Monday, August 8, 2016

Choosing a School, V

Quotations Overture: Reprise

"In examinations, the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer." -- Oscar Wilde

"Nothing . . . is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important." -- Prince Andrei, War and Peace

"The deep truth is imageless." -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

"I am that I am." -- ...

"You won't even say your name." -- Vampire Weekend

Reflecting on this problem [using exam scores and checklist observations to evaluate teaching/learning] always brings to mind Joan of Arc, Anne Holmes, the Book of Exodus, Zen Buddhism, and my former students who get back in touch with me years after they leave Oviedo.

Let's begin with St. Joan, a personage who frequently visits this site (I've seen her. Really!).*

You may remember that she was given a rather taxing, one might say high-stakes exam. She failed, but due to her examiners' incompetence, not hers. Their questions were irrelevant to her experience, to her learning, as it were. They were merely prepackaged prattle allowing the inquisitors to justify burning her to death at the stake -- without a doubt, the ultimate "F." (You can see some of the questions here.)

Some readers are getting burnt out from Joan of Arc images, so this will be my last. Of course, it's from Carl Theodor Dreyer's magnificent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

On the one hand, you have a teenaged female peasant turned military commander, one with such authority and courage her soldiers dared not disobey her. She believes this power comes from God, by way of the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret.

On the other hand, you have a room full of empowered male stooges asking her questions about logistics, wardrobe, hair styles and commandments. They were no doubt going to kill her anyway, but they got there by trying to cram an alleged transcendent experience (Alleged? But who are we to say what she saw?) into codified dogma bound by language, tradition and the pathetic paucity of our five senses. 

I just read a sentence on p. 53 of a book whose title would mean nothing to you and it moved me in a way I can't express. No exam question -- with the possible exception of "How did a single sentence on p. 53 of a book whose title would mean nothing to us flood you with new insights and the joy that accompanies them?" -- can extract from me the nature of this learning. I know it is real, but I can't say it.
Assistant Principal on Observation Day 

So what are the odds of any of us giving a credible account of a divine visitation? Or even of why a dream of a cow hanging laundry on a line was somehow meaningful to us? Or any of the countless experiences that mysteriously change our lives forever?

The empowered (by us) stooges (modern-day Joan inquisitors) who sleep on the top tier of our educational amphitheater ask questions about teaching and learning that cannot be answered with words.

I have no doubt that learning happens, and it's possible that teaching does. But when and how it happens cannot be measured, cannot be put into language. To paraphrase Yahweh and to quote almost every Zen Buddhist in the West and every athlete interviewed this century, "It is what it is."

Oscar Wilde's assertion above might be playful, but it really is what it is. We do not know how to examine the wise, whether it be Thomas Jefferson, Joan of Arc, or my students who leave high school or college out of boredom and disgust, or teachers who in some imperceptible way leave little gifts of wisdom for the next generation. 

But we do know how to regurgitate standards, objectives and goals and to pretend that achieving them tells us anything significant. When too many students and teachers "succeed," the call goes out for higher standards and tougher exams. Then when too many fail, the goalposts are moved again, changing the criteria and/or the exam itself and giving one that teachers are actually qualified to teach to and that students can eventually pass.

So is the goal to find a Goldilocks** exam that matches the abilities and needs of teachers and students? Is it to find a legitimate way of gauging learning? No. The goal is to meet the goal, and meet it in a way that appears authentic, so the Man can brag to voters that our schools have met the goal. 

The goal being met, schools will get high grades and bonuses. Real estate agents will also get bonuses, because parents are likely to buy homes in an "A" school district. Some schools in the district won't make an "A," so next year new initiatives will drop from the sky like a plague of frogs in an effort to ensure the "lousy" schools "show gains." 

But those initiatives will also bring their cacophonous croaks to the "A" schools as if they, too, had failed. More pretend exams! More "pull-out" days so teachers can sit around a table in the planning room and grade while their colleagues try to stifle restroom noises six feet away! More exam-prep in-services! More PLCs!***  

Yes! The "A" schools are treated as if they stink! No wonder teachers use the term "bullshit" so often.

Friends, we are now many, many miles from an actual classroom where teachers and students join in the mystery of teaching/learning. 

They're not really statistics. They're just human beings with all the wounds and worries and quirks that humans tend to have, and they're all crammed together into a classroom, students mostly out of necessity (which is wrong), teachers, God willing, there to answer and practice their calling, to wrestle, harangue, badger, coax, Pied-Piper and love the little bastards into the light of learning. 

It's all about the kids?

Sorry, kids. This has nothing to do with you. The grownups are having a little spat at your expense, it's not your fault, just do what you're told, and this whole mess will be over soon.
"If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

And kids, we will forgive you for believing it was St. Joan's inquisitors, not her, who should've been burnt at the stake, and all those exams that have replaced your education should also be burnt there. And we forgive you for taking great joy in those flames as they return heat to a long-frozen institution, then watch in triumphant rapture as True Education rises from its ashes like a Harry Potter phoenix!

*Editor's note: The author is on drugs.
**Editor's note: The author originally wrote "Goaldilocks" in an attempt to be amusing, but I have returned the word to its original spelling.
***Just more soulless educational jargon. Don't worry about it.


  1. Whatever 'drugs' you are on, I want some. This is brilliant, as usual. Hopefully people who matter are reading it and not just soulless zombies like myself.

    1. Ibuprofen. And no, people are not reading it. Still, I ain't shuttin up.

    2. Heart-breaking. Maddening. "The goal is to meet the goal..." Joseph Heller's Schiesskopf would be proud. Barbara

  2. Heller would have a field day writing about public schools. Or he'd go crazy.

  3. Heller would have a field day writing about public schools. Or he'd go crazy.