• Bring on the pastry chefs
    December 04,2013
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    No matter what you do for a living, chances are good you’ve run into authorities and experts in your field who don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t want to get into a competition with any working man or woman about whose cadre of bosses tops the heap when it comes to clueless leadership.

    That said, I’m a teacher, and I can’t help putting my money on education’s great minds. Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, education experts have as much to contribute to classroom teachers as a pastry chef has to offer a submarine captain. That comparison is, of course, unfair to pastry chefs as they can at least do more than talk about pastry. Education theorists are more like pastry chefs who never set foot in a kitchen and then write books about it.

    I could regale you for hours with accounts of the theoretical nonsense teachers have endured, and continue to endure, at breathtaking public expense.

    Back near the beginning I attended an English teachers’ workshop where we learned to stimulate good writing by assigning students to hold their thumb on their remote control and channel surf nonstop through random video images for an hour. They could also read a book backwards, with or without a partner, or read every other page or every other line.

    Naturally, if you’re reading every other line, you don’t also have to read backwards. I mean, that would be crazy. Another surefire pre-writing technique is reading straight across newspaper columns from article to article, or pretending to read a newspaper in a language you don’t know. Also a good time to write is when you have a headache or a high fever.

    Go home and bang your head against the wall. Then write a composition about your summer vacation.

    These convocations impose strict discipline. Never is heard a discouraging word, at least if you know what’s good for you. Picture every wall in the meeting room festooned with signage listing things you aren’t allowed to say. These taboo thoughts, christened “killer phrases,” include outrageous, inflammatory statements like, “We tried that two years ago, and it didn’t work.” Let any contrary sentiment escape your lips, and you’re instantly assailed by a chorus of disciples pointing and shrieking, “Killer phrase, killer phrase!”

    I’m not kidding.

    Consider this analysis of the four “types of schools” currently promoted by right-thinking, 21st-century reformers.

    In the first type, nicknamed “Charles Darwin” schools, how much a student learns “is based upon the student’s ability.”

    In “Pontius Pilate” schools, “learning takes place if the student takes advantage of the opportunities to learn.”

    The third type, “Chicago Cubs” schools, “create a warm, pleasant environment” in which “all students can learn something.”

    Finally, in “Henry Higgins” schools “all students” succeed and “learn and achieve the agreed upon curriculum standards.”

    OK, picture yourself at an in-service workshop. The expert explains all this and then tells you to vote for the “right” kind of school. By the way, you commonly cast your vote for the “right” one by physically getting up and moving to the appropriate corner of the room.

    Since most of you aren’t teachers, you might not be sure how to psych out the question. Let’s start with the easiest school to eliminate. It doesn’t take much savvy to figure out that you’re not supposed to like Pontius Pilate schools. Clearly, crucifixion isn’t what most parents prefer to imagine when they picture their children’s classroom.

    It’s far less clear, however, what’s wrong with believing that what a student learns rests in large part on his effort and whether he takes advantage of his “opportunities to learn.”

    Charles Darwin isn’t quite as obvious a villain, but he’s bad, too. That’s because he believes in inherited, innate traits, and that just as some people are born taller than other people, some people are born with more academic ability than other people.

    Enlightened educators don’t believe this. They reject the idea that intelligence is “an inborn trait” as a “dangerous notion.” According to one prominent, present-day apostle, “you can be as smart as you want to be.”

    I was saying the same thing myself to Stephen Hawking just the other day.

    Cubs schools aren’t on the right track, either. Yes, we want “warm, pleasant” schools, but by making their goal only that “all students can learn something,” Cubs teachers are acknowledging the reality that all students can’t always learn the same things, and that some students will achieve more than others.

    That’s not good enough for reformers. They insist that all students, regardless of ability, conduct, motivation, or troubles at home can and will meet identical high standards.

    That’s why, reformers explain, Henry Higgins schools are the only right “type.” Professor Higgins, the elocution miracle worker in “Pygmalion,” turned Eliza Doolittle into a duchess. In the same way, Higgins schools do “whatever it takes” so every student succeeds in meeting the academic standards we’ve set for our most able students.

    In other words, they don’t just promise to make you the best student you can be. They guarantee to make you the best student somebody else can be. If that doesn’t happen, if any student doesn’t meet those high standards of achievement, the experts are quite clear as to whose fault it is. It’s not the student’s fault. The fault doesn’t lie in his gene pool or the baggage he brings from home.

    If a student fails, it’s because his teacher failed.

    That’s a quote.

    Ironically, while none of the first three “types” alone is sufficient to define a good school, all three together are precisely what a good school should be, and what true achievement rests on: ability, effort, and a reasonable flexibility in dealing with individual students.

    Unfortunately, the current architects of American public education are all standing in the fourth corner. Their pipedream “right” type, where schools somehow turn all students into ideal students, is the spawn of ignorance, hypocrisy, deceit, and wishful thinking. It would be a perfect satire if it weren’t really happening.

    Schools that guarantee success are doomed to failure. A public education system that blithely disdains ability and with cutesy Pontius Pilate references mocks effort proffers no future.

    Sadly, the future we’re destroying is our children’s and our nation’s.

    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
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