In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With Jay

26 06 2011

A while ago, Jay Mathews was talking about eliminating basic classes, and having only honors and AP as the two levels. I was expecting to go off on another of my rants about how this is a terrible idea, not everyone is ready for higher level work, etcetera. But I thought about it, and I realized that I actually agree with Jay here, although I think we approach it from different directions. His view is basically that kids are smarter than our education system thinks. My view is that they aren’t as stupid as our education system thinks. The distinction is key, because he sees this as a matter of high standards, while I see it as a matter of mediocre standards: what is now our honors level, in general, should be our basic level.

The problem with the AP, honors, basic system is not fatal: it is entirely possible to separate the three in an appropriate manner, so that all 3 cater well to their group of students’ needs. Unfortunately, what actually happens is that all 3 are at least a level below where they should be. Regular classes are at a level that should be remedial at best. I dare any parents with children in high school right now to embarrass their kids by demanding to sit in on the regular math, English, and science classes at the very least. You will probably be shocked by just how bad these classes are. As for honors classes, you’ll be surprised as well. As rusty as you may be, in the majority you’ll be able to keep up no problem. This is less true in some areas and at some schools, of course (being at  a top high school, I had some good honors level math and science classes), but will generally hold true.

The real shock will come to parents who think their kids are getting a great education because of all of the AP classes they’re taking. Many of our AP classes are crap. Going to a top public high school as I did, I was lucky enough to have generally good AP classes, but even I had some that were just a joke. My AP English IV class was taught at a level that should be basic at best, and perhaps remedial. My AP French class actually decreased the quality of my French. I learned, quite literally, nothing in AP Government and Politics. This is at a top high school. At the average high school, most AP classes are worthless. And having taken college classes at a good university (not just a community college) last summer, I have a benchmark, and let me tell you, AP classes are not college level.

So yes, I agree with Jay, remove basic classes. They have fallen below the level they are supposed to serve, and those students are better served by honors classes now. AP classes can function quite well as the new honors level. And as for a true college level, I don’t know. It’s difficult to do in most high schools, I suspect. Perhaps the solution is to make it easier for students to enroll in classes at nearby universities. We obviously have it easy, because Princeton University is 10 minutes from my school and is willing to take students who have run out of classes. But in general, that opportunity isn’t there. Mostly all that is available is a community college class, and that is usually difficult to manage. I think that this should be a focus of high schools: cultivate relationships with nearby universities so that they will be willing to allow qualified high school students to take a class or two a year there for free or for a very reduced price. Get college level classes by taking college classes!

So yes, rare though it is, I agree with Jay. Basic level classes are almost universally crap, and beyond repair. Get rid of them, and get kids into classes worth their time.


The Harm Of English Class

28 03 2011

English classes are pretty uniformly awful. There are many reasons for this, and I think the consequences are severe.

First, the analysis is at a level that an intelligent 5th grader is capable of. Not in middle or early high school classes, either. I honestly believe that a well read 5th grader of reasonable intelligence could manage a B in most AP English classes, and probably a 5 on the APs. In too many classrooms, deep analysis taking into account cultural elements not explained by the teacher will get blank stares not just from your peers, but all too often your teacher as well. Even the Nordic mythos, something that every English speaker should know (after all, English was heavily influenced by the Nordic peoples, and the pre Christian myths of Britain were much the same as theirs), is a reach. Apache stories, or the Anansi tales, or a Hindu story will doom you, because it is all but assured that you will have lost your reader by that point. And it isn’t even the issue of breadth of analysis that most irks me, although it does. It is also the issue of depth. I often complain about overanalyzing minutia in a story, certainly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there is incredible depth that may be analyzed. The problem is that, because most people have been taught to be lazy in their thinking, they will latch onto the first pattern they see and try to make something of it, and never put in the intellectual effort to peel back the layers and find the complexity therein waiting. Many stories have layer upon layer of symbol, but it has nothing to do with extra uses of the word “the.”


Second, I take enormous issue with the dissection of the tools of language. The best way to kill a love of language is to pick its workings apart in such a way that their beauty is lost. The things teachers spend such excruciating amounts of time on (imagery, emotive language, logos, pathos, ethos, and the like)  are elementary. By the time you reach high school, all of these should be second nature. They are the tools, not the substance. Just as you learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in elementary school so that you have the tools to begin the foundations of true mathematics by early middle school, you should have already lain these fundaments in elementary school. A child should have these tools of language at her disposal already. In high school, you should be discussing the ideas, the thoughts, the nuances. A carpenter does not need to stop and consider the use of a hammer. That high schoolers still must do the equivalent for their language reveals just how abysmal our language education is.


Third, the five paragraph essay.The five paragraph essay should be disposed of by 8th grade at the very latest. Just as a chef does not use brownie mix, no one attempting analysis of writing should be using such a restrictive and impoverished structure as the 5 paragraph essay. It should be viewed as a crutch, and something to be disposed with as soon as one has learned to write reasonably. It stunts thinking terribly. It is the rule of 3s laid completely bare, with no eloquence or elegance. 3s add power, but do not redeem writing so lacking that it cannot manage a fourth paragraph of analysis, or a 2 paragraph conclusion. And the idea of a single sentence that can adequately summarize the entire analysis of a literary work…


Fourth, the timed essay. The timed essay is one of the prime culprits in education’s encouragement of lazy and sloppy thinking. It is not a student’s fault if, when presented with a complex work to analyze in 45 minutes, she takes shortcuts in her thinking and her analysis is poor. Thoughtful analysis is not possible in such a short period of time. It takes reflection, thorough reading, and heavy revision to achieve that. Sadly, thanks to timed essays on tests and the lack of serious thought on the part of most teachers, we no longer have long, take home essays in large number. More intelligent analysis would improve writing on timed essays as well as on real essays, but in the race to teach the test, this is rarely considered.


The worst consequence of all, I think, is that English class turns students off of reading. I know that for me, English class has hurt my love of reading. It used to be that I read constantly. By 6th grade, I had read The Lord Of The Rings 6 times. I have read every Discworld book at least once, something like 15 of them twice, and a few as many as 5-10 times. I read the Aubrey-Maturin series in its entirety in Middle School. You get the idea. For the last two years of high school, I have averaged about one pleasure book every 4 months at best, and probably worse. I consume written material, yes (Cthulhu only knows how many words I read a day online), but reading a novel is different. It takes far more thought to read a well written novel than a well written blog post.

It is taken for granted that avid readers will usually peak in middle and early high school, but I think that that shows that there is something very wrong here. That is not as it should be. Reading should be lifelong. If it is dropping in high school, then there is a problem in high school. English classes are doing something terribly wrong if they are killing love of reading so very badly, and I truly think they are.


What to do about it? Well, I think that’s already been pretty well covered by what’s wrong. Start early. Expect thought from students. Challenge them. Teach them tools quickly, and then get on to the beauty of the written word, not the minute details of how it works that should already be second nature. And encourage everyone to be well read. It benefits us as a culture. People learn more, they think more, and they understand more. They are more creative when they read, because they are given more sources for inspiration. It seems that this demands a lot, but truly it does not. All of this is well within the average person’s capability. The question is not whether they can do it, but why the schools refuse to let them.


APs are not adequate

17 06 2010

(Finals are starting and I only have 3, all of them easy, thanks to the number of APs (heh) I took this year, and I’m in a ranting mood, so once more unto the breach…)

For gifted kids, AP classes are hardly better than normal classes. This runs contrary to everything that most administrations would have you believe, but it’s true. My “top 100” high school has almost every AP class College Board offers, and by the time I graduate I’ll have taken most of them, so I speak from experience here: AP classes are easy. Straight A’s require a minimum of effort. I haven’t needed to study at all the entire year, just as I studied not at all last year, or the year before.

The problem is that there is a failure in public schools to distinguish “bright” from “gifted.” There are a great number of bright students in my school, and for them APs are wonderful. I would never advocate taking them away. The problem is that truly gifted kids are different. Gifted doesn’t just mean that you’re above average except perhaps under the bizarre definition the school system has invented. To quote SwitchedOnMom,

“I’m sorry, but I will go to my grave believing that some kids just come into this world wired differently, that they are objectively, qualitatively “gifted,” “cognitively advanced,” call it what you will.”

I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it in other people, and god dammit, there is a difference. Truly gifted kids are something else entirely. A lot of APs are so far below many gifted kids’ ability levels that they’ll have the same problems in an AP class that they would in a normal class. After all, an AP class is modeled after an ordinary intro level college class: if a 10th grader is 3 years above grade level and smart enough to thrive at a top 20 college, the average intro level college class is a piece of cake for her.

There are students who shouldn’t have to bother taking AP classes in a subject: they should go straight into higher level college classes because they’re ready for them, and the AP class is just a waste of time. But most schools require that you finish the AP in a subject before they allow you to move on to higher level courses even if it’s clear that you have no need for the AP material.

This has nothing to do with arrogance or elitism, whatever many anti-GT people say. I think that providing enough of a challenge for the “only” bright kids is every bit as important as providing a challenge for those few are truly gifted. I don’t think that giftedness makes one more important or better or anything like that. Most of my favorite people in the world are “only” smart.

No, what this is about is everyone being challenged. When AP classes are a lot of work but easy, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” When AP classes are a joke, and students get A’s and 5s without ever opening their textbooks, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” That’s by design: they are not intended for the type of kids I’m talking about. They’re designed for the many smart kids for whom normal classes are too easy. They aren’t designed for the kids who could, if they were pushed, handle a real high level college course load as 10th graders.

If schools are really interested in giving all students adequately difficult classes, then they will end the useless linear progression that so hurts gifted students. Requiring a year stuck in an AP class before you can take a college class at your real level is just as inane a policy as requiring a year in a normal class when the student is ready for the AP class.

Vote of No Confidence

12 03 2010

I would like to motion for a vote of no confidence in Texas. That is to say, go have your little independent country. We don’t want you anymore. You’re just too goddamn stupid for us.

Texas’ governmental stupidity normally isn’t newsworthy, but in this case it has reached such truly staggering feats of idiocy that I think they deserve special attention. You see, according to Texas’s BOE, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a founding father.

12:32 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar argues that the Founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America. And she’s off on a long lecture about why the Founders intended to promote religion. She calls this amendment “not historically accurate.”

Madame, you are not simply ignorant. You are deeply, shockingly stupid.

…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

Hm, that’s interesting. Some of that sounds familiar. It sounds almost like…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As Dunbar probably doesn’t know what I just quoted, I will explain: this is the text to the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. See where I’m going with this? If the Founding Fathers did not intend to construct a wall of separation, and therefore Jefferson is not a Founding Father! I wonder who else I can find out wasn’t really one of the Founders?

The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State

-James Madison, “The father of the Constitution,” in a letter to Robert Walsh

The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses….

-John Adams

As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious protesters thereof, and I know of no other business government has to do therewith.

-Thomas Paine (incidentally, as far as I can ascertain he is not part of the Texas education standards at all)

And lastly, from one of the relatively unknown Founders:

In the Enlightened Age and in this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States

Have you guessed who it is yet? Yes, you in the back? Did you say George Washington? Exactly right! I’m surprised you got that, not many people have heard of him!

Study of the Constitution is not the only thing that has undergone a lobotomy, though. What kind of fundies would they be if they’d only destroyed the standards on one important topic? The Enlightenment is being treated rather like the women of a village when the Mongols invaded. You see, the word “Enlightenment” is gone from the standards, replaced with “the writings of…”. Jefferson has been ejected from the unit, too. Who has replaced him? John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. No, I am not kidding. I wish I were.

In Which More GT Hilarity Earns a Post

6 10 2009

Jay Mathews has provided me with the opportunity for fun yet again, but this time by being right and provoking a hilarious response from the target of his article.

First, the backstory can be found here.

Read it? Good. Now, the response. Oh my, the response.

“Dear Jay,

First, let me stress how irresponsible it is to generalize about an entire school system’s commitment to meeting the academic needs of its students based on the alleged experiences of one child. Educators in Howard County are committed to providing all students with a rigorous, challenging education experience.”

How very irresponsible of you, Jay! You took a well documented case, added it to other similar cases of which you had knowledge, and drew a reasonable conclusion! Horrifying!

“And we are hardly “clueless” about the importance of the total high school experience in the student’s intellectual and personal development. By the tone of this piece, it is obvious that you have already determined that the information provided by the parent is accurate and that the school system is a heartless bureaucracy, rather than a group of dedicated professionals committed to serving the best interest of children.”

Importance of the total high school experience in intellectual development? Did you even read what he wrote? The whole point is that the district refused to allow itself to be a part of the kid’s intellectual development at all. And again with the attacking his journalistic integrity. Jay Mathews is many things, but lazy in his reporting is certainly not one of them.

“Central and school-based personnel for the school system have spent an overwhelming amount of time working to address the needs of this particular student. The school system has offered numerous opportunities and accommodations to no avail. We respect the laws governing the confidentiality of student records and therefore, we will not comment further on this child’s circumstances.

Education involves more than simply scoring well on tests. The standards we have implemented are designed to uphold the integrity of the high school diploma; another responsibility we do not take lightly.”

The integrity of the diploma my foot. A student with straight D’s gets a diploma. It’s not some sort of high honor that we’re talking about, here. In addition, yes, education is more than mere test scores. However, you’re working quite diligently against the true nature of education (learning). Might want to fix that before you go on about what education really is.

“The Maryland High School Assessments are end-of-course exams. In order to meet the Maryland Graduation requirement a student is required to successfully complete the course as well. Howard County curriculum is far more extensive than the baseline knowledge required to pass the HSA in each content area. Class discussions, group work, research, and other activities that take place in the classroom enrich and enhance the educational experience.”

Hehehehe. Yeah. Those rigorous tests that absolutely aren’t a joke. And we provide so much more! Really! What’s that you say? He did college level work? WELL WE’RE GRAD SCHOOL LEVEL THEN! GET IN LINE!

“Education also involves more than just intellectual development so when deciding whether to move a student to an advanced grade, educators consider (and discuss with the parents) the following factors:
· Academic achievement level
· Age of the student
· Previous accelerations
· Attendance record
· Parental concerns
· Developmental factors
· Health factors
· Emotional factors
· Report card
· 504 Plan”

That’s nice. You’re providing a list of all the things you ignored. How helpful ^_^

“The HCPSS does award credit for home schooling and college courses provided those experiences cover the same objectives as a comparable course offered in our high schools and the student demonstrates mastery of the content. Credit will only be awarded if the student completes the college course.”

He did.

“We take great exception to the statement that “Howard has been slower than other districts in this area to embrace acceleration…” Grade skipping is not the only way to accelerate instruction. Since the early 1980’s the HCPSS has offered comprehensive Gifted and Talented programming and enrichment opportunities in all schools.”

Jay to the rescue! “Howard has lagged in AP participation for some time for a district with so many affluent, well-prepared students. But it has, as I said, gotten better, from an AP participation rate of 0.649 (ratio of college-level tests to graduating seniors) in 2000 to a rate of 1.670 in 2008. That is still below the rate of 2.692 in Montgomery County, very similar to Howard demographically.”

Currently over 40% of our students participate in our Gifted and Talented program offerings across all grades.

Explaining all the things wrong with this would literally take weeks, so I’ll stick with the most obvious: “What the ****?!” Her argument is quite literally “we do not know what the words ‘Gifted’ and ‘Talented’ mean, so clearly we are in the right!” GT, madame, is not a tool for boosting self esteem. GT is not a way to get large numbers that your district can brag about to potential tax payers. GT, madame, is providing adequate education to children far beyond the normal range. Far, far fewer than 40% of people are significantly above average in at least one area. Less than 16% of people are even one standard deviation above the average. Only about 2.5% are above the 2 standard deviations that generally qualifies as “gifted.” This is absolutely basic. Why is the district conducting PR via its pet donkey rather than, say, a mouth?

“In elementary schools, our GT mathematics curriculum is accelerated by at least two years. Other enrichment opportunities are provided through school wide enrichment programs general exploratory activities, instructional seminars, curriculum extension units, and research investigations. In Middle Schools the school wide enrichment programs continue and students also have access to advanced course work in Geography and World Cultures, US History, English, Science, and Mathematics as well as an after-school accelerated G/T Mathematics Program.”

Any time you see “enrichment” in a GT context, it becomes a fairly safe assumption that the school is lying to you. This is certainly the case here. The relevant parts are the GT math, which is their only real acceleration, and the APs. The problem with claiming APs as GT courses…they aren’t. The way APs are conducted, the classes are tailored to moderately above average, hard working students. I got a 5 in AP US history essentially without opening my textbook for anything after about 1850. AP World is proving no more difficult, and neither are AP Chem or Govpol. Same for English.

“Our high schools address the needs of our most gifted students with G/T, honors and advanced placement courses, college-level independent research and a well-established Intern/Mentor Program.”

You’re just too lazy to make them work for anyone who hasn’t fit neatly into your tracking.

“Should you have need for clarification of any of the above information, please feel free to contact me.


Patti Caplan

Director of Public Relation”

I’d like to clarify: why do you think that we are stupid?

In Which Detox Ends (Pt 2)

13 09 2009

The simple truth that is that as they grow older most people will happily compartmentalize, and indeed people are very good at it. However, on it’s moderately worse than average days, school takes it to such an extreme of cutting up segments of your day into different modes of thought that it really is difficult to handle.

On top of that, in high school work quantity per class climbs higher and higher, and this is on top of the enormous load of extracurricular that many have piled on for the college admissions game (I won’t even get started on what I think of that). The workload for many students is beyond excessive, and if anything it continues to grow, not shrink.

By the time summer vacation comes, kids are worn out. I don’t mean this metaphorically. It’s the literal truth. By the end of a school year, a lot of high school kids are truly, physically and mentally exhausted. If school lasted much longer, a lot of us simply wouldn’t make it through the year. As it is, more than a few people don’t quite make it through finals. There’s a reason I had a grand total of one half of one substantial post in June.

And of course in the often hilarious, always over the top world that is high school drama, a few thousand exhausted, worn out, teenagers makes for a cycle of fights wearing people out even more, so they get into more fights with friends, so they’re more worn out, etc. And in the middle of this, the SATs and finals. All around, not a very good thing.

The point being, summer vacation comes just in time. For various reasons, keeping school going much longer just would not work. If it were extended, either kids would simply stop being able to handle it, or they would manage at a very real detriment to their health. Again, it sounds silly, but I say this completely seriously. High work load high schools especially leave kids utterly worn out by the end of the school year. There are arguments against the long summer vacation, but I think that it requires a very fundamental shift in how American schools operate in several different ways before it could be changed without very serious repercussions for the schools (not to mention losing things that can only be done with the long summer vacation). Give me that massive shift in American education and I’ll consider the arguments again. Until then, summer needs to stay.

In Which Detox Ends (Pt 1)

7 09 2009

Yes, summer has come to an end and with it the nearly 3 months a year in which children may detoxify from their educations. Let’s talk a little about that toxicity, and why the long break is important (I know that there are legitimate arguments for shorter, more frequent breaks for reasons such as how much progress is lost in many low achieving students, but for these posts t I’m dealing with average and above average kids).

Firstly, I guess I should at least a stab at showing that my premise (school wears kids down and is, in some ways, detrimental) is the case. All right, here goes.

Most American schools, or at least the public ones, are set up to foster uniformity. Yes, there is token “diversity,” encouraging diversity of race and background, gender and sexual preference. There’s even (supposedly) a push to creativity (hah. More on that later). But there isn’t a true encouragement toward diversity of thought. You are taught that you do math this way, and any other way is wrong, even if it works. You will write your essay such that it adheres perfectly to these thirty seven guidelines, and touches for exactly three sentences on 3 of these 5 topics, no fewer and no more. Your thoughts on those topics will fall within these parameters, and these boundaries. You will reach them by prewriting in exactly this manner. Have a science lab? Here are the instructions. Figure out things for yourself? That would waste valuable class time! We’re here to get you through the tests, not to teach you to think scientifically! Like music? Well then, you may do choral music, play chamber music, marching band, or jazz. What’s that, you like rock? Well, that’s just too bad.

And about that English paper, I hope you didn’t say anything that might offend anyone? After all, it’s much more important that you’re meek and inoffensive than that you’re cogent, or that you drive to the center of the issue. If that issue might offend someone, then school time should not be spent dealing with it, and you will be disciplined! And heaven forbid it wasn’t one of the five thoughts that the teacher anticipated, that would make grading it take an actual look at its merits rather than a look at the teacher’s outline of how they’ve graded the same thoughts for 20 years!

Creativity? Hah! You amuse me! We are here to learn facts! We do not learn to understand the beauty and elegance of an atom! We do not waste valuable test time to delve into its depths in order to learn the way to think to truly understand it, and how it was discovered, and why it is the way it is! We most certainly do not have free write time in English which might be used in writing a metaphorical story of an atom! And as for writing about atoms in science class, well!

Creativity in history? No, we will not spend time to read and discuss satirists! They are irrelevant to history! They did not shape it! Only the Great Politicians shaped history, not some lowly comedian! Use George Carlin to learn about the issues surrounding censorship? But he’s offensive! Read Mark Twain’s essays? But he’s for English class! And taking the time to learn about what satire is, and perhaps even attempt it ourselves? Positively absurd! That is not how it is done.

Subject integration is of course impossible. We could not possibly learn rhetoric in English and study historical examples in History. We cannot waste our time learning the history of Science, and how it began and developed. Learning about computer science and its impact on World War Two would be silly, of course. Alan Turing did nothing for the War!

Point made, I think. School is about compartmentalizing, and fitting our thoughts in approved boxes. The number of approved boxes has increased, but that is a far cry from removing the boxes and giving children the chance to swim in the ocean that is independent thought.