fine Sunday afternoon, though. A beautiful boulevard, ten thousand handsome cars, fifty thousand handsome, well-fed and kind-hearted people, and the malaise settles on us like a fall-out."

My first memory of the Sunday evening melancholy is of standing in the checkout line in a grocery store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, manning a slender cart sparsely filled with tuna cans and thin, plastic-wrapped bricks of noodles, perhaps supplemented by a bag of chips and a few frozen dinners. I would often stand there with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and the deepest sadness would wash over me. I assumed it was because Sunday evening meant she was driving back home (my car couldn't tolerate long drives). But the melancholy continued to recur, even after she was a college student with me, even after we were married and there were no more classes, just the weekly grind and grace of life. I concluded that even though my recollection of the melancholy begins with the dimly let grocery in Chapel Hill, it likely had always been with me in some form.

But I always believed it was only me, until I read Schwarz's reference to "the peculiar melancholy," with that particular article -- the -- denoting it as a commonplace, like shin splints, or dandruff. And there's Percy, writing of the malaise that "it is not unexpected," and centering it not solely on his narrator, but on all the travelers along that highway.

One of the beautiful things about reading, I think, is discovering that one is not the only one to think that, feel that, fear that, to have sinned or lied or hoped or bled in that way. Walker Percy's narrator, Binx Bolling says this, for example:

"For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. . . Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord."

The long, sharp edge to this reality is the accompanying fact that writing is a dangerous thing, because one reveals truths about oneself without knowing if anyone else thinks it, feels it, fears it, and then hopes that one's readers don't all sign a petition to have one committed for terminal oddness and for being a threat to oneself, one's children, and society at large.

It's always a special relief to the writer, then, to discover that he is not, in fact, the only one. The irony is that he usually discovers this by reading someone who has been dead for quite some time, because communing with interesting but long-dead people requires only the one-way flow. He devours them without the danger of watching the dregs of himself pour out in a sudden torrent of truthfulness and longing, because he is barely restraining it all as it is, what with that filament being so thin and stretched to breaking. It's far safer for him to listen to the dead, to devour them, and then to carefully set down his own truths one letter at a time, in measured doses of wine and poison, so that by the time the full corpus has been assembled, and it is clear that he is indeed a threat to himself, his children, and society at large, he is quite conveniently dead, and entirely unconcerned about much of anything beyond whether the therapists his children are seeing can undo the damage. And then, if he was in possession of a scrap of talent and a bale of good fortune, some other disturbed and thin-filamented writer will devour his corpse, just as he ate the ones before him.

Now that I am thinking about it, I realize that David's musicians may well have had the Sunday (or for them was it Saturday?) evening melancholy in mind when they composed the 42nd Psalm:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?

This is one of the quiet joys of reading the Psalms, this revelation that none of us are the first to walk down a dark and lonely path. Anyone who believes the earth-bound walk with God is all happiness and sunshine has never really pondered the Psalms. It is fashionable in some churches to believe that one's health and wealth are evidence of God's favor. When I read the Psalms, however, I begin to think the opposite, that perhaps God thinks very little of people who never suffer. I usually conclude, when my thinking wanders in these directions, that such a notion is born in arrogance, for none of us can ever understand the path to which another is called; we can only consider our own, in wonder and fear. And it's a hopeful notion, as one stares down one's path, perhaps in dread, perhaps delaying yet another day in fruitless preparation, to learn from the suffering Psalmists that their God, who is our God, "heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds." This is helpful, given that one's path is likely to cause wounds and a broken heart.

I wonder if God was melancholy on that first Sunday evening. I wonder if he looked out to the horizon of time, knowing what would come, what we would do to each other, what we would do to ourselves. Perhaps he sighed. It would have been a deep and world-weary sigh, spreading out over the new world like the first sharp breeze of fall. Perhaps it penetrated the very soil and water, and later worked its way into those of us who feel sadness spill over our shoulders like shadows on trees in fading sunlight. On the other hand, I might be projecting. On a grand scale, no less.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share my discovery with those of you who might need it, namely, that you are not the only one, either. This is, I think, a neglected part of the Gospel's message. You are not alone in your dark night of the soul, my daughter, my son, because when you have bled, I have bled, and when you have wept, I have wept. Where you live in fear of death, I died, that you need fear the valley of the shadow of death no longer.

And so he leads us through it, if we will only put one foot in front of the other. If we are not fearless, then at least we can be assured that the path has been walked before, and is being walked even now, each of us in his own struggle. Somehow, knowing that you are not the only one makes your path a little brighter. And if not brighter, perhaps there's some comfort in knowing, as you stumble and cry out in the darkness, that the rest of us are finding our way as well.

In telling you that you are not alone, I am, of course, really telling myself. But thanks for listening.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)