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Waiting for Mark Twain

November 17, 2010

Some days, I really wish Mark Twain were still around. In a time when schooling is increasingly the biggest thing interfering with children’s educations, he’d have a field day quipping about the hot mess that is “education” reform debate. I’d have a blast watching him.

He might be moved to update his thoughts on school boards. Perhaps he could do so with a little Churchillian twist: “School boards are the worst form of district governance…except for mayoral control.” (I’m close to burned out on school board politics, so I won’t say much more, except that a change in mindset is in order. Please remember, it’s not your job to represent the district’s interests to the public. It’s your job to represent the public’s interests to the district. You do that by listening to constituents’ concerns, being well informed about the issues, and ensuring that district officials are making sound, just decisions in accordance with district policy and the law. You’re not players, you’re referees. Please, stop trying to score.)

If Twain got to see how education policy decisions are made, and the kind of people who have recently been allowed to make careers influencing them, he’d be ever more convinced that “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” (All the more sure if you’re powerful enough to surround yourself with others whose success is similarly guaranteed. That makes it far easier to maintain the ignorance that sustains some kinds of confidence. And on and on.) Perhaps Mr. Twain would have an easier time popping those ignorance bubbles than the rest of us have. I wish.

‘Cause there are so many things a lot of self-appointed reformers “know that just ain’t so.”  They know that some schools are failing, and they know why (tenured teachers who don’t try, unions that protect them, a lack of competition…). All of this “knowledge,” completely undisturbed by any understanding of psychometrics, or education theory and practice, or the students themselves…or direct, contemporary experience in the schools that’s informed by such understandings. Anyone who points out the flaws in their simplistic arguments, or presents facts that don’t support them, can be handily dismissed (and just as disrespectfully). “You must be a bad teacher.” “You’re with the union.” “You must care more about adults than children.”

“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable, ” Twain reminds us. Maybe a sage voice from the past could remind them that facts—things that are indisputably true—have value (as do the people bearing them, regardless of their associations). Facts like the amount of money we spend on “lies, damned lies, and statistics” while our schools lack basic things like books, or empowered teachers, or stable, effective leadership. Facts like how hard it is to concentrate when you’re angry, or hungry. Facts like how profoundly non-school factors affect their precious Data…and how many kids fill in bubbles at random so they can finish the silly tests and rest, or read the books they actually enjoy once they’ve handed in their test booklets. Would they listen? Or would they scoff? (Who needs facts, when you’ve got reams of Data on which to base your decisions?)

In other fields, this kind of behavior would be considered problematic. The last time you were semi- or seriously ill, did your doctor design a treatment protocol for you based solely on the vitals taken by the nurse, without taking the time to observe you directly and ask you about your symptoms or examining your medical history? I certainly hope not! Yet, in education today, it’s supposedly OK to completely upend whole schools, in bunches at a time, because they’re “orange,” or “red,” or “failing,” without first trying to figure out why that might be the case. Shameful.

But I don’t think he’s coming back, so no use waiting around. For my part, I’ll continue working to defeat the test-and-punish nonsense that has taken over our public schools. What value is there in any practice that drains most of the meaningful, valuable things from the education process, and makes students hate learning?

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2010 7:45 pm

    Really nice post, Sabrina. And really heart-breakingly disturbing. This along with the ongoing confrontation I’ve been having over the last few years with the truly exquisite absurdity that we’re parading as democracy in this country as a whole, and particularly in its educational debate, has broken my spirit as of late. Visiting Colorado Academy last week and learning a single academic department there is granted nearly $20,000 per year for supplies while my students, who are vastly more in need of such money, scarcely have access to a single textbook when all of their classes are taken into account AND reconciling that reality with the outrageously disgusting game that politicians and school boards (in districts that actually have them) play on a daily basis makes me physically ill.

    Alas, this is the way of the world, and, as you point out, has been for quite some time. I don’t know if this ongoing realization will ultimately lead to my career’s demise or motivate me to become more involved in the struggle, but I do know that it is undeniably wrong.

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    November 17, 2010 8:56 pm

    This is a nicely crafted piece. I would also like to see what Twain might have to say about current events. I have a few of his quotes languishing in a post draft here and love much of what he had to say about education, and about pompous know-it-alls. For public schools I would like to borrow/paraphrase his words, offering them up in hope: rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated.

  3. David B. Cohen permalink
    November 17, 2010 10:52 pm

    Perhaps we will live in an Orwellian future where 2+2=5 if the data tells us it’s so. Or perhaps we’ll straighten ourselves out and look back at our fascination with “data” and see it as the phrenology of this educational era.

  4. November 18, 2010 4:40 am

    Brilliant… it!

  5. Frederika permalink
    November 18, 2010 5:59 pm

    Outstanding post. Thank you for making all the connections.

  6. November 24, 2010 9:55 am

    Excellent post.


  1. Waiting for Mark Twain | Kennewick School District Citizens

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