Monday, March 22, 2004

Social Promotion, Social Demotion

The thing about education is how we readily associate it with failure. Judges get reversed, lawyers lose cases and doctors lose patients, investment advisors give rotten advice and investors make silly decisions, parents make mistakes in raising children and all of this is understood as an inherent element of the story of mankind that began with Adam’s great mistake. While wrongful actions and outcomes are not necessarily overlooked in other areas of human endeavor – litigation is a main feature of contemporary life – it seems that we are routinely harsher on education.

Education is different because it involves children whose failures become society’s burdens. We have come to accept that because the stakes are high in education, failure exacts a substantial toll and because of this we are hard on teachers and on those who administer schools.

This attitude breeds endless waves of reform, efforts to challenge and change arrangements that because they are the status quo must be held responsible for low test scores, drop out rates and Johnny’s inability to read. We scarcely acknowledge that circumstances beyond the reach of schools and educators may contribute handsomely to educational failure, that such things as the breakdown of family or drugs or promiscuity may have an important bearing on educational outcomes. It is easier to blame administrators and teachers than the fellow who is peddling drugs to young children or the television dreckmeisters who feed children a steady diet of images and sounds that undermine interest in reading and study.

Schools everywhere are limiting or banning altogether sweets and soda in their facilities because the guardians of nutritional well-being have determined that schoolchildren are being harmed. Whatever we think of this crusade, why do we not have a crusade against the junk and poison fed daily to children by popular culture? Is it so difficult to see that the educational prospect of children is affected by the television they watch, the movies they see, the music they listen to? When young Blacks are turned on by music that often consists of Black men grunting as they grab at their crotches, there is an element of racism in the entertainment that far exceeds in inappropriateness Aunt Jemima and Amos and Andy. We hear no protests against music that is racist, television shows that are racist and movies that are racist, as they portray Blacks in a demeaning fashion.

There is additionally the misogyny that informs how women are often portrayed and this, too, must have an impact on children.

In too many public schools, teachers face long odds as they try to reach the minds and hearts of children. Instead of seeking remedies in the breeding places of educational failure, we blame teachers. At long last, let us recognize that television, movies and popular music are far more responsible for educational failure than all of the rotten teachers in America.

Although some of the fervor has gone out of the testing craze, we still are in the throes of an attitude that enriches educational entrepreneurs even as student self-esteem is being eroded. In the current debate over testing and how to handle students who are at the lower end of the spectrum, each side is sincere and has powerful arguments. We need to recognize that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.

Regrettably, in a display of haughtiness befitting a multi-billionaire, Mayor Bloomberg rode roughshod over his own appointees and other thoughtful critics of the newly announced promotion policy. He claims to have been elected on a platform to improve education and has a mandate to do whatever he pleases. Apart from the arrogance, the claim is bunk. He was elected because he spent out of his own money more than 3,000,000 times more on his campaign than Peter Stuyvesant spent to purchase Manhattan. I hope that Mr. Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein will be proven right and I expect that they will because substantial sums will be targeted toward the thousands who are left back. But this will not help third graders who still can’t make it. Are they to be left back each year? Can we confidently justify the social demotion of students in order to satisfy Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein. To put the question in an unfair way, why was Joel Klein a lot softer on the multi-millionaire and billionaire monopolists of Microsoft than he is on eight-year old kids and teachers?

Social promotion – the term is deliberately denigratory and misleading – is on thin ice because it sets a blanket policy for students of varying ability, effort and home situations. For the very same reason, social demotion is wrong. The standard in education must be what we are taught in Proverbs: Educate a young person according to the ways that best promote his advancement. I am puzzled why the Mayor prefers a blanket policy of leaving back all who fail over a more nuanced approach that includes teacher assessment and other elements. I am also puzzled why he thinks that a demoralized teaching staff is more likely to produce better teaching.

Whatever reforms are instituted and whatever resources are committed for remediation and counteracting educational failure, schools and classrooms are organically related to the society they serve. Social dysfunction and pathology on the outside have a direct impact on educational performance. When the incidence of crime and drug abuse is reduced, there is a corresponding increase in student success. But when popular culture aims its messages at the young and these messages are saturated with stimulants that impel children away from reading and study, there is less room for educators to challenge and stimulate their students.

Of course, we need to have better teachers and educational accountability. At least as much, we need to have education conducted in a socio-psychological environment that encourages learning.