Tuesday, September 28, 2010

School Days

I went to the same school from first grade (there was no kindergarten in our district) through graduation from senior high school. It was a terrific school, state of the art, for those dark ages of the 1940s and 50s. When I arrived at college, there were kids who were far more cosmopolitan, far more aware of the arts, but there were none who would have had any educational advantage over me had I worked as hard in high school as those who had ranked higher than me in class standing, instead of indulging in the fooling around that I preferred. Even given this, the quality of my school was such that I was fully able, had I wanted to do so, to graduate with excellent grades from college. If I had lived in a different school district to the north, south, east or west of Reedville-Charlotte, I would have had the same quality of education.

During the late 60s, the 70s and later, people set about making schools ‘better’ and there were ways in which my school could have been better, I suppose. And there is no question that there were bad schools back in my era; the film Blackboard Jungle, as well as a number of other similar works in films and books were reflective of some conditions in some schools; in some of the rural, poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia and the South, for instance, schools were probably pretty bad. But in district after district in the North, Midwest and Far West, as well as the better off (white) schools in the South, education was damn good.

Of course there were great inspirational teachers – at every class reunion there are a handful of names that always come up – and there were those who were merely good but who are remembered with affection by a few students from each class, and there were mediocre teachers and there were bad teachers. But even with the worst of the bad, we learned – I learned - what I needed to know. There was no such thing in our school as a teacher who didn’t know his or her subject or curriculum; bad teachers were those who could not teach their class. They might be obsessed with discipline or too timid to maintain control or have some other failing and the very bad ones rarely lasted beyond a year. These, however, were a very small minority. I had one really bad teacher – my sixth grade teacher, who was gone after a year. I had one ineffective science teacher, whose problem was an inability to exert any control in class, but we did manage to learn the subject, even if we were not inspired at all.

A goodly number of the best students in my class went on to spend their lives as teachers, one or two are still teaching although they are beyond the normal age for retirement. I have kept in contact with a number of people with whom I graduated and many of them tell me that teaching was a joy for most of their career, but that every year did seem to get worse. I once asked my good friend who became a teacher – one of the guys that was my housemate during that wonderful carefree surfing year in Southern California – why it was that in this area of Western New York, where there was little school violence, little abject poverty, only a modest variation between the wealthiest and the poorest families, and where there was pretty decent parent involvement, why the schools just get worse and worse, and the first thing he said was, “Every time a parent sits across from you at a parent-teacher meeting, there is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

He told me, for instance, that the parent of a “C” student sued when that student was not asked to join the National Honor Society – and won. He said that now in his school membership in the Honor Society is open to anyone who wants to join. When I was in school, those kids who got asked to join the Honor Society had to be top students as well as exemplary in behavior. I had the grades to be admitted, but I was not invited to join. Why? This was because I was a behavioral problem. I knew it and, although I was disappointed, I knew the failure to be invited was my fault, and I knew exactly why. My parents knew this as well (and were more than willing to pass this knowledge on!); they sure did not blame the school, the teachers, the times, the schoolboard or the school bus driver for this situation. I don’t recall my mother actually saying anything, but I know if she had, it would be some variation on, “What did you expect?”

My parents were pretty busy with nine kids, and they were not active in the school, although they did attend individual parent-teacher conferences when requested, and PTA at times and, very rarely, some extracurricular activity in which I was involved. I did well, though not spectacularly, in school, my sister was near the top of her class, while a number of my brothers failed to graduate, but they got damn good educations nonetheless. Gary did not join any activities and did not achieve the required grades in one or two classes, so he was not allowed to graduate. (He did later get a GED). He was elected Justice of the Peace in his town, as well as being a member of the volunteer fire department, the local volunteer ambulance driver and a scoutmaster. So even though he did not graduate, he got a damn good education, and was a far greater contributor to his community than I ever was.

I have been watching the news this week as the discussion has centered on National Education Week or whatever it is, and on the powerful new documentary film Waiting for Superman. I saw the filmmaker on Oprah, and I saw Governor Christie of NJ and Mayor Booker of Newark talk about changes needed. I have seen some footage of Michelle Rhee, the crusading superintendent of DC schools. And it is pretty clear the new demon in education is teachers’ unions, which protect incompetent teachers.

I know that this is a big problem and I do hope that the issue of tenure for poorly performing teachers will be torn from the control of the unions. But I also noticed that a survey showed that, when asked who caused the problems in the schools, elected officials and parents ranked above unions and teachers on the list. My experience is that my rare encounters with poor teachers did not stop me from learning or cause me to drop out, they merely made school attendance a miserable experience for that year, or for the hour each day in which I endured them. I still learned what I needed to learn even though I never was reliable about doing my homework. We did not have teachers’ unions, so it is easy to say that the rise of the unions must be the problem. But really, it is only one of the problems, and not, I believe, the biggest of them.

There are several bigger problems and I know what they are; thank you for asking.

First, although schools must now spend an inordinate amount of resources to teach the exceptional students – exceptional in terms of physical or mental handicap – for the vast majority there is a ‘one size fits all’ mentality now in schools. Like the “C” student who can now join Honor Society, there are kids who love cooking or fixing things or selling things or drawing or any number of ‘vocational’ type skills who are being pushed into college-bound scheduling and who are being measured against those kids who are drawn to college required subjects. The greatest teacher on Earth cannot make a boy who loves to fix cars change his passion to English Literature. And this greatest teacher should not try.  If he or she is truly great, then he or she will NOT try and will thereby lose his or her job.

Previously in NY, there was a state Board of Regents who mandated a curriculum for students who wish to receive a ‘Regents Diploma,’ which qualified him or her to enroll in college. A third, at least, of the kids in my school opted to get ‘local diplomas’. These students went to school, had classes in English, math and so forth but spent much time in classes such as typing (who knew keyboard skills would be a college necessity one day?), shorthand, home economics, shop and agriculture. They were learning how things worked, even if they were light on why Heathcliff loved Cathy. My observation is that these kids tended, in later years, to remain in the local area and to become the local leaders, the driving force in volunteer work, the best members of the school boards; they opened restaurants and small shops such as local auto repair shops and generally became the small entrepreneurs that so many politicians extoll (and ignore). They became, like Gary, the local volunteers in all kinds of areas – areas which required practical experience and hard work toward specific useful goals. On school boards they are often the ones who want to make things work, rather than spend hours discussing ideological texts and better ways of doing what is already working beautifully. We do not need a ‘new math’, the old math works perfectly.

The vocational (non-college-bound) classes should be restored and made respectable. Even in my time, there was a whiff of ‘second tier’ to the shop and secretarial students. But these were the ones who stayed in the community, who made things work locally, who grew (or continued) to love their town. Many of them later did seek some further education, after they knew who they were and what they wanted to be and what they needed to get there. The college kids moved to cities and moved from place to place bringing to any school involvement new theories and a profound lack of any sense of what the local community was all about. They often want to improve what needs no improvement and are indifferent to what really brings in a paycheck for most graduates while he or she is waiting to be elected president. Taking the position that all kids must go to college is no different than taking the position that all black urban youngsters should aim for the NBA. The number of kids in a school who go on to college should be only ONE measure of that school’s excellence. Of course, a decent math and language performance, as well as some knowledge of history, are essential for all, but the college bound curricula are not.

Second: The parents, the community at large, and the school board supported the teachers in the 50s. The parents thought and acted in terms of ‘our kids’; now an inordinately large percentage of parents think only of ‘my kid’. I cannot think of a single instance where my parents did not support school or teacher decisions, even when that meant one of their kids came in second best. When I was expelled from school (twice) my parents NEVER questioned the decision, nor did they expect to override any teacher in that or any other matter. In this they were not extraordinary – this was the attitude of nearly all parents in our district. Parents' response (after making themselves highly unpleasant to the child in question) was to contact the school and ask what the child must do to improve the situation. And you damn betcha that child was the one who did the hard part – apologize, work harder, accept the consequences, stay after school in detention, repair the damage. Were the teachers ever wrong? – sure, although rarely. When I had that terrible sixth grade teacher, my mother’s response was, “It’s only a year; next year will be better.” That is a very valuable lesson – it has stood me in greater stead than all the math and science I learned that year.

Part of supporting a teacher is being very flexible when the teacher’s methods or behavior or material (within limits of course) are unorthodox. In my senior year, we had a young teacher who made a point of being somewhat of an enfant terrible. He would stagger in unshaven on Monday in the same clothes he had worn on Friday saying something like, “God! I need to sit down!” (OK – this happened once). He was definitely contemptuous of the normal class material. He made us read Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot, which were not in the curriculum, at a time when Robert Frost and Longfellow were pretty much the cutting edge. He taught drama and was pretty brusque when one did not perform up to par. He was not prone to break things gently. When two of us wanted to take a fourth year of Latin, he added us into his third year Latin group and spent part of his time with the third year kids and part of his time with the two of us. But you better believe we didn’t get away with just translating Virgil; we had to translate it into poetry. I will never forget his face when he learned that a substitute teacher during his absence allowed us to translate a line as “Say, Miss, why is everybody rushing to the river?” This man did so much to make me know and love good writing, even though he didn’t really single me out much or spent extra time mentoring. What he did do was make me know that doing OK, or merely being understood, wasn’t really very good. He is one of the teachers whose name always comes up at any reunion.

We also had a teacher whose political views were well known and freely expressed – a history teacher who was also passionate about his subject, and his students’ performance. Yet kids emerged from a year with him with wildly differing political views – most commonly kids’ views reflected their parents beliefs, not those of even the most ardent teacher. So vetting the classroom for subversion is a counterproductive, wasteful and foolish exercise. People who need everyone to believe as they do reflect only the weakness of their own convictions. If I am right, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me OR to my kids.

One thing I heard while watching these various shows castigating teachers’ unions was that we need to get rid of poor and mediocre teachers. I concur that we must weed out poor teachers, but I contend that a mediocre teacher will be perfectly adequate in an excellent school, with support from parents and the school administration. It would be impossible for every school in America to be staffed with nothing but superstar teachers. There are a lot of great teachers, but not that many. Just as any large company does, a school will perform perfectly well, and students will learn everything they need to know, when adequately performing men and women are intermingled in schools with superior ones.  Expectations of, and insistence on, superior outcomes for a school as a whole, matters hugely.  This is measured by a child knowing how to do something well enough to be a desirable employee or a successful entrepreneur, but that something need not always be math or science, or another college-centric discipline.

Third: Schools are too big. It is not so much that classes are too large as that schools themselves are too large. My old school district and a great many of the exurban school districts in Western NY encompass two townships or more. This was fine when it meant that a senior class might total 100 students or less. But now the same area provides hundreds of students at each grade level. The cost in transportation and logistical support, the inability of single families to impact decisions without resorting to a courtroom, the likelihood that school boards are composed of politically ambitious ideologues who are unknown personally to most voters and who are more interested in imposing their views than in all kids doing well. Even bullying would probably be greatly lessened, in severity if not in incidence, in smaller schools. To start with, the parents would be more likely to know each other and siblings are more likely to be aware of each other’s situations. When Michelle Rhee talks about schools currently being for the adults rather than the kids, this size issue is not what she seems to be addressing, but it should be a big part of it. Small class sizes are good, but they are not as important as small school size. In the one-room school days, there were a lot of kids in the care of a single teacher, and worse, they were split among several different grade levels, so that only an hour or two per day was given to any one grade. Yet, look at the graduates these schools produced – many of the greatest of the Greatest Generation came from just such schools. Would the sports teams in gigantic high schools be reduced in quality? Probably, but in high school this is not such a big deal (and a local Christian school near me, which is so small that nearly all the boys had to play in order to field a team, recently played to a very impressive level against much larger schools). The great ballplayers before World War II came from somewhere, even though these mega-schools did not exist then. School sports might even be fun again for the average-performing kids, which, I am here to tell you, they emphatically are not now. Somehow the same folks who applaud the ideal in Little League that everybody gets to play, are just as eager to restrict their high school teams from having any members who are not professional material whenever possible. Talk about school being for the adults!

I really suspect that the negative impact of teachers’ unions is not so much in its protection of abysmal teachers’ jobs as it is in conveying to the majority of good teachers that "it doesn’t matter how well I do". This is a crucial distinction. It is not that they are protecting the bad, but that they are not protecting the good in a sense. In every company I have worked, and as a consultant I have worked in many well-known companies such as Halliburton, Texas Instruments, John Deere, Greyhound, Textron, Timken, Toro, Bechtel, Allison Engine (even though I cannot remember if it is spelled with one ‘L’ or two!), PG&E, DuPont, Saudi Iron & Steel, Accenture and others, as well as governments – San Francisco, NASA, Royal Commission of Jubail, and even a college, it was not a problem for performance or for morale when there were bad employees who kept their jobs. The negative impact on both morale and performance was when it did not matter how well the good employees performed. It isn’t even a case of the best making more money. It was important that the best be listened to and that respect (and possible promotion) be accorded to the good performers. An emphasis on excellence and a recognition thereof, even if it did not mean more money, was the crux.  The outstanding performers must feel that they make a difference, no matter how this recognition is expressed. There will always be super-performers and there will always be duds. But the great middle was moved toward excellence in the companies which had standards, not of dress and deportment or of time required in the office or on the job, but of excellence in the common result – the product and company's reputation for service. Where one merely had to meet goals – pieces output, programs written, hours in attendance – where ‘good enough’ was the standard – then the great middle was moved toward cynicism, time-serving and corner-cutting. It is essential that the top-level people in a company be subject to the same standards and rules as the bottom people. The worst places had the most inflexible rules, hours, dress codes, the greatest deference to seniority (this tends to cause the best young talent to leave), and often the most ‘official’ recognitions and rewards – such as service awards (although these latter also showed up at the best places). I recall at one very low-morale company (with a strong union), an employee threw her 'years of service' pin back at the supervisor because he had not presented it to her on the exact day she reached that level. This was symbolic of an overall malaise, not of a specific failure. It is also a very bad sign when a promotion signals release from some of the behavioral restrictions that apply to the levels below.

But I am digressing. And you are very likely sick of reading. Go forth and be strong.


  1. Although I didn't go to my last high school reunion, I read a couple of articles about it written by some school mates. A few of our favorite teachers were there, a couple looking younger than the students! Ours was a small school in a small community and we had few college-bound kids. A questionnaire sent out before the reunion asked our opinion of the quality of education we got. Only one person thought it was sub-par. And that wasn't me. I learned a lot from the subjects I loved, and nothing from those I didn't, being overwhelmed by my social failures. I am amazed that anything got through to me; I'm just glad it did--my love of words, grammar, even diagraming, literature, and the tiny bit of psychological subjects that were provided. And thank God! for shorthand and typing! I mean, where would I be if not for that? I watch with pained interest now as stories of current school bullying/suicides/and worse play out in the news, and the reluctance of some superior brains to believe that the reasons are that simple.

    But that's not what I'm writing about now--I just wanted to tell you I finished "Arabella" and liked it quite a bit--who knew there were lapdogs around even then--for some reason I thought they were a more recent phenomenon. I'm in the middle of "Friday's Child" which I like even more. I was pokey though, and snuck in another book before finishing "Arabella" and got a return reminder by e-mail from the library. I thought I would just, last minute, renew it on my computer, only to find someone else was waiting for "Arabella," so I could not renew it and since it was too late at night to return it right then, I had to take it in yesterday morning and pay 15 cents! I just have a feeling the person requesting that book is one of your readers--right up here in Washington! Don't you agree?

    My favorite, Norah Lofts, is a writer of much darker stuff. If you ever decide to try one of hers, I recommend "The Lute Player."

  2. Your comment exactly states my points about these smaller schools in our era. I just went to my 50th reunion a few days ago (I was asked to make a few remarks!) and it was awesome. I really liked those guys. I sensed from others that all felt our education was tops.

    I have read Lofts, but I am not into Georgette for her historical or even her romance aspects so much as her funny and witty characters. Her research, though, is flawless (she ever had a character use a phrase that she had not found in at least two sources from the time). I feel like I know exactly how people looked and felt and ate and talked after reading her. You might like to try "These Old Shades" before "Devil's Cub" since the hero and heroine in the first are the parents of the hero of the second. Also I recommend "Venetia", "Regency Buck", "The Grand Sophy" (this is the fave of some of my female friends)and "The Corinthian". By then you should be so hooked you will experience withdrawal if you can't find more. Thank god they are reissuing her stuff, because none of us fans have EVER found her in used book stores (except the mysteries which are inferior) - people hold on to their Georgettes!