Saturday, January 26, 2008

Academic Education for All?

[These thoughts were prompted by an exchange with Joel (a thoughtful guy and former teacher) on Yahmdallah’s blog, in turn prompted by an article in the Atlantic Monthly, proposing uniform national standards for public schools, combined with complete local autonomy at the school level (freed of teachers' unions and school boards) to determine how best to go about meeting those standards.]

Joel asked: Would farm kids really be better served by a school that requires three years of math and a foreign language? In short, yes.

Let's look at some history. In the 19th century, most rural children didn't attend a secondary school, for the very straightforward reason that there weren't any available except in cities. Families who could afford boarding school could send their children, but this was a small minority. (By the way, the widespread idea that the 3-month summer break originated in the need for rural children to bring in the harvest is a myth: 19th-century rural children often took breaks in spring and fall, when there was indeed agricultural work to be done, but the long summer vacation is a twentieth-century invention.)

When secondary schools began to be seen as important to the country’s future at the turn of the century, there ensued a debate about the curriculum, which traditionally had been the “classical curriculum,” consisting of preparation for classics-heavy college entrance exams and emphasizing Latin and Greek. Proposed instead was the “academic curriculum,” with less emphasis on classical languages (though usually retaining Latin) and more inclusion of modern languages, mathematics, and history. The academic curriculum was widely popular in both rural and urban areas as an ideal education for American children.

By the 1940’s, though, progressivist ideas had begun to take hold, the proponents of which, galvanized by the increasing use of I.Q. tests, mass immigration from Central Europe, and the entrance of more women to colleges, began to push the idea that the academic curriculum (which they opposed for all but the college-bound, in marked contrast to the express desires of teachers and parents) was wasted on certain people--namely, immigrants, blacks, women, and the rural poor--who were destined for menial or non-employment at best. Despite near-universal resistance from both teachers and parents, educational experts and teachers colleges pushed progressivist education in place of the more popular and populist academic curriculum, and by the 1950’s such never-before-seen “subjects” such as home economics, shop, and secretarial classes were universal in American secondary schools.

Black families and the families of immigrants fought tooth and nail against public schools for their communities that basically provided nothing but “education” in mechanics, laundering, and other non-academic subjects. They largely lost, and while we’re blaming family breakdown and poverty for disastrous school performance, we might ask ourselves where some of the much-lamented cultural indifference to learning originated. (The immigrants were fortunate in that, many of them being from Catholic countries, the parochial school system stepped in and provided academic educations for most of them. Black Americans weren’t so lucky.)

I don’t think we’re moving forward if we look at some group of kids (say, rural farm kids) and say “they won’t need a college prep education.” First, if you don’t provide one, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, it seems very 19th-century to assume that the children of farmers will grow up to work on the family farm; and certainly these days agriculture sure does benefit from college education. I think the folks at Texas A&M down the freeway would be surprised to hear it doesn’t. So yes, I’d say that farm kids would indeed be better served by a school that requires three years of math and a foreign language. Every child, everywhere in the U.S., no matter what his or her parentage, sex, color, or culture, is as entitled to an academic education as any other child.

I do think the Atlantic article doesn't provide a panacea; you're quite right that a lot more things will have to change before education is set to rights in the U.S. But I think national standards are part of that; and I think a serious commitment to providing a college-preparatory education to every child in the U.S.--not just the ones we guess will make use of it--is fundamental to that goal also. It’s time to undo the disasters of progressivist education. And the "common-sense"--but ultimately unAmerican idea--that we can identify which children won't need it, is one of those disasters.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's Not Paranoia If They're Really After You

Daryl Cobranchi has been following this horrible tragedy.

Naturally, the cry goes out: This wouldn't have happened if only there were better regulation of homeschoolers!

Surely the reporters aren't so credulous that they can't see the politicians are trying to deflect attention onto the nebulous "homeschoolers" and away from anything that might land at their own door (like failure adequately to fund/staff programs already in place). There was already a system in place, and it failed spectacularly. People are going to be fired over its failures. So more regulations, aimed at homeschoolers, are going to work when the regulations and programs already in place didn't work because nobody paid attention or followed through?

From the NYTimes:
Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education and sociology at New York University, said school officials, who are required by law to report suspicion of child abuse, were society’s best watchdogs of how parents treat children.

“Home schooling removes children from a lot of that surveillance,” Mr. Stevens said, adding that the vast majority of home schooling families are “overwhelmingly trustworthy people who place a very high value on parental autonomy.” And thanks to the advocacy of the legal defense fund, he continued, “they have been largely successful since the late 1980s in getting the law to favor parental rights.”

One example of that, in 1991, disrupted an effort by the District of Columbia to regulate home schooling, with rules that included unannounced home visits and required teachers certification for parents doing the instruction. Christopher Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, met with District officials, told them they were on shaky ground because of the 1st, 4th and 14th amendments, and the rules were rescinded.
Unannounced home visits. From representatives of the state. With no probable cause. For families who have done nothing illegal. On the grounds that "surveillance" is necessary because school officials are "society's best watchdogs." At the risk of losing my blog's apoliticality, I'd like to think many Americans are a little wary by now of government intrusion of privacy on the grounds that something bad might happen. Note the simpering "'overwhelmingly trustworthy people'" remark. Translation: "I'm sure you're trustworthy. So why would you oppose strangers dropping into your home unannounced to see what you're up to? The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear (TM)."

So would more stringent homeschooling regulations have made a difference? From CNN:
A social worker at the school where the oldest girl was a student tried twice in April to get city agencies to investigate.
We've all read dozens of these homeschooling abuse cases over the years. I've yet to see one where there wasn't either (1) already a state agency involved, which was supposed to be doing the watchdogging, and/or (2) the children weren't in fact homeschooled. Someone let me know if I missed one. But if the social services, child welfare, foster care, and/or truant officer systems are already aware of the potential problems in a family, how on earth is regulating homeschooling going to improve matters? In this awful case in D.C., where nobody listened when the systems already in place were alerted, an unannounced visit would just have found the bodies earlier.

Monday, January 07, 2008

We Three Kings

Sunday was, of course, Epiphany, aka the Twelfth Day*, aka (in these parts) Dia de los Reyes. Offspring #1 had intended to bring some chalk to Mass for a blessing, but was stricken down by a stomach bug, leaving me to knock on the sacristy door, hoping Father wasn't going to ask incredulously "You want me to bless what?"

Fortunately, as I was about to launch into an explanation of Epiphany Door Blessing, Father Patrick's eyes lit up as he saw the chalk, seized it, and launched into the proper blessing**:

Bless, O Lord God, this creature chalk, to render it helpful to your people. Grant that they who use it in faith and with it inscribe upon the doors of their homes the names of your saints, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession enjoy health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. [And then a little sprinkle with holy water.]
He then informed me delightedly that he had memorized the blessing in seminary (not long ago for him) and had been waiting for a chance to use it.

So home I went. In case you're wondering what you do with Blessed Chalk, you write the following over your door:

2 + 0 + C + M + B + 0 + 8
... which means, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, 2008, i.e. May Christ Bless This House through the year. And since CMB happens to be the initials of the traditional names of the Magi, and since Epiphany falls near the beginning of the year, it all fits together nicely.

Now I have a stub of Blessed Chalk in the junk drawer. Save it? Bury it? Give it to the Offspringen for games of Blessed Hangman in the driveway?


*"Twelfth Night" isn't Epiphany, but the eve or vigil thereof, and so is technically the eleventh day of Christmas, aka Pipers Piping.

**Except for a certain confusion regarding the names of the Wise Men, who came out something like "Casper, Melthasor, and Balcher," which I figured probably didn't invalidate the blessing or anything.