Monday, November 25, 2013

Frank Bruni! Motto: Reasons Is Hard

Full disclosure: Even though we may be liberal communist hippie progressive socialist, godless heathens hellbent on making everyone gay marry a box turtle in a giant ceremony at the Abortoplex, we don't actually read the New York Times all that much. The paper kind of reminds us of the guy--you know the one--in the office down the hall who found an accounting error on a balance sheet and saved the company a million dollars ten years ago and has been coasting ever since. Plus, Ross Douthat. Seriously? OK, Paul Krugman too, but given the rest of the ingredients in this journalistic batter, he's the hair in the biscuit don't you think?

Well, all this is by way of saying we ran across the musings of NYT word chef Frank Bruni recently and since he chose to opine on matters educational, we thought we'd give him a go.
At a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited. So administrators moved to ban the clothing. They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.”
 Hey what do you know? Of the 98,817 public schools in America, at least one has adults who may be overreacting, but we really don't know because all Mr Bruni tells us is the decision part, not what lead up to it like, knowing middle school kids, maybe teasing, classroom disruptions or fights?

Well, no matter that's not the cogent piece of analysis Mr. Bruni wants to impart to us anyway.
I occasionally flash on that anecdote as I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular.
You'll have to excuse us a moment Mr. Bruni. We think we threw our back out making that leap from an isolated incident involving one school's dress code to national educational policy impacting every student, every teacher and every school in the country.
And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess. Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”
Whoa! Can you spot the unstated premises in that piece of Duncanse? The Secretary is now the sole arbiter of what makes a kid intelligent and what makes a school rigorous. Also, Mr. Duncan? Not to nitpick an educational expert such as yourself, especially one who knows what makes a kid smart and a school good, but you should have said  “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought he or she was, and their school isn’t quite as good.”As the person who determines intelligence, we just thought you'd want to know.

Ah yes, Mr. Bruni. You were saying?
It was an impolitic bit of profiling. Gratuitous, too.
No argument there. Actually we even see this as a sign of progress because when poor parents and minority parents were saying some of the same things, they just got ignored because you know, poor and minority, but when the white folks go getting all uppity, well that just will not do. We're glad you saw that Mr. Bruni.
Oh, we should have known there was a but coming.
But if you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.
OK in Mr. Bruni's defense he does say look hard at some of the complaints, implying that there may be other  reasons for resisting the Common Core. Unfortunately he does not enlighten us us as to what those reasons are, choosing instead to focus on the one easiest to dismiss. Hey Mr. Bruni? Did you take your straw man to lunch after you finished writing this?
The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states.
Whoa again! Looks like there was a special on unstated premises down at the lazy argument store this week.  "Guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization?" Really Mr. Bruni? Got some folks over here that would like to talk to you about that. And as for the 40 states thing, as our sainted momma used to say, if all your friends jumped off the George Washington bridge, would you jump too?
What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals...
Hey, come on now Mr. Bruni. It's not nice to pick on people with special needs. Easy, but not nice.
...from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.
Wait. You don't think this is about money?  Hey Diane Ravitch, author of "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools" can you come over here a minute? You too Diann Woodard President, American Federation of School Administrators. And how about you too Stephanie Simon? Oh and how about you guys from the United Church of Christ, why don't you come over too? Maybe a higher power is needed here.

By the way, Mr. Bruni, we saw what you did with that whole "right-wing alarmists" and "left-wing paranoiacs" thing. Way to move the argument from the issue to the people making it. We see you called Secretary Duncan's white suburban moms and raised him to alarmists and paranoids. Way to keep the argument on a level you can deal with.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle. Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless?
Umm...we're going to go with no. See Mr. Bruni, when a teacher creates a lesson they can make it challenging without being painful (See Dewey, John) or they can make it mind numbingly irrelevant, repetitive and soul crushing (See Prep, Test).
Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper?
Well, yes Mr. Bruni, but you see there are two kids of stress. There's the stress created by excitement and anticipation, like the stress associated with discovery, and there's the stress associated with If You Kids Don't Do Well On This Test WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! Hope this helps.
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
Yes because there's really no other reason to criticize "potentially crucial education reforms" is there Mr. Bruni? Not sure? Why don't you ask your straw man buddy.
Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.
Yeah. And some schools don't "have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes" and many kids are not "Bubble-Wrapped" so what's your point Mr. Bruni? Oh sorry we interrupted you. Please continue.
“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”
Yeah, sort of like your inflated sense of academic prowess about what you can accomplish with a set of static standards largely created by non educators and applied externally to the complex, dynamic that is modern education in America.

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