The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

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Why Do Many College Students Fail To Succeed?

A significant component of the conversation surrounding higher education these days has to do with improving student success—particularly for those college students who start off in remedial/developmental courses in Reading, Writing, and Math. Those who have not closely followed the disturbing trends regarding the completion of bachelor’s degrees on America’s ivied campuses over the last couple of decades might be surprised at where we are now, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education:

The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2015 at the same institution where they started in 2009. The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 23 percent at private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate was 62 percent for females and 56 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (61 vs. 55 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (68 vs. 62 percent). However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (24 vs. 22 percent).” [See “Note” at bottom of this post for explanation of school types.]

Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2009 varied according to institutional selectivity. In particular, 6-year graduation rates were highest at institutions that were the most selective (i.e., had the lowest admissions acceptance rates) and were lowest at institutions that were the least selective (i.e., had open admissions policies). For example, at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, 32 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

It should perhaps not be a surprise that 6 year graduation rates, which seems to be the new American standard for completing a 4 year degree, vary so dramatically based solely upon the selectivity of an institution. Indeed, some argue that the overall poor college completion numbers in the United States are simply a function of more and more students seeking college degrees, so we should not be concerned. This is merely, the thinking goes, Darwinian academic selection at work.

However, the fly in the ointment is fairly easy to discern: An educational system that excels at educating only the brightest is failing the vast majority of America’s college students. Fixes that have been proposed or enacted to address problems with college completion rates range from more structured programs of study to increases in financial aid to campus mentoring programs—all of which have the potential to help some students after they arrive on campus but fail to address the underlying causes of their academic distress, our chronically underperforming K-12 public schools, which hobble our nation’s students in three key areas:

Poor Work Habits

After years in pokey and desultory high school classes, many students simply do not understand what will be required when they step foot on a college campus for the first time. They mistakenly presume classroom instruction and assignments will continue to slow down to meet their needs and are shocked college instructors will insist academically-deficient students work extra hard to reach college level proficiency—immediately, if not sooner.

Moreover, given that so much of the work in college must be completed outside the classroom because of the limited time available—a class may meet for only a couple of hours each week—the now-fashionable dismissal of homework as a hopelessly antediluvian educational artifact means that many high school graduates will be thrown into a situation where they are wholly unprepared to succeed, one where well-developed and disciplined study habits are an absolute necessity for academic success.

Weak Academic Preparation

Where does one begin? The problems that our nation’s public schools have with teaching and learning are so well-documented by now that they scarcely bear repeating. Of course, many affluent parents continue to comfort themselves by loudly insisting that their children’s public schools—all shiny and new—are doing a great job, but nothing could many times be further from the truth. The fact of the matter, according to a recent study by Education Reform Now, is that 1 in 4 college students will require remedial coursework—and 45% of these students will come from upper-income and middle-income households. Half of these students placing into remedial classes will start in our nation’s community colleges, but the other half will be enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs. Nonetheless, you will find no shortage of individuals and groups loudly proclaiming that America’s public schools are doing a heck of a job.

Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt.

Lack Of Proper Time Management

This third problem is inextricably linked to the first two. Because they often fail to understand the amount of work they will be required to complete outside of their weekly class meetings—and are often academically unprepared besides—many students are sunk before they even start because they overbook themselves. Not understanding that a full course load is a full-time job in and of itself, students get crushed beneath their other commitments—jobs, children, family, friends, and recreation—and realize too late that there are only a certain number of hours in the week.

In addition, unlike high school classes, where deadlines are often extremely flexible or simply non-existent, college professors take a unsurprisingly flinty view of vacations booked mid-semester and tales of woe regarding the modern equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, the lost flash drive. Although it might not seem so seen through the lens of popular culture, college is just like a job, and the “supervisors” expect punctuality and performance. I still find it amazing that so many students think nothing of being chronically tardy or absent and routinely fail to turn in their assignments on time—yet they believe their professors are being completely unreasonable if they give a poor grade.

Of course, more in-depth advisement when registering for classes might be a great help to some, but it is often difficult to convince students that college requires a lot of diligent work when they have little experience with anything beyond the dull reality today’s high school: show up when you can, hang out and pay little attention, turn in something you whipped together at the last minute, get a check mark for effort, advance to the next grade level whether you’ve learned anything or not, and eventually receive your diploma.

Ultimately, one question that many college freshman and their parents should be asking is this:

Why do so many public schools give young adults diplomas if they haven’t learned anything?

I wish I had a good answer for that….

 

Note: Public colleges and universities are those that operate with state supervision and support, and institution names—the University of Illinois, for example—are a clear indication of their nature. Private non-profit colleges and universities—what we typically imagine when we think of a college or university—operate with private funding (tuition, fees, endowments, donations, etc.), and their tax-exempt status allows more spending on students and research. Private for-profit colleges and universities are operated by private companies, often focus on career and technical programs—and are accountable to private shareholders who expect a return on their investment.

In Defense Of Free Speech

It would not have occurred to me a decade or so ago that I would ever have to assert my support for the right of an American to express an opinion. One of the wonders of living in the United States—and, in fact, likely our greatest strength—is our free-wheeling, brash, chaotic, and amazingly rich discourse regarding ourselves, our nation, and the world around us. Whether our opinions were rude, lewd, or full of attitude, it was always presumed to be our inalienable right to express them without fear of retribution.

Apparently, this is no longer the case.

Now that speech codes on our college campuses have devolved into “shut up codes” suppressing ideas that don’t fit into somebody’s idea of tolerance (I still shake my head at the inherent irony of this), social media is used as a mechanism to publicly shame those who don’t conform, and mainstream media outlets readily characterize anyone who disagrees with progressive orthodoxy as a bigot, the state of free speech in America seems surprisingly fragile.

Recent violent confrontations at Berkeley (ironically enough, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s) and Middlebury College call into question the very existence of reasoned debate when a few are empowered to simply “shut down” dissenting viewpoints that they deem “hate speech”. Aside from the obvious question of where the line between hate speech and differing opinions is supposed to be—some broadly define hate speech to be virtually anything that might diverge from their own viewpoints and cause the apparently intense discomfort of self-reflection or doubt—one has to wonder how we have reached the point where shockingly many celebrate the practice of censorship by loud, threatening mobs. As scary as some aspects of our contemporary political scene might be, I find people shouting down speakers a great deal more frightening—especially when I consider the historical antecedents of such actions.

If you disagree with someone’s ideas, please listen respectfully—and explain your own viewpoint with a minimum of personal attacks. As personally satisfying as some might find it to “argue through insult”, a civil society requires civil conversations.

Dehumanizing those with differing opinions only invites violent speech—and perhaps violent action—because it communicates that those individuals are not worthy of even the most basic respect. Words have consequences, but the manner in which they are spoken to one another also is important. Those who consider common courtesy a mere bourgeois affectation would do well to remember those times in human history when it was considered appropriate to strip basic human dignity from others because “they deserved it”.

Societies that fail to ensure all their members have a voice generally come to grief, and those individuals who insist that they—and only they—have the right answer to what ails society or the world often have been the enablers of the most brutish episodes in the history of civilization. We would do well to remember this.

What Can Be Done To Improve Teaching In Our Public Schools?

If you Google the terms “Teacher Shortage” and “Teacher Turnover”, your hits will light up rather forebodingly. Obviously local conditions affect individual districts in a variety of ways, so not all schools or regions are suffering to the same degree. However, there does seem to be a fairly broad-based national problem of recruitment and retention of K-12 teachers that is becoming yet one more problem affecting our public schools.

Talented individuals leave the teaching profession—or avoid it altogether—for a variety of reasons. Poor pay, stress, lack of professional support, workplace dysfunction, administrative micro-management, long hours of bureaucratic busywork, disrespect and abuse from students and their parents, and many other factors have—and will continue to—make it difficult to recruit and retain top quality elementary and secondary educators. Moreover, our current model of training and credentialing teachers is costly and time-consuming, yet it still leaves many graduates lacking the basic pedagogical and student management skills necessary for creating a respectful and successful classroom environment.

I remember my own trip through “teacher education” after I left the advertising business—what an incredible waste of time and money. Although alternative teacher training programs obviously exist, the profession is still is dominated by the traditional model of teacher training and licensing, which—despite its documented shortcomings—persists because it is a cash cow for colleges and universities and creates lots and lots of jobs for local and state education bureaucrats.

The meandering and pointless journey through Ed School coursework that often seems only tangentially related to actual classroom practice also serves as a gigantic disincentive to mid-career entry for those who can bring real world experience to their teaching. This seems an obvious drawback—and it is generally acknowledged to be so—but we still blindly press forward with a model that pushes twenty-two year old young adults who have done nothing much other than sit in a classroom for their entire lives into yet another classroom—where they will now try to educate our children. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Even worse, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow no longer seems to be attractive enough to hang onto many who go through the process—as evidenced by the many problems with recruitment and retention. What can be done?

I have a modest proposal…. Four, really.

Close all Colleges of Education.

Why continue to support a system that produces graduates who often don’t turn out to be very good teachers—or who quickly quit the profession altogether because they just can’t cut it? Our schools of “mis-education” are clearly not up to the job, and noodling around the edges with some cosmetic changes after year upon year of study and discussion is just a further waste of time, money, and human capital.

A simpler and more direct system of teacher training and licensure can certainly be devised, but it will run into a brick wall of bureaucratic resistance unless the public is willing to push for change. Obviously, I believe our students and society will benefit if we improve and streamline teacher training, but I fear that the political will—and this is all about politics—to do what is necessary is lacking. As long as one of our two major political parties is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association, bold and inventive thinking will certainly be discouraged by many.

Require that all new teachers must have worked in jobs outside of education for five years before they step into a classroom.

Maybe I’m just looking at this all wrong, but I want people in my public schools who have lived some kind of life outside of a classroom before teaching my children. Work in a restaurant. Sell insurance. Join the Army. Presenting our public schools with truckloads of fresh college graduates who more than likely still had their moms doing their laundry the week before they begin teaching for the first time is kind of insane. We need individuals with a little grit under their nails and life experience under their belts so they are better prepared to deal with the challenges that now daily face our K-12 teachers.

License teachers based on proven performance—not college or continuing education credits alone.

Yes, teachers should go to college—and preferably graduate school—to earn degrees in the subject area that they plan to teach (no more “education” majors, please!). In addition, teachers should continue to sharpen their skills with classes and workshops throughout their careers.

However, how cool would it be to unlock the schoolhouse doors and get some real world experience into our nation’s classrooms? What parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have a chemist teaching their child Chemistry, a Physician Assistant teaching anatomy in their local high school, an editor helping their child learn how to write, or a local farmer showing that lucky student the practical aspects of how the business actually works? The possibilities would be endless, but it might obvious endanger an ossified status quo that likes everything just the way it is because it privileges paper credentials over job-proven competence.

Community colleges, for example, make outstanding use of practitioners in their classrooms—which is a great benefit to the students who are there to learn the skills they need to succeed. Recruiting teachers from the workplace is a proven winner at the 2 year college level, so why not extend this strategy to K-12?

If these working professionals can teach at their local public school only part of the day or the year, offer them a prorated salary and don’t waste their valuable time making them hop through a million hoops in order to share their valuable experience—and please don’t assign them to bus duty or lunch supervision. We desperately need more practitioners and fewer pretenders in our classrooms—particularly in our middle and high schools where content knowledge is so important. Assign the brain-dead busywork to minimum wage hires or parent volunteers.

End teacher tenure and pay based on seniority.

I know changing to a free market for teacher hires runs counter to the civil service model that has dominated public education for many, many decades, but it would be a game changer. It would encourage excellence, create desperately needed fluidity in the job market, and incentivize mid-career entrants who could bring job skills and life experience into the classroom. If we start to pay teachers based on their value rather than how many years they’ve sat in a school building—a measure that is typically divorced from actual performance—we can start to address the many problems caused by our highly uncompetitive system.

Can’t find a Math teacher for your district? Hire a local engineer who can show students how mathematics is used in the real world—and has the actual work experience to teach it. Need a Business teacher? Hire a manager at a local manufacturer—and also build a bridge with a local employer that might hire your graduates. Have a truly wonderful Music teacher you want to hold onto? Find a way to adjust their duties so they’ll want to stick around—instead of treating that talented person like just another replaceable cog.

In other words, instead of running public schools like hermetically-sealed vaults, open the doors and innovate. It will be scary as hell for some and drive the “edu-crats” crazy because they will lose control—and perhaps their jobs as well—but the alternative is to continue to sacrifice our children on an altar built out of rulebooks and dusty theories about education that do nothing but ensure that little learning actually happens. Think this isn’t true? Google the “college and career-ready” or “college preparedness” statistics for your local school or entire state and decide for yourself. The actual data can be a real eye-opener.

I think the time for a real education revolution is long overdue—and maybe we are now ready for it!

How Long Shall We Wait?

“One of the Obama Administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.”
The Washington Post
January 19, 2017

As this article sadly pointed out, between 2010 and 2015, the School Improvement Grants program poured $7 billion down the drain. $7,000,000,000: That’s a lot of zeroes that produced close to zero for children trapped in our nation’s worst public schools.

This lack of results is not a surprise. If our education establishment continues to insist jacking up high school graduation rates by ignoring weak educational outcomes is a benefit to our students, all the money in the world is not going to fix what ails our schools. If the education “experts” persist in proclaiming that homework harms our students, we are going to see yet another generation graduate without having learned that sustained study is a necessary precursor to learning. If we can’t find the will to insist upon reasonable behavior from students and educators—and impose consequences upon those who trash the educational environment—we deserve only the chaos that is the norm in far too many public schools.

Unfortunately, these issues have little place in our discussions about improving our public schools. The system instead focuses on keeping our nation’s diploma mills on full churn because it keeps the parents and students content, sweeps any and all problems under the rug (at least until our nation’s uneducated high school graduates finally flunk out of college years down the road), and keeps the money flowing and the public placated. The system is a sausage machine that grinds up students—and any silly do-gooders who try to change it.

It is, to be fair, not the case that our nation’s public school systems are filled with heartless employees. Many teachers and administrators are, in fact, decent individuals who are trying to do their best. However, public education is perhaps the most insular and ossified of all government services, and everyone on the inside knows that the system, no matter the ruin it leaves in its wake, must always survive. The $7 billion most recently wasted by the Obama administration is simply the last car of a long train of futility, over thirty years of education reform efforts sabotaged by public schools impervious to any real changes. It is frustrating to see so many futures—and human potential—sacrificed year after year.

I hope that incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can actually push forward programs that will help millions of students escape currently failing schools through greatly expanded school voucher programs. However, any move to give parents more control over their children’s educations is an existential threat to a status quo that will fight to maintain its enormous power and excessive prerogatives. Perhaps it is likely that she will crash into a brick wall of lawsuits and restraining orders, but let’s hope that she can persevere and make a positive change—and we need no longer wait.

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) February  12, 2017.