Friday, May 31, 2013

SJ Magazine: "New Jersey's Failing High Schools"

This article left me weary and worried.  Read it and weep....

Like so many commentaries on the shocking state of education in NJ and elsewhere in this
once- upon-a-time land of the free and home of the brave, it states the problems clearly and then dives enthusiastically into the bottomless pit of fictions that we have manufactured to divert ourselves from a painful, ugly reality.

In the first few paragraphs, the author states a few tragic facts:

1.  70% of New Jersey's high school graduates need remedial coursework in order to be college-ready.

2.  Students who begin college by taking remedial coursework have only a 25% chance of graduating from college.

Heaven help us.

But even more shocking than this scandalous truth about the value of public education in NJ, is the fact that the outrage is omitted!  Friends, you have been robbed!  How much of your annual tax bill supports the public schools?  Demand a refund !!  In no other industry could there be such gross neglect without dire consequences. If you were this derelict in your duties at your job, you would be canned.  If you are a law abiding citizen who pays taxes without complaint and your kid has graduated from high school but needs to take pre-algebra at the community college - You. Have. Been. Robbed.

You paid for your kid's education with prodigious taxes and now you have to pay for the same coursework - again - but this time with after-tax dollars, that warm and fuzzy double whammy.

But instead of howling with outrage, shock, and righteous indignation, the author begins the equivocations and idle talk of common core standards, 'partnering with high schools', Student Success Summit, task forces, proficiency testing, blah, blah, blah.   She tells us the public schools are falling short and then suggests .... more of the same !!  What??

Is it because I have not sent my kids to schools that I feel such umbrage and have an overwhelming desire to grab every parent by the shoulders, shake them hard, and bellow, "Snap out of it !!"

None of the task forces, partnerships, committees, study teams, testing cultures and revised standards have worked. Standardized test scores continue to drop; they are at record lows!  It has all been for nothing.  The whole system is quicksand.  Once you are in it, the more you struggle, and the deeper you are pulled down by it.  What else needs to be said?

The exasperation I felt after reading this article was palpable.  Into what hermetically sealed chamber has the collective common sense of American families been forever ditched?  Unless parents snap out of it and demand a refund or walk away, nothing is going to change.  The fiction will only grow more Leviathan-like around the dark chambers of the public education stage until the specter-like whispers of truth evaporate altogether.  Meanwhile, taxes will go up, America will slip further behind its international peers, and citizens will decry the outsourcing of jobs.  Friends, the madness really must stop and only you can make it stop.

Lest you think that I believe teachers are bad or guilty, think again.  They are saints.  The union?  Not so.  But teachers are creative, caring individuals who really want to help.  But the entire system is built upon a lie.  Mass, group education is a bad idea.  The minority of students who succeed would succeed even if you dropped them on a deserted island.  They are determined to learn, and they'll do it no matter what.   Mass education does not produce a good result for the majority.  That's really the only truth that needs to be absorbed by the collective consciousness of the American public.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Is the Ethnicity Box obsolete?

Diversity practices in the college application process are a very touchy topic.  The reasons are obvious – we mourn for errors past, we bid all strife and discourse cease, we strive for equality in opportunity and hope never again to witness the terrible sadness of a scalded soul.  Amen, amen and amen.

But, diversity practices are getting complicated - hard to manage and harder yet to explain.

Russell Nieli, a Princeton professor and admissions adviser to Princeton freshman, uses an interesting phrase when analyzing the practice.  He calls the diversity targets  "identity groups".  He describes it well in this article:

An identity group is an ethnic identity which is viewed, generally, as challenged, discriminated against, or somehow not given a fair chance in life. Most would agree that the "identity group" practices in colleges aim to get at this thing: They want to help kids who have been oppressed, kids who still suffer from the sins of our country's past, or kids who have no access to good teachers or good classes.  They want to give these kids a leg up, a second chance, the benefit of the doubt, etc....  Very few would argue against this most worthy goal.  But there is a  problem here.  Color, race, ethnicity and exotic roots are poor barometers of the social conditions in which a student strives to succeed.

Remember - the positive promotion of "identity groups" in universities all over the country is not hidden.  It is not the topic of furtive whispers.  It is out in the open.  It is the subject of scholarly essays and it is widely acknowledged.  But, it is increasingly being challenged in the courts.  And, now, science also seeks to turn it on its head.

The era of the ethnicity box may be coming to an end.

Today, it is possible for any person on earth willing to part with $200 to have their ethnic roots known with certainty.  I’m not talking about; I’m describing DNA analysis through the National Genographic Project.  The results are guaranteed to shock.  My family just did this.  We are about as boringly white as white gets (or so we thought), with grandparents all hailing from Ireland, Scotland or England.  Our DNA tells a different story.  We are only 29% northern European.  We are 41% middle-Eastern and 30% western Asian (area now known as Turkmenistan and Iran).  WHO KNEW?   Now, these results go back thousands of years.  And, when any one of us goes back this far, we ARE going to find Asian, Mediterranean and/or African roots.  All of us.  Interesting, huh?

The ethnicity box says nothing at all about the prospective student’s life experience or social condition, which is the real information it seeks to get at.  Since there is just no way to quantify the cultural experience, we settle for a mostly irrelevant reporting of   a) the color of your skin, or  b) the most exotic soil on which a parent or grandparent was born.   That seems rather shallow.

Here are some scenarios in which the ethnicity box fails miserably.  By the way, I do not know the answers to any of these questions…..

A child from an impoverished area of South America, but adopted as a baby by an affluent white couple and raised happily in a Bryn Mawr mansion - what box should he check? Should this college applicant seek advantage?  All of the adopted Chinese children who were raised in the average white American household – what box should they check?  What if the adopted Chinese baby is raised in an African American household - what box does she check?   Is it fair for a Puerto Rican student with a neurosurgeon dad and a lawyer mom to gain the advantage of an "identity group" applicant?  How about a rich white kid who steps over his father’s drunken body on the bathroom floor every night so he can brush his teeth?  Is there a box for him to check?    Most would agree that it really is the cultural conditions, rather than ethnic roots, which can truly augment or impair a kid's chance for success in life and that  "challenged life" should trump "ethnic roots".  But, see how messy this is?

Add to this the fact that DNA analysis is going to be as commonplace as an app for your iPhone and soon, very soon, we are going to be faced with the fact that we ALL have exotic roots. What, then?

In this era making generalizations about someone's lifestyle and social condition based on their ethnicity is downright offensive. In every day life we know better than to do something this coarse.  We work hard to NOT generalize.  Yet, when it comes to college applications, we lose our sensibilities.  Now, we want people to make generalizations based on race. And, regardless of which box you check ...even if you check  "I prefer not to disclose", assumptions and generalizations have instantly been assigned to you.  That's kind of weird.

Another problem with correcting admissions for diversity is the collateral damage to merit.  There are other identity groups who face discrimination of a different type.  If you are Chinese, East Asian,  Jewish, or Korean and you have perfect SAT scores, perfect GPA, high achievement in the arts, sciences or music, you are faced with a disproportionate chance of rejection.  Your hard work, your sacrifices, your determination and your tenacity are punished.  What is to be said about this?  What words sound right to explain this Kafkaesque condition?  Doesn’t it seem un-American to bypass excellence, much less punish it ?

On the topic of punishing excellence, I have this interesting anecdote:
My daughter recently applied for a scholarship.  Initially denied the scholarship because it did not ‘appear’ that she needed it, the committee looked over her achievements and, to their credit, they asked her to appeal it with an essay about why she deserved it.  She did.  It made her so happy to be able to put into words her deep frustration with "the system".   I do not think she will mind me quoting her a little bit .....

"What does my father's tax return have to do with me?  I've worked like a dog all through high school.  Whether he made very little or quite a lot, it has nothing to do with me. I chose to seek excellence.  My sweat, my sacrifices, my hours of studying, my choosing to do what is hard over what is easy again and again, should stand on its own. Does anyone ask an Olympic athlete how much money their dad makes?  Focus on parent income defiles the effort of the student and kills the incentive to excel.  Either I am the best student for this scholarship or I am not.  That is all."

She got this scholarship.

I think there are many college applicants who want to scream out similar words, who want to have their efforts evaluated independent of ethnic heritage or economic status, and who decry the death of meritocracy. 

My daughter's experience underscores the deeply challenging question that American universities and American families must ask themselves.  What exactly are we trying to achieve?  Is it even possible to tease out the information we seek, in order to even the playing field and thus sleep better at night? 

Finally, faced with the ethnicity box’s inevitable fall from grace, I do wonder what will happen next.

Twilight is falling over the sea,
Shadows are stealing dark on the lea;
Borne on the night winds, voices of yore
Come from the far off shore.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Educational Ecosystem

I overheard this striking aphorism the other day; words spoken by one battle-weary parent to another:
"You are only as happy as your saddest child."
Wow.  Think on that.  It packs a punch.  Those of us with multiple kids know - we are buoyed up by one child's success only to be brought down by the other's struggle.  At the end of the day, the plight of the troubled child is the last thought, the last words in our sleepy prayers for answers... for guidance.

This got me thinking about the ecosystem of families.  No family event, no family issue, arises in isolation.  Everything touches and changes everyone.   In nature if you take away something as simple as ants or bees, it can cause a collapse on a grand scale.  Correspondingly, the tragic tendrils of one child's misery can reach into every corner of family life, challenging even the most casual kitchen conversations. As parents, educators, providers, and cruise directors, we have to strike an absurd balance here.  Specifically, the task is to maximize the well-being of all family members so the ecosystem infrastructure does not rupture and so that all thrive. (This is the ancestral birthplace of heartfelt prayer!)

Thankfully, families have the ultimate superglue - love.  Love finds solutions where all else fails.  But, it is a formidable task, nevertheless.

If you think family ecosystems are complex, what of educational ecosystems?  Is a class only as good as its worst student?  Is a course only as effective as its least contributing, least interested student?  Maybe.

Ask any teacher and they will eagerly describe their trials and tribulations in the classroom.  If they have students who don't want to learn or who are disruptive, little can be done.  Like a drought or a monsoon on fertile fields, uncooperative students change everything:  the classroom atmosphere, the speed with which material can be covered, the teacher's mood, the motivation of the other students, and, of course, the learning outcome.

It is true in public schools, private schools, and home schools.

As home educators, we have checked out of the group-learning, school model, only to desperately recreate it at every turn.  We have homeschool-schools, co-ops galore, small group learning, and clubs.  We are not immune to the educational ecosystem challenges.  With the alacrity of an inborn, genetic predisposition we rush together and embrace the new ecosystems we create and all the concomitant complexities.

The metaphorical question is - how to treat an invasive species?  In nature, if long-horned beetles are spotted in a woods, the big chemical guns come out, treatment is aggressive, and many other beneficial insects and organisms are sacrificed in an effort to spare the trees.  This is imperfect but it does save the trees.  Measures like this (metaphorical only) don't work in schools.  The goal is to educate all, control the wayward, and keep everyone there ....whether they want to be there or not.  So, the invasive species is really part of the landscape, forever.  The weeds must be welcomed.

Home educators would be foolish indeed if they became saddled with the issues germane to group education.  We need to work just as hard at striking the ecological balance in our home schools, as we do in our families.  It helps to frequently revisit why we started on this journey in the first place.  For excellence, Godliness, familial ties, and freedom of choice - when we find ourselves in grave conflict with our original vision and our educational ecosystem is unbalanced,  it is time for a change.

"Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Home Education in the News ....again.

It seems that every few months, New Jersey newspapers are destined to churn-out same old, same old articles on home schooling. Very few of the reporters take the time to dig deeply.  I think I know why.

A week ago I was contacted by a reporter who wanted to talk to someone about home education for an article he was writing.  I responded with a long and detailed email of at least 300 words.  Buried in the email were these words ...."For the record, I think that home educators should not be regulated.  Ever."  Of course, these are the only words that made it into the article.  I had no idea I was being quoted in the article, until a friend emailed me about my name appearing in it.  Imagine my surprise.  Here's a link:

Why do we continue to have the same discussion over and over again?  When people ask if home schooling works or if it is good for kids or not, they might as well be asking if we are sure the Earth is spherical and not flat.  Lord, it really is time to move on.

This is the article that should have been written.....

When you see the Scripps Spelling Bee and the Math Counts Competitions trying to finagle ways to limit participation by home school students, you know we have succeeded.  Yes, home educated kids have to sign a special form developed by Scripps in which they promise not to study too hard or too long.  I am not kidding.  Also, a home school parent may not start or run a county level bee.  Burlington County has not had a sponsor for several years, hence NO student in Burlington County can participate in the Scripps Bee because there is no feeder bee.  I could have fixed this and offered to do the work,  but was barred from doing so because my kids do not attend the local state conditioning centers.  Huh?  Translation:  Parents and Hollywood got angry when so many home schoolers began winning at Scripps.

Math Counts has also demonstrated their respect for home educated kids by barring them from forming teams.  Why? Well, because they would then have all the smart math kids on their team.  But, when the local school puts together a team, do they choose the football players?  I think not.  They choose their best math students.  And they are permitted to do this and, of course, would be fools if they did not.  Not home school kids.  No teams permitted there.

These examples of discrimination could be viewed (by those of us who do this hard job of managing our own kid's educations) with bat-crap crazy rage, but are better viewed as an institutional bow of respect.  We win. Lots of people do not like this.

Everything the government does to interfere with parental rights leads America to greater mediocrity.

Fact:   Home education is the ONLY educational outpost of progress on this blue planet.
Fact:  The media and the political spin doctors will never stop looking for ways to maintain their tragic fiction.
Fact:  Home educated kids, regardless of their religious beliefs, are independent thinkers who will never be walking in lockstep with the masses.  They have not drunk the Kool-Aide and thus are still original thinkers.

That, my friends, is why the trite ,hackneyed, fluff articles continue to circulate.  For, as long as those who remain in the US Dept of Education trance can cast a shadow of doubt on the stunning success of the home education movement, they can continue to feel good about their own choices.