Has the village abdicated its responsibility for raising children?

*The West Wing character

[The original version of the “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on October 20, 2014. It has been revised and expanded.]

Tell your neighbors to do the “write” thing

It has been suggested that, shortly after its inception, the Académie Française engaged in social engineering as it codified the rules of French grammar.

Some contend that the institution of complicated agreement patterns constituted a concerted effort by elitists to insure that members of the lower classes would never master the subtleties of the written language thereby denying the poor an opportunity to improve their station and securing privileges for the rich and powerful who, coincidentally, had a nearly monopolistic hold on access to schooling.

Centuries ago arcane grammatical inventions served to stratify society and maintain the economic status quo. Today, similar ends are achieved by inequitable school funding that assures the perpetuation of a privileged class maintained by educational advantages over the competition.

The strategy has evolved in the 21st Century. Remember “The Golden Rule”?  Those with the gold always make rules that favor those with the gold.

No school system willingly increases class size or pretends that it is beneficial to children. Overcrowding is reserved for jurisdictions that are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to foot the bill for educating all children. Children suffer the consequences of such parsimony as they depart school ill prepared to compete at the next level.

In very general terms my students, even those who could read fairly well, exhibited deplorable writing skills. Penmanship seemed a forgotten art and legibility remained an elusive goal for too many. Mastery of capitalization, punctuation and accurate spelling eluded an absolutely horrifying percentage of my students. The “fine” points of thesis statement, topic sentences and writing objectively in the third-person baffled all save a few of the strongest.

What was a high school foreign language teacher to do when, in a class of thirty students, not one child could name the parts-of-speech or the parts-of-a-sentence? How are students to comprehend the complexities of grammar in a second language if they do not grasp even the rudiments of the ambient tongue? The committed educator is, therefore, obliged to remediate students and often at the expense of what might be deemed the “essential” curriculum of the target language. Consequently, these students still end up in arrears academically despite having advanced somewhat on the road to competence.

When will our community demonstrate the will to confront this crisis and deal with it in a meaningful way? What can be done to prevent our children from joining the half of the freshman class that drops out in the first year of college? Why do our students, many of whom exhibit high intelligence and academic potential, lack foundational skills to such a degree that future collegiate success is already in jeopardy?

How has it come to this? Blame it on what you will…

Blame it on insufficient intellectual stimulation during early childhood. Blame it on the conditions that prevail in classrooms dominated by the economically disadvantaged. Blame it on bland basal readers and a dearth of materials to enrich the curriculum during the elementary school years. Blame it on spending an entire academic career in overcrowded classrooms staffed by a largely itinerant workforce.

Blame this culturally induced dysgrafia on what you will. Casting blame is easy; funding the solutions is the hard part.

Why do our students write so poorly? That is addressed by a simple axiom: As the number of students in a class approaches infinity, so the number of writing assignments approaches zero.

The addition of merely a few students to each class adds exponentially to the time spent correcting papers. The grading of sixty – or more – daily quizzes represents easily a total of three hours of grading, logging and data entry each and every day. That, however, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Because writing is a “process” and not an “event“, teaching students to write well is time consuming.

First, students produce a draft. Then, teachers read the assignment and offer suggestions for improvement. Next, students revise and resubmit the document for re-evaluation.

Ideally, the teacher and the student should repeat this procedure really until both agree on the “final” product (although few writings can ever be considered edit neutral). Consequently, appropriate, meaningful and timely feedback on longer essays often demands hours for each assignment.

Excellent writers are notorious for obsessive revisions to text. In the notebooks of Gustave Flaubert, there are over 300 versions of one sentence from the scene at the ball in Madame Bovary. As soon as Montaigne received new editions of his Essais, he would begin adding revisions in the margins for the next edition leading one of his biographers to the title “Words in the Corner” for the book describing his process. 

What do you think really happens when teachers have a caseload of 180-220 students?

Regrettably, the amount of individualized attention that a child receives from a caring teacher remains directly proportional to the mean wealth of all the families that attend a particular school. Schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students typically have the most overcrowded classes and the most overworked teachers. Therefore, the teaching of writing likely suffers more than any other discipline in such schools.

Teachers do not love multiple-choice assessments; most would prefer to assess student learning through writing. The logistics, however, render that impossible. Bubble sheets simply allow a teacher to grade 180 papers, compute grades and turn in results within a stipulated 48 hours.

Unfortunately, college professors and future employers will no longer evaluate students by their ability to identify the correct answer from a list of four possibilities. They will pose pointed questions and anticipate cogent and expansive answers that demonstrate precision of expression and clarity of thought. No pity for the unprepared will be forthcoming.

So, when neighbors ask why they should invest more money in our schools to lower class size, tell them the truth. It is simply the “write” thing to do.


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 17, 2003. ]

Who is Accountable for Classroom Claustrophobia?

The View from the Blackboard?

The second president of the United States, John Adams, knew that education would be the firmest foundation for American society. He sagely counseled, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy,…in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Americans have long cherished the belief that it is the duty of each generation to afford its heirs the opportunity to provide themselves a better life. Through education and self-actualization, our children might one day eliminate pestilence and poverty giving rise to an era of global peace and prosperity as yet unimagined. Who among us would dare wish for the contrary?

Two centuries ago few children achieved little more than the rudiments of reading and writing. A century later most children attained modest levels of functional literacy. A few decades ago child labor laws removed children from the hazards of exploitative and dangerous labor practices saving countless thousands of limbs and lives. Today, most children acquire a high school diploma.

We have come so far, but we have so far yet to go!

Today, much of what students are expected to learn in high school has been discovered in the years since their grandparents graduated. The children of current students will be obliged to acquire knowledge that has yet to be discovered. What Sir Francis Bacon referred to as “The Knowledge of the State” is doubling every seven years, but funding for the public schools, as a percentage of the Gross National Product, has not changed appreciably in decades.

This generation risks becoming the first American generation to fail to meet the challenge of readying students for the workplace that awaits them. And why is this? Taxpayers do not see the need for improving working conditions for teachers or learning conditions for children.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the issue of class size.

For years now, educators have been informing anyone who will listen that large class size negatively impacts student achievement. Well-designed, longitudinal research was performed in Tennessee. The research clearly demonstrated the positive effects of reduced class size in the early elementary years on student achievement in subsequent years. The conclusions were unequivocal.

Yet, there are still ideologues who claim that lowering class size constitutes “throwing money at the problem” of lackluster performance in our schools. They inform us that students in other countries achieve academically despite large classes while conveniently omitting the fact that most of those countries “weed out” low achievers by the age of fourteen by placing them in apprenticeships or in the workforce.

The student load confronted by teachers in any high-poverty school system is simply overwhelming, and the welfare of children is not served by increasing compensation for educators if that means returning to a more overcrowded classroom each autumn. Why should the concept of workload stress be any less relevant for educators than it is any other human undertaking?

Let’s assume there are two footraces this weekend. The first is fifteen kilometers and the second will cover thirty. Which race do you suppose will have the highest percentage of drop-outs? Which race will be run at the fastest pace?

Let’s put two barbells on the floor. The first weighs 150 pounds and the second is loaded with 300. Which barbell are lifters most likely to raise from the floor? With which weight will the lifters perform the highest number of repetitions?

Yet, we routinely place 30 students in a room with one adult (and sometimes even 40!) for nearly 300 minutes a day, despite knowing that efficiency would be improved by reducing both numbers. Now, in the Age of Accountability,  bureaucrats hope to pass judgement on teachers when “educational outcomes” are less than optimal.

Even car manufacturers in Detroit learned that listening to their labor partners and slowing the assembly line produced better cars, reduced product recalls and increased morale. It is a lesson that must soon be applied to Public Education.

Think carefully, now!

All other things being equal, would you rather have your surgery done by an overworked doctor performing thirty procedures a day, or one performing half that number? When are medical mistakes more likely to occur?

Would you rather have your case tried by a public defender assigned thirty difficult and complicated cases, or one assigned only fifteen? Which lawyer is more likely to overlook something crucial to your defense?

So, should your child be sitting in a marginally equipped room with 29  classmates (or more!) and one overworked, under-compensated professional educator who corrected papers and wrote lesson plans into the wee morning hours? Can we not agree that a teacher and a child would have a better opportunity to connect emotionally and intellectually in a less cramped environment?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes.” Placing our children and their teachers in overcrowded conditions is an inexcusable hindrance to the future success of both… Therefore, the community must resolve to remove this impediment from the path to sustained academic excellence. Moreover, if we do not accept the responsibility of providing adequate resources to all learners, then many children will forever wander anonymously in the crowd of students competing for the teacher’s attention.

All children deserve a better fate.

Further Reading:

[This commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal circa 2000.]