March 08, 2003

Saturday Soapbox

I got one of those massively-forwarded emails last night. This one was recounting "11 things you won't learn in school" that Bill Gates (unlikely but possibly) told a high school class recently. I'll put them all in the MORE link at the bottom of this post, if you're interested. Rule Number 8 elicited a personal reflection that got my blood pressure up a notch and spawned this rant...

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Someone recently asked me why I left teaching after twelve years. I'll give the short answer that includes my reaction to Rule #8.

I was told by the Dean of Instruction to dumb down the Anatomy and Physiology tests, so more of the nursing and med lab students would pass. Why couldn't I do what other teachers at the Community College were doing: give students as many opportunities to take the test as it took for them to pass it. The Dean didn't say this, but he knew it was going on and tacitly condoned this method of making 'successful' graduates we would send out into the 'world of work'.

The Dean reminded me (in a condescending tone) that the Virginia Community College System had an "open door" policy, allowing many first-generation college students the opportunity to get a college education, and failing them in my class was working at cross purposes to the philosophy of the college (read: we lose FTE reimbursement when students flunk out of school).

I suggested to the Dean that perhaps the open door policy was not the way to go for the Nursing and Med Lab Technician programs that required a higher level language skill and the ability to think abstractly and understand scientific concepts. I wondered if we were doing the unprepared student a disservice by allowing her into a program where the chances of failure were high, and a disservice to that student who was adequately prepared but was not able to enroll because that vastly ill-prepared student had gotten through the open door first and filled the last slot in the class.

And I strongly expressed my concerns that we were not preparing these health care workers to face the real world by giving only multiple-guess questions or allowing retakes on the exams until they got it right. What these students know or don't know can kill someone, I told the dean. They have to know the difference between milliliters and millimeters and get it right the first time (I told him, in response to an accusation that my questions were 'tricky').

This same encounter with the dean (two different deans) happened three times over the course of my last three years of my twelve year teaching career. I conceded my standards only in simplifying the sentence structure on my tests. The open door policy remained intact. The attrition rate in A&P remained unchanged. I had dumbed down 'real life' to the point below which I couldn't live with myself, so I left teaching in 1987 and became a student again.

And let me tell you, the physical therapy program I entered had such unreasonably high demands... I thought maybe I'd go to the Dean and see if they couldn't lower the standards a bit; maybe let us retake the tests, reduce the number of muscles in the human body... that sort of thing. Smirk. Actually, the program had quite a different philosophy that I would have advocated for our Community College healthcare programs: The selection up front was amazingly rigorous, so that if you were one of the few accepted into the program, you were deemed capable of getting through it and would get the support you needed to succeed. The faculty would work intensely with any student having difficulty with any of the rigorous demands of the program to address their learning difficulties in a particular topic... let them rethink a problem until they understood it. That approach prepared us for the real world of dealing with infinitely complex issues in human biology.

All of 'Bill Gates Rules....'

To anyone with kids of any age, or anyone who has ever been a kid, here's some advice Bill Gates recently dished out at a high school speech about 11 things they did not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good politically correct teachings created a full generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it.

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone, until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping - they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills,cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life? In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one

Posted by fred1st at March 8, 2003 05:45 AM | TrackBack

I feel the pain...this is year 30 of teaching for me...I recall my "Dean" calling me in for a "friendly chat" one year. Once we at down together and closed the door behind us the "Man" said, "Steve do you think you are a little deep for the kids?" Now at that moment I honestly believed I had not been rigorous or "deep" enough. In the numerous times I have mentally replayed this conversation when asked "too deep?" I lean forward and speak truth to power, "Perhaps, you sir, are too shallow?" And come to think of it when this happened again many years later I did say that to one of the lesser gods of power but it certainly did make someone mad. And yes I have dumbed it down, way down. Yesterday a junior in my history class honestly asked, "Mr Gunter who is saddam hussein?" I cried. I laughed. I began to realize the degree of my deepness. You know what I'm sayin'?

Posted by: steve at March 8, 2003 06:12 AM

Part of the reason for this kind of wrongheadedness comes from the all-American attitude of regarding students as "customers." The customers are paying for a college education and obviously they can't get one if they're failing! When you look at school as a business model, when grades are the "product" we're selling, then you end up with the dean's "customer service," where the "associates" are required to adopt the stance that the customer is always right.

I was in my web design teacher's office the other day where the head of the department was in recounting some math triumph. He looked over at me. I was standing in the doorway, marveling at how there are people in the world who can carry on a whole conversation in math. He said: "Oh, I better go. You've got a customer."

"I'm not a customer," I said, truthfully it turned out since my faculty wife's exemption means I don't pay for my courses. "I'm a student."

Posted by: travelertrish at March 8, 2003 09:51 AM

I am saddened each time I hear one of my engineers say, "I done..." or "I seen...." I'm saddened that they got through grade school, high school, and engineering college without learning the proper tenses of verbs. I am more saddened, still, when my manager (of a younger generation) changes my "...were..." to "" in my report, changing not only the entire meaning of the sentence, but using a verb that no longer agrees in number with the subject of the sentence. She not only got through grade school, high school, and engineering college, but also through graduate schools in engineering and in business administration. I am saddened that no one taught her proper use of grammar. Tell me about dumbing down courses--not only in colleges, but in schools at all levels. You are correct, Teacher, students are now a means of making money for the institution and the basis for building an empire.

Posted by: Cop Car at March 8, 2003 10:21 PM

Yes, yes, and yes. Also what Trish said. You've all hit on some of my favored soap boxes, so I won't re-belabor the point except to reiterate the problem of attempting to force the academic model into a corporate model in which the student is the "customer," and as such, should be given a passing grade simply in exchange for having paid for a "product." Just because you've paid for a gym membership doesn't mean you're going to automatically be ripped. You have to go to the gym, and you have to do the work. But what do I know? I'm currently being grieved because I failed a graduate student who sipped four out of fifteen once-a-week seminar sessions, only turned in one out of five written assignments, and then neglected to show up for the final exam and had the gall to request that I give her an extension on her final paper. Apparently I have discriminated against her and was out to get her. Sigh . . .

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at March 9, 2003 06:20 PM

An excellent Carnival of the Vanities entry. Ahem.

Posted by: Jane at March 10, 2003 10:26 AM

I know whole heartedly what you mean not as a teacher but as a frustrated student. I quit my college because I couldn't take that anymore. I learned anything from only one class, one Gen Ed class, my entire time there so far because he was told to dum it down and he wouldn't. It was Biology if interested. I had to get out before I went insane, because not only was the school that way, but the entire school and even more importantly the entire student population was a corporation not a college. And i didn't like anything else about it. If I am going to have to endure such degredation of higher education, I want to at least do it somewhere I like that I want to live and hopefully where there is someone else who cares more than about getting a job while we're there. Some culture would be nice, even if I have to go to the area and not the college to find people who are interested in it as well.

Posted by: Josh at March 10, 2003 10:40 AM

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