May 15, 2007

How to make a top-performing school

From an NYT article on the ingredients for molding adolescent behavior in desirable ways at school:

There is no question that the Briarcliff school starts out with many advantages. It is part of a district in Westchester County that spends $24,738 per student, or more than one and a half times the New York State average, and can afford to buy extra sets of classroom textbooks so that students can leave their own copies at home. Its student body is relatively homogenous -- 91.8 percent are white -- and so well off that less than 1 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. In contrast, in nearby New York City, 72 percent of the population qualifies.

You mean that's all it takes? Great, let's get started! Even if you threw a bunch of money at the problem, that wouldn't raise IQ. Wealth can be redistributed, brains can't.

So the school strives to develop critical thinking, teach organizational skills, and instill social and moral values.

Bullshit. Among the 6 or 7 high school students I knew who took the SAT in March (or maybe April), all but one wrote the exact same essay for the Writing test -- and not because they cheated. Rather, they are jaded enough to have realized that most essays like this are color-by-numbers assignments in which they drip platitudes into the allowed spaces. The goal was to write a persuasive essay on whether it was better to conform or stand out from the crowd, and damn near every student I talked to wrote an essay about "What if Martin Luther King had conformed?" Nothing wrong with the choice of evidence per se, but gimme a break, this is the real-life instantiation of the Chris Rock joke about how his answer to every question in African history class was "Martin Luther King" (watch here starting at 5:25).

So let's all embody the virtues of non-conformity by chanting identical, canned responses in unison. What a goddamn joke high school English classes are. It's also a shame that logic is taught in geometry class: almost none of the kids will ever study mathematics at a level where they'll need to rigorously prove anything, whereas they'll be making verbal arguments for as long as they're in school and perhaps beyond. So, you know, as long as you can tub-thump persuasively, who the hell cares if what you're saying makes any sense or not? I'm sure the little dears will make fine politicians or PR representatives some day.

Harry Zimmerman, 13, a seventh-grade student, said that managing his impulsivity during a social studies discussion stopped him from blurting out that he did not like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lives in nearby Chappaqua. "I realized that there might be people in the room who might be offended by that, and I didn't say it," he said.

Harry, stop being such a royal pussy. Jesus, he wasn't even about to say anything profane, only that he didn't like her. There's "critical thinking" for you: "I've figured out that slightly upsetting these panicky pukes will result in my tar & feathering, so I'd better just keep my big yapper shut." If I went to Briarcliff, I'd graffitti-tag the hell out the sterile hallways with portraits of Dead White Males and whistle Beethoven at the top of my lungs while they carted me away. Liven the joint up a little bit.

"This town needs an enema!" -- The Joker, Batman.


  1. I must admit I'm sometimes guilty of timidity in fear of offending peers. It's a result of my upbringing, during which my mother in particular was constantly drilling ultra politeness into my head. It worked, and I think a lot of people my age (20) have had similar childhoods.

    Also, I agree, it would be much more interesting to see someone argue against standing out than arguing in favor it. The problem is that the temptation is there to apply all of the overplayed, obvious themes teachers have reinforced with "A"s for 11 years. Should a student have to suffer the probably negative consequences of writing something different and playing the Devil's advocate? I think the changes need to move top down, starting with teachers rewarding true creativity.

    Then again you have to rein in kids like Cho Seung Hui...I don't envy educators at all.

  2. This is why I got screwed in high school. They don't want independant thinkers in high school. Independant thinkers realize that the majority of the work they put in front of you is pointless busywork that eats up time and doesn't challenge the mind.
    Indpendant thinkers realize that the vast majority of public school teachers spend the bulk of their time herding delinquents who'd be better off at a school with iron bars and billy clubs.

    I was one of those unfortunate people with brains but zero self-discipline. Sitting in a classroom with 35 people, of which at least 1/5 were disruptive jerkoffs, no air conditioning in subtropical heat and teachers who mostly were there to collect a paycheck, I didn't get much in the way of education until College. By then it was too late, and I was far behind the curve on math and applied sciences to ever get a degree in the sciences.

    Frankly, I'm starting to see the utility of the Japanese school system.

  3. Sean -- politeness isn't so bad, but here you'd want to avoid saying something like "Holy shit, did you look in a mirror before you left the house today?" Expressing a banal opinion like "I don't care for Hillary Clinton" can only be offensive to the puerile... which is I guess who this kid was surrounded by, given that he's only 13, but unfortunately this deference to taboo continues well into adulthood.

    Spike -- if you don't like the stamping out of independent thought here, you definitely wouldn't like school in Japan!

    It's rough for brainiacs who aren't in elite secondary schools, since they'll realize they're smarter than all their teachers and so will probably not have anyone to push them where they need to go (permitting exceptions).

    I think instead of being suckered into Teach for America, recent college grad smarties should join a tutoring center like the one I work at, where your efforts won't be in vain. I've worked with plenty of smart kids who were struggling in school due to the school, or due to their lack of interest, etc., but by providing a positive role model, I think I've helped them get on track.

    It's hard to provide that role model if you're not smarter and more understanding than their teachers, plus closer to their age (so they don't think you're a dopey geezer). But these traits characterize those who volunteer for Teach for America. The only trouble is that they're also too idealistic: before their stint in a horrible school, they'd never admit that IQ had any relevance to performance.

    Anyway, I don't know how old you are, but don't get so down on yourself for not learning lots of math & science in college -- you've still got until roughly 30-35 to learn that stuff. After that, it'll be pretty difficult. To start off, go to MIT's Open CourseWare site and watch the videos / read the lecture notes for whatever class you're interested in, and buy the textbook used at Amazon so you can follow along.

    If you're interested in calculus in particular, Gilbert Strang has uploaded an entire three-semester textbook of his for free!

  4. There's "critical thinking" for you

    Another example is the much vaunted virtue of "questioning assumptions," which really means "questioning all the assumptions except the politically correct ones we are indoctrinating you with."

  5. Eh, the part of Japanese high school I would have liked is actually having art and writing classes and clubs. The biggest club at my school was the future farmers of America chapter.

    I agree about the tutoring thing. Unfortunately, part of the whole "I hate school" thing was being bullied and being raised in a single parent household.

    I'm actually older than you. I graduated high school in 1996. What's funny is that I'm not some embittered Burger King manager. I have a Master's degree, albeit in the rather prosaic subject of japanese religion. What got me about getting a Master's degree in the subject was the fact that the smartest people there were the ones doing the most useless work, basically buring up brain cells doing stuff on "ritual theory" "critical theory" or anthropology of religion. My thesis work of building a history of Shintoism in Hawaii only required a small facility for Japanese and lots of archival footwork and reconstruction. Since I won't waste my valuable time on theory, I'm rather stuck out of going into a Ph.D program, as by a fluke I was in one of the few master's program where I could do straight history.

    Frankly, I'd just like to learn math and science for my own benefit now. I've gotten to the point of accepting my own limited career options. I'm happy just indulging my greater verbal abilities in fiction and poetry while holding English teaching and minor tech jobs. I'm of the opinion that fiction in general would be better served by authors more literate in the maths and sciences than it currently is.

  6. Kids who have been pulled out of public/private/charter schools and tutored or taught by parents are independent and free-thinking, as well as better educated. I'm forty-something with two kids in elite private colleges and two in high school who were tutored at home. They are extraordinarily creative, successful and loads of fun.

    Even the fundamentalist parents of homeschooled kids amazingly create strong-minded, independent kids (I'm agnostic).

    About two percent of American kids are tutored or homeschooled now -- these are our future inventors, artists and leaders. Watch them take over, if you can.

    By the way, I'm a professor who has given up on my profession. My work is a joke. And a paycheck.


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