Friday, May 4, 2012

Those Doggone Kids

For fourteen years I worked in the IT industry.  I started as a technical writer, went on to software testing and then as a manager of a help-desk.  Later, as a consultant I worked with Fortune 500 companies, mostly in the Midwest, though I managed to get to the west coast a time or two.  When the office downsized I was a practice manager with a dozen direct reports.  After that, I did some independent work in the field but the bubble had popped and soon after I found a teaching position at a community college here in Central Illinois.  I’ve been there nearly six years.
I say from experience there is something wrong with our public schools.  For example (and there are many examples), a little child, say six or seven years old, wants to know everything.  ‘Why’ is always on their lips.  Their desire to know and to see how things work, to determine why things are the way they are becomes incessant a times.  Then, twelve years of public schooling later, that same child has been drained of innate curiosity.  The ones who arrive in my classes don’t want to know anything.  That’s a broad brush stroke but almost without exception it is true.  The next time you talk with a nineteen or a twenty year old ask them what they are curious about, what they want to discover, or what’s going on in the intellectual parts of their brains.  If you are an employer think about why the new hire demonstrates so little initiative.
We say we live in the information age.  The internet allows us to teach ourselves ancient Greek or how to change brake pads.  We can learn basic wiring or how network routers work.  This costs as much as an internet hookup.  Most of the accumulated knowledge of mankind resides at the tips or our fingers.  But when I ask the recent high school graduates, “What do you want to write about?” there’s only a blank stare.  Early in the semester we spend two full class sessions to create a list of five topics they want to investigate.  Some students can’t come up with three.  What happens to curiosity? 
I am not saying there are classes on how to not want to learn, but there is something endemic about public education that teaches this lesson and it teaches it well.  This is one symptom of many.
It is equally fascinating how few basic writing skills the students possess.  The community college offers an array of developmental reading and writing and science and math courses for those lacking the necessary skills to succeed at the college level.  And of the students who test into English Composition, not developmental, a full one third have difficultly writing a complete, coherent paragraph free of basic usage errors.
These students have been through twelve years of schooling.  That’s over a decade of their lives.  They study and practice writing in one form or another each of those years.  They graduate high school, are awarded diplomas representing academic accomplishment; they meet the minimum educational standards set by the state of Illinois and some of them cannot write a complete sentence.  Some cannot recognize a variable in basic algebraic terms.  Illinois is not unique.  This is another symptom.
At this point we will, I suppose, mobilize the usual way.  When someone has the audacity to mention things like these, people run for their preferred trench.  Teachers jump into the educator trenches, administrators to theirs.  Parents go to the defensive heights of their encampment and the students who bother to be concerned to theirs.  And from these positions we fight it out and talk of school reform and who does what and where is the money and so on and so forth.  The groups are suspicious of one another, have been for some time.  This seems how we approach problems these days.  When there is something wrong we run to the friendly group and attack the others.  The tribal meme works well for warfare but does little for progress and solving shared problems, but at least it occupies our time.
As I understand it, forced (or mandatory if the word forced makes you wince) public schooling as we think of it has been around since shortly after the Civil War.  I’m not certain of the specific dates but dropping literacy rates shows when it really began.  We are dealing with mature, well protected systems.  There’s a lot at stake and here I am not talking about the students.  There are vested interests all around, jobs and titles and positions and, dare I say, entitlements.  That’s why people get protective and suspicious.  We can talk all day about doing things for the children, but be honest enough to admit there are other influences involved and some of these influences take precedence.  Systems like to preserve themselves.
Here is a question:  how can significant percentages of students attend school for twelve years, be granted a diploma representing academic accomplishment, and yet remain mostly innumerate, very close to illiterate, and in possession of few skills with which to feed themselves, while at the same time possessing no interests other than a vague notion that they have to go to college to obtain the fabled, ‘good job’?
Now please, in answering this question, don’t start shooting in the direction of the other trenches.  Don’t devolve into merit pay or teachers’ unions or funding or parental involvement or how kids are these days or use any of the other rhetorical ammunition we typically fire.  The answer is more than these things.  All that is really about protecting what is already in place.
What’s happening has been happening so long we don’t dare mention it and the answers are uncomfortably close.  We have these unique markers called fingerprints.  We are individuals.  We come from unique families and from unique hometowns, different communities and different influences.  Yet how do we ‘do’ school?  It comes from on high, does it not?  The individual student is to fit into a pre-cut slot of the educational system.  He or she is a little piece and is placed at a young age into a great old machine; placed via testing and class rankings and competency scores and hundreds of other subtle positioning mechanisms.  Twelve years later the student is spit out the other side.
Students learn to obey buzzers and bells.  The seven rules for walking down the hall are enshrined on the walls and random bits of information are presented to them in increments of forty minutes if everyone behaves.  If it is a favorite class about something a student really starts to enjoy it’s too bad because time is up and they have to change the channel and go to the next thing.  When a student reads too fast they are warned not to read ahead.  If a student reads too slowly they receive a nice life-long label.  They march through the system, highly regulated for years and are then told go to college and continue to figure out what they want to do with their lives.  When, truthfully, interest in anything relevant was drummed from them a long time ago.
Schooling is not tailored for the individual.  It is tailored for the school.  Schooling is not fit for the neighborhood, the larger community, or even the hometown. Instead, it comes from above.  It is the state mandate which, in turn, receives pedagogy from an even higher authority – the Federal Government.  But what would someone in Springfield or in Washington DC know about what students need in a place like this?  Ask that question too loudly and you will never become a superintendent.
Imagine if this particular apple cart were purposely tipped.  Think of the layers upon layers of regulators who make decisions for children living hundreds or perhaps a thousand miles away.  Whatever else would they do to otherwise feed themselves if they could not mandate and regulate and measure results they, themselves, handed down as important enough to mandate and regulate and measure?  Do we appreciate the billions of dollars made by the text book industry each year and how that industry might have a vested interest in keeping the current system in place?  There is, I am told, a similar industry devoted to standardized testing.  That word should draw our concern.  Whose standards are being tested?  And why?  The point is that there are hundreds of suppliers dependent on keeping things the same and they employ lobbyists and influencers who work from the halls of Congress all the way to the local school board.   Look and you will see them.  They system runs the students through the system that is fueled by the costs incurred to run the system.
With a broader perspective we need to ask:  are things done that are beneficial for the students or for the powers running the schooling?  It is one thing to be educated.  It is another to be schooled.
There is a different way to do it.  It’s out there, somewhere.  Maybe we can’t imagine it fully because we’re products of that system. Maybe too much energy is used sniping at one another.  Maybe we’re bailing water on a sinking ship and don’t have the time.  But what we have isn’t working.  The system is preserving itself and is as healthy as ever.  The end results, however, look to be more by-product than product.

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