Not an Abyss, Ms. Riley

That “thing” between high school students with poor skills and a college education is not an abyss, Ms. Riley: It is a trench dug by the moneyed to keep the offspring of the underclass in their place.

Don’t think “abyss” or “gorge” or any other landscape feature created by natural causes when you think of the failure of large public schools in poor urban areas.

Don’t think “gap.” Think “moat.”

I’m lucky: My students from UConn are teaching in small and large schools across the country and they keep me posted; I feel as if I hear about what’s going in our nation’s classrooms from those who are doing the real work of teaching. Several of them are part of Teach for America, while others have found their positions through the more traditional routes: getting their M.A.’s in either Education or English, getting certified to teach through other programs, or being hired by independent schools who have different methods of evaluating their prospective faculty. One of my former students is now the principal of a nationally-recognized magnet school, and his leadership is one of those great stories told, over and over again, by folks who are looking for ways to make our schools better.

Because, Ms. Riley, we’re all looking for ways to make our schools better. It’s just that very few of us think the way to strengthen the education of our least-prepared students is by giving them “the placement tests that the community colleges use” as an exit strategy.

That’s your suggestion, right?

You seem to suggest that the educational mission of overworked and underpaid teachers (you always sound as if you don’t believe that’s true, by the way, when you diss the teacher’s unions, but maybe I’m reading your tone incorrectly) should be to “ensure the system couldn’t be gamed as easily and to raise the cutoff necessary to pass the Regents exams”? In other words, aren’t you suggesting that we need to police the students even more fervently—rather than teach them more effectively? Isn’t what you’re suggesting merely an even more punitive version of teaching for the test?

In contrast, teaching our least privileged young people more effectively, in smaller classes, with more individualized instruction, and with less emphasis on standardized tests, is seditious idea. It takes the power away from the administrators and puts it back into the hands of the teachers and the students themselves.

If the administrators—local, state, national, and private-owned testing organization types, for that matter—backed off (and if we didn’t pay “educational administrators” upwards of $130,000 a year or more, what with fees for consultation—the way we pay the endless filo-dough layers of administrators at the university level) we could probably get some more work accomplished in those classrooms with the wire-meshed windows and the security guards on every floor.

It’s not about the test; it’s about the teaching. And, really, if we’re being honest, it’s about how much money your family earns. You wrote that “It amazes me that college administrators always seem to have a perfectly good sense of what is required to do college level work but they can never pass that information along to high schools or that high school administrators simply don’t care.”

Ah, we’re back to the moat, and the fact that almost everything depends which side of the water you’re on. And that’s not me just being bitter, by the way; here’s what Forbes has to say in its article on prep schools:  “Mitchell L. Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford University and author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. Stevens worked for a year and a half at the admissions office at an elite liberal-arts college, traveling to high schools mainly in the Western U.S. and the East Coast to recruit applicants. ‘A [big] name high school provides assurance to college admissions. It’s about the reliability of applicants.’”

Maybe there’s more to it, Ms. Riley, than getting teachers to whip students into shape. Maybe we should get rid of educational feudalism.


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