Between a rock and a hard place...
Jonnie CometAugust 2001
Having spent what sometimes feels like an eon in and out of comprehensive schools in America in one capacity or another, I have discerned several distinct problems with the way they are run– especially in what is known as middle school, that for ages 11 to 14. This most precious age has been subjected to some of the most short-sighted and illogical educational notions ever to come along in the whole time of man; and in my humble estimation very little of it has been any good. What children of this age need most is consistency; and yet in the myriad of changes that face them, not only in their own society which is constantly and inevitably mutating, but in the realm of their educational environment which they ought to be able to trust as reliable, it’s no surprise that their lives should appear as topsy-turvy as they do to the rest of us. And then too many educators and parents blame this all on ‘hormones’, or ‘the way it is’, without ever speculating that their own contributions to the lives of these poor innocents could be improved dramatically and to the children’s infinite betterment. It doesn’t take an idiot to see that however goes the life of the young shall go the quality of the future. So why do we continue to treat our children like guinea pigs labouring under our own foolish and selfish schemes?
The following suggestions are offered in the interests of remedying what has become the norm for comprehensive middle school. An openminded educator truly interested in restoring quality education to the masses will recognise that any one of these suggestions, if implemented alone, would be a vast improvement on the average school of the American Northeast. All of them together could become an educational Utopia. The ideas have basis in psychology and scientific study, but are influenced by objective observation and reason just as much. They are not concerned with existing legal or financial issues. They do not come from long years in the ‘trenches’ of comprehensive-school education, and they pay no attention to needs or perceptions of teachers’ organisations or school administrations. Rather, in the spirit of Absolutism, they are intended to represent what ought to be– the ideal.
1. Stop making up cute names for everything.
When a class of people in public service tend to name every policy and process with cute acronyms or nicknames not understandable to the public (their employers) they appear as an elite group distancing themselves from the very people they are supposed to be enlightening. It is only the sincere, student-minded educator communicating in the common language of the people he serves who can ever be truly successful. In all my pædagogical studies I never really learned what all that terminology used by professional educators really meant. I still don’t know and now I care even less. There will be no reliance on esoteric ‘educator-speak’ jargon in this article.
2. Require parents to be responsible for their children’s education in a consistent and meaningful way.
School is not a day-care centre for busy adults to simply drop off children and leave all the educating stuff to ‘the professionals’. A family needs to expect that homework will be important, and optimistic standards of achievement need to be clearly understood. In all cases the blame for any child’s failure will rest primarily on his parents’ shoulders. If a student’s home environment is not conducive to his adequate achievement and behaviour in school, that family is jeopardising the child’s welfare. In fact a very good legal case might be made that a lack of appropriate involvement in a child’s success in school should be considered child abandonment or neglect.
3. Homogenise classes by ability.
This was always the way of schools in the past; yet for political reasons over the last 35 years the reverse policy has been applied, and the record shows it has failed. It is immeasurably more efficient for the teacher to reach all students in the class when the learning level of the students is essentially homogeneous– whether of high or low ability is immaterial. When the class is of mixed learning abilities teachers and students become frustrated and far less learning actually takes place at both ends of the scale. A policy of homogeneous grouping might also serve to deter schools and parents, and ultimately students, from seeking serendipitous ‘classification’ of students based on symptoms and behaviour.
4. Stop using ‘ADD’ as an educational or behavioural classification.
Far too many students of all ability levels have been classified as ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ when probably most of them are just rude or undisciplined. Classifying as ‘ADD’ does nothing to actually help the child in the long run; it only adds negative stigma to his self-esteem. What can be expected of an adult whose formative years were spent under the perception that he cannot control his own behaviour without drugs or special care? Career teachers will agree that such demonstrated learning troubles are far more likely the effect of a detrimental home environment than of an actual clinical condition. Firmer, more attentive parenting will render much of this issue inconsequential.
5. Sponsor more upper-level lesson plans, learning activities, enrichment programmes and even whole classes of students.
It is glaringly obvious that there’s been a void at the upper strata of academic ability for too long. Comprehensive schools spend far more of their time, effort and budget on modifying even the most basic lessons to keep the lowest-level achievers out of the failure ranks than they do promoting achievement among those with the most potential for success. Not only do bona-fide enrichment programmes for the bona-fide high achievers benefit the learners, they also benefit the schools themselves since the academic reputation of these students will ultimately become that of the whole school.
6. Segregate classes by gender through the middle-school years.
Only the naïve and the narrowminded deny the plain scientific fact that girls and boys of this age learn different things at different rates. More often than not ‘high-technology’ and ‘real-world-relevant’ subjects are taught enthusiastically at the boys’ level, thus perpetuating the idea of girls being a lesser caste. In reality, girls outperform boys in other areas in which the boys’ ability has not yet reached that of the girls. From a human-rights view it is only fair to educate each sex on its own terms, giving them identical material but at appropriate rates and in appropriate sequence. With the distraction of the opposite sex set aside for a few years, attention to wardrobe, fashion, and flirting is decreased whilst gender identity and healthy self-esteem are enhanced. Both sexes gain more respect for the other when they come together only in structured, mixed functions. And there need be no major adjustment to budget or scheduling. Remember that the scope of the US Constitution does not enforce coeducational comprehensive schooling– it only requires that education be conducted responsibly and without discrimination. So, in light of the facts, it is very likely we are being discriminatory by indiscriminately subjecting all students to an inflexible curriculum without regard to the immutable characteristic of sex.
7. Refrain from considering ‘block scheduling’ (the doubling of class period time) in the middle school.
You are facing an age group whose short attention span and susceptibility to distractions are legendary. These students will do far better in shorter, discrete class times for specific subjects, so that the student is aware before the bell rings just what the objectives of the class and his responsibilities for meeting them will be. The goal must be to wean them from the all-in-one-class environment of primary school towards the more open scheduling of upper school and university; and concretely delineating lessons and meeting times reinforces this.
8. Quash the dated and failed notion of ‘whole-language’ in lieu of discrete grammar and literature classes.
Students of this age may never again have the opportunity to fully learn the basic principles of grammar, conjugation of verbs, parts of speech, and rules and terms of rhetoric. Too many schools intermingle grammar and reading in the interests of providing class time for computers or Spanish when the students are still functionally illiterate in English. They will not get more of this in most high schools; so however they are at the end of 8th year will be their highest level of proficiency– and in most cases it’s not good enough. Further, reading needs to be emphasised as the most crucial of all subjects, fundamental to all the student’s future studies anywhere, no matter what the genre. Yet middle schools are often content to have elementary-certified teachers in maths and science ‘take over’ reading instruction as their fifth class assignment, rather than using bona-fide reading educators who are capable of appropriate techniques and more likely to teach more thoroughly and impose higher standards.
9. Abolish ‘teaming’ (the forming of exclusive subsets of a large student body based on arbitrary or random criteria).
Ironically it is the big, impersonal regional school districts which tout the sacred goals of American comprehensive schools, ‘inclusion’ and ‘globalism’, who have promoted teaming as a way to establish smaller, more intimate ‘neighbourhoods’. Teaming is nothing more than the arbitrary structuring of student cliques. It perpetuates the provincial immaturity of primary school, babying students too often babied by everyone else. Ultimately the awakening will be rude indeed if they’ve never had the experience of finding themselves in a class full of strangers, as in high school, which usually assigns students only according to time, subject, learning level and space criteria. And teaming is hardly analogous to the real world in which many occupations assign associates to many different groups in different areas. The real reason for teaming is to allow teachers of the same core 100 students to meet regularly– an issue solved by simply providing them more time to meet with colleagues about curriculum. Benefits to teachers should never be balanced against detriments to student environments.
10. Do not rely on money to solve fundamental problems.
It always seems that the worst-performing schools are the ones most loudly clamoring for more money and complaining when they don’t get enough. Does no-one else recognise the reverse correlation here? Any school administration with such a focus on raising funds from the outside are obviously not focused on education. American public education began with one woman in one room teaching twelve children with no money. Projects were cut out of paper and books were cherished as the priceless opportunity for enlightenment they really were. Lunch was a bowl of soup off the fire and science objectives were achieved with walks through the garden. There were no computers or security systems. School status was determined by students’ performance. The basic underlying principle was that of care for children. This is still valid today. Poorer schools doing things like the above can and do work, through the commitment of teachers and with the help of concerned parents. Air-conditioning, carpeting, and computers in every classroom are not guarantees of success in the important areas of a school’s mission. Though a school may not be at the height of fashion for the given time, if its purpose is clear and those involved are dedicated to it, they may achieve far and above what those posh schools with their so-called ‘amenities’ are doing.
11. Bring back ‘industrial arts’.
Only the out-of-touch will insist that every middle-school student has an equal chance at a lucrative liberal-arts university education. And all benefit from even basic knowledge of engine repair, electrical circuitry, woodworking, metallurgy, sewing, cooking, and health service. Draughtsmanship, starting with pencil and paper, is invaluable in teaching the principles of proportion and perspective, concepts inextricably tied to maths and physics yet too often alien to designers who have never designed anything without a computer mouse. Instead of blithely skipping over ‘trades’ training which many claim is ‘beneath’ them or their children, we ought to be fostering education in all fields of study, handiworks included. Otherwise the hot-shot ‘dot-com’ entrepreneur has no right to argue that TV repairmen and carpenters are overcharging him for work he does not understand and making such a good living at it too.
12. Don’t put so much emphasis on computer education in the curriculum.
It is a plain waste of time to devote a full class period every day (or even every week) to computer training when these students are going to get that information on their own, one way or the other, sooner or later. If industry requires a computer education, let industry provide it; but this is not the job of the publicly-sponsored school. Besides computing has got so easy that any idiot can master nearly any widely-used business programme in about two weeks on the job; and best of all he will have learnt it the way the business wants him to and not on the waning equipment of a comprehensive school scrambling to upgrade their systems on the backs of the taxpayers (including those industry owners).
13. Reinforce standards in penmanship and require handwritten papers.
This will never be an entirely paperless society and the writing abilities of many so-called educated Americans are bad enough as it is. It might be beneficial to use copies of handwritten memos by haughty industry executives and ‘dot-com’ entrepreneurs in the classroom as pertinent (and entertaining) examples of functional illiteracy. If a purpose of comprehensive schools is to make each succeeding generation more knowledgeable and better skilled than the last, this is one area which if applied, even alone, cannot help but be successful in that goal.
14. Teach and enforce standard English grammar and rhetoric more assertively.
Testing standards in literacy need to be progressively raised year by year, ad infinitum. In this growing world clear, concise communication is increasingly crucial. The differences between casual expression, including slang, idiom, and jargon, and formal speech and writing appropriate for larger audiences must be emphasised and consistently demonstrated. This is particularly important in those ‘other’ realms of language arts, listening and speaking. Many media materials preferred by teachers, such as popular films on video, serve only as negative illustrations. Verbal instructions with no written back-up on the chalkboard need to be given more frequently and for increasingly important assignments. Students’ speech needs to be more closely monitored, both in the span of class time and elsewhere in the school domain, as their independent application of standard English is analogous to their proficiency in it. Both these examples are directly pertinent to the real world, in which verbal directions may be given only once and one’s oral adequacy may be instrumental in being preferred for a job or promotion.
15. Resurrect abstinence as a principal theme in all ‘health’ or ‘sex education’ curricula.
Both the simplest and the wisest of us know that the only way to completely avoid sexually-transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, and loss of adults’ respect is to not risk it in the first place. It may be only because today’s young teenagers are being raised by the sexually-liberated children of the ’60s and ’70s; but somewhere the whole notion of safety and decency in relations with the opposite sex went out the window. Modern schools are more likely to pass out condoms, thus encouraging children to enjoy themselves in ignorance and with a false sense of security, than they are to promote a healthy self-image and the idea of a good reputation. So long as man is an animal there will be hormones; but the part that makes us human is our ability to make rational decisions; and surely even the arrogant and the puerile will agree that for the 11- to 14-year-old, the correct choice is to say no.
16. Teach, demonstrate, require and enforce etiquette and respect, especially amongst students and towards staff.
Throughout the last 200 years American educators and politicians have been so focussed on removing class barriers and on endowing everyone with equal rights that the politically-incorrect idea of ‘social superiors’ has become an alien concept. It is simply reasonable that just by virtue of his position a schoolteacher ought to expect some degree of respect from his students, especially within the classroom or school walls. There can be no tolerance for a student who will not comply with that. A student does not have the inalienable right to address the teacher in the casual disdainful manner he would use with a teenaged peer, over trivial points of only personal relevance, and in the open classroom. Defiance and disrespect are taught by conditioning, both by school policies and the greater social sphere; and the only response to that must be counter-conditioning. The school which teaches and enforces manners and respect, even to the point of invoking disciplinary sanctions against those out of line, will always be efficient at conveying meaningful education from elders to children. And any body of students who treat each other and their superiors with insufficient respect will always appear as a failure, to the students, the faculty, the public and especially to the taxpayers’ purses.
However archaic some of these ideas may seem, they address the intrinsic problems manifest in American middle schools for over three decades. Of course points like these are raised whenever the issue of ‘reform’ comes up; but in the end politics, emotion and perceptions about money cause them to be swept under the carpet. The worst factor is that of fear on the part of educators– fear that some arrogant dissenter somewhere is going to call foul, fear that some sensibility of some amoral atheist is going to be offended, fear that a lawyer may show someone’s civil liberties are being compromised. In reality none of the improvements here proposed should appear anything but sound to the most responsible members of a community. Yet American comprehensive education often seems incongruously devoid of a policy of effort towards expectations, behaviour with consequences, and responsibility to something greater than self and comfort. Only when this most fundamental oversight is corrected can the true reform begin. As an Absolutist, and parent, I can only hope, and pray, that no further damage is done to the children’s generation whilst the educators and parents and communities continue to bicker over their own concerns.
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