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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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Very few people haven’t heard of S. E. Hinton, a young adult genre author who makes the required reading list in most if not all English classrooms. She is famous for having penned the new-classic short novel The Outsiders as well as Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then This Is Now. All were written from the perspective of young adults and were/are very popular among that crowd.

Now that the history lesson is covered, I’ll get down to business. Hinton didn’t publish anything for many years after Taming the Star Runner and rumors circulated that she had essentially retired after her short but glorious run. (Dropping off the page for 16 years can do that.) Then in 2005 came the dark and wholly unexpected Hawke’s Harbor, the newest spine on my bookshelf.

I’ll make no bones about it, I loved S. E. Hinton and, as a child and young adult, read everything of her hand I could find. I scanned the pages of The Outsiders more times than I can remember and even voluntarily wrote an essay on the book in middle school. But then came Hawke’s Harbor, and I was unsure. I passed it by on Amazon and in the local bookstore, wary of her new work, suspicious that it would be yet another dreadful “comeback novel” and could never live up to my old favorites. But like nearly every book published, a few copies of it eventually wound up in the bookstore’s bargain bin. And I, desperate for new reading material (as usual), could not resist the temptation of a bargain.

My worries firmly in place, I began to read … and found out that I could not have been more wrong. Hawke’s Harbor is a gorgeous, touching story. It quickly found its way into my cubby of favorites on the bookshelf and slid its hooks deftly into my heart. But it is totally unlike her earlier works. Had I not known, her name would never have entered my mind on a list of possible authors. Perhaps the greatest shock was the inclusion of a vampire in the plot, which could not be more removed from what she wrote about in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This bit of supernatural did not sit well with many of her former fans but, in all honesty, it was so well wrought I didn’t mind. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised, and still a bit disappointed; and I seriously questioned whether or not I’d made a mistake picking this dark story from the bargain bin. Apparently this also threw a lot of other readers who were expecting another Tex or Rumble Fish. Because serious readers – we minority of dedicated, avid consumers of words, we Constant Readers – treasure our books like great friends, and treasure the authors of those books like loved ones. So when someone drops off the publishing map for a decade and a half and re-emerges with a totally different and unexpected voice, it can be very personal.

Think of it as if a loved one were in a bad accident and fell into a coma. And at first the doctors were very optimistic for a full recovery … but as the months and then years wore on, a darker prognosis appeared. And you resigned yourself to losing this loved one. You wanted the coma to break and for that person to open their eyes and be every bit the person they were before … but you understood the chances of that were infintesimal. Then one fine day that loved one stirred and opened their eyes. And the doctors cried, “Come quick!” And you rushed to their bedside with a great wild hope galloping through your veins … only to find that this loved one didn’t remember you. Or themselves. And watching them recover is like watching a stranger, and that it is somehow worse than losing them to a coma, or even to death. Because there they are, right there, you can reach out and touch them … but it isn’t the person you knew.

That probably sounds ridiculous. And of course not everyone is so effected, but many are. And it is so personal to them that it feels like a betrayal, willful or not. Authors who publish fairly regularly and whose voices change slowly over time have a much greater advantage. S. E. Hinton did most certainly not have that advantage and the reviews of this book prove it. So, just for the record, let me state that this is nothing like her earlier work … except that it is still a striking, moving story. Despite my misgivings, I loved it. It is hard to explain but the vampire thread did not discredit the story or the characters, who practically breathe and move on the page (and this from a reader who has avoided every other vampire story I have ever come across because I simply detest them). I loved it.

In closing, I offer a word of advice: If you pick this book up expecting it to be anything like her other books, you will be disappointed. Because Hinton has a new voice. It is still unerringly beautiful and wrenching but in a very different way. She has changed, as have we all.

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