Why People Think Educators Are Fools

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

Suppose your doctor used the words “treatment” and “surgery” interchangeably.

“Your child has a cold. Give him plenty of rest and lots of liquids. That’s the best surgery.”
“Excuse me, Doc?”
“Rest and liquids. That’s the only operation he’ll need.”
“You mean treatment, right?
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“No, you said he needs surgery.”
“Surgery, treatment. Same thing.”

There are probably not many doctors who would conflate the two terms. Neither are there many lawyers who think “conviction” and “settlement” are synonyms. We wouldn’t have much confidence in those that do. So why then, should we take seriously the opinion of any “expert” who can’t or won’t differentiate between “standards” and “content”?

Teaching Grammar By Osmosis

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

OK, fess up.  You don’t know what a dangling participle is, and you couldn’t pick the past perfect tense out of a police lineup.  Neither can I.    But you know nouns from verbs.  And you can probably tell the difference between a complete sentence, a fragment, and a run-on.  Consider yourself part of a vanishing breed.  Writing at Betrayed–Why Public Education is Failing, Robert Archer, a high school English teacher in Spokane, Washington estimates that fewer than 10% of his 10th graders have command of basic grammar.

“Honestly, it’s gotten to the point that trying to make my way through the grammatical land mines that await me anytime I assign a writing assessment becomes so painstakingly tedious that even the solid content of any given essay becomes lost in the ghastly-writing-skills shrapnel. (And don’t even get me started on the spelling skills of this generation of non-phonics-learning texters! OMG!)

“When high school students cannot use their own language correctly, their overall communication skills—both in written and oral form—suffer tremendously,” writes Archer, who blames curriculum developers for his students’ poor skills.  Somewhere along the line, he writes “teaching grammar has become something that we teachers can simply ‘imbed’ into the reading and writing curriculum.”  Trouble is, it’s not working. 

“I’m sorry, but in my experience, the term “imbedded” is nothing more than educationalese for ‘not ever specifically taught.’ Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It’s very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to “discover” proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces. Then, somehow and some way, they are to emulate these proper mechanical structures in their own writing. And if the students don’t quite “take it all in,” the teacher may take 2.5 minutes here and there to show them what a damn verb is.”

“When I’m hoping for nothing more than 3-4 grammatically correct sentences being strung together at a time as the sign of a “good” paper, then my expectations have dropped far, far too low,” Archer concludes.  “Yet, sadly, this is exactly to what I’ve resigned myself.”

Preach it, brother.  And teach it.

Afflicting the Comfortable

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Finley Peter Dunne  (1867 — 1936)

Is there any newspaper in America right now more varied, cacophonous, and fearlessly independent in its education coverage than the Washington Post? 

Over the weekend, the Post’s Dana Milbank suggested that if Ed Sec. Arne Duncan wants to get serious about curbing bullying in U.S. schools, he should start by reigning in “the the biggest bully in America’s schools right now,” President Obama.  “In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs — bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama’s revered community organizers.”  Obama, Milbank writes, has taken the Bush obsession with testing and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed — despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he’s offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.

Locally, Bill Turque has run afoul of Michelle Rhee and even his own paper with his coverage of the DC school system, while the editorial page is consistently supportive of the DC chancellor.  In the blogosphere, the Post’s Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews often come across as the Carville and Matalin of edubloggers, with the latter generally supportive of the ed reform agenda, and the former mightily skeptical.  

Milbank’s piece this weekend is spectacularly pointed, calling out the admininstration for an obsession with testing and refusal to listen to criticism.

“There’s an attitude that if you aren’t with us, you are against us — and therefore against children and reform,” a Democratic friend of mine who runs an education advocacy group in Washington told me. The administration, she said, “tries to bully and condemn any opposition, even if it is from groups that should be their allies.”

The Post is clearly giving its writers and opinionators a long leash.  Agree or disagree with their varied takes–and it’s impossible not to do one or the other, often daily–it’s bravura newspapering, and consistently great reading.