Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mr. N's Curmudgeonly Rant About Everything That is Wrong With the World Today / U-C-L-A Fight Fight Fight

I am very proud to announce, gentle reader, some good news: 6 of our graduating seniors were just admitted to UCLA.  If that doesn't sound like many, consider that it is over 10% of the class.  Suddenly we don't look like such a failing school after all, as long as you never step into a freshman English class.

When I breathlessly shared this news with my Mom, her response was (in kinder terms), how the hell is the same school that produces students who think it's acceptable to write an essay in text-message format also producing UCLA-calibur students?  It's an interesting question, and when boiled down to the skeleton, it becomes this: given the same environment, why do some succeed while others fail?

I don't pretend to know the answer to this question; it seems to fall into that mysterious category of inter-individual variation that we see in any biological community.  I should mention that these students do not represent the average at our school; these 6 students just-so-happened to be the AP Calculus class.

Holding income, family background, and so on constant, some students just seem to "get" school better than others.  Whether that quality is intelligence depends on whether you think that our school system has an accurate grasp on how smart our kids really are, whether forcing students to sit at a desk and passively absorb information necessarily weeds out those budding intellectuals who can't seem to sit still, etc. etc.

And I submit that, for those students who "get" school, a small, college-focused charter is a pretty damn good place to be.  The teachers are young, cool, and sexy (kidding about that last one).  College is mentioned every few minutes, and, for those who actually see an academic career in their future, it really can be an empowering message.  Everyone knows your name and your business and greets you in the hallway -- how did babysitting your cousin go last night?  How's that community college class you're taking? and so on.

The Tardigrade -- My favorite animal

In an environment like our campus, the kids who "get" school don't necessarily have to choose between smart and popular.  Kids routinely come to me to ask for extra work, and I happily edit their poems and journals, guide them through college-level genetics textbooks, or discuss with them our mutual fascination for the Tardigrade during biology class (look it up -- you won't be disappointed, promise).

That's not to say that we're an elite, streamlined operation that churns kids out to the Ivy Leagues -- at least half of our students don't meet the description I'm making, and we're fighting an uphill battle when you look out the window and see the dirty, spray-painted sidewalks, and realize that many of our students can't name a single book they enjoy (one sample exchange: Me: "You don't have any favorite books?  Or magazines?" Girl: "Well... I read MySpace... and text messages.").  Nor do they know a single person who's been to college, or really register what college attendance means; they know the odds are stacked against them, but they don't know what they're supposed to be fighting for.  Rich kids know a secret poor kids don't -- college is fun.


The saddest part of all, I think, is that the way our educational system is set up, I have to sort of waste everyone's time.  My class moves along at a fairly plodding pace, which is necessary to avoid losing the bottom half of the class, but bores the bejeezus out of the top half.  The brutal irony is, however, that the bottom half don't really seem to want to go to college anyway.  I believe that biology is the most elegant subject in the entire world, and I revel in telling my students about the classic experiments, the great heroes, the the staggering weight of the knowledge yet to be uncovered -- and still, I acknowledge that the majority of the world doesn't really need to know it, beyond a basic level of familiarity.

Obviously I am not advocating cutting students off from scientific literacy -- heaven forbid less Americans believe in evolution and global warming than do now -- but the level of rigor of the standards I have to teach is ridiculous.  Plumbers and roofers do not need to be able to explain the function of mitochondrial membranes in cellular respiration, but the state of California certainly loves to pretend that they do.

I'm sure 100% of my readers remember how these work, right?

If it were up to me, by high school students would be tracked into two separate categories: academic and vocational.  While this would make the majority of educators today terribly squeamish, if you honestly asked each of our students if they wanted to go to college, I firmly believe that about a fourth of our students would say "no" (and this is, recall, at a school that parents had to choose to send their kids to, with the expectation that it would be a college-prep environment).  I do not mean that we should separate students into haves and have-nots, but this idea we have of college attendance being the ultimate goal for every student is (a) logistically impossible given the number of colleges today, (b) demeaning to students who don't get in, or don't want to, and (c) barring the non-scholars from getting relevant education and experience that would enable them to get solid jobs and join the middle class.

But for the rest of them, finding out that in college you can go to a keg party and call it "networking" will be a welcome surprise.


  1. wow, tardigrades can survive vacuums in low Earth orbit for 10 days.


  2. You're assuming the ongoing and stable existence of vocational jobs that pay middle class wages. In the current climate of union-busting, I think that assumption is mistaken.

    I have other problems with this take - I mean, do you think Lloyd Blankfein needs to know much about cells in his job? Does the current political debate on global warming suggest that our well-paid pundits are scientifically literate?

    Moreover, in an institutionally racist and classist society, I don't think you can avoid racist and classist groupings. And I'm very hesitant to create circumscribed outcomes based on what students believe they want at fifteen.

  3. @E. Rat:

    I'm going to tackle each of your three paragraphs one at a time.

    1. I understand your point about this -- manufacturing is, for now, looking pretty kaput -- but the United States will always need electricians, construction workers, and so on. Plus, as the service, technology, and health sectors continue to expand, the United States will need plenty of tech support people and RNs and so on, which I would argue are middle-class vocational jobs. The challenge of implementing this type of system is that one would need to predict at least the general sort of skill-set that would be required for tomorrow's jobs.
    1a. The shrinking of the middle class is, of course, an even larger issue than education, and sadly attracts far less attention. I do believe that this issue needs to be tackled as well. As you point out, this may be a prerequisite to this type of educational reform.
    1b. I also recognize the social engineering-type implications that this type of reasoning has, and I don't mean to disguise the thorniness of that.

    2. I assume most of the people who become pundits would have been on the pre-college track. One of the consequences of this system is, I think, that science education would improve across the board. Those with a sincere interest in going to college would learn the minutiae, hopefully accompanied by high-level labs (e.g. PCR and electrophoresis) that would actually make them relevant; those who weren't planning to go to college could learn more general scientific literacy and not worry about how mitochondrial membranes work. Our system now does a disservice to both groups of students, but the biggest is that neither learn the big picture -- because we teach to a middle that does not necessarily exist.

    3. I do not dispute that our society is institutionally racist and classist. As a positivist, I believe that it is possible in theory to design a non-racist/classist test of aptitude, and this test could be implemented in my plan. Nor do I wish to downplay the thorniness of this issue; such a test, to my mind, does not exist yet, and barring the creation of such a test my proposal would have to be put on indefinite hold.


    Our current educational system is clearly failing poor and minority students, often because these students do not have access to hegemonic culture at home, receive fewer enrichment activities than their counterparts, and so on. If carefully implemented, I would hope that poor and minority students would actually have a better chance at attending a truly "college preparatory" school than they do now.

    Very open to debate, of course, and I appreciate your thoughts!

  4. I don't think economic evidence suggests that the changing American economy will lead to the continued existence of a middle class. Service jobs don't pay well, and what studies suggest is that we're going to need more nurse aides than RNs. Where I live, that's a minimum-wage pursuit.

    My bigger argument in re curricula/what we teach is that I believe there is a standard set of skills everyone needs, no matter what their eventual career may be. Specifically, I think everyone benefits from basic numeracy, statistical analysis and the ability to write simply and clearly. Moreover, I believe these skills can be taught and assessed.

    There's also the issue of modernity: I think students at least need to see themselves as people who competently use computers, and there may be some technological applications and abilities that are critical knowledge. Much of what we teach is of limited application because it is outdated.

    I am not convinced that there is a body of specialized knowledge that must be introduced in K-12 so that some body of people can use it in their careers. There are plenty of very technical subjects that aren't covered in K-12 at all, yet people who care to study them in college and beyond.

    Short version: I know many people who can explain in great detail how cell metabolism works but can't recognize bad statistics in an op-ed. In terms of building a functioning society, I think the latter is the base skill.

    In terms of cultural competence, I think we fail students when we do not teach cultural norms explicitly. TFA, for instance, generally suggests CMs use classroom management techniques that rely on the linguistic and metalinguistic codes used by middle class whites. They do not label these as such, presumably because they do not recognize their non-neutrality.

    Do students need to be aware that some cultural groups demand use of these codes? Sure; if you don't know how eye contact works in the dominant culture, you're not going to succeed in it. However, we'd do better to teach these as artifacts of a culture than as the culture.