Teacher, teacher! Schools missing from campaigns
The presidential candidates — and the talking heads on cable television who seem to run their campaigns — have shown little interest in talking about education. Concerned parents, business leaders and others feel as if they are kids raising their hands at the back of the class while the teacher, er candidate, is preoccupied with other matters.
“Frustration over how education has been crowded out of the presidential debate is barely contained among the nation’s leading education experts,” according to a story in the latest U.S. News and World Report.
“Each week seems to bring more evidence of how the United States is losing step with the rest of the developed world when it comes to educating children. Seventy percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in reading, over a million high-schoolers drop out each year, and nearly one-third of college freshmen must take remedial math or English courses,” the story reports.
The situation is most critical in the nation’s largest cities. Seventeen of the 50 largest cities have graduation rates of less than 50 percent, according to a new report by America’s Promise Alliance (PDF).
Minneapolis is one of the worst performers, ranking 45th, ahead of only Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Columbus. Only 43.7 percent of Minneapolis kids graduate from high school, according to the study.
The results raise the question, even in Lake Wobegon: Are all children really above average?
The provocative essayist Charles Murray tosses cold water on the popular notion — held in different ways by both the left and the right — that nearly all children who do poorly in school have the potential to do much better.
Limits of the human mind
Meanwhile, several other writers explore the limits and eccentricities of the human mind on topics that range from the instant gratification of smoking to our maddening tendency toward short-term thinking. Each of these essays might help explain why humans — educated or not — continue to make similar mistakes, generation after generation. Learning from history, it seems, is no match for genetic reality.
Let’s start with Murray, the conservative writer who has devoted much of his career to disproving the proposition that “all men are created equal.” His essay in the May issue of The New Criterion is titled: “The Age of Educational Romanticism: On requiring every child to be above average.”
In it he describes the approaching demise of what he calls “Educational Romanticism,” the belief that nearly all children who perform poorly in school have the potential to greatly improve. Educational romantics believe, says Murray, that academic achievement is determined mainly by the opportunities that children receive; that innate intellectual limits — if they exist — play a minor role, and that current schools have huge room for improvement.
These romantics exist both on the left and right, Murray asserts. Those on the left focus on race, class and gender. The performance of children of color, those of poor parents and girls would blossom if only they were liberated from racism, classism and sexism. Conversely, romantics on the right see dramatic improvement only if children are liberated from politically correct curricula and overbearing bureaucracy and teachers’ unions.
Murray, most famous for his 1994 best-seller “The Bell Curve,” challenges his readers to recall the last educational analysis concluding that many failing students simply aren’t smart enough.
“No one disputes the empirical predictiveness of tests of intellectual ability — IQ tests — for large groups,” he says. “If a classroom of first-graders is given a full-scale IQ test that requires no literacy and no mathematics, the correlation of those scores with scores on reading and math tests at age 17 is going to be high. Such correlations will be equally high whether the class consists of rich children or poor, black or white, male or female. They will be high no matter how hard the teachers have worked. Scores on tests of reading and math track with intellectual ability, no matter what.”
Murray says that educational romanticism is about to collapse of its own weight, largely because no one truly and actually believes the no-child-left-behind nostrum, and because pretending it’s true is demonstrably damaging the life chances of children of all levels of intellectual ability.
Captive to our impules?
Ability aside, each of us is captive to the impulsive and comparatively primitive thinking that we’ve inherited through the ages, according to Gary Marcus. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he attempts to explain why so often our noble, long-term goals are sacrificed for short-term gratification.
“We can plan in advance, using our modern deliberative reasoning systems, but our ancestral reflexive mechanisms, which evolved first, still basically control the steering wheel,” says Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University. “When the chips are down, it’s those mechanisms that our brains turn to, and that means that our brains frequently wind up relying on machinery that is all about acting first and asking questions later.”
That explains why so many people bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford, or, physical addiction aside, why so many people continue to smoke despite knowing that it’s bad for their health.
“Letting go: Smoking and non-smoking” is the title of David Sedaris’ extraordinary essay in the New Yorker magazine of May 5.
“It’s one thing to give up smoking, and another to become a former smoker,” Sedaris writes. He tells about vowing to quit and leaving five cigarettes on the table in a bar. His friend asks if he’s just going to leave them there, and he answers with a line he’d heard from a German friend.
“Though she often apologized for the state of her English, I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any better. When it came to verb conjugation, she was beyond reproach, but every so often she’d get a word wrong. The effect was not a loss of meaning but a heightening of it. I once asked if her neighbor smoked, and she thought for a moment before saying, ‘Karl has … finished with his smoking.’
“She meant, of course, that he had quit, but I much preferred her mistaken version. ‘Finished’ made it sound as if he’d been allotted a certain number of cigarettes, three hundred thousand, say, delivered at the time of his birth. If he’d started a year later or smoked more slowly, he might still be at it, but, as it stood, he had worked his way to the last one, and then moved on with his life. This, I thought, was how I would look at it. Yes, there were five more Kool Milds in that particular pack, and 26 cartons stashed away at home, but those were extra — an accounting error. In terms of my smoking, I had just finished with it.”
Perhaps Sedaris had reached the magic point of human learning — or, in his case — unlearning. Gary Wolf writes in Wired magazine about a software product, Super Memo, based on the insight that learning can be greatly improved based on the correct spacing of practice sessions. “Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you’ve forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you’re about to forget,” says Wolf.
“Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information.” Or, as Murray might postulate, every child is left behind at a different time and in a different place.
Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.