We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

In the absence of real adult authority and real conviction about what they are supposed to be accomplishing with their time, students work out a subtle scratch-my-back, scratch-your-back deal with the on-site adults. The young agree to a level of behavioral restraint in return for a corresponding level of ongoing entertainment--and academic standards that don't seriously interfere with the party.

I once spent a day in a reasonably good suburban high school observing the classes of a crackerjack science teacher, a man with a quick wit, a natural empathy for the young, and a degree in chemistry from Harvard. He also had a showman's flair. "If I see they're getting bored," he said, "I drag out the chemicals and blow something up." His classes were well-organized and productive. Students were actually learning chemistry and physics. But all day long they wandered into class late, or stood up and strolled out the door. He followed their comings and goings with his eyes but never said a word. When I asked him about it later, though, it was he who exploded. "Today, the students have a legal excuse to get out of class to vote in a 'best legs' contest. What does that tell you about the priorities of this school?" Since the administration hadn't bothered to develop a practical way of letting teachers know which students had already exercised their franchise, election day was basically another free day for students.

Some wealthier suburban Twin Cities districts spend over 10 percent of their total budget on extracurricular activities, from chess club and girls' hockey to cheerleading, glee club, and FFA chapters--not to mention big-ticket items like varsity football and basketball. (When conservatives complain about America's educational spending, they almost always neglect to mention that by our standards, schools in other countries have minuscule or non-existent budgets for extra-curricular activities.) Classroom business is constantly disrupted by the fact that the members of the soccer, wrestling or cross-country team are excused at 1:00 so they can travel down to Red Wing for a game. When do they get to hear the teacher explain compound interest or cellular mitosis?

A civics teacher voiced a common complaint. "If assembly runs over the end of the period, the kids get to stay until the program is finished. But if the bell rings when I'm right in the middle of explaining constitutional checks and balances, that's too bad. The kids are out of here." It all adds up, and it sends a powerful message to children about what is really important. The energy, time, and money spent on these extras are usually defended with the Munich-style argument that if you don't keep the children amused, they'll lose interest and drop out. Blame it on Big Bird and the Count.

During 25 years of involvement with public education, I've probably talked about the profession with a couple thousand teachers. In the course of those conversations one refrain has come up from the trenches over and over and over again. As one teacher put it, "If they would just let me do the job I thought they hired me for, everything would be fine." There is probably an element of professional self-serving in this lament, but when it is far and away the most frequent complaint by the people doing the actual work, you have to wonder if it doesn't signify.

The greatest distraction of all, of course, are the extensive athletic programs unique to American schools. Especially in districts that are struggling academically, they often become the tail that wags the dog.

To a considerable degree, the values of every public high school in America are turned upside down by athletics. There can be no greater crime than to go less than "all out" on the field. Break a varsity team rule, argue with the coach, miss practice, or dog it, and you are a loser, a jerk, a pariah devoid of team and school spirit. On the other hand, you may actually be considered cool if you skip class, talk back to a teacher, waste time, cheat, or don't bother to do the work. The major dailies cover high-school sports, not high-school academics. You get a varsity letter you can show the world for playing on the first string, not for being a National Merit Scholar.

The message about what really matters--and what really doesn't--comes through loud and clear. The hypocrisy is destructive enough in a suburban school. In a rural or city school where the institutional sports fetish is reinforced by powerful patterns in the community, the results are truly distorting. It gets worse with each passing year. In fact, high schools are now a well-established link in a continuous chain that stretches right up to the ranks of professional sports leagues. U of M basketball coach Clem Haskins has been actively recruiting point guard Khalid El-Amin since the boy was a sophomore at North High.

Efforts to reduce the influence of athletics meet powerful resistance not only from communities, but from the increasingly muscular sports industry. The treatment of high schools, especially minority-dominated inner-city high schools, as meat markets for college athletic programs has become a major concern of college presidents. Hoping to use the power of the colleges to push high schools toward an emphasis on academics rather athletics, the presidents recently staged a mini-revolt at the NCAA convention, taking the first tentative steps toward wresting control of athletic programs from coaches, boosters, and athletic directors. When the presidents actually succeeded in pushing through marginally higher academic standards for the awarding of athletic scholarships, the move was greeted with shrill and stubborn cries of discrimination from the influential Black Coaches Association--which numbers the U Of M's Clem Haskins among its prominent members.

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