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Posts Tagged ‘high school’

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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After suffering through seven endless games of the NBA finals, I have never been so glad to see a trophy handed out. I understand the idea behind the popularity of sports, the opportunity for people to transcend political differences and language barriers and, at times, the human condition itself. But it seems to me that sports has become far too like a religion. And I don’t see how people get so wrapped up in a silly game.

Yeah, I said it, a silly game. Football, hockey, bowling, golf, water polo – pick your sport – it’s all supposed to be for fun, for recreation and entertainment. Kobe Bryant is, in fact, not the patron saint of basketball (and God forbid there should ever be such a thing) but you wouldn’t know it from watching his flock. People do everything but bow to him and ask his blessing. Sports are taken way too seriously. They are, quite bluntly, an opiate. They are an escape, a diversion from everyday life in the same manner as movies and TV.

And yet when I watch sports, I am only reminded of the everyday. Rampant advertising aside, most players seem much more interested in their checks than their performance, more interested in their off-field frivolities than the nature of the game. Movies and television can at least bare incredible truths and tell great stories. Who hasn’t seen part of Casablanca or been touched by the evening news? But what great truths do sports reveal? That people with money can do as they please? That people are replaceable, can be sold to the highest bidder, or, once past their peak, are no longer of value? That’s not a very nice legacy. Granted, there were amazing feats in the early days of organized sports in the U.S., from men like Babe Ruth and Roy Campanella, Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski. But those days are long gone. And what remains? A tired, cheap display built on fabulously overpaid athletes of only mediocre talent.

I can almost hear the cries of blasphemy at those words. But who among all our major sports will be remembered in seventy or eighty years? What new, worthy show of goodness, or even of human endurance, have they brought to the world? It’s not even fun to watch anymore. A game that was supposed to last a little more than an hour now takes three to five, to make room for commercials and time-outs and fouls and a lot of nancying about without any real purpose. Most of the games have no real consequence, and the players are as uninterested and uninvested as high school seniors with spring fever.

What fun is that? What good is that? And contrary to popular belief, being six-foot-three and 350 pounds doesn’t automatically make you a good linebacker. Being seven feet shouldn’t bring NBA agents busting down your door. Those things have nothing to do with talent or determination or heart. And that’s what sports are really supposed to be about. Until those things work their way back into sports, count me out.

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