Dante’s Education

I think I have proof that the current state of public education is actually a level of Hell Satan managed to get bumped up to Earth—and the bureaucrats running the lives of teachers and students alike are his minions.

I feel another DEVIL’S POINT novel coming on. Read this and see what I’m talking about.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

26 comments… add one
  • Texanne Nov 18, 2010 @ 19:21

    I’ve purchased that book but have not yet begun to read it, though I’m enough of a plot maven to have figured it all out, I think.

    Michelle–you don’t have to ditch your love. Homeschool is not the only answer, but it’s likely the easiest, depending on how little money you are willing to get along on. Having grown up with little money myself, I don’t find it scary. You’d be amazed what you can do without and not be unhappy.

    Promise me you won’t turn your kids over entirely to the government. You have to pay attention to the things kids are learning, and you have to find a way to introduce your kids to the truth. The fun part is that you can augment the public ed with museums, libraries, friends (lots of your friends know a LOT!), and so forth. The hard part is that you have to work in your enrichment program around the school’s capricious and hard-nosed schedule.

  • Holly Lisle Nov 15, 2010 @ 11:33

    I’ve just finished rereading Weapons of Mass Instruction on the Kindle. John Gatto, an award-winning NYC public school teacher for years, details the history of compulsory education against the backdrop of his own teaching career, and shows exactly what it is intended to accomplish, and why.

    If you think public schools are failing, you’re wrong. They are doing EXACTLY what they were designed to do. They simply weren’t designed to do what you think they were.

    The book is gripping reading, and I recommend it to anyone in ANY country with compulsory education who ever went to a public school, who is attending public school now, who teaches, who has a kid, OR who ever hopes to have a kid.

    Weapons of Mass Instruction This is not an affiliate link. This is a public service link.

  • Michelle Nov 9, 2010 @ 23:24

    I truly hope that I will be in a position to homeschool my kids, and hopefully I can talk my future husband into it as well. Fact is, the idea of keeping my kids locked behind four walls all day is bad enough, but I know that behind those four walls the only person who actually sees them as human beings, and not test scores, is the teacher. That’s if the teacher hasn’t become a minion of the system, hell bent on cramming those test answers down kids’ throats.

    Can a student of the public school system do well in life. Of course, the human spirit is an amazing thing, especially if you have the support of family, friends and hopefully at least one good teacher. A person held prisoner for twelve years once set free can adjust and start living life again. I think of a child’s love of learning as being held prisoner for the twelve years they slog through public school. Once that love is free, a person can rediscover it, correct all the mistakes that teaching to the test created and start to enjoy learning again.

    • david Nov 16, 2010 @ 12:32

      First, don’t just ‘hope’ – determine. Second, finding a spouse with the same standards is a must. Third, never keep the kids locked behind four walls.

      Our favorite public instituion is the Library. [Does a writer little good on the profit end, but saves a lot on the input end.]
      After that would have to come Federal, State, County and City parks, reserves, etc. [Without government regulation to save some green space, nobody would pay for trash pickup, we would just dump in the woods. Anybody but me remember those days?]
      There are museums, places like Ohio’s COSI in Columbus, educational and often inspiring to see what a few motivated people can do.

      Do not forget physical education. My wife started a home-school phys ed program at our local rec center with no college education, just a work ethic.

      It is not a field trip every day, but once a week. Considering that they are your children, and raising them is a 24/7 proposition for life [my 21-year old in college is still my child] every moment is an opportunity to teach.

      If you love them, push them to have a strong foundation of language, mathematics, and even stronger in learning ‘how to’ think and learn, how to be aware of their surroundings. Applying the thinking, learning part often requires going outside the four walls.

      Most importantly, parents must be open to learn, wary of myths and lies, and able to walk with their heads up, and eyes open.

      Not to make you afraid, but to remind you, everyone wants the heart and soul of your child. They want their votes, their patronage, their effort, their money, their time, their bodies. Beware of politics, organized religion, and media. If people can be stupid, if people can be evil, then groups of them can be more so.

      Finally, loving parent, if “Everyone knows something” verify it before you teach it to your children [i.e. – which kills more innocents, cars or guns?]. Beware those who tell you to be a ‘team player’ or incite your child to same.

      • Michelle Nov 18, 2010 @ 17:32

        “Second, finding a spouse with the same standards is a must.”

        A must perhaps if I hadn’t already found someone that I love who has already stated he isn’t crazy about the idea. Mostly because both of us will likely need to be working, and homeschooling is a full time job for at least one of the parents involved. And yes, I know parenting is a full time job, but it’s not a paying one. We still need to eat and keep a roof over our heads. My boyfriend grew up poor and he’s not willing to beggar us to save our future kids from a system that he and I both survived. As far as he’s concerned, homeschooling is not an option for practical reasons. I’m not dumping him for that, but I can certainly try to change his mind.

  • david larson Nov 9, 2010 @ 13:44

    Bear with me a moment, while I illustrate a point:

    Wife and I decided, when we married, that she would quit her job, become full-time cook, seamstress, cleaner, etc. Prior to our meeting, she made more money than I, did not know how to do the things her grandmother did.

    While I struggled along at pitiful wages, she taught herself to sew, to garden, to preserve what we grew.

    After a year of marriage, we decided to start a family, and to home-school. Oldest daughter went to high school when we – child and parents – agreed she was ready. She tested past her freshman year of high school, got scholarship offers, does well in school. Second daughter doing very well, also, still in high school. During this time, wife took care of food, clothes, house, and started home-school athletic programs at community recreation center.

    All of this was done while I went from job to job and eventually started my own trade. Wife stayed home and learned, in order to teach.

    The lifestyle we deliberately chose kept us ‘uneducated’, and below the poverty line. Our cars are all ‘junk’ that I built from parts, our house likewise. We made do, we learned how to wrench, sew, plumb, wire, grow, cook, clean, et cetera.

    Our local school district has a long history of turning out students with better grades, while spending less money. However, our favorite public institution is not the school system, but the Public Library system.

    My Point — Education is not about a system, or a union. Education is about a desire to learn. In my grandparents day, when kids only went to school if there was no work they were needed for, they still got educations. Some were even practicing engineers and chemists without college degrees!

    The ‘systems’ are forced to teach those who don’t want to learn, wasting their time and the time of the students who want to learn. The greatest educational fight is against societal forces –

    Self-esteem vs esteem for honor, standards, morals, other people.
    A culture where actual work is disparaged and ‘position’ is glorified.
    A sense that anything that makes money is ‘accomplishment’, no matter how vile.

    Note, please, that we have nothing against teachers or systemic education, when it serves people and not vice-versa. At my insistence, lovely wife enrolled in college at 48 yrs of age, is on track to become a math teacher. If I ever find the time, between being dad and husband, running a business and repairing everything we own, I may follow her to higher education. Or I may succeed in getting a novel in publishable condition.

    If none of the above, I will have died trying, and what I have done for my family will endure beyond what I have done for myself.

  • Vivacia Oct 25, 2010 @ 11:13

    I’m from Britain and can safely say our education system is no better. 20 or so years ago when I was in what we call “middle school” (about 9 yrs to 11 yrs old) my mum asked about English grammar not being in the curriculum – my teacher actually laughed and said (paraphrasing here) “why would they need to know that – its a waste of time”.

    I was in college (16 yrs old) before I was actually taught grammar by a wonderful English teacher who took it upon himself to teach this to the class, leaving out other parts of the “curriculum” to do so.

    Standardised tests are fine, IF they include the vital information you need in life. Sadly they don’t here, and from the sounds of it don’t in the USA either. Its the content of the tests that needs to change – but that won’t happen in the UK as long as governments are determined to fiddle the numbers with easier tests so they can claim they’ve improved education standards. Even when employers are lamenting that they can’t find anyone who can add up or spell…

  • Claudette Oct 23, 2010 @ 15:50

    And the debate rolls on. I got out of the education business back in the mid-nineties. I couldn’t take another year of it. And when I left it, I had a firm grasp of the beginning of the problem — at the lower elementary level. Before that I taught at a small college.

    I left the college when a dept. head asked me to lower my standards of performance for her nursing students. It seemed that her idea of a successfully trained nursing student was one who could give the correct medication to the correct patient and the correct time. (She mentioned nothing about a correct dosage.)

    I left her with one word… NO! I said that if her students couldn’t learn something other than her requrements, I’d make sure I didn’t have one of them for a nurse at the local hospital. I think I angered her. That was my last full teaching year with that college. The episode did educate me, however. I learned where the emphasis on education sat — on the roll numbers and tuition funds incoming. Not on education.

    Back in the early eighties doctoral students I worked with were appauled at the number of Juniors in their classes that counld’t write complete sentences or une any kind of punctuation.

    The problem has been around for a very long time. There are individual schools around the country that expect and receive excellent results from the attending students. Their methods are simple and arduous. But they do get results. Unfortunately, the methods actually require the administration, all the way down to the janitors, to care to the depths of their cores about the welfare and education of EVERY strudent in that school to the last degree. That kind of dedication requires energy and dedication that many in the current education arena simply don’t wish to invest.

    Claudette

  • Texanne Oct 23, 2010 @ 10:44

    I did speak of it disparagingly, and that was not accidental.

    • Texanne Oct 23, 2010 @ 11:31

      Sorry. I was called away abruptly.

      Yes, Julian, homeschooling requires sacrifice of the parents, sometimes great sacrifice. Certainly we and our daughter sacrifice for the kids. And some parents, as you point out, can’t do it. Yes, there is a place for public education, which is why it so desperately needs to be fixed.

      Now, as for your example of married lawyers, each of whom works 70 hours per week. I have two questions: How many yachts can you ski behind? Why do Mr. & Mrs. Highly Paid Workaholic even HAVE kids? Answers: You can only ski behind one yacht at a time, for safety’s sake. Mr. and Mrs. Highly Paid Workaholic DON’T have kids. Their nanny has kids, or their day-care center has kids. Mr. & Mrs. HPW have accessories.

      As Holly often does, she has brought up a big, complex issue.

      • Julian Adorney Oct 23, 2010 @ 17:10

        Texanne: 1) I disagree about the kid of the highly-paid workaholics, one of my best friends is the daughter of 2 lawyers, and very close to both of them. She wasn’t raised in day care, or by a nanny. Working long hours left her parents too busy to home-school her but not too busy to spend time with her. That said, she ended up in private school so I guess it’s a moot point.

        2) Why don’t you like Title IX?

        • Michelle Nov 11, 2010 @ 9:45

          My understanding is that regulations around Title IX caused attention to boys’ sports teams to decline as the focus became about making things equal for the girls. So boys’ participation in sports declined as a result. One story I remember my sociology teacher bringing in when I was in high school: At one high school a boys’ softball team had a fundraiser and raised enough money to fix up their softball field, new grass, bleachers, dugouts, the works. The girls softball team complained that it was unfair because their field didn’t look that nice. Evidentally, they didn’t feel like doing the work to make it nice. I know the girls won the lawsuit and either the boys’ field was given to them or the new stuff that had been purchased was returned so that both fields sucked equally. Reminds me of Harrison Bergeron.

          That is of course an extreme case, but it indicates how easily laws for creating equality can be misused, especially in this day of “why should I work when I can sue?” I think the real problem with Title IX is that regulators make the assumption that because 50% of students are girls, then 50% of the sports players should be, so 50% of the athletics funding goes to the girls. Better I think to survey students in each school to determine what percentage of boys and girls are interested in participating in sports then divide the funds that way. Not equal mathmatically perhaps, but life isn’t a word puzzle.

  • Julian Adorney Oct 23, 2010 @ 2:04

    Jim: I love that quote about teachers’ unions! Btw, you should google Michelle Rhee: when she was chancellor of DC Public Schools, she broke the back of the local teachers’ union and fired the bottom 7% of teachers. My hero.

    Texanne: Homeschooling is a good option for parents who have the time and motivation to put into it. That said, it’s definitely not the solution for everyone. For the kids of two lawyers who put in 70 hours a week at the office, for the kids of mothers on crack and fathers who left, for the kids whose parents dropped out of high school, for the kids of parents who can do but not teach (my kids would be screwed in a homeschool environment), for the kids of abusive parents, for the kids of of single parents who are working 25/8 to keep house and put food on the table; homeschooling is not the solution. For those kids, public education is the way to go.

    Btw: since Title IX (the fed govt policy you referenced so derogatively) was put in place, female sport participation jumped 700%. Coincidence? I doubt it. Title IX may have had some bad side effects, but the policy itself has been a huge boost to girls who want to compete in sports.

  • Texanne Oct 23, 2010 @ 1:32

    My daughter homeschools her kids, and they all live with us. The younger ones use systems through the Texas board of education or whatever it’s called. The high schooler has self-guided study through one of the university systems. If she chooses to homeschool again next year, she will have courses that are both high-school and college credits. She, the oldest, homeschools because of two utterly failing teachers she drew this year. Some genius in the federal gov’t decided girls have to have the same athletic opportunities as boys. Therefore, the schools are burdened with twice as many gym teachers as they used to be. To save money, these gym teachers are stuck into classrooms. Short version: softball coaches aren’t the best calculus or English teachers. So, homeschool. The younger ones are permanent homeschoolers, just on general principles.

    When a parent teaches, she knows just how to reach each kid, what kinds of incentives, explanations, projects, and so forth with bring out the best in each kid. Even well-meaning teachers can’t match this. And then there was that whole swine flu business.

    And, as others have said, the teachers unions are a huge blockage of the system. CA is much worse than Texas, but given time and entropy, well . . . .

    New Devil’s Point novel, huh?

  • Jim Oct 23, 2010 @ 0:37

    Actually, the first thing when I saw this was… A new Devil’s Point novel! Wonderful 🙂

    More seriously, I have heard several sources repeat the mantra recently: The first, primary purpose of the teacher’s unions to to keep bad teachers fully employed.

    That certainly matches my personal experience of other unions, but that’s a different debate.

    One case in point (and believe me, this is far from the worst horror story I could give you; except that the worst story could probably be traced by google search even if I didn’t name names — yes, it’s that bad): the math teacher at my son’s former high school taught all four years of math ending (for qualified students) in either AP Calculus or “Algebra III.” As we approached his senior year, we began to hear more and more about how she was favoring certain students with extra opportunites on the theory that “they could do the work, they just had a bad day” vs. “s/he is incapable of learning the material, I can’t give them any extra attention.” (In one case, she even tore up submitted homework from one of his friends, telling her “you’re incapble of doing this, so you must have cheated.”)

    In any event, my son fell out of favor (though taking too much advantage of the opporutnities to slack off) and got put into Algebra III, where he had a student teacher for most of the term.

    We had also been hearing rumors that this teacher’s AP Calc students were failing the local university’s placement test for entry into Calc. My son passed it. (OK, he’s had a struggle to keep his grades up since then, so I guess he’s not the next Leibnitz or Cauchy, but still…)

    The first source of that quote above, Dr. Jerry Pournelle (www.jerrypournelle.com) cites studies that simply firing the 10% least effective teachers — and not replacing them, consolidating the students into slightly larger classrooms — would be the best thing that could be done to improve the classrooms. However, the current educational system, and particularly the unions, make that remedy impossible. (See examples on his web site in recent weeks.)

    This is not to disparage the hundreds of thousands of effective teachers manning our classrooms. But the damage can be done by one bad teacher a year.

  • WandersNowhere Oct 21, 2010 @ 21:54

    I currently teach English in junior high schools in Japan and I have mixed feelings about the education system. It definitely has its pros and cons. Overall I find the students here to be very committed to their work and well-behaved in class. I’ve often said I wouldn’t want to be doing this job back in my home country.

    But at the same time, the system is, while not broken, wobbly. I work for a private company that places assistant language teachers in schools. When I first came to this job the pitch was that we would work together with Japanese teachers of English in the class in a team-teaching style, utilising each of our skills (mine as a young, enthusiastic native speaker, theirs as an experienced and qualified teacher) to give the kids a positive and engaging English learning experience.

    However a recent overhaul has canned that; we’re now required to split the class time between the two teachers according to various plans. The teachers are not to help each other, one teacher is meant to stand mutely to one side while the other leads the class. The teachers are also prohibited to discuss lesson plan or schedule changes with the ALT directly, and must fax or mail all proposed lesson plan changes to the company, who forwards them to the Board of Education office, who signs off on them, sends them back to the company, who signs off and sends them back to the school.

    All of this could be solved by the teacher leaning over to my desk and saying, “Excuse me, ALT-sensei, could you do this class on Friday third period?” “Sure, no problem!” “Hai, onegaishimasu.” Technically, they’re not allowed to do that.

    The reason for this is not the school’s or even the company’s fault, but instead a complex and confusing set of labour laws around the contract between the board of education and the company. It’s ridiculous and few of my coworkers pay attention to it, because it’s nigh-impossible to actually implement.

    Again, I teach great kids who are eager to learn English if properly motivated (i.e foreign language as a useful life skill, not out of obligation or just to pass a test) and I work with very committed and hard-working teachers who care about their kids and their job. But it sometimes feels like the government is just paying lip-service to the English program and has no real interest in internationalisation. In the end, no matter the country or culture, when education laws exist for the sake of politics and not for the purpose of educating the kids, it’s always the kids who suffer for it, and that really upsets me.

  • Julian Adorney Oct 21, 2010 @ 20:30

    JL: Sounds pretty amazing, definitely better than our system.

    To no-one in particular: Unlike so many people I meet, I’m actually a fan of standardized testing. It creates accountability, and without accountability there’s very little growth. That said, ACT and similar tests aren’t the way to go. But I took plenty of AP exams, and I think that they require the right combination of knowledge, creativity, and argumentative skill to pass. No-one ever passed the AP English exam by memorizing what a gerrand was.

    Perhaps if every subject had an AP-style test at the end of the year, and teachers and students were held accountable based on students’ scores, we would see competitiveness without the interfering, mind-numbingly-stupid bureaucracy that Holly’s article pointed out.

    Here’s hoping, anyway.

  • JL Coburn Oct 21, 2010 @ 19:44

    Julian: Very competitive. Like I said, beyond Middle School students are not guaranteed higher education. They have to earn it. Given, as Carlie pointed out, standardized testing is still a major part of determining who earns it. The truth is, and I hate to admit it, so long as education is federally funded they are going to want some sort of accountability. Standardized testing gives them that accountability.

    Carlie: I’m with you in some respects, in that Science is a major focus of Post Secondary in Japan. But Science includes the standards like Biology, Earth Space and Chemistry as well as the Computer Sciences. At least, the research I’ve done has them under the same umbrella. Math though, despite how well they do test in it, gets the same amount of class time/required credits as Art, Home Ec., and Civics/Ethics and less than Phys Ed.

    Conversely, I only needed 1 credit in Phys Ed., 1 credit in Art, and nothing resembling Home Ec., was even offered in High School. But our core scholastics (Math, Science, English and Social Sciences) all required 4 credits. Foreign Language, among other things, was entirely optional.

  • Carlie Oct 21, 2010 @ 19:02

    Having taught in Japanese schools, I’m not sure I would want my children going there. The elementary schools I taught in had class sizes from 2 to 15, and I did like the program they had. Lots of extra curricular activities such as going out to draw, going out for photography, planting rice crops, catching fish with their hands. I did think it was great, the kids were being creative.

    But it all changes when kids get to Junior high. It’s all about the test score. Children work at finishing the text book. They aren’t taught how to think critically – no short answers on tests, it’s all right/wrong scoring. If they don’t go to cram school after school they get left behind. A good way, perhaps, to have better than average maths and science scores, but I worry about the rest of the subjects.

  • Julian Adorney Oct 21, 2010 @ 18:54

    JL Coburn: That system sounds like it could be either be ideal, or a throwback to the education of the 1950s and early 60s. In those decades, children were given ‘societal training’ rather than an intellectual education, and high school was optional. Neither of these were in-and-of-themselves major problems. The major problem, the problem that encouraged students to conform rather than stand out, and teachers to shuffle bad students through the system instead of helping them, was lack of competition.

    Competition encourages people to excel. Competition encourages bad students and teachers to do better or do something else. It promotes individuality and entrepreneurship (FYI, for a great book on this, I’d recommend HARD AMERICA SOFT AMERICA).

    So: How competitive is Japan’s system?

  • JL Coburn Oct 21, 2010 @ 17:37

    My personal opinion? The education system Japan has in place is by far one of the most productive in existence. Kindergarten up until the age of 6. From there Elementry and Junior High are compulsory and take them up to the age of 15 and give them the skills they need to function in society without being a burden to the system. Education beyond that is entirely optional. That said, without going beyond that they aren’t going to do better than flipping burgers.

    Without being forced, something around 95% of students go on to High School, despite it not being free (tuition is around $2k a year), which goes until 18. Now they’ve actually got the skills for a decent paying job with room for advancement. This level also includes vocational schooling so they can acquire specialized job skills if they wish to work in a field that requires them.

    From there it’s on to University level where it is really no different than it is here stateside. The costs are even comparable, just below $10k for tuition, fees, and housing per year.

    Again, it’s just my opinion that this is one of the better education systems.

    • Holly Lisle Nov 2, 2010 @ 12:00

      Japan had the highest rate of child and teen suicide in the world, last I heard. It’s been linked to the pressures of the Japanese
      “do or die” approach to education.

      Japan is also a monoculture—almost everyone speaks the same language and is native Japanese. Even if we were willing to adopt their system, it wouldn’t work for us because we are a polyglot hybrid nation with myriad contradictory expectations.

  • Julian Adorney Oct 21, 2010 @ 16:55

    First off, I agree with the article and with you, Holly. Our public school system is broke.

    But what’s the solution? Our system got Fedexed to us from Hell; what’s the better one?

    Granted, administrators looking over teachers’ shoulders is bad. But SOMEONE has to, because the sad fact is that there are a lot of incompetent teachers. If no-one holds them accountable, they’ll continue teaching and stunting young minds. How do you create accountability while eliminating administrators? (This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m writing my thesis, in large part, trying to answer it)

    No Child Left Behind is a bad law, but a demand for high test scores creates accountability, for teachers and students. Without that accountability, we go back to the progressive systems of the 1950s, where teachers get participation points and kids get screwed.

    If I sound cynical, it’s only because I’ve been researching the system for the better part of a year, trying to fix it. It’s a mess, and I don’t see a solution.

    I get into this discussion with my friends all the time about economics. They hate capitalism, and I ask them what system we should replace it with. They mutter ‘it’s out there somewhere’ and don’t get specific.

    My point: our system’s broken. Apart from talking about it and advocating vague things like ‘restructuring’, what do we do?

    • Holly Lisle Nov 2, 2010 @ 11:57

      Start here:
      http://www.johntaylorgatto.com

      Read Dumbing Us Down, Weapons of Mass Instruction, and / or The Underground History of American Education.

      Not everything that is broken can be fixed. But it can damn sure be replaced.

  • PolarBear Oct 21, 2010 @ 16:13

    As far a I know, all chemistry lab equipment comes marked in metric measurements. That means you either teach them to convert those metric measurements to English or pay a fortune for custom-designed lab glass. I do like the still idea — that would be awfully meaningful to a lot of students. Build a lesson on classic TV — what would it have taken to make that still on MASH actually work.

    I think they call that cross-platform instruction.

  • JL Coburn Oct 21, 2010 @ 12:32

    It was until I started reading articles like the one you posted that I wanted to go into teaching. Instead, I’m thinking home school for my trio of kids.

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