SubNovember 12th, 2011

Nearly 50 years after my last exposure to a schoolroom, I’m a substitute teacher in a suburban school system in central Connecticut, and I’m less confident than ever of educators’ ability to bring the children to a reasonable level of competence in any area. I’ve had first-graders, second-graders and middle- and high-school students, and, in the course of a few short weeks, I’ve noted a deficient curriculum, a low standard of citizenship, inadequate textbooks and study materials, and a variety of time- and resource-wasting practices.

It’s not the fault of the personnel: they are willing and able; it’s the obstacles that are placed in their way. Education has been transformed into an industry, disabling it as a social institution with strict values and standards. I compare what today’s children are getting with what I got, and I worry that most of them won’t be able to express a coherent thought or do simple arithmetic. If the staff felt free to discuss the system they work in, most would probably agree that it is ineffective, as the latest statistics on educational progress in Connecticut suggest.

Today, instead of drilling in arithmetic, they play number games and count out poker chips in groups of four or five kids. They draw pictures of items to add instead of memorizing the facts. One first-grade I taught spent fifteen minutes learning from a video that the elements of a number sentence are addends, a lesson they promptly forgot. They could have been drilling. When I ask a first-grader how many are one and four, the kid shouldn’t have to count that out on his fingers. A seventh-grader asked me for help with a simple long division problem. She used a calculator to do the math. She got the answer to six decimal places. I don’t think she could have done the long division on her own, and I doubt that she has her division and subtraction facts conveniently available.

The textbooks are an embarassment. Printed on glossy paper with an abundance of color illustrations, they are big and heavy. Every page is an arrangement of gimmicks, with varied typefaces in colored boxes, random “lessons,” bulleted lists, and other distractions. I’ve used texts for high school literature, geometry, senior math, business law and business math, and middle school social studies, “language arts,” French, and Spanish, and most of them are too big, too profusely illustrated, illogically organized, and poorly edited. I try in vain to find the point among all the colorful circles and arrows that adorn each page, features that might strike adult book- buyers as “fun” but that are useless and even confusing to the students. The kids’ rucksacks are strained to bursting by these monstrosities, and their little backs bend under the burden. Take a look at your kids’ or grandkids’ schoolbooks sometime and see whether you would be able to extract knowledge from them.

I’d like to know who came up with the idea that learning is supposed to be fun. Learning to water ski might be fun, but learning to form letters and learning to add numbers is work. We drilled and drilled in the primary grades. Flashcards with addition and subtraction facts were a staple, and there was board work for every kid. We read aloud in small groups and recited at our desks as a class, mostly stuff we’d memorized in unison. I’ve heard people criticize rote learning, but it worked. It may really be the only method that works every time. It’s boring, like much of the work that’s required to keep society functioning, but kids have to learn to deal with drudgery, don’t they?

Much of the instruction is by way of photocopied exercises. From my school days, I remember assignments written out on the blackboard that I had to copy onto the sheet of paper they gave me for written work. Today you might get three sheets of paper with printed material and spaces for answers, usually more space than text, with the imprint of the exercise’s publisher at the bottom and one side blank. Educational “packages” consisting of matched books, videos, and canned assignments for photocopying are common. Some of the books are meant to be written in, and these get discarded after one year’s use. The paper budget has to be crushing, with teachers consuming hundreds of pages every week. The exercises themselves are often of no educational value and far removed from any sort of reinforcing drill on an accompanying lesson, a defect even the kids notice.

Some kids like to work, but you can dull their motivation by not requiring much of them. If the expectation is low and there are rewards for minimal performance, you will tend to get minimal performance. There’s no profit in being outstanding, especially when nobody is allowed that status. There are banners hung in the gymnasium celebrating individual athletic accomplishment, but no conspicuous signs of academic distinction, either in primary school or secondary school. You have to guess who the scholars are. I have yet to see an honor roll posted in a homeroom. There seems to be a social elite and an athletic elite, but there’s no identifiable academic elite. Nothing takes the starch out of a gifted student like lack of recognition. Scholars were held up as models in my age group, and there was some competition for high academic status. I’m sure there’s a National Honor Society chapter at the high school where I fill in, but I haven’t seen any plaques or banners to indicate who’s in it.

I believe stifling competition for academic status is meant to stem the pressures of high achievement. I’d like to know whose idea that was, too. Elimination of the academic elite runs counter to values that have long been essential to education as a social institution. On the other hand, in the operation of education as an industry, an academic elite is an unnecessary complication, a source of resentment, pressure, feelings of inadequacy and diffuse customer dissatisfaction. An academic elite runs counter to the “you’re special” movement, which substitutes phony, commercial values for actual merit.

Customer satisfaction might also be the reason for no blackboard work. We used to line up at the blackboard and write things on it for correction by the teacher. I guess that turned out to be too stressful for the kids, having to do arithmetic or practice penmanship in front of everybody. Now they do it at their desks on paper, tons of paper. Only the teacher writes on the board, which is white and doesn’t take chalk but a chemical marking pen. The absence of board work is another example of lack of public recognition for high achievement.

In primary school, by the way, working at your desk means facing each other in groups of four or five. The least obedient kid leads the discussion in every group. Here, too, there’s no profit in conscientious effort. If a kid wants to work, there’s always somebody there to interfere, and the workers learn early that the interferers control the show. By seventh grade, most of the kids–and nearly all the boys–are firm in the conviction that school is no place for ambitious academic effort.

Two months into the school year, the primary school kids are split down the middle between the ones that learn to read and to add without much effort and the ones who must work hard to learn. They’re all together in mixed groups, and the ones who have to work command most of the attention. Their standard, relaxed to accommodate their needs, becomes the standard of the group. By seventh grade, there are two distinct strata of kids. The ones who find the work too easy and are bored by it and the majority, most of whom can’t pass standard reading and math tests.

Despite all my grieving, I enjoy this work. It’s actually a little easier if you don’t insist on learning. I have to admit that understressed kids are more congenial company than hard-driving toilers. I’m not the guy to introduce them to harsh discipline, and so I’m popular. I’m a little put out that they’re not learning much and don’t care to, but I’m no teacher. I’m only just beginning to learn how to get anything resembling compliance, much less respect. I’m sure I’ll be pursuing that quest for as long as I’m allowed to continue in this career.

I’m no teacher, but I am a learner. A reluctant one, like the kids I teach, and a successful one, a kid who overcame an aversion to hard work. I give my teachers the credit for this, but it really belongs to the educational institution that nurtured them and paid their meager wages. It was strict, it was demanding, and it was stressful for us tykes, but it produced universal literacy and revolutionary scientific and literary accomplishments. The school industry as it exists today–catering to the whims and politics of its many and varied customers–can’t produce such results and could bring us into a new dark age.