Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taking on The Times

The St. Petersburg Times is undoubtedly the best newspaper in Florida and has been for most of my life. I have read it since I was a child and I agree with much of what I read on their editorial page. Yet, sometimes they get it wrong. Today's editorial today read:

Florida students overall passed a paltry 42.9 percent of AP exams in 2009 compared to 57 percent nationwide….The AP exam passing rates for individual teachers can be even lower. At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, an F-rated school, not a single one of 35 students who took AP human geography over two years passed the exam. But schools with stronger academic reputations are also failing their AP students. St. Petersburg High, often ranked among the nation's top high schools, has AP passing rates for specific teachers as low as 8.6 percent, 5.3 percent and 0 percent. Imagine how that kind of job performance would be evaluated in the private sector.

The excuses from teachers and principals are predictable. Some point to differences in school populations, but there are dismal AP passing rates for individual teachers in otherwise high-performing schools. Others say teachers new to the rigors of AP classes need time to grow into their jobs. But there are plenty of examples of veteran AP teachers who have low passing rates year after year. The students cannot wait for the teacher to get better to have a shot at passing the test and earning college credit.

A friend of mine, when he takes issue with one of my assertions, is prone to cajole me with a quote from H.L. Mencken that reads: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. “ While, not surprisingly, I am disinclined to see my own thinking in such terms, the fact I readily see it in others might give me pause to wonder if I am projecting just a bit and that his observation might be somewhat on target. With that caveat in mind, I would still suggest that the Times got this one at least partly wrong precisely because it failed to deal with the complexity of the situation.

The first problematic aspect of their argument is the explicit assumption that public education is somehow analogous to consumer capitalism. Business tends to see human beings as customers in which human beings are either a means to the desired end –profit – or an obstacle. While philosopher Immanuel Kant might readily object that this violates the second statement of the categorical imperative in which human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves and never means to other ends, in America we insulate business from such criticisms through rather mindless assertions like “This is business” or its cousin, “It’s just business.” That translates to a rather convenient American common sense that the premises of free market fundamentalism are beyond question as are the deleterious effects such practices may have on human beings and human societies.

But public schools are not businesses. They do not have the same goals. Where sales of essentially worthless – occasionally even harmful - merchandise to half-witted consumers taken in by slick advertising campaigns may be absolutely acceptable to a business with a bottom line of profit, worthless knowledge will always be subject to criticism by the public. And it should be. Indeed, if anything, this is where the Times editorial is on target – our students deserve better.

A second important difference is this: where businesses are more than happy to leave as many consumers behind so long as profits are insured, public education is expected to leave no children behind, even as the cynical programs bearing this label have left up to 1/3 of America’s children behind with no high school diplomas over the past decade. America has no children to waste. The goal of public education is an educated public – all of it. Again, this is where the Times editorial is on target – if AP students are not learning enough to pass standardized AP exams, the public ought to be asking why not.

But the answer to that question contains a number of possible components. One of them might well be incompetent teachers. But that alone is too easy and simplistic. It is might be the beginning place of seeking to understand the problem but it is hardly the whole story. To simply stop there is to run the risk of scapegoating a whole class of workers for a much broader problem which I observe is at least partly out of their control. While that's easy, it's also intellectually dishonest and unfair.

A second inquiry might ask the the middle class, from which the majority of AP students come, to consider the unthinkable: Are the students taking these classes genuinely college material? Perhaps even more importantly – do they actually want to attend college?

Daily I see students at the university where I teach who clearly are not ready to be in college. Besides the lack of maturity and time management skills which is the nature of the beast - particularly those right out of our regimented, paternalistic high schools - they have no sense of vocation and often default to that which their parents or significant others have envisioned for their lives. But because this is not their dream they are pursuing, they have no real energy or excitement about their college educations. They see it as something to do because they had no other ideas or because they felt it was the path of least resistance. The result? Mediocre (at best) performance and misdirected resentment over any effort demanded of them.

My heart goes out to these students even as their cynicism and inability to escape their own immediate concerns often makes my life as instructor difficult. I sometimes write on their papers (which only they see) “Are you sure you are ready to be in college at this time?” It’s a serious question for me and it ought to be for them as well. But I think that question begins much earlier for them and perhaps the AP exams are one reflection of this.

But, there is an even more fundamental concern for understanding the AP exams scores. Teachers do not manufacture educations. They cannot be conferred or purchased, even with increasing tuition moneys. Educations must be achieved by the student who would become educated and is thus willing to exert the effort to achieve it. The very best a teacher can do is help make that attainment possible. And while it may be possible that some teachers are failing to do that, it simply can never be the only factor at work here. Perhaps a look at these same Advanced Placement students once they are actually "placed" in a university might be shed some light.

My observations of the university students I teach is that they often have enormous senses of entitlement, particularly the honors students I most love to teach. That translates to expectations of as high a grade as possible with the least amount of work necessary. It translates to a sense that required reading - not to mention, G-d forbid, preparatory assignments - before class is onerous and unnecessary. It translates to a sense that attendance is always optional depending upon one’s other concerns. It translates to a belief that the use of distracting technology in the classroom is a birthright. And it translates to a belief –fostered by the misguided use of standardized testing driven pedagogy in public schools over the past decade – that their grades in any class should boil down to performance on no more than three multiple choice exams. Any demands beyond that are generally seen as outrageous.

Students come to the university with such attitudes already firmly in place. They learned them somewhere. It’s possible they learned them in public schools. However my suspicion is that they learned them from the two most powerful socializing agents in our culture – their families and the electronic media (Just do it! Obey your thirst! Talk all the time!).

Might it just be possible that the blame for low AP scores must be shared with those who actually took the tests? Might their dedication to preparation and their sense of entitlement to positive results regardless of their own efforts be considered? And might their ambitious and overprotective parents also share some of this blame for pushing their children into a college path for which increasing numbers of them are uncertain they are prepared or even interested?

I think perhaps another analogy might serve us here. This is the comment I left at the Times website:

For years public school lunch room cooks and servers prepared food that was nutritious if not always appealing or attractive. Regulated by governmental nutritional standards and funded in part by federal moneys designed to insure children did not attend school hungry, their meals were designed to promote healthy diets. Yet students and their parents increasingly demanded more choices and as a result fast food, sodas, chips and candy came to mark the diet of these students.

Now, three decades later, we have a crisis of childhood obesity on our hands. Given the logic of the Times editorial, I'm guessing that accountability means we will blame the lunch room cooks and servers for the obesity crisis. That and the union to which some of them belong which obviously protects incompetent food preparers from being held accountable.

Seriously folks. What's missing from this picture?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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