Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Context, Accountability, and Fear in Elementary School Education

Will someone please think of the children?
-Helen Lovejoy

What I want is to be able to enter a classroom and hear a teacher starting a sentence and then to enter the classroom next door and hear the other teacher finishing it.
-an actual administrator who works for the C.U.S.D.

It is always the same. The parking lot is a miniature Calcutta filled with still-running cars parked at all angles and surrounded by a cacophonous din of anxiety and confusion. Elephantine parents rage through the hallways dragging their listless vacant-eyed children behind them, occasionally pausing to shoot me a look that practically screams: "Why is a grown man working at an elementary school? I know you are a danger to my children and if I only had the time I would do something about it." And then they are off. The first day of school. It is always the same.

The teachers, fresh from a summer of mandatory training programs (Comprehending Disruptive Behavior, Whole Language and the Whole Child, The Autistic Spectrum: A Rainbow of Hope,) move slowly, with heads bowed, and rarely make eye contact. The prospect of countless hours of reading Houghton Mifflin aloud to classrooms full of bewildered children weighs heavily upon them. There are, everywhere, empty coffee cups and power bar wrappers.

In the corner of room 26, eight year old Julie fans herself with a copy of The Teacher From The Black Lagoon in a futile effort to combat the stifling heat. This is the most pleasure she will derive from a book for the next sixteen years. She will work as an administrative assistant for a mid-level auto parts supply depot and will develop a fondness for box wine. One of her daughters will almost be chosen for a reality show about unpleasant chefs.
A smart friend of mine (E.R.) once asked me one of those cocktail party/parlor game questions at a BBQ we happened to be drinking through. It went something like this: What is the biggest lie your parents ever told you? Unthinkingly, I blurted out that the inherent value of education, a ubiquitous bit of propaganda familiar to all, was a myth. It seemed like a provocative enough thing to say and was likely to get us through the remaining bottle of Maker's Mark. It did. Good times.

But as the weeks passed, and as I actually thought about what I had said, I realized that I should have been more narrow in my criticism. Becoming an educated person is undeniably an inherently noble thing. It is the commonly accepted means of becoming educated, the de facto processes that one encounters in almost any school in the country, that are so overwhelmingly delusional.

Ms. Greaves frowns at Martin and asks him why he isn't paying attention. He has no idea, but is a little nervous about going to see his dad at that scary place again and wonders if the Sponge Bob movie is this Thursday or Friday. He will spend a fair amount of time in his own scary places and then something will go wrong with his pancreas or spleen. The final thirty-two hours of his life will be a restful blur.

There has been a move over the last eight years towards greater accountability among teachers. The measure of this accountability is in the form of standardized test scores. Teachers are considered successful if their students achieve high scores. If not, then the state will ultimately take over the school, teachers will be flogged in public, etc. Something had to be done, with the world going to hell and all, and this is what they came up with. It couldn't make more sense.

Especially to the great mass of quasi-literate reactionaries whose heads are over flowing with Fox News Channel's unbiased reporting on America's omnipresent everyday atrocities; whose hearts have grown cold at the thought of the countless schoolyard shootings perpetrated by the godless sodomites who kidnapped prayer from the classrooms; whose eyes mist over at the thought of the roving gangs of pedophilic thugs who have taken over their neighborhoods; whose loins, those vestigial reminders of their animal nature, have evaporated into the ether and are already forgotten. Really, will someone please think of the children?

Leanna doesn't want to read that book. It is a stupid book and she has a better one in her backpack. But her whole class is reading it and so she kills the next twenty minutes by trying to think of words that almost rhyme with orange. She will go to college for eleven years and found her own not-for-profit food bank. She will wonder if she spends too much time being angry.

It is as though education is being managed by people who are entirely unaware of the last fifty years of human psychology. And perhaps it is. Standardized testing of this sort doesn't work because it can't work. Humans develop at different rates and through different means. The effort to make every classroom into the same classroom robs teachers of the opportunity to apprehend their students as individuals and to teach them accordingly. What was once an engaging, creative act is now no more meaningful than a trip to the DMV. We are told we have to do it and so we do, but God knows we die a little every minute we spend there. And so do God's children.

Still, principals actively seek to create faculties comprised of docile bodies; of teachers unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo. And, in all honesty, the profession of teaching doesn't exactly attract the most courageous, outspoken, type of person. They just want to keep their jobs and not get yelled at. And they already have the aggressively uninformed parents to deal with. The end result is classroom after classroom filled with uninspired, nervous teachers teaching material that they have no passion for, or belief in, to children who have no interest in hearing what they have to say.

They have no interest because everything they are taught is decontextualized. A good teacher knows that all you can actually do is instill a love of learning in a child and give him/her strategies for dealing with it. It can't be enough that children are told to learn for their own good. Or that they won't get a slightly less mind numbing job if they don't pay attention in school. And children innately see through any attempts to make what happens at school into a moral proposition. Only their Mongoloidal parents have trouble with that one. And, God bless 'em, those parents just don't have time anymore to think. So they let others do that for them.

Voila! Here we are. No child left behind. Soccer Moms rest easily. Politicians garner votes. Administrators congratulate themselves on the fact that all those meetings weren't for nothing. Teachers are unburdened of the tiresome task of teaching. Money, once frivolously wasted on unnecessary extravagances (art, music, field trips to places that don't suck) can be finally be used for realpolitik perks, e.g. large iron gates, uniform reading documents that have been standardized in an effort to make them unappealing to all, salaries that attract the best and the brightest to positions of high authority within the Ministry of Education. Beaming with pride, they must truly think this will be the best of all possible worlds.

Why can't Johnny read?
Because he doesn't give a fuck.

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