Monday, March 04, 2013

Knapsack 3-7

Notes From My Knapsack 3-7-13

Jeff Gill


Education and its discontents



Recently a high school teacher wrote a compelling essay in the Washington Post about what he sees as the decline of the cultural & verbal skills of the best students heading into college. He wrote it as an apology to college professors.


I think he made some good points (it's easy enough to find online), but overall, I'm not sure an apology is really what's called for.


In this country, we are embarked on a great experiment, whose uncertainty of delivery right now does not undermine the intent behind it. No similar geographic area and breadth of cultural diversity has ever tried to say, as our country is right now, that "we intend to bring 94+% of all children up to a certain minimum standard of educational accomplishment."

Any large landmass that's tried to deliver education this broadly, in a comparable manner, has generally excluded large groups entirely from the process, or ended up delivering quality in most major population centers while leaving most of the hinterlands high and dry. I can tell you that high school students in Rio Arriba County, NM, Greenbrier County, WV, or Licking County, OH have startlingly *similar* academic experiences, and that was not true just thirty years ago. Our urban core schools are hamstrung by a mix of systemic racism and economic implosion that are reinforced in toxicity by a deeply embedded culture that is itself a result of that same racism and economic injustice, and we are still trying to figure out an adequate answer that works for more than 30-40% of the students in that context, but good people are trying hard (including many in union leadership).

American education is a marvel, and the "hoop jumping" some note in terms of increased graduation requirements is a contrast to the possibility not so long ago in many districts to get a HS diploma with minimal effort and little impact on the mind or memory. You are now expected to know something and be able to show ability to go with that knowledge if you get a HS diploma, but expecting each district to reach that benchmark with 90% or more of their students is a NEW challenge, and I can't say that often enough. 50% grad rates, measured by all children (not just by those who began high school), was seen as a good school as recently as the 1980s in much of the country.

All of which is to say: I'm encouraged and hopeful in many ways about the big picture, but the general quality of the best students, say the top 20%/quintile, as measured by their knowledge of social studies, literature, and effective written/verbal communication, is going to be lower for some time into the future, because we not only aren't focusing on those kids the way we used to — not entirely a bad thing! — but in order to do these other things for most/all, we're not doing the humanities & critical thinking & expression parts of learning for almost any. I don't think it's a malign conspiracy to make cattle of us, but there's a real reason to worry, and (to make some lemonade here) an opportunity for church youth groups and service clubs and art studios and many other extra-curricular venues to jump in and pick up some of what's been dropped.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think makes for a good education at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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