Sunday, June 08, 2008

What’s Wrong with Public Education Today, One in Continuing Series

The state’s “closing” of Sam Houston High School provides a too-perfect illustration of the fabulism underpinning the current Grandiose Mission of Statements of Public Education in the United States---whether No Child Left Behind (the notion as much as the law) on the federal level or the Houston school district’s corresponding effort to inculcate a “College Bound Culture” in its students---which essentially posit that every child is not only handsome and above-average but that he or she is mentally endowed with the ability to pursue a college education, a goal that is realizable if only we could dump even more money on the premises and those damned teachers could somehow pour the knowledge into those obdurate heads, or at least secure passing TAKS scores. As the writer and Rice alum Steve Sailer has indelicately pointed out, this fanciful notion is similar to the medieval belief in alchemy---the faith that base metals could be transmuted into gold.

Sam Houston’s “problem” was that a too-large percentage of the school’s very small percentage of black students have been failing state accountability tests, most especially the math exam---where “passing” just means the ability to get right at least two-thirds of the questions (which elsewhere is usually called “failing”). As the Chronicle put it in a loaded and likely deliberate turn of phrase, the school named after our city’s founding father*, the one where LBJ once taught, "could not get a small group of black students to pass the state-mandated math exam …" Not, mind you, a small group of black students couldn’t pass the state-mandated, etc. This after an apparently inordinate amount of money and attention were devoted to the “problem”---“spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix it,” as the Chronicle reported, including the wholesale replacement of faculty three years ago and a $300,000 affiliation with something called the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, “which specializes in teaching math and science” (so much for it … and the $300K).

The daily newspaper, in an effort to divine the deep mystery behind these kids’ “failure,” tapped the quotation services of one Valerie Hill-Jackson, an assistant education professor at Texas A&M University, who declared from her academic aerie that “teachers need to learn how to connect with black students.”

"We know this is a culture that is very vibrant, exuberant, likes to talk," said Hill-Jackson, who is black. "So, if I'm a math and science teacher, how can I use that to my advantage? I can have them get out of their seats.”
Oh, that's brilliant! Out of their seats! Bet no one thought of that before. No wonder you're an education professor, Ms. Hill-Jackson.

(We’d bet that one afternoon of “teaching” quadratic equations in rap ’n’ rhyme [maybe it’s possible …] to these exuberant out-of-their-seat talkers would send Ms. Hill-Jackson---who, by the way, is black!---scurrying back to the Ivy-covered walls of Aggieland with a pressing desire for several stiff drinks, if not a lifetime prescription for a powerful psychoactive medication.)

Yes, it’s the “different learning styles” fallacy, a discredited and implicitly racist concept that’s usually pitched forward as an excuse for bad behavior (when we read Hill-Jackson’s comments we flashed on our daughter’s recent 8th grade "graduation" ceremony, during which the school’s final-year students who had been “commended” for their scores on the year's four TAKS exams were recognized; the line-up included a good percentage of black students, in a proportion that looked equal to or higher than the school’s black population; none were fidgeting, loud or demanding of attention as they stood on stage; none threw gang signs or chanted inane rap lyrics at the top of their lungs). At the better charter schools the kids with the serious behavior problems are tagged as “culture breakers”---meaning they screw it all up for the rest of the students who keep their heads down and try to master the work (the culture breakers, of course, being the same kids the better charter schools work to rid themselves of).

This supposed root cause was also cited by Carol Mims Galloway, a Houston school board member and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston, who offered the Chronicle this racist slant: “People of other races always feel like they have the best solution for the teaching and learning of African-American students when they don't even understand the total concept of African-American culture and the environment which these young people of today live in." Y’know, if we were a teacher at Sam Houston High that comment would tempt us to place a flamin’ bag of dog poo on the Galloway front porch, ring the doorbell and run away. We’d imagine that any public high school teacher in the city knows much more about “the environment which these young people of today live in" than, say, the average school board member.

No one, of course, has raised the notion that … and we must whisper here … that some kids just aren’t cut out to pass Algebra I, much less Algebra II, and really aren’t going to get much out of a forced 9th grade “reading” of A Tale of Two Cities, a book they aren’t even equipped to understand if they were going to read it in the first place. Perhaps that’s harsh and unfeeling, not to mention out-of-step with the prevailing group-think in education, but who’s really shortchanging those kids? Who’s really leaving them behind? Instead of being forced to pass 4 years of math and science, as the state now requires, might not it be better if high schoolers were given the option of pursuing a non-TAKS track, spending, say, a half-day in voc-ed courses for their junior and senior years, which might offer a pathway to a real living (but which are in disfavor with educational elites---they went to collich, y’know---who disdain the manual trades or anything smacking of physical labor) and a half-day being given remediation in the basics (that’s readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic). Or, they could take calculus and physics---their choice. Lots of kids, especially working-class Hispanics, already know they can make a better living, and be their own boss, by learning a trade, as opposed to scrapping together a couple of years in community college so they can sit in a cubicle or behind a counter and be at the mercy of some corporate asshole 900 miles away.

We don’t mean to indict the accountability system---just the rankings based on racial breakdowns and not on a school’s overall achievement. The Chronicle reported that only 110 of Sam Houston’s 2,500 students are black, along with 65 lonesome Caucasians (imagine what the dominant language in the hallways is---it ain’t the tongue of Sam Houston). Sam Houston probably isn’t a school you’d send your kids to (being a typical elitist blog reader) but judging from its overall scores it certainly is not deserving of a “closing” (which really isn’t a shuttering as such). Something similar, with a less dire but still damaging result, happened a few years back at Poe Elementary in an upper-income neighborhood north of Rice University---a good school by almost any measure, and one you’d have no problem sending your kids to---when a literal handful of Hispanic ESL students, maybe a half-dozen if memory serves, failed the 5th grade TAKS science exam and the school was rated “unacceptable,” which it most certainly was not.

Accountability is a good thing---it’s what the tax-paying public wants and deserves---and barring some miraculous new education theory the only to way ensure accountability is through standardized testing. Various parties whine and moan about the supposed “teaching to the test” (and what’s wrong with that, if the test is reflective of the curriculum and the curriculum is serviceable?), but about the only subjective way to judge a school is by its overall test scores (certainly a better method than those “ratings” produced annually by the ominously named non-profit Children at Risk and duly reported as Gospel by the media---does any serious person actually think the YES Prep Public Schools-Southeast is a better school than Carnegie Vanguard or Bellaire High?).

One thing’s for certain about Sam Houston: lots more money will be spent on the “problem,” and lots more bodies will be run through the classrooms until---some way, somehow---the desired result is squeezed out of the students. Or, perhaps, until the policy-setters remember that useful definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

*Not Santa Anna de Whatshisname


Anonymous said...

This doesn't sound like Slampo at all. Totally different style. What's up?

Slampo said...

Not "totally," is it? Oh well----can't be serious all the time.