Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Scores to Settle

It was real big news, actually making the front page. The Rhode Island student scores in standardized math testing had raised a few points since last year, but, alas, as good as that was, still some students had woeful scores. The PTB (powers that be) promised that those kids would be reached, and would be taught. The premise is that failure or success is solely a matter of teaching. Bosh!! It is as much a matter of who the learners are and what they want to learn. Before you rush to the conclusion that I am a racist, read on.

Public school teaching has become a matter of having all kids do the same in all subjects. That is, all over America, schools are supposed be turning out cookie cutter minds. That is what "no child left behind" means. All children should be able to reach an average score in certain subjects deemed to be academic.

First, comes the obvious question. What of those who do superbly? Who outscore everyone else? If the classroom is devoted mainly to bringing the poorer achievers up, then what about stimulating the high achievers? Or, don't they count?

Also, why do all students have to do "well" in grammar, math, and science? Such tests are by nature dull. They call for specific answers and leave no room for creative or unusual solutions or ideas. What about children socialized to come up with original responses? They do poorly on standardized tests, including the College Boards. Aren't children being left behind if their true interests are ignored? If academic trivia is all that is being counted? If creative thinking isn't allowed? How boring are schools in which teachers only teach to the standardized tests. (And, lord knows, schools were boring enough when I was a kid and teachers didn't have to worry about specific answers on national tests.)

The public school system was instituted in order to create a society in which people could read newspapers, write their names on documents and do basic arithmetic. Later on, it expanded to service children who wanted to go on to college. The emphasis was on academic skills. When I was in junior high school, and America still had manufacturing jobs, every day, students who had turned 14, came in to have their school leaving papers signed by my teachers. Those who had no aspirations for college, for whatever reason, simply left and got jobs.

This had been true in America for generations. My own father-in-law, an intelligent but not intellectual person, had only a sixth-grade education, but worked as a tool and die maker, a man very proud of his skills and his accomplishments. He was able to support a family very nicely on his salary, and he read newspapers every day.

True, there were educational inequities then. Yes, the kids we called "colored" didn't do as well as some white kids, especially the Jewish and Italian children of immigrants. Still, in our multi-ethnic school, the Portuguese kids, who were white, were most likely to leave at 14. They and the colored kids were in the lower three groups in every grade. The top two groups were composed of the aforesaid Jewish and Italian kids, a few Irish ones who didn't go to the local parochial schools and a stray WASP or two who didn't happen to go to the exclusive private schools.

Since I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood and regularly played with the colored kids, I knew they were very verbal and very quick on the uptake. That they were every bit as smart as me was very evident. In fact, I found it hard to keep up with their wit and language skills. However, they didn't do that well in school. Why? Because why bother, especially in the 1940's and 50's? Even if they did all the minutia, all the rote, dull stuff you needed to do in order to get good grades, they couldn't get into colleges, or, if they did, when they got out, they could still get only menial jobs.

However, interestingly, the colored kids did, for the most part, go on to graduate high school. It was the Portuguese kids who left for work. Why? They had the same job opportunities that the other white children of immigrants did.

In their culture, however, education wasn't valued in those days. Learning a trade and doing it well was what counted, and, to this day, in our locale, the Portuguese skilled workers, masons, tilers, painters, contractors, roofers, and the like are noted for their excellent work and honest, reasonable prices. Of course, some Portuguese kids did go on and did enter the professions, and, over the years, the numbers of those who do just that have increased, but they are still underrepresented in the local Catholic college I taught in.

What has all this to do with the mania for national test scores? Linguists learned early on that children will learn any number of languages perfectly and with no prodding, if they see a social need to do so. And they won't learn even their parents' native language if they see no social reason to. In the past 30 or so years, it has become evident that this is true of all learning. If a child sees no social advantage to learning something, he or she won't learn it. Now, if a child comes from a family where it is expected that he or she will go to college, and, if the child wants that, too, he or she will learn what they have to to get there.

There are individual differences, however. Not all kids, even those from educated families, want to go to college. Two of my children, both very bright, refused to go.

And, there are other avenues to success, anyways. One of my cousins, Sonny, whose father, like mine, was an immigrant, didn't even want to go to high school. His father was heartbroken. He, a successful metalworker, trained in the old country as a blacksmith, was convinced that in America his children would go to college. Well, his children were skilled with their hands, as he was, and as was his father before him who was an admired and respected blacksmith in the town of Baar in Ukraine. So, Sonny and, later, his younger brother Allen, left school as soon as they could and learned metalworking. They have literally made a fortune supplying restaurants with custom kitchen equipment. Would they do well on national scores? I sincerely doubt it. And why should they? They learned to read well enough to carry on a complex business operation, to do the arithmetic they needed to create ovens and ranges and cooking utensils and whatever. They could read contracts intelligently. They learned how to invest the money they made wisely. So, they never read books for fun so far as I know, but so what? They are not dumb. They are interested in many things, and can reason and discuss a lot of subjects. They're fun people to be with and to talk to. We just don't discuss books or opera. So what?

Schools should be training grounds for all kinds of people, not just those who are going to college. And, why should everyone go to college? At least a third of the students I had over my years in academia were there because their parents wanted them to be there, and, besides, they had nothing else to do. They had few intellectual interests, much less what we'd call cultural ones, unless you include rap and grunge music as culture (and, hate them or not, rap and grunge are part of our culture.)

The media make a lot of noise about how much more money you will make with a college degree than without it. So, our colleges and junior colleges are flooded with non-academically talented students who just want that piece of paper so they can make more money, but you can make a lot of money without a degree. And, plenty of people with degrees never become rich, or even well-off.

Schools in America would do better not trying to make everyone learn calculus or read Shakespeare. Instead, they should have a college track, but also tracks for teaching kids what they need to know to run a small business, to become electricians, plumbers, contractors, cabinet makers, decorators, hairstylists, dressmakers, tailors, mechanics, electronic repairmen, hi-def TV installers,and the myriad other things that many people prefer to do. The only math they should be learning is that which pertains to the jobs they're training for. The reading that should be stressed is how to read directions, how to read a contract, a buy-and-sell agreement, and the like. Yes, you could have a course in recreational reading to show them that alternative. Of course, it wouldn't include Milton or Shakespeare, focusing instead on Steven King and Nelson DeMille for boys and the better chic lit for girls. There could also be courses in how to analyze movies and even TV shows. That would be their "liberal" studies.

We should go back to the old grammar school concept of teaching basic reading and arithmetic, and now,of course, computer literacy. After that, students should be able to choose from programs in business and trade and devote their adolescence to what they're interested and good in.

Finally, let's be honest. Not everyone has the ability learn academic stuff. For that matter, not everyone can learn manual skills. I taught myself to read when I was three, but I flunked Kindergarten because I couldn't tie my shoes, put my coat on straight, fold paper to make houses, put picture puzzles together, or cut on straight lines. Today, I'd be categorized as autistic (for spending entire days by myself reading), or perhaps an idiot savant. If I had to take Kindergarten again, I'd still flunk it. I am notoriously clumsy -- and so is my genius grandson who is getting a PhD in pure mathematics. We both regularly and unconsciously put our clothes on inside out, button our shirts unevenly, and walk around with untied laces.

I was fortunate to be born in a time when housewifely skills like sewing and knitting weren't important, because no matter how hard I tried, I could never learn to do those things. Well, there are plenty of people who also can't learn academic stuff and others who may be able to, but have no interest in it.

I'm sure I'll get a lot of angry comments about the inequities of our educational system, and the ineptness of our public school teachers, because so often minority kids seem to be the ones who score the lowest on those stupid standardized tests. Part of it may be their teachers' fault, but part of it is cultural, and part of it is individual preference and ability. And, I don't think the latter are strictly racial matters at all.

Before I was an Old Lady



Me and my first granddaughter, the first girl born in my and my husband's families in two generations. She is now 23.
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