Who are you calling stupid?

There is something really bad going on in American education. And I do not mean á La Mala Educación… which would at least be interesting. It something pretty serious though.

One of my illustrious [former] administrators once announced at a faculty inservice meeting that there was “no place for competition in the classroom, nor was there a place for sarcasm.” For one brief shining moment I was incredibly glad I was a basketball coach because I was certain there was a place for both competition and sarcasm there – but then I became perplexed (and if you have ever had to sit through teacher inservice meetings you know that perplexed will soon segue to aggravation.) I have been a high school teacher since 1994. And though I would never go so far as to say all of my clients loved me, I feel comfortable asserting that there are few of them who would say I was a shitty teacher. Competitiveness and sarcasm are probably two of my more dominant character traits and I am certain that they have long stood strong in my classroom. So what was this person, who as far as I could tell was fairly out of touch with kids regardless of their (hopefully) good intentions, doing telling me that I was ‘doing it wrong’?

I think people who cannot incorporate humor, (facetious, wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating or otherwise) in their dealings with teenagers are either afraid of kids or are simply not very much fun. I do not endorse cruelty (which is not to say I haven’t wanted to employ it once or twice) and it is clear that you can’t rib and jive with kids you do not have an established rapport with, so there you go: Job #1 – Establish rapport. This is not being a buddy, it is being capable, consistent, fair, honest and ultimately, trustworthy. You would be surprised how few people deal with teenagers this way. [As an aside, I also endorse dressing up for work and keeping your shit together (ie: clean) because whether you like it or not, these impressions make a big difference with teenage people.  Dress like you give a shit, teach like you give a shit, and guess what? They might give a shit.] Job #2? Demonstrate that EVERYTHING you do in your classroom is relevant. EVERY SINGLE THING. I teach Humanities and Social Sciences, thus it would be impossible for me to estimate how many times I have been asked, legitimately or otherwise, why we were doing something in class; but if you cannot clearly, quickly and precisely articulate a rationale for what you are doing, you should probably stop doing it. (Likely good advice for all areas of life.)

And what of competition? Well, it is just a little old thing that, let’s see, is innate in all species to a healthy degree. And let’s face it, it is a competitive world and losing sucks. Ultimately, the idea is probably to compete against yourself, to motivate yourself to be better – not richer or bigger or louder – just to improve yourself. In whatever way you can. That whole thing about “All men are created equal”? Uh, I don’t think so. And you should be grateful for not having to suffer the homogeneity and seriously painful palette of life that would lead to [see Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron for an apt demonstration of that point.]. But even with inequalities, competition will demonstrate how people are innately complementary and at the end of the day, if my students understood that concept, that would be me FTW all the way.

I have always said that communal ideals are fantastic. And I mean that in all the literal manifestations. Awesome and total fantasy. It would be lovely if people cared about everyone to the degree they care about themselves and hopefully their own inner circle. But those individuals are far and few between. As such, it seems like we would do well to encourage healthy competition in as many areas as possible in a system where the fruits of the competitive endeavor can benefit lots of people. I would point you to the Burning Man concept to see further evidence of this: BRC is a totally currency-free, commerce-rich, cooperative competition. For real.  Even Mr. Capitalism himself, Adam Smith “did not approve of accumulation for accumulation’s sake. He was, after all, a philosopher, with a philosopher’s disdain for the vanity of riches. Rather, in the accumulation of capital Smith saw a vast benefit to society. For capital — if put to use in machinery — provided just that wonderful division of labor which multiplies man’s productive energy. Accumulate and the world will benefit, says Smith.”

Smith also had some ideas on competition, which are largely misunderstood and I think fairly apt when considering the implications of competition in social terms as well as economic, both of which are inherently connected to the supposed goal of education:

Specifically they show us how the drive of individual self-interest in an environment of similarly motivated individuals will result in competition; and they further demonstrate how competition will result in the provision of those goods that society wants, in the quantities that society desires, and at the prices society is prepared to pay. But self-interest is only half the picture. It drives men to action. Something else must prevent the pushing of profit hungry individuals from holding society up to exorbitant ransom. This regulator is competition, the conflict of the self-interested actors on the marketplace. A man who permits his self-interest to run away with him will find that competitors have slipped in to take his trade away. Thus the selfish motives of men are transmuted by interaction to yield the most unexpected of results: social harmony.

But, as usual I digress. I am not so interested in getting all kumbaya-esque and whining about why we can’t all just get along. I am interested in the current discussion surrounding the notion of creating a competitive environment in American education. Not just inside the classroom, but the move towards a total “deregulation” (in economic terms) of the education system.

I have been ruminating over this for years as a teacher who has seen the devastation of the American system of education in myriad areas. I have heard people say, and in some cases aptly demonstrate, that if schools were run like businesses… (assuming we don’t mean WalMart and Lehman Brothers) things would be so much better. I have heard people rant about school choice, school vouchers, school accountability. I have heard people say, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” And of course, my old favorite – “It’s the teachers, Stupid. You know what they say, Those who can’t do…”

And this is all dominating my brain today as a result of reading a description of John Stossel’s report for ABC news, “Stupid in America: How Lack of Choice Cheats Our Kids Out of a Good Education” brought to my attention via my Twitter friend MildewPea (yeah, Twitter does it again.) Stossel’s key points are:

Alright… so my response to Stossel? Here goes. Clearly there is something wrong with public education in America. Especially in a nation with so many entrepreneurs, the best universities in the world (yeah, I am biased), and clearly the ability to provide quality public education to all people – which is, of course, a BASIC human right.

So, what is wrong?

A couple of things I can tell you from direct personal experience. First, teachers are not valued in America. This is demonstrated in their pay and in the general attitude towards learning that has come to pass in recent years. When I was attending SFSU to get my Secondary Education certification, the school was incessantly lamenting the lack of minority teachers in the program. Finally one of my colleagues (a Latino female) stood up and said, “Look, people from poor families cannot afford to become teachers – it doesn’t pay, so if they are going to send their kids to college some how, some way, they best be going into business, medicine or law.”This was punctuated by another good friend in the program who I ran into a year later and asked where he was teaching and he said, “Oh, I had to go back to the restaurant, I could not afford to teach and still live in San Francisco.” He made more money waiting tables.


And consequently, if no one sees teaching as a career they would want, why in the hell would they ever think that the people who do teach are worth listening to? [Goes back to my favorite expression – teaching/doing… blah blah blah.)

Regarding the way American students compare to those abroad, I prefer to offer qualitative information rather than quantitative because that is how I roll, but there are tons of statistics here, research here and here and data here. Categorically, I see a few glaring differences between my students here in Asia (who are almost exclusively multilingual, multiracial, international school students) and the students I taught in the Western US in both very privileged and very marginalized public schools.

1) Students here acquiesce much more readily to parental pressure with regards to where to go to school and what to study. As such, 95% of my students will go into Business, Engineering, Marketing, Finance, Economics or possibly Medicine or Law. They also view education as branding and not so informational – hence the love of Ivy.

2) Students here are much more intensely concerned with their grades. Though in both places, given the opportunity to get good grades via a short cut (ie: not learning anything would be readily acceptable) they would take it. I found that a lot of my students in the States were more willing to accept that their apathy would result in poor grades where, here, the hope is that somehow apathy and good grades can peacefully and successfully co-exist.

3) My students here are much more resistant to problem solving individually or collaboratively often believing that if someone else has already worked out a way to do something then can’t they just memorize that method and be done with it?

4) Students here categorically are NOT employed. The vast majority of my students in the US worked by choice or necessity.

5) All the desirable schools here cost money. LOTS of money. Like college money.

In a nutshell, kids here are results oriented and my kids in the States were process oriented. Both orientations taken to the extreme suck. And frankly, critical thinking has fallen way out of vogue. Across the board, as far as I can see the Joe Friday Philosophy rules: “All we want are the facts.” (Often misquoted as “Just the facts Ma’am,” but the point’s the same.)

The last thing I have to address are Stossel’s suggestions is that vouchers are the way forward, that school choice will solve all the problems, that zoning sucks.

I could not agree more that competition makes schools better. Teachers, students and parents all want to be associated with top schools, which puts pressure on them to perform. Competition does breed innovation – it is why I embrace it in the classroom and it is why the charter school movement is gaining so much momentum. There are schools exactly like Stossel describes at the end of his segment cropping up all over the place. But getting into them and even physically getting to them can be problematic.

Here is what I think the real problem is: Everyone loves competition until they don’t get what they want.

Vouchers will relegate public schools to the most marginalized (some would say the most in need of an excellent education) students we have. These would be the kids without any sort of advocate at home or otherwise, special needs students, overlooked students, the poorest kids in the country. Okay, so some say that is the fault of the school and that school should be closed. Then what do you propose we do with the kids who attended that school? And zoning? As a coach, you don’t even get me started on that. That shit matters. I know Social Studies have fallen out of style, but people might want to review the concept of gerrymandering; the elimination of any sort of zoning will create a haphazardly gerrymandered system in education – for academics, socio-economic strata and sports.

Stossel says our schools are a monopoly. Adam Smith says “the great enemy to the system is not so much government per se as monopoly in any form. The trouble with such goings-on is not so much that they are morally reprehensible in themselves — they are, after all, only the inevitable
consequence of man’s self-interest — as that they impede the fluid working of the market. Whatever interferes with the market does so only at the expense of the true wealth of the nation.” I say who the hell is benefiting from Secondary Education in America? Further everyone always points to the deregulation of MaBell when they talk about this… but I think they might overlook the consequences of the deregulation of utilities in California… that was a peachy summer. Will there be an Enron of education?

Consider this:

  • Start creating the paradigm shift that suggests that there is an inherent value in being informed and educated (by)
  • Insisting that teachers have the ability to articulate why what they are teaching is relevant (which they will do if)
  • Schools receive a relative degree of autonomy with regards to their mission, aims and curriculum to fit the needs and charactersitcs of the community they serve whether it is contiguous or not (which will only be possible with quality faculty and staff)
  • Pay teachers well… making it a desirable profession will attract quality people.

I currently work in a for profit educational environment, and while I like my job just fine I have certainly seen the sacrifices and comproises that have to be made to make the business work. Mutual exclusivity is sooooooo last millenia, so there needs to be a way to make the two work together. I have not really seen a situation that is not government funded where business and teaching are on equal footing. So John Stossel, I agree, we’ve got ourselves a dilemma (I know, I saw Idiocracy) so just be careful what you wish for is all I am saying.

Oh, and perhaps re-read The Wealth of Nations.

Smith specifically stresses three things that government should do in a society of natural liberty. First, it should protect that society against “the violence and invasion of other societies. Second, it should provide an “exact administration of justice” for all citizens. And third, government has the duty of “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” but which “are of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.” Put into today’s language, Smith explicitly recognizes the usefulness of public investment for projects that cannot be undertaken by the private sector — he
mentions roads and education as two examples.


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Education, Perception, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Who are you calling stupid?

  1. DT says:

    One of the (many) reasons I’ve always admired you as a teacher is that you read people like Vonnegut and Smith, watch movies like Idiocracy and Wanda, and integrate their lessons into your world view and your work. Great blog!

  2. Albert says:

    Interesting thoughts. Was it a Hug or Sparks administrator? Traner Lady Viking basketball is vastly improved. Bee happy my bees are.
    Peace out for now.

    • Amanda says:

      It was a Hug teacher who had an “administrative” position at SHS.
      I am so frustrated with the state of education in the world today, and concerned too as I prepare to get myself back to the States… where will I go? What will I do? [If no one wants to go to/maintain/improve schools?]

      Truly – no amount of money or programs they throw at schools will make any kind of difference at all until there is some sort of paradigm shift where education is once again seen as a valuable commodity in it’s own right….

      But, more to the point – HOW ARE YOU AL? It has been ages… How is Traner??

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