"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Educational Insight: Purple Ponies and the Other Ponies Masquerading as 800 Pound Gorillas

We are pleased to publish Doug Lasken's latest article on some current problems in education. Enjoy his educational description of purple ponies. Regarding the remaining educational issues he writes about in public schools today, we'll call them the "800 pound gorillas" in the room:


The Purple Pony

By Doug Lasken

A political epiphany came to me recently at Fairyland , the enchanting Oakland theme park for young children where my wife and I took our 2 ½ year old granddaughter, Vera. We spent the first half hour at the merry-go-round because that is her favorite ride, which she needed to experience repeatedly. Rules require that children get off their diminutive horses after each turn, get in line again, then find a new mount. After a few repetitions I noticed that Vera raced each time to a particular purple pony, the only pony of that color. Once, when a speedy boy snagged the purple pony, I heard her cry, “I want the purple pony!” I mentioned this to the attendant and she told me that kids always fight over the purple pony. I suggested that they paint all the ponies purple and achieve world peace, but even as I spoke the epiphany came: It is only the rarity of the purple pony that makes it desirable, and it came to me that what I here dub the Purple Pony Effect (PPE) is well know to political operatives.

Here is a mea culpa: I have been subject to the PPE in my writings on education. There has been for me but one purple pony on the merry-go-round of federal education policy: the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) and its attendant Common Core Standards (CCS), and I, like a toddler given one choice which I lunge for in simulation of free-will, have grabbed it, in my case in opposition. I’ve spent two years arguing against the proposed national standards, in terms of cost and necessity, which RTTT and CCS entail, and the whole time I had forgotten the real, more difficult story unfolding in education. Yes, I had fallen for the old Purple Pony trick!

So I have dismounted my purple pony and am walking around looking at other ponies. They are pretty familiar. In fact I’ve been thinking about two of them for years:

1. Social promotion. This is the practice of advancing children to the next grade level even when they are not proficient in required subject areas. The evils of social promotion are great. No other factor so obscures and perpetuates the failure of our schools, yet there has been no obvious remedy, because if social promotion were ended our schools would come to a crashing halt, even without the current financial calamity. When I taught 5th grade, the gateway to middle-school, I could justifiably have retained 80-90% of my students. What if I had done so, and what if all the other 5th grade teachers had also? For starters, we would have had 80 students in our classes the next year instead of 40, and in a couple of years every grade level at every school would be crammed with hundreds of kids per class. So we didn’t do it. Over the years public policy has briefly acknowledged the issue and once in a while tried a remedy. California developed the high school exit exam, which in theory keeps seniors who have not achieved at grade level from graduating. In my high school career as an English teacher I discovered, however, that the exit exam measures basic literacy at a much lower level than California’s demanding academic standards do. We are graduating thousands of kids who earn a D in English and squeak through the exit exam by a hair, and these kids are functionally illiterate (that is, unable to read a newspaper article). Thus the exit exam is a partial fix at best, as English professors of college freshman know well.

2. Discipline. In American public schools, kids can disrupt a class as much as they want with little consequence. Disruptive behavior from students not only halts instruction (often destroying entire lessons), it also sets an anti-academic tone for the class. Generally speaking the honors kids, the ones we’re not worried about, behave better than the “regular” kids (“regular” being our euphemism for the vast majority of students who range from able though unmotivated to functionally illiterate). Thus the great civil rights issue in our schools turns out not to be funding or integration or new standards, but the effects of uncontrolled disruption caused by the very children we are trying most to help. In 25 years with Los Angeles Unified I had my share of disruptive children. High school is different from elementary only in style. I had a 2nd grader who killed the pet mice in our classroom and terrorized all the students- none of which got him expelled- but at least elementary kids didn’t call me a “mother f***er” when I asked them to open their books, as many of my “regular” high school students did. Again, such colorful language did not result in expulsion. The normal procedure for behavior problems is to first call the legal guardians. If a call home proves ineffective, as it often does, the teacher sends the student to the dean, who also has few options. In some cases involving violence or drugs there may be expulsion, but more commonly a student is subject to an “opportunity transfer,” which is a transfer to another high school where the mayhem continues, while the receiving school ships out its difficult kids in like fashion. In minor cases, such as students cussing out teachers, the dean writes “Counseled” on the referral slip (indicating, one surmises, such advice as “Don’t call your teacher a “mother-f***ker”) and the student returns, chastened minimally if at all. The solution? Who knows? This is not a “sexy” issue. It has no obvious remedy, since expulsion, the only approach that comes readily to mind, would involve so many kids that it would need a solution of its own.

Because social-promotion and discipline have no obvious solutions, we never hear about them. Politicians don’t like problems with no clear solutions, because they do not entail votes or money. Thus we get the administration’s Purple Pony Race to the Top, a diversion that does little more than make consultants with Democratic ties rich. Without a smart GOP attack, Obama's education game will pay off (literally). Absent GOP attention to the issue, how can the administration resist this easy way out, since it doesn’t know how to solve the tough problems anyway?

As indicated, I don’t know how to solve them either. My suggestion here is that we get off our purple ponies of easy, irrelevant albeit lucrative approaches, and look at what we really face. Whoever the GOP candidate turns out to be, he or she should speak openly about what’s really happening in American schools. This could be the kind of new discussion that puts America, and the GOP, back on the map. There might even be some votes in it.

Doug Lasken is a retired Los Angeles Unified teacher, current consultant and debate coach. Read his blog at: http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/

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