Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sunday Reader

Today's NYTimes had three articles I want to comment on, ranging in subject from elementary school girls to underprivileged youth. They all consider the intersection between education and personal responsibility, though with a different angle on all of them. Read along! (PS: click on the title links to get to the NYTimes articles)

Role Models

This article presents the usual encomia about the bad it-girls, those whom they influence and then the analysis of what it means. The article struck me because it discussed how these girls are fascinated by the lives of the fallen celebrities, but also censure their life-choices. Course they're also 8-12 and the article points out many times that they still follow their parents' examples. (Which is quite true -- they experiment with other's experiences, but it is controlled by the desire to still be accepted into adult society the same way when it's over).

On the second page, there is a portrait collage of six "good" girls and it occurred to me that a few I don't even recognize and for the most part don't know anything about them except that they stay off the gossip pages. That, in fact, is the only time they show up in them -- when they talk about how their behavior is different from Lindsey Lohan's and so forth.

And that brings me to my point -- why do we rarely hear about the good? With the exception of Angelina Jolie we find ourselves submerged by the scandals. The only time I hear of Hayden Christiansen, for instance, is what she wore to the latest party. (official party, not Britney Spears' party) So why can't someone start writing about the good these girls do? When they visit the soup kitchen, etc. It's not that People is adverse to this sort of reporting -- it's there all the time. It's just that the scandal sells more issues. But what if there were a glossy magazine that told the other side of the stars? That gave those teens and tweens glamour and access, but also established a more well-rounded picture of their favorite celebrities?

Testing, Testing, Testing...

When did a word that means to evaluate before sending the person on to bigger things become the be-all-end-all of academic life?

The people in this article pretty much infuriated me! When students weren't passing the test, the admin realized something was wrong. Which is a given. These tests are so easy that students should be able to take them without much preparation. Teaching, yes, but teaching for the test is absurd. But what these admin did was have the teachers teach what was going to be on the test...but they didn't stop there:

the principal, Jerome S. Schulman, made them rewrite lesson plans to mirror the state’s standards. Every test had to be cleared to make sure it tested material that might be on the state assessment, Mr. Schulman said.
Note the "every test" part -- it assumes that what the state assesses is the most important thing the teacher is teaching. This success was summed up by the superintendent:
“There are superintendents who want to avoid teaching to the test,” Dr. Lodovico said. “I say, we’re going to provide the kind of instruction that the state standards want us to provide. If that is teaching to the tests, so be it.”
The state's standards become reduced to a single test and every lesson becomes reduced to that same test, then.

My problems with this approach is that it eliminates creativity from the curriculum, but also that it stifles a desire to learn. When we say that the basics that we teach on a test need to be the forefront of our curriculum, we reduce the curriculum to easy answers: A, B, C or D. If all you need to do is pick from one of four choices, you quickly fail to be interested in what is outside those boxes. These tests can't evaluate critical thinking (though they do try...or at least the better tests try) and certainly don't allow for students to demonstrate that they can effectively use the information they've been given.

Even writing exams, which ought to allow for such individuality fail to. I had two students A and B take the exam my first year teaching. A wasn't a profound writer; she knew the basics, worked very hard and held a piece together nicely. A teacher of hers had once told her to make sure that she varied her words. So her strategy was to write a piece and then spend a lot of time revising -- she would make lists of words she repeated and then plug in new ones. This made her writing more engaging and the result reflected the work she put into it. But B was a brilliant writer, though still working on the mechanics. His thoughts always delved into a problem, considered it from a few angles and so forth. He also liked to experiment: he would try long sentences, for instance, so long that they became convoluted and un-followable. But he was looking for a unique style and those long sentences became more manageable as he gained practice with them. But who scored a "superior" on the exam? A. And who sored an average? B. And have I really ever seen anything else? Alas, no.

So, in summary these tests should be a starting point and should lead to more individualized instruction (i.e. if the student can pass it with his eyes closed, move to something else; if he can't, find out what his weaknesses really are. Why doesn't grammar make sense? Not, teach him what a complex-compound sentence is.). Further, students need challenge, depth and interest to keep them actively engaged in school. Testing, and the emphasis we place on it, don't provide this.

Overcoming Poverty

Amherst appears to have a great program for attracting, accepting and nurturing Americans from poverty-stricken backgrounds. What I really liked about this article is its focus on the student's achievements rather than what precisely his economic background was. (Too many of these articles detail the exact poverty the people come from.) A number of similar programs just look for the bright students, but Amherst singles out the potentially bright and helps them to achieve the potential they would have if they had been given opportunities.

The only concern I have is the workstudy requirement. 7-8 hours of workstudy is what I did in college as well and if you're juggling catching up in addition to the studying that comes easily to others, 7-8 hours that you could use to study or just relax is a lot. Wonder why the rich kids with all expenses paid, or the scholarship kids whose talent and background earned them the reward, don't have a similar program. While having some spending money, especially when you're around people who have money to blow, is important, I think it would be better offered as part of the scholarship. It just seems a lot to ask a student to work when they've probably been doing nothing but that their whole lives. On the other hand, the work experience might be useful; how about asking them to work during the summer at an unpaid internship (with living expenses covered by Amherst)? Those are the opportunities that really push kids further and only those whose parents take care of their living expenses in NYC can afford such a luxury.

Other than that, kudos to Amherst!

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