Tag Archives: children

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

AUG. 9, 2014

 

Nicholas Kristof

“YAMHILL, Ore. — ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.

Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.

I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.

http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/08/10/sunday-review/0810KRISTOF/0810KRISTOF-articleLarge.jpg

Rick Goff, 64, of Yamhill, Ore., makes ends meet these days with odd jobs and his disability benefits. CreditSusan Seubert for The New York Times

One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.

“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.

His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.

Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”

A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.

“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”

In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.

In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.

Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroinprison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.

ONE of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.

The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.

This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Spotlights

This Is What Sex-Positive Parenting Really Looks Like

This Is What Sex-Positive Parenting Really Looks Like

Posted: 07/29/2014 11:47 am EDT Updated: 07/29/2014 2:59 pm EDT

“It happened yet again. As I was sitting at the table for dinner with my children, I noticed my daughter’s hand fishing around under her skirt.

“We don’t play with our vulvas at the table. Go wash your hands and finish your food,” I scolded. She nodded, ran off to wash her hands, and resumed picking at her dinner instead.

Small children, they touch themselves. A lot. It’s fascinating to them. And when you’re a small child, you have no sense of shame or disgust or fear of your body. Your body is what it is. It does what it does. And everything that it does is kind of amazing, because you’re not old enough for lower back pain. It’s not sexual, it’s just… fact.

The first time I caught one of my kids playing with their genitals, I said absolutely nothing. I was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. One thing I knew for a fact I did not want to do was to shout, “No!” or “Stop!” What good could that possibly do? Sure, I would be spared the awkwardness of catching my child playing with her genitals on the living room floor, but what kind of lesson is that? To fear or ignore your own vagina?

I thought about it almost constantly for two days, and of course she gave me a second chance to react.

“Sweetie, we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room,” I said. Which sounded ridiculous and strange, but nonetheless true. Why is everything with little kids “we” statements? “It’s OK to touch your vulva, but people are private, and it’s a private thing. The only places where you should touch your vulva are in the bathroom or in your bedroom. If you want to play with your vulva, please go to the bedroom.”

And she smiled and did, without question, because compartmentalizing where you do certain activities makes sense to little kids.

“We don’t eat in the bathroom, and we don’t touch our vulvas in the living room,” became the new mantra. And yes, eventually it became, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.”

I’m what some people call “sex-positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my 4-year-olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.

As parents, we lie all the time. About the Easter Bunny or Santa or the Tooth Fairy, about how long 10 minutes is, about whether or not we remembered they wanted to have grilled cheese for dinner again… We lie a lot. But one thing I never lie about is sex.

I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks; I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.

I’ve had talks with lots of other moms about having “the talk.” I don’t think my kids and I will ever have that particular talk, because they already know. And we talk about it often — kids are obsessive creatures. We read Where Did I Come From? andWhat Makes A Baby, which together cover every aspect of the subject. We can talk about IVF and C-sections, because both of those are part of the story of their births, and we can talk about the fact that yes, mommy and daddy still have sex regardless. And when they’re older, we’ll start talking about contraception.

Because lying to your kids about sex helps nobody. Telling them that sex is “only between mommies and daddies” is a lie that leads to confused, hormone-charged teenagers. Telling them that sex is “only something that happens when two people love each other very much” is a lie that causes hormone-charged teenagers to confuse “love” with “lust,” or “obsession.” It leads to leaps of logic like, “If I have sex with this person, we must be in love.” Or worse: “If I love this person, I have to have sex with him or her.” And how many teenage tragedies are based on that misconception?

The truth is that human beings, almost universally, like sex. It feels good. And it’s supposed to feel good. If it didn’t, the human race would die out. The truth is that sex isn’t special and magical just because it’s sex. The truth is that you can have spectacular sex with strangers whose names you don’t even know. The truth is that just because you can, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

And that’s what sex-positive parenting really is. Not telling my kids lies about sex to keep them from behaviors I don’t think are healthy. It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.

It’s telling them that sex is good, but that it’s dangerous if you’re not careful. It’s teaching them to require their partners to use condoms, to buy their own condoms if they’re planning on having sex. It’s teaching them that while sex feels good, they can feel good on their own too. (Just not at the table.) That while sex combined with love is often the best sex — transcendent sex — that grows the bond of love and builds a closeness that is almost impossible to find otherwise, sex isn’t always like that, even with people you love. That sex can lead to pregnancy, even with protection, so engaging in it is a commitment to deal with any consequences.

It’s telling them they’re not wrong, or sinful, or bad, if they have sexual feelings. Or even if they have sex. It’s teaching them that sex happens, whether people always make good choices or not. And it’s giving them the tools to ensure that when they’re ready, they’re smart and cautious and conscientious.

There’s a lot of black-and-white comparisons when it comes to sex education. Some people think that once kids hit puberty, if they don’t have a strong fear of sex they’ll have as much as they can, as often as they can. There’s a lot of abstinence-only sex education, based on telling kids, “SEX IS SCARY! DON’T DO IT!” and it appears to be about the least successful program anyone has ever invented.

Telling children the truth about sex isn’t giving permission for them to have it — and this is the most important part — because when the right time comes, nobody has the right to deny them permission for sex but themselves.

And that’s the thing I try to keep in mind when I say things like, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” Sex is something that ONLY happens when both people WANT it to happen. And that means that the only people in the entire world with any kind of say over whether or not my daughters have sex is them.

I don’t get to tell my daughters they have to have sex, but I also don’t get to tell them they can’t. They’re in charge. Your body, your decision.

I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don’t want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend.

So I teach boundaries. Appropriate places. Hygiene. I teach my children that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without permission. When we get in tickle fights and they say, “Stop!” I stop.

And when we talk about pregnant friends, we talk about uteruses and sperm and eggs.

And most of the time, it’s not uncomfortable. Most of the time, I’m verifying information and the conversation lasts 15 seconds.

And someday the conversation is going to be a lot uglier. Someday, we’ll have to actually talk about rape, and explicit and enthusiastic consent, and contraception. Someday we’ll have to talk about healthy masturbation and pornography and realistic expectations of sex and sex partners and body image and a lack of shame for their bodies. And those conversations are not going to be as brief or straightforward.

But I’m ready. Whenever that day comes, I’m prepared. Because the groundwork is there.

“We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” It’s absurd, but it’s got all the important pieces. It’s a micro-lesson in safety and consent and social propriety. I don’t think I’ll be able to say “We don’t lose our virginity in the backseat of a car after a prom party” with a straight face, but I will be able to say, “We don’t have sex without thinking long and hard about it first, and we certainly don’t do it without being careful, and being safe, and being totally confident in the maturity of our partner and our ability to handle the repercussions if we get a disease or get pregnant.”

Because it’s true. We don’t.

But I like that when that time comes, I’m part of the “we.” Because if I can tell my girls, “we” have to be careful, they’ll know that no matter what happens, I’m still in their corner. I’ve still got their backs. Even if “we” make bad choices, I’ll still be there to help make things right again.

Originally published on Becoming SuperMommy

Leave a comment

Filed under Spotlights

A Beginner’s Guide to Ingesting Marijuana

A Beginner’s Guide to Ingesting Marijuana

How many high school and college students end up in the emergency room because they didn’t know their drinking limits? How many minors raid their parent’s medicine cabinets for prescription drugs? How many parents limit the amount of sugar their kids eat? Moderation is not a novel concept.

Leave a comment

Filed under Spotlights

Study: Women Who Give Birth Later Live Longer

“…Those who got pregnant naturally and successfully birthed their last child after age 33 were twice as likely to live to age 95 compared to those who had their last child by age 29…”

Leave a comment

June 25, 2014 · 8:05 pm

7 Things I Wish…

7 Things I Wish Parents Would Stop Teaching Their Children:

That nudity is inherently sexual
That people should be judged for their personal decisions
That yelling solves problems
That they are too young to be talking about the things they’re already starting to ask questions about
That age correlates to importance
That interacting with someone of the opposite sex is inherently romantic
That the default for someone is straight and cisgender

Source: http://goddess-river.tumblr.com/post/88498498959/7-things-i-wish-parents-would-stop-teaching-their

Leave a comment

June 22, 2014 · 6:44 pm

Woman dies in jail while serving sentence for her kids’ unpaid school fines

Leave a comment

June 20, 2014 · 6:05 pm

Financial lessons from the playground: The importance of modeling good money habits for your children

Leave a comment

May 28, 2014 · 7:35 pm

Actor LeVar Burton Raising Funds to Bring ‘Reading Rainbow’ to the Web

http://laughingsquid.com/actor-levar-burton-raising-funds-to-bring-reading-rainbow-to-the-web/

Please donate! Anything helps!

Leave a comment

Filed under Spotlights

My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation

I have so many problems with this article and those that tout the similar argument of; “kids these days! all this newfangled technology is ruining them!”

Back in March, I posted an article that uses this argument (10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12), but, since then, I came across the above Atlantic article which sparked my anger enough to make me contribute to the comment thread. 

What was particularly interesting about this comment thread (and what kept me dedicated to getting my comments on public record) was that my comments with website links as citations, as proof of the evidence I was using in my arguments, kept being tagged and deleted as “Spam.” It’s nearly impossible to know for sure whether they were being tagged by an automatic computer program simply because I was using so many links in my comments, or whether they were being tagged by an administrator of the site with personal biases. But I can say that other comments of mine on other Atlantic articles with a similar amount of website citation links were not being deleted from the same comment board system (Disqus). Additionally, not only did my comments get deleted once, but one comment in particular (even though I reworded it each time) got deleted three times. Only when I worded the comment with my link as “news(dot)discovery(dot)com” was it finally allowed to stay. Paranoid conspiracy theory? Perhaps.

Either way, I feel like the above discrepancy is enough to warrant a discussion of the topic and article on a platform where the commentator makes the rules. 

*********

First off (even before I begin my argument for children’s use of new technology), I would like to examine the article itself and the logic pattern that the author uses.

The author uses contradicting information as “evidence” within the article itself:

In the 5th paragraph from the end: “Online discussion boards and Twitter are useful tools for exchanging ideas. But they often encourage a “read, reflect, forget about it” response that doesn’t truly engage students in extended critical thinking or conversation.”

In the next paragraph, literally two sentences later: “In a New York Times column, Turkle wrote, “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits … we start to expect faster answers.”

So, according to the author, digital communication encourages “a ‘read, reflect, forget about it’ response” while simultaneously “expecting faster answers”?

And the author is a teacher attempting to “school” teenagers in the art of communication? Shouldn’t they be able to, I don’t know, write a logically coherent article?

Now, onto my arguments:

Okay, yeah, kids should not be spending a lot of time watching mindless tv shows and playing mindless games. But what about toddlers that use laptops, ipads, iphones, etc. to skype with family? What about Leap Frog games? What about Reading Rainbow and Mister Rogers??

In the Huffington Post article, the American and Canadian Societies of Pediatrics recommend banning, and then strictly limiting later on, the use of all “new” technology for kids of various ages:

2014-03-06-Screenshot20140306at3.29.09PM.png

I couldn’t believe that these supposedly reputable organizations ignore the fact that there are useful and educational technologies out there for infants and children.

If they’re skyping with grandparents, or playing music, or making art in an app, or the like, then I don’t think it’s damaging. The Huffington Post article annoys me so much because I hate the concept of “banning” anything. People, and families, should be encouraged to learn the facts and make their own decisions. But when the “bans” are coming from the American and Canadian Societies of Pediatrics, then there’s a high chance of concerned families blindly imposing the “bans” without considering the situation thoroughly. They’re even banning pornography for children 13-18 years old, which brings up soo many problems. First, what is considered pornography (see: paintings of Cupid & Psyche and Courbet’s Origin of the World)? Second, if they’re banning it to “protect young minds,” did you know that sexual violence is more likely to occur in places that have sexually repressed atmospheres—including the banning of pornography and sex education? And did you know that there’s no sociological data that clearly links pornography to sexual violence? Don’t take my word for it. Just look it up.

Critical thinking, as defined by The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (Canada), is “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Those who want to ban and/or strictly limit the use of technology by children often site statistics that correlate the formation of ADHD to television consumption. However, they rarely engage their critical thinking skills to ask: What if it’s the type of television shows, and the interruptions of commercials, that are the cause of the ADHD? What if it’s how we consume television in the US?

 

And, yes, while I understand the need to be “better safe than sorry,” I am all for opening up the world for exploration for children. The more access they have to people, and culture, and knowledge, the better. And more often than not these days, people, cultures, and knowledge come from iPads and iPhones: “new” technology.

It would be like if, back in the day, they banned toddlers from listening to a-tracs and records as modes of consuming music and culture. It’s just a new technology used to connect with the world outside the home.

An NPR story put it succinctly:

“Why not integrate the devices into family time?

“There’s no reason whatsoever that a caregiver can’t use an app with their child,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for what we call ‘joint attention’ — the interactions between a child and a caregiver, the back-and-forth, which is critical not just to language development, but brain development.

Sound familiar? It should. This, says Christakis, isn’t much different from sitting down and reading a book with your child.”

Furthermore, Harvard clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair recently wrote “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age”. And what she found in her interviews was the overwhelming consistency of children complaining about having to compete with technological devices for their parents’ attention.

The problem isn’t if children are exposed to “technology.” The problem is how much and in what way people (not just children) are using technology. Critical thinking is a lost art these days apparently. Semantics make all the difference when it comes to studies and statistics.

Case in point, one great example of children, and people in general, benefiting from children’s use of technology is a BuzzFeed Article: “A Toddler Used FaceTime To Save His Mom After She Was Attacked By A Dog.” If the toddler hadn’t know how to use FaceTime on an iPhone, the mother wouldn’t have had access to immediate medical attention.

Many “adults” are so eager to blame children’s shortcomings and growing-phase awkwardness, when really it’s just a continuation of the age-old “when I was your age…” or “kids these days don’t respect their elders…” and other similar complaints.

I also found a great article listing “15 Historical Complaints About Young People Ruining Everything.” A few relevant examples:

“CORRUPTED THE MORALS OF MANY A PROMISING YOUTH

In the 1790 book Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family, Reverend Enos Hitchcock wrote,

‘The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?'”

And…

“THE TOTAL NEGLECT OF THE ART OF SPEAKING”

In the preface to the 1780 book A General Dictionary of the English Language, Thomas Sheridan wrote:

‘The total neglect of this art [speaking] has been productive of the worst consequences…in the conduct of all affairs ecclesiastical and civil, in church, in parliament, courts of justice…the wretched state of elocution is apparent to persons of any discernment and taste… if something is not done to stop this growing evil …English is likely to become a mere jargon, which every one may pronounce as he pleases.'”

When criticizing a new thing, whether it’s technology or an idea, just think that maybe, just maybe, there might be some advantages to counteract the disadvantages.

1 Comment

May 6, 2014 · 9:35 pm

A warning to college profs from a high school teacher

By Valerie Strauss, Published: February 9 at 12:00 pm

“For more than a decade now we have heard that the high-stakes testing obsession in K-12 education that began with the enactment of No Child Left Behind 11 years ago has resulted in high school graduates who don’t think as analytically or as broadly as they should because so much emphasis has been placed on passing standardized tests. Here, an award-winning high school teacher who just retired, Kenneth Bernstein, warns college professors what they are up against. Bernstein, who lives near Washington, D.C. serves as a peer reviewer for educational journals and publishers, and he is nationally known as the blogger “teacherken.” His e-mail address is kber@earthlink.net. This appeared inAcademe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors.

By Kenneth Bernstein

You are a college professor.

I have just retired as a high school teacher.

I have some bad news for you. In case you do not already see what is happening, I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.

No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.

Troubling Assessments

My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics. My students, mostly tenth graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills.

In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.

Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.

Recognizing this, those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited. Remember, high schools also have tests—No Child Left Behind and its progeny (such as Race to the Top) require testing at least once in high school in reading and math. In Maryland, where I taught, those tests were the state’s High School Assessments in tenth-grade English and algebra (which some of our more gifted pupils had taken as early as eighth grade). High schools are also forced to focus on preparing students for tests, and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms.

I mentioned that at least half my students were in AP classes. The explosive growth of these classes, driven in part by high school rankings like the yearly Challenge Indexcreated by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, is also responsible for some of the problems you will encounter with students entering your institutions. The College Board did recognize that not everything being labeled as AP met the standards of a college-level course, so it required teachers to submit syllabi for approval to ensure a minimal degree of rigor, at least on paper. But many of the courses still focus on the AP exam, and that focus can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed under No Child Left Behind.

Let me use as an example my own AP course, U.S. Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.

First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP U.S. Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinkingmay be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.

My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.

I would like to believe that I prepared them to think more critically and to present cogent arguments, but I could not simultaneously prepare them to do well on that portion of the test and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.

Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.

Further, the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level. I learned to balance these seemingly contradictory requirements. For much of the content I would give students summary information, sufficient to answer multiple-choice questions and to get some of the points on rubrics for the free response questions. That allowed me more time for class discussions and for relating events in the news to what we learned in class, making the class more engaging for the students and resulting in deeper learning because the discussions were relevant to their lives.

From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use what content knowledge they had.

The structure of testing has led to students arriving at our school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge in social studies, but the problem is not limited to this field. Students often do not get exposure to art or music or other nontested subjects. In high-need schools, resources not directly related to testing are eliminated: at the time of the teachers’ strike last fall, 160 Chicago public schools had no libraries. Class sizes exceeded forty students—in elementary school.

A Teacher’s Plea

As a retired public school teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to offer a caution to college professors, or perhaps to make a plea.

Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are. We have very little say in what is happening to public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. The National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be the representative of America’s teachers—if he or she cannot get teachers’ voices included, imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us. That is why, if you have not seen it, I strongly urge you to read 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen’s famous blog post, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” After listening to noneducators bloviate about schools and teaching without once asking for his opinion, he was finally asked what he thought. He offered the following:

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”

The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.

“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”

During my years in the classroom I tried to educate other adults about the realities of schools and students and teaching. I tried to help them understand the deleterious impact of policies that were being imposed on our public schools. I blogged, I wrote letters and op-eds for newspapers, and I spent a great deal of time speaking with and lobbying those in a position to influence policy, up to and including sitting members of the US House of Representatives and Senate and relevant members of their staffs. Ultimately, it was to little avail, because the drivers of the policies that are changing our schools—and thus increasingly presenting you with students ever less prepared for postsecondary academic work—are the wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage.

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

You should have a further selfish motivation. Those who have imposed the mindless and destructive patterns of misuse of tests to drive policy in K–12 education are already moving to impose it on higher education, at least in the case of the departments and schools of education that prepare teachers: they want to “rate” those departments by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates.

If you, as someone who teaches in the liberal arts or engineering or business, think that this development does not concern you, think again. It is not just that schools and colleges of education are major sources of revenue for colleges and universities—they are in fact often cash cows, which is why so many institutions lobby to be able initially to certify teachers and then to offer the courses (and degrees) required for continuing certification. If strictures like these can be imposed on schools and colleges of education, the time will be short before similar kinds of measure are imposed on other schools, including liberal arts, engineering, business, and conceivably even professional schools like medicine and law. If you teach either in a medical school or in programs that offer courses required as part of the pre-med curriculum, do you want the fatality rates of patients treated by the doctors whom you have taught to be used to judge your performance? If you think that won’t happen because you work at a private institution, remember that it is the rare private university that does not receive some form of funding from governments, local to national. Research grants are one example; the scholarships and loans used by students to attend your institution are another.

Let me end by offering my deepest apologies, not because I may have offended some of you by what I have written, but because even those of us who understood the problems that were being created were unable to do more to stop the damage to the education of our young people. Many of us tried. We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.

Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

Leave a comment

August 8, 2013 · 7:15 pm