My graduate advisor warned me that teaching developmental English would affect my own writing and spelling. Later on I understood his point when I constantly had to look up words I had known forever. It grew harder and harder to read the daily fare of inane sentences: “The worst/best thing happin to myself was bacuz I have a abortion.” “My baby be the worst/best thing in my live.” “Me and my friends went to the mall to hang out.” “I saw sum cool close their in the stor winders.” “Last weekend, me and my friends partied but while their having fun, I know I should of studied, but its my weekend time to party.” My brain screamed with the conjugation of “I party, you party, he/she/it parties, we party, they party.”
Wondering how these remedial classes could ever solve the educational problems of these students, no matter how hard they or their teachers tried, I visited with the college’s president who had written the English developmental series we used. When I related how often I graded papers into the wee morning hours, trying to figure out a paper’s unusual syntax or to show ways a student might express his idea more clearly, he smiled and commiserated. I joked about making less than minimum wage by probably spending more time on each essay than the original writer had.
Seeking answers how to improve my classes, I returned to read several articles written by my writing guru Mina Shaughnessy. She believed that teachers needed to change, not students. Her philosophy haunted me and drove me to rework my assignments so the lesson sub-sections (Objective, Task Explanation, Grammar Skills, Practical Exercises, and Writing Assignments) would appear in the same format but would relate to different rhetorical styles. Only a few grasped this as a guide to follow as we approached each new assignment.
With many African American students in class, I read passages from Richard Wright’s Black Boy. to show how an expert writer used poor grammar and lower case letters as a vehicle to double the impact of his personal struggle. We discussed reasons why this helped Wright’s effectiveness but would not prove a successful way to communicate in business. The consistent misuse of “we be; he be” in papers led me to read passages from Shakespeare to build students’ self-esteem and understanding of why this verbiage might still persist. We discussed how slaves in the early 1600s were forbidden to talk outside their homes. Since they only heard their masters speak with fading British accents and subjunctive conjugations, slaves had little chance to practice the evolving American English. With that explanation, I still saw little obvious understanding in the affected students.
Because I had taught nonformal drama classes in community centers, and public housing filled with African-Americans and Latinos who learned quickly, I knew ethnicity had not caused the shape of the current pool of students. My young adult and nontraditional students had high interest in going to college but carried deep academic deficiencies. With critical thinking skills, study habits, and readiness seriously waning, they needed major intellectual reawakening to gain success in a classroom, much less transferable knowledge for a job.
The call for success, for which these students so longed and society had so whetted their appetites, had neglected to stress personal preparation and involvement required to win such success: persistence, discipline, hard work, daily attendance, and repair time. These omissions almost unwittingly created an illusion that education dropped from the sky and could answer all of life’s questions. I recognized that courses of study not attacked with determination or taken only to satisfy personal curiosity do not necessarily lead to future employment which was the bottom line for most of my students.
As far back as 1970 and in my own state in the 1990s, state governments began to legislate that everyone deserved a chance to go to college. However, equality of opportunity did not bring equal motivation, interest, energy, or output. Institutions geared up to handle the influx and to help prepare unaware young adults and nontraditional applicants for the rigors of higher education. These applicants often had no personal reasons to pursue this route but felt somehow obligated to apply. We sadly tagged this group, the 3Cs: folks with Checkbooks, Children, but no Clue to why they had come.
Despite our holistic evaluation process, ample curricular materials written or computerized, a well-trained teaching staff, and an enviable learning resource center with a director at the forefront of adult education, the task loomed large. If these students were not placed in basic skills training, we were charged with bringing them up to the 9th grade in a term of lower developmental English and then to the 12th grade level in the next term.
However, we had to get realistic about our own goals. The skills to do basic research and nuanced rhetoric needed to write papers for subjects outside one’s major (e.g. history, psychology, education, nursing) took these remedial students several semesters to acquire and master. Those who did not drop out often took two years to pass developmental courses. When we got reports that some had filled out employment forms and checked the box for two years of college (though they had only repeated remedial classes that long), it was obvious critical thinking had not yet germinated in students, even in our excellent program.
From sheer observation, we learned that students had to find inner reasons to buy an alarm clock, show up for class, think about their futures, master assignments, stay out of jail, forego funerals of distant relatives, and restudy subjects they often felt too elementary for their now maturer position in life. A sidebar: While in graduate school and doing research for an article on our state’s mandate for open college admission, I found students at a regional community college calling developmental courses, “Dummy English.” This mocking of the course I planned to teach, came primarily from white students and spread like wildfire in the area, discouraging students and teachers alike.
On the other hand, instead of showing disdain or resentment, some young Black adults in our community experienced strong cultural cynicism toward continuing their education. Typical case in point: A young mother wanted to register at our college and mentioned her plan to a neighbor who instantly shamed her for wanting to leave her baby just to take classes. Since her child served as the main motivation to better herself, the student went to register anyway. While waiting, she saw the same neighbor ahead in the line. That young mother landed in my class and by midterm wrote an insightful paper analyzing the transaction with her neighbor, concluding, “She didn’t want me to get ahead. That’s how we keep each other down.” Her unabashed candor showed her growth in wisdom and skill in using a rhetorical rule: Write through to the truth! Though she got a D for technical proficiency, she earned an A for content. A rare success for us both!
Another prime example of cultural bias came in a college sponsored women’s workshop. A newspaper editor told of a girl who resisted a boy’s flirtation by saying: “Don’t blow in my ear. I want to go to college.” Smart girl!
What’s Going On?
With the best of secondary programs, many states annually report high rates of graduating seniors still needing at least one developmental/remedial class before matriculating credit courses. Depending on the source, statistics vary from 20% at university to 60% at community colleges with 46% to 28% of those respectively finishing a degree or certificate. We have heard excuses, blame, and analysis; but something still seems dreadfully wrong. Although I agree with Proverbs 15:1a, “ A soft answer turneth away wrath,” some hard facts on how remediation of students has not worked on many levels, need almost ruthless scrutiny and challenge. I recently reread another old article by Mina Shaughnessy and decided a soft answer differs from a soft heart that keeps apologizing for our system’s failure. Who doesn’t feel dreadful about the seeming, insidious disease that has infected education?
Yet, constant tweaking it has not cured it. Lowering standards, framing greater remedial programs, and finding teachers trained to handle this malady, have all been proposed and tried. To prevent the negative graduation fallout, secondary education experts have returned to the drawing boards ad nauseum but continue to generate less than promising results. Each summer, supervisors and department heads far removed from the classroom devise clever acronyms for failed concepts or recommend comprehensive changes that will take years to implement.
Each fall, teachers jump through hoops to satisfy curriculum designers. Experts tout the answer of more test-prep which has yet to deliver the goods. A school year comes and goes. Children absorb the professional frustration of their teachers and waste months in test-prep instead of learning precepts needed for their futures, especially equipping them for higher education.
That leaves Adult Education to pick up the pieces, the field to deal with the wrung-out products of worn-out teachers. With all the money spent on education, schools dare not congratulate themselves over so many secondary students in dropout mode and college freshmen in remediation? These low performers have grim prospects except for menial jobs because employers have grown tired of hiring employees who cannot proficiently read manuals or adequately write end-of-shift reports. If we cannot agree on a view of such issues, how do we dream of a solution or of how to train future applicants for evermore complex jobs?
This conundrum has led the idealist to theorize endlessly or the procrastinator to freeze, waiting for the perfect idea with perfect content and perfect process. Thus, many who write procedures loyally plod on in a pet direction that only repeats blind failure, a result as hopeless in bringing concrete success as does constant, unnerving change.
Some tough issues to air on a practical level
It seems the more education ponders itself, the more it over-thinks the present goals and undervalues past avenues to success. I graduated in my class with 40% Latinos. By the end of the 1960s, I had African American friends, cohorts, teachers, and bosses. After such strides of minorities integrating into the mainstream, something began to deteriorate their hard-won success. Getting political or spiritual here might only anger readers. Suffice it to say, having lived through this demise, I am clear on why it happened and often hold my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop before common sense returns to schools.
These unheeded, urgent facts trumpet why America falls behind. Clinging to teach-to-test policies, allowing social promotion, and skewing grades to boost self-esteem have all backfired. Must education stick with research claims that remain a variation on the theme that Ben Yagoda used in a different context but fits here: “keeping useless things and discarding useful ones”?
Lowering standards may improve the ostensible statistics but not our nation’s educational product. While acknowledging that adult education departments often field fragile populations that have suffered various levels of unfairness, perhaps it’s time for us all to forget our sad stories (unless the world wants a list of mine to put us all on an even playing field). Instead of insisting that students of elementary, secondary, and post secondary institutions first understand our language, geography, history, politics, or economics, they are given a curricula laced with sociology that rehashes society ills, abuses, and victims.
If I had been given a steady diet of reading about the tragedies surrounding me before I had my bearings and equipment to handle them, even vicariously, I could have never pushed through to success or happiness. We could apply the wise principle that pruning branches promotes stronger plants, to curbing the early and constant study of societal ills. It defies logic to expect ill equipped people to solve the mammoth problems in society. Doing just that now for decades has overwhelmed the same population needing to be equipped. It has sent them into apathy, overwhelm, desperation, or the arms of social saviors and revolution fomenters.
In my opinion, to send students out into the broader world without even basic skills is a far worse travesty than back-stepping through injustices that we know are slow to cure, reiterate the obvious, and often inflame societal discontent. In grad school I felt shocked that one third of the students pursued master’s in counseling programs. I remember commenting, “Are we gearing up for a sick society?” Well, we’re there now: our society is having a nervous breakdown.
This may sound harsh! No one seems to say hard truths anymore or wants to call balls, strikes and fouls accurately. Much current social learning indoctrinates the less sophisticated and squanders their valuable readiness time. Once students have sufficient proficiency in reading and gleaning from a breadth of sources, they are free and ready to move the focus from their own goals onto critical matters. Or if they so choose, they can go from 0-100 mph in their own field of interest. My music teacher often said, “Your talent takes you as far as your interest, and vice versa.” I would reword the phrase to say to remedial students, “Your ability can take you as far as your persistence, and vice versa.”
Adding to all these suppositions, I believe state governments (and now the federal one too) have courted too many unprepared and uninformed people to seek higher education, making it appear as a panacea. From my own experience, I think many of these college hopefuls need directing toward the trades and jobs that can satisfy both personally and economically. Despite having two master’s degrees, I supplemented my teaching income by practicing a trade. If the truth be known, most office workers never earn the personal satisfaction and economic remuneration that tradesmen, journeymen, and craftsmen do.
Reviving the Teacher
Something is dreadfully wrong. Teachers have better training, higher salaries, oft-researched methods, and prescribed curricula but still cannot reverse persistently poor outcomes. Current results may defeat teachers’ valiant efforts but, in my opinion, should indict public and university education departments for their continued pedagogical experiments on each new generation, experiments which never seems to work corporately.
With restored autonomy, teachers might function better without constant advice and re-education. Teachers don’t need more ideas; they have little time to employ the ones they already have. When choosing to teach, they telegraphed their love of young people and their enthusiasm to learn how to teach them. But constant changes of curricula and techniques can smother that fragile enthusiasm.
If left alone, I believe primary/secondary/college teachers can transmit useful knowledge to form successful human beings even if the classroom lacks the latest technology or color-coordinated materials.
Being in a peculiar position to know which students to prod, encourage, or leave alone, real teachers practice an artful alchemy that awakens students to a lifelong love of learning. But if required to follow the latest research, teachers swallow their own instructional wisdom which damages their relational matrix with students. Demoted, the room’s captain has no proven map of uncharted waters and watches the ship founder on shoals of reality.
Frankly put, not all teachers chose teaching to be automatons or do social work, especially as standards, expectations, and discipline decrease. Some just quit for a more decent way to spend their lives. One teacher said she would retire from teaching when the crack babies hit her school or if forced to go to a low-performing school. She contended that someone had to groom the top kids as well. A long-time, tenured teacher friend of mine had a student come at her with brass knuckles. When the lenient vice-principal sided with the student, she left the classroom that day and became a truant officer, a reality-check job.
I recall a similar aggressive attempt on me by a rough female student. The next term, she registered for my upper developmental class. I said, “But you hate me,” to which she replied, “Yeh, but I learn lots from you.” Encouraged, I hung on for a few more years. When I had seniors just about to be certified as teachers, they said I was too hard. I responded, “Don’t you want an instructor for nursing students to be hard and insist they practice giving shots in an orange until they can do it perfectly?” They had no comeback except to complain to my dean. My heart hurt for them and their future students.
No wonder teachers elect to leave the classroom to climb a career ladder, out of the mire and onto the prestige of doing research, or so-called. The system of education now facilitates that. Instead of wanting people with a “calling” to teach, educational departments and districts have switched to enticing candidates into teaching by offering a “career ladder.” Candidates who bite must prove their worth by studying a “gnat’s hair” issue, perpetuating the myth of real research, and publishing their nonsense in order to get a better grade, a better teaching job, or a better promotion. Shallow research to get out of the classroom cannot satisfy as lifelong commitment to the classroom can.
Research of Minor Topics
I have read or listened to research by graduate students who climbed the first rung of the career ladder by seeking advanced degrees based on a thesis or study of a dozen people. Too often such narrow papers blithely conclude that more study is needed, as if time and money had no limit. In the meantime, those being studied and hoping for applied results, continue lives on a fault line. This type of so-called advanced research, I find embarrassing. As a former writing teacher, I find such reports prove painful and almost unreadable in style. They use long noun phrases to announce their topics and must use interruptive documentation that defeats the flow of the logic.
My undergraduate thesis took extended involvement with 6 blocks in a totally Black neighborhood scheduled for relocation by an urban renewal project. To satisfy the thesis requirements, my cohort and I had to do continual primary research with the residents to calculate the residents’ financial and human cost. The study took a year of research methods: planning, polishing a questionnaire, mailing100+ copies of these inquiries to residents, correlating answers in the 50+ returned responses, interviewing those families before-and-after their moves, and dealing with the fallout of mostly older people dispersed randomly to available houses around the city. Sadly, no convenient place existed to regroup that many families, so the residents were located far away from the lifelong support of their next door neighbors. That was an undergraduate study.
For years, university education departments have researched every nuance of pre-school to post-graduate levels. Yet our national statistics still show dismal overall results. It is like the adage, “Motion does not equal action.” It seems universities are content to have a steady flow of tuition-paying, undergraduate students who plan to teach. Unfortunately, many leave the toughness of the classroom and return for graduate degrees to be supervisors, counselors, curriculum designers, or regulation writers. Once gaining those positions, few want to give up the prestige or pay. Educational departments or school district offices now bloat with a distant, elite stratum that goes to meetings to devise constant change that only burdens the average teacher trying to inspire unmotivated, unprepared, undisciplined, or even unruly students to learn enough to pass to the next grade.
A Glaring Truth
Some bold people strike out on independent paths rather than fight the albatross choking education. Others amazingly work within the tight fishnet to prevent students and teachers from slipping through. A brave principal in a Houston elementary did consult ample research but did what his gut told him. He began simply, first by introducing uniforms and standing at the door to greet students as they filed in every morning. Such courtesy formed within the school a new level of respect for others. Student self-discipline and eagerness to learn vibrated in the building. Student grades went up. Pride in the school glowed. Success and self-esteem came as byproducts.
My forever contention remains, boundaries help! Some old ways of discipline can work powerfully. I have long had this personal belief: “Giving a budding artist the canvas edges in which to express his idea can extrude far greater creativity than giving him a wall to draw on before he’s acquired the skill to do a mural.”