If, as conservative talk show pundit Rush Limbaugh and purple PBS-TV dinosaur Barney both say, "The learning never ends," then it's logical that the testing never ends either.
Here are two education questions lobbed (a little tennis lingo, there) at me in recent days:
1. why is there so much teacher-initiated social engineering in the classroom, and
2. In academic subjects, if the student didn't learn, is it always because the teacher didn't teach?
Both questions are in the contemporary public "conversation" (a little political lingo, there) although in different ways: the first is reflected in a kind of gallows humor already present in such other distressed (in economic, not productivity, terms) sectors as agriculture, and the second is remarkable for the vast intellectual chasm between academic-expert and concerned-citizen on the answers.
Even non-farmers have heard the one about the old-timer with a million dollar inheritance who, when asked what he'll do with it, says he'll just keep on farming until it too is gone; and even non-parents have heard the now-old one about the new-math teacher who asks her students if three loggers can clear ten acres in two days, how do the squirrels feel?
A supposedly new snipe at social engineering in the classroom has the teacher asking students for their favorite animal. One says fried chicken and is sent to the principal. Asked for a live favorite, she says chicken and is sent again.
Finally she is asked for a live person, and says Col. Sanders; guess where she is now. The underlying theme -why isn't reading or math the subject?-is contemporary; but the notion of teacher control of the classroom isn't. It's been decades since my brief Otter Valley High School-substitute career ended because I refused the principal's order to keep a trouble-maker in my classroom. Even so, like all good jokes, they succeed because there's a nugget of truth in each. Similarly with my proposed answer to question 1: it contains neither statistical proof nor documentary reference, but maybe you'll find the nugget in there. It has four parts:
This question is so easy even an amateur columnist can answer it: politicians (I'm referring here to Vermont Attorney Gen. William Sorrell's display of interest in obesity management) and teachers address social engineering subjects in preference over their real day job -legal practice or classroom education-because:
1. It's easier than the hard stuff (even when the hard stuff, like thirrd grade reading, is relatively easy), and
2. Results can't be graded and the social engineers can't be evaluated for results,
3. It's more fun than researching in law books or teaching reading or counting to yet another class of young pre-literates, and
4.it carries more social cachet, peer approval, and evenadmiration amongst gentry left networkers.
Question 2, like 1, is often dismissed via denial -"our schools are excellent" is heard from such as Education Commissioner Vilaseca as often as "our curriculum is content-based", but, for different reasons, both academicians and parents aren't satisfied.
Merit pay for results-achieving teachers is now a hotly argued topic for the same reason as disengaged or disruptive student behavior in the classroom. The Pope Institute for Higher Education is presently publishing articles on "students who won't learn". At one extreme there's the academic argument, for which see "Cultural Conflicts in the Urban Classroom", Mildred Jordan, Rider University, undated, and "Managing Today's Classroom", Scott Willis, American Society for Curriculum and Development Journal, Sept 96, Vol. 38, 6.
On page 3 of the 12-page Jordan piece, you'll see on page 3 what looks like a defense of disruptive behavior as a minority cultural norm, to be respected and not suppressed by teachers. In the Willis piece you'll see the academic theory that teachers shouldn't set classroom rules, students should. Both are on the Web under "classroom disruption". At the other extreme is a detailed Wall Street Journal piece (5-6 June 10) on black middle-class flight from Detroit for the same reason as earlier white flight.
It turns out that all middle-class parents are averse to the classroom disruption caused by "students who won't learn" and, rather than blame teachers, simply remove their children.
The short answer to Question 2, then, is "either or both". The longer answer is that two sorts of removal are presently being tried -under-performing teachers are now, for the first time, at risk for official dismissal in the District of Columbia, and vulnerable students have been for some time now subject to removal by distraught parents. As the conventional wisdom from academia cited above illustrates, the third sort of removal -disruptive students-is not included now, although, in my own distant-past K-12-student experience, it was swift, sure, if poor behavior persisted, permanent, and overall, therefore, effective and extremely rare.
A final note on grading: because I skillfully showed up on time for this test and tried really, really hard on these questions, I'm entitled, under human-rights theory, to an E for Excellence and Effort. No class-standing ratings or red-pencil corrections, please, either of which would damage self-esteem irreparably.
Former Vermont architect Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.