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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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My fellow Americans, and other readers from around the world, I believe something very strange has happened to us. An author named Robert Heinlein once wrote a book called Stranger in a Strange Land, and while I’ve never read said book I feel the title is all too accurate in describing my little corner of the world. I do indeed feel like a total stranger in a very strange land.

I used to think I had a pretty good handle on this world, and pretty well knew my place in it. But things change, don’t they? Oh my, yes, how things change. The kicker, of course, is that it’s really only my perception of things that has changed, not the things themselves. There was always deception and dishonor, corruption and cowardice, only now I really see them. Everywhere.

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that this country spent sixteen years under the thumb of two lying, cheating, self-serving men who left nothing behind but a wake of death and destruction? Or how about the fact that the popular vote in the last two presidential elections was completely ignored by the electoral college, the supposedly “representative” group of men and women who ultimately choose which candidate will rule the nation? Is it just me or has inflation made the prices of goods and services skyrocket while wages have only slowly crept upward? And isn’t this the same inflation that Washington still refuses to acknowledge while it prints fiat money as fast as it can?

Do these things make sense to anyone? Am I taking crazy pills or something??

Because they seem as wrong as wrong can be to me. It seems unfathomable to me that politicians now speak of “trillions of dollars” as if it were only millions. That Barack Obama is hailed as a saviour when so far his works have only driven us deeper in the ground. (Hey, buddy, we were already six feet under … isn’t that enough?) I find it hard to believe that China wants to drop the dollar when ten years ago a college professor explained to me how ludicrously unlikely it was that America would ever fail. How nonsensical that a major city should ever drown on the inaction of its leaders and the entire conglomeration of local, state and national governments; that the uncontrolled spending of large banks should bring the economy to its knees worldwide; that the Democratic platform and the Communist platform should differ on only two points.

I know that these things are true, but I have a hard time understanding them. It’s as though I’ve slipped into a parallel dimension, or, like Rip Van Winkle, somehow awoken to a future where little of the world I knew remains. Where corruption has infiltrated every facet of our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at every level, from small-town council to the president himself. Where corporate and political greed has nullified the needs of the American people. Where anything is for sale if the price is right and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the Strange Lands. It looks like the Dark Ages are back.

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“All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” – Jimmy Carter

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

“When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Why shouldn’t the people fear the great? The liberties of mankind were never destroyed by any other class of men.” – Abraham Bishop

“America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” – Alexis de Toqueville

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