As much as we love it, American culture has never been perfect, suffering a pox of maladies over the 234 years since its inception. Still, until fairly recently, the common man, if you will, was at least the titular foundation of American society, and the source of our “individualistic” traditions as well as an essential actor in our “common good” efforts and collaborations. In the last couple of decades, these population sectors have been quietly shunted off to an attic room while corporate and political power groups occupy center stage, in the process dictating a new and frightening set of values. The assumption is made and accepted that because something is possible, it should become manifest. WalMart® is one example of this. While Sam Walton lived, WalMart® never went into a town or a city where it wasn’t wanted. Since the founder’s death, WalMart®’s goal has been to go anywhere it can make a buck, without regard to the loss of small, locally owned establishments, jobs, and a sense of community.
Mega giant Enron became notorious for lying to thousands of small investors and its employees in order to enrich a few already at the top of the heap. Michael Moore’s new movie offers details of several other cases, plus we have the BP catastrophe oozing up the nation’s waterways after years of corporate assurances that such a disaster was impossible. Yet, even with the evidence of these unhappy deceptions all around us, I live in hope that a sort of human revolution will occur within the hearts of Americans. For me and for millions of others, that hope demanded an emphatic “Yes” vote for Barack Obama’s presidential bid, and it now requires that we support the administration’s efforts to take off our blinders and see the oil on the water.
I see in Obama, not only a level of intellect long missing from the White House, but also a willingness to look for new and sequential answers to ongoing problems. Whenever I am called by my spiritual practice to pray, and whenever I write a “peanut gallery” letter to the Big Kahuna in Washington, it is with a hopeful and cautionary plea that he not be eaten alive by those who publicly espoused the law and then, stealthily flout it, nor allow himself to get sucked into the belly of the beast. A variety of venues in the U.S. are now staging a lottery-like hunt for big solutions. Over many years and in many places, I’ve learned that rarely are the pathways out of a problem as one dimensional as we would like.
Long sojourns in Kuwait, Morocco and India have taught me that. Whenever a simple implementation or response to a problem seemed obvious, we would invariably learn that there were other elements not considered during the planning and implementation stages of such solutions. While teaching in Morocco, I presented a lesson on “appropriate technology”. In the text, it described how an international organization arranged for a huge extruding machine to be delivered to a needy village far from the main capitol of a developing country. The goal was to produce plastic sandals and jobs. Ironically, the machine, by cutting out the labor of the artisans sandal makers and suppliers of the area, cost the local economy 5000 jobs, and replaced only 50 of them with workers at the factory. It was a case of a politicoes desire to “Give ‘em a bit of industry” that lead to a steep down turn in the local economy.
Another example of this in America is “No Child Left Behind”. Skilled teaching and regular testing or assessment would seem to be the answer. The reality is far different. Let me illustrate with a chain of hypotheticals:
1. Students enter the junior year classroom with a range of GPAs from 0.6 (an F) to 3.4.
2. A new teacher offers the “beginning of the year” spiel, setting the ground rules and outlining the expectations.
3. Teacher balances the standards to be met with curriculum topics and possible activities.
4. Teacher explains the day’s topic and states the objectives. She invites student response.
5. When no one responds, she asks for comments from individual students.
6. “I dunno.” Teacher asks another.
7. “Mmmm.” Teacher tries a third.
8. “Well, is it, like, a war?”
9. Students are asked to read the first sections of the chapter before the instructor delivers an in-depth explanation of the material and ties it to concepts or information the students are familiar with.
10. Students open their books, but only a few read. 1
1. Teacher encourages students to read.
12. A couple more bend over their books, but no pages turn, no eye movement is observed.
13. Teacher rethinks the lesson. “How about we read the section together?”
14. Teacher calls on a student to read.
15. The student can’t read. He or she stumbles over every third word, is unable to decode anything with non-phonetic spelling or more than one syllable.
16. The next paragraph goes to another student and the same level of proficiency is noted.
17. Teacher rethinks. “Thank you for reading. Great job.” “Maybe just today, I’ll read so that we don’t get behind.”
18. As she reads, the teacher thumbs the 500 pages that comprise the junior history book. The language on each page is generally NOT as high as grade level. Actually, the vocabulary is probably 8th or 9th grade level. Logic would indicate that many of the current students read at a level far lower, likely with critical thinking skills to match. Some read at a 7th grade level, but many of them, unfortunately, are 4th graders in the reading department.
19. Teacher puts students on to a worksheet task and goes back to her desk after doing a walk through. She reviews the curriculum, the standards she is supposed to teach this year, and then looks out at the students. How does one get a class of students up to speed when there is no, or very little, intellectual or background gas in the tank?
20. Easy solution – Focus on reading, to bring the students up to grade level.
a. Problem – The curriculum – It has to be delivered, monitored and assessed to meet state requirements.
b. Problem – The state standards, primarily skills based, are inaccessible since students have not mastered the lower grade standards that lead experientially to the junior year standards.
c. Problem – The tests are essential to funding and also for the students to graduate from high school.
d. Problem – The psychological problems and academic resistance that inevitably come along with “not being good/smart enough.”
e. Problem – Boredom and rebellion that arises when rigor must be applied to raise skill levels.
f. Problem – Students have no habit of doing homework, so teachers cannot count on learning progressing outside the classroom. Incomplete homework results in lower grades, possibly “Fs” . These lead back to letter “d”.
g. Problem – If the standards don’t get taught this year and proficiency raised, the problem will be larger next year.
So, when someone asks me what can be done about education, I know there are no easy answers. Certainly, letting 20,000 teachers go isn’t helping. Nor is letting librarians and computer technicians go. But as to what can be done about students who have occupied classroom desks for years, but who have either not been taught, or have not taken on any of the learning available, we must look beyond “No child”. These children are like the immigrants who live, work, watch TV, and socialize in the United States, but who speak little or no English. Neither learning nor language occurs without intentionality, at least not after the onset of puberty. There must be a certain “on purposeness” to the process or little happens. You don’t believe me? Go into any one of the ethnic communities in your city and see how many immigrants have learned fluent English simply by living in the country.
I wish “great teaching” or a “supportive home” were all it took, but I suspect that “being educated” first needs to stop being a negative concept among the young and somehow be brought into fashion. Many students currently see doing well in school as “being all white”. This last is a direct quote from one of my own. Wow, if all Anglo kids were literate, we’d be hearing the applause from the mezzanine. That is just one reason I am so pleased with our president. He makes being intelligent look easy and stylish, as does his wife. Still, this is a discussion we cannot give up on. Education and immigration, and Afghanistan, and Global Warming ask for a higher level of personal citizenship than we are used to. When my daughter was young, I cautioned her about marijuana and sex, not necessarily in order of importance. I used all of the usual arguments, plus a new one. “Sex in your teens was always risky, but now, with AIDS it can be fatal. Fatal means dead!” Higher stakes demand greater deliberation plus direct and definite action. As a society, we must pay for having been complacent in so many essential areas of our national and global life.