Monday, May 29, 2006

No Wonder We Have So Many Dropouts & Darlings

I have some hesitancy to link to anything written by Gary Palmer of The Alabama Policy Institute yet he does give us a decent article entitled "How many are missing? The shocking truth about Alabama's dropout rate is being ignored" from The Huntsville Times. Also in The Times a community columnist named M. Ann Zaffrann gets ink for "Some parents drive teachers to distraction - and off campus" yet be aware that she's writing of the early college years. I think both these op-ed efforts reveal consequences of the same policies and conditions that influence learning provided in our schools.

Returning to Mr. Palmer's "thinking" he is mostly right for his concerns on the numbers yet I'll give you this to consider:

But the majority of analysts and lawmakers have come to this consensus: the numbers have remained unchecked at approximately 30 percent through two decades of intense educational reform, and the magnitude of the problem has been consistently, and often willfully, ignored."

At least two decades and guess which way "reform" has been heading. More and more "conservatism" and "accountability" and you guys in the well-funded and connected right wing policy "think tanks" are doing more and more to destoy public education. Gary Palmer, although heading up the Alabama Policy Institute, is a mid-level operative that spins the corporate GOP "talking points" and often skewed "research" with really no challenge here. He'll tap into "values" at times of course to rally/calm the Bible Thumpers. Sooner or later organizations like Progressives States Network and the like will push back but it will take time and money that Progressives in Alabama don't often have. So here he takes a problem that his side has not remedied and winds up blaming and not really offering solutions. Indeed we need to know our numbers yet focusing on numbers is really the whole business approach isn't it? He writes of revenues and salaries lost yet doesn't seem to express concern for loss of learning. Maybe his side needs future voters that aren't inclined toward critical thinking.

As for Ms. Zaffrann, she writes of several anectodal experiences that are worth reading yet she ends with this:

... This over-solicitous behavior inevitably breeds the inability to function within the students themselves. One young woman came to my office and told me she "didn't know what to do."

When I asked what specifically confused her, she responded that she didn't know anything - how to apply for financial aid, where to get her books, etc.

I looked at the pile of materials she had in front of her and asked whether she'd read the information that had clearly been supplied for her use.

She hadn't. Hey, why read if you can get someone to spoon-feed you just like at home?

I have had more students than I can mention who were responsible, conscientious and dedicated. My guess is that they were expected to develop these traits - by their parents - as they grew older. ...

My brief time doing GTA instruction work at Auburn saw some of this yet perhaps not so much as she has described. My students were on the edge of entry into The College of Education, an amazingly demanding admission process being involved, and taking various technology classes but a few were a little weak on maturity and independence. Professors and other GTAs did often express amazement over how poorly prepared these kids seemed.

So Mr. Palmer is frustrated that so many kids are dropping out and Ms. Zaffrann thinks even those that do graduate lack the capacity to think and act independently. Plus some are lazy. Or used to being "spoon fed". Or glued to their cell phones.

As for both our writers, I'll first offer that experiences and attitudes are overwhelmingly influenced by what occurs outside of the classroom. Some research I've read puts the classroom instructional factors at less that 10%. I've often used thirds with the kid and their homelife, the many layers of bureaucracies, and finally the classroom teacher making the whole of what influences learning. Of course teachers teach those they've been assigned and have remarkably little power in the model. We can only influence what goes on in our classroom and so many of the factors outside limit us from making the hard choices of dismissing the unable and unwilling.

We are using a model that is a hundred years old to prepare kids for industrial jobs. Dropping twenty or even thirty something kids into a cement block room and demanding they sit down and work, rather that explore, flies in the face of our modern world. The post-industrial world needs thinkers and those able to work with copius amounts of information. One might suspect Mr. Palmer is not eager to have thinkers unless that contributes to the numbers and even then his side figures a little learning is just enough.

Solutions are a bit more complicated yet Progressives have no influence these days given the power of the Right so it might not matter just yet. I'm working on a good approach but I know what is wrong with our current efforts. Alfie Kohn's "What does it mean to be well educated" is one work that I'm tackling over the summer yet Michael Apple will be soon on the shelves as I need to revisit his ideas. Lefty educators are partially silenced or at best ignored these days yet darned if the right hasn't had their chance. Of course some folks argue they really don't want to fix public education but rather kill it. At best their belief that "market forces" solve all problems is part of the trouble.

Speaking, or more accurately writing of, the marketplace of ideas, admittedly our culture often doesn't value educated people. Dumb dads are a staple of sitcoms and that vapid vamp Paris Hilton can be Exhibit A for how media (corporate owned even if they employ the Hollywood elite) models success and favorable habits for our youth. Faux News expresses outrage over decency yet Fox Network distributes the most debauchery according to some authorities.

We also have a long history of anti-intellectualism in America yet I'm not so sure if we are backing up even further these last few years. Several professors I trust argue that the average undergraduate is dreadfully unappreciative of learning. Given that the average kid has been measured on learning "one damn fact/process after another" maybe that is to be expected. Teachers also teach via spoon feeding in that they simply don't have time to make a student muddle through to a solution in that they've got to get ready for the standardized tests. Our kids are taught with worksheets and reading guides and all the canned curriculum that our textbook companies make a killing preparing and then selling to the big markets in California and Texas and ... These kids either soldier on and learn despite of the system, jump through the hoops, or walk out the door. I'd argue that most of those, and certainly our society as a whole. that stay are hardly well served even if they stay in school. Part of this is due to the fact that if a kid will simply sit there and sort of kind of work then their overwhelmed and often less than ideally prepared or supported or empowered or ... teachers will be more than willing to meet them halfway. We simply "play school" all too often. We know that Alabama, most evident with the Wallace Community College System, values quantity often more than quality.

I've argued at times above that the "accountability" movement and conservative, business-based models have much to do with both of these concerns. I'm merely guessing here yet I bet many of these doting parents and spoiled/lazy kids lean toward the right in the political spectrum. It might be from my liberal bias yet this idea seems to have held up over the years. Could be in that many Americans are shocked when they understand the overwhelming factor in where a person lands on the economic food chain is where they started.

So will anybody here in Alabama challenge No Child Left Behind, the ultimate example of flawed, no downright fucked up, ideas that have overwhelmed local and state control of education. It is so odd that just a few years ago Reagan's Revolution toyed with ending the Federal Department of Education in that it really is contitutionally not handed to the Feds. Yet these small government advocates have created No Data Obsessed Bureaucrat that makes every system jump through hoops that can't be imagined. I didn't have the heart to ask Lucy Baxley, more on that later, her position on NCLB when she visited our villages today yet I'm sure it would have not been a substantive response, as would be true for likely any politician. Why? Because it has become too complex and conservatism has seemingly won the war. The politicians continue to use and abuse our schools, according to their need and perceptions, yet professional educators are generally not allowed at the table when it comes down to solutions.

What a massive post. In fact I had one that was much more solid nearly polished off when Blogger got ornery and forced me into losing my work. Might come back and polish yet I'll go ahead and post, for better or worse. Peace ... or War!