Bound to happen, I suppose. Child the younger has gone all radical political on me. The issue stoking her outrage: standardized testing.

It started last week. She came home all excited because her social studies class, facing some state-mandated exam, decided as a group that they would all write their essays on the topic of why state-mandated social studies tests are a waste of time. In addition to submitting the exams to the state, the teacher agreed to collect copies of their essays for future purposes. I talked to Little Bit about the process for submitting op-ed pieces to major publications.

She spent days researching the topic of standardized tests, coming up with a whole list of objections to them and tracking down facts and studies to support her viewpoint. She knowledgably talked about No Child Left Behind, the damage it has done, the immense profits being raked in by the testing industry, the better uses for those funds, the narrowing of the curriculum, and the illogic of punishing low-scoring schools by reducing their budgets. Not to mention the idiocy of evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores.

Then shit got real.

In further discussions, the class moved onto the topic of the Big Comprehensive State Testing regimen, which will occupy hours and hours of their lives in the near future. They discussed the fact that parents can opt their kids out of the test, and a little resistance movement formed.

Little Bit came home and asked me to opt her out of the Big Comprehensive State Test as a matter of principle. She’s a conscientious objector.

Oh my. The school will not be happy if my kid and the other kids in the honors social studies class opt out. They depend on the scores from their high-achieving students to pull their averages up. Oh well…not my kid’s problem. Standardized testing does nothing but harm for those kids.

The problem, of course, is that opting out means spending those hours and hours of testing time in the library or the principal’s office or somewhere, doing…what? I don’t know. Maybe they will make her scrub the hallways with a toothbrush.

I told her if I write an opt-out letter, it will be in the form of “I am supporting my child in objecting to this test,” and that she would need to give me a bulleted list of objections. She wrote me a whole page.

So I think I have no choice, as this is my child taking a public, moral stance and refusing to collude with the corrupt authorities.

So freaking proud.


TR the Tech Professional

I was going to fold the laundry, but the cat is peacefully snoozing on top of it. I was going to begin cleaning my office, but the magnitude of the mess overwhelmed me. So I made a cup of tea and sat down to blog.


Job search news: A friend and fellow editor had an offer of work she could not take. She posted (on the devil Facebook) a call for her comrades to step up and take it on. Up I stepped, and so I will soon have some freelance work editing dissertations for grad students. Now I have to set my price. How much will students who desperately want those doctoral degrees pay to make their lackluster prose shine and get their participles undangled?

In the meantime, the hunt for a steady job continues.

Also in the meantime, I signed up for a web design class, which begins in January. Pasting my ramblings into a free blog is about the extent of my current skill level in that realm. So an intro class will greatly increase it, I hope. Not that I’m expecting to get a techie job anytime soon. I’m too old and way too far behind the curve for that. But, many non-profits are even farther behind that curve and if I can write their grants AND manage their websites, all the better for my prospects.

Another benefit: credit. The college credits for the web design class, combined with the credits I earned for another class this quarter and the credits I earned a few years ago will make me eligible to have my long-lapsed teaching certificate reinstated. That will reopen another avenue for gainful employment. And I ask you, who wouldn’t want to be a substitute special ed teacher?

There it stands. Now I will abandon my messy office again and go run some errands. But alas, the moment of reckoning is coming.

Knowledge vs. Skills

What is school really for and how do we ensure that all of our children gain…whatever it is they are supposed to gain from it? Among many people I know, it is taken for granted that school is largely a waste of time. Your send your kids there for 6.5 hours each day, and then you spend the rest of the day providing their actual education. Some people spend major money on private schools in a desperate effort to salvage those hours, but what they’re really buying for their child is the right to spend the day with other privileged kids. Back in our hoity toity private elementary school days, another parent told me that the primary benefit of private school was the connections the kids made there. That’s right; my eight-year-old was supposed to be networking.

If this sounds like a pitch for homeschooling, it is not. I for one am not looking to increase my already overwhelming time investment in parenting. I’m looking for ways to alter the educational paradigm that has been in place for, what, a century? The education system is designed to turn out good factory workers. It is inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of students who deviate from the norm in any direction.

Schools do an adequate job of imparting knowledge efficiently, by delivering it to children in groups. My middle school kid absorbs the social studies curriculum along with her peers. Though she often finds the content dull, she learns stuff she didn’t know before and then moves on to other new stuff. It works.

Where the school spectacularly fails is in developing skills. And perhaps it is not reasonable to expect skill development to happen there. Consider, for example, musical instruments. Anyone who has played an instrument or had a child who did can tell you that the instruction they receive in school is just a starting point. If you want to actually learn to play your instrument well, you must take private lessons outside of school. (That’s problematic from an economic standpoint, since it means lower income kids are denied that opportunity, but that’s another topic.) In the case of music, the school serves an auxiliary function by providing a group with which the kids can use the skills they’ve gained through lessons and practice.

For my kid, that works great, and music is by a factor of about a million her favorite part of middle school. She works with her private teacher and progresses at her usual lightning speed, and then she goes to school and works along with her classmates on the skills needed to play in a group.

But other skill-based classes do not operate this way. For example, foreign language instruction, which I complained about at length here, is done as a stand-alone endeavor. The teacher attempts to teach language skills to a large group of kids who learn at very different rates, inevitably leaving some of them to struggle and others to suffer through the soul-crushing boredom of endless repetition. Sure, I could hire a Spanish tutor for my daughter and she could race through the curriculum, but she would still have to suffer through a school language class. It’s both a graduation requirement and a college entrance requirement.

We have the same problem with math. My 7th grader is taking Algebra I, which is allegedly a 9th grade-level class. But she mastered most of the content in elementary school, thanks to the parent volunteers who ran the math club. It has been her lifelong experience that math class means staring at the clock while other children learn something she already knows how to do. Surely there must be a better way for schools to handle high-performing students.

But what is it?

White Men Only

Speaking of public schools, my sixteen-year-old dropped out of high school.

No, she didn’t, really. She actually signed up for the state’s dual enrollment program (called Running Start), and elected to become a full-time student at the local community college, with no high school classes on her schedule at all. This is working out beautifully so far. She enjoys her classes and she especially enjoys the absence of stupid high school stuff. She seems unconcerned about social issues and still spends plenty of time with her friends. Tigger’s goal is to finish her two years with both a high school diploma and an AA degree.

It’s a little tricky. She has to carefully choose classes that satisfy both the requirements of the AA degree and the high school graduation requirements.

For example, to graduate from high school she needs a class in American History. Well, that’s cool, it will satisfy a college humanities requirement. But which class to take?

The college offers:

  1. US History I
  2. US History II
  3. US History III
  4. Women in US History
  5. African American History
  6. Native American History

Courses 1 through 3 can be summed up as “white men and their wars.” Courses 4, 5, and 6 could be called “other stuff that happened.” This being my child and all, she would much (+++) prefer courses 4 through 6, any one of them, really.

So she went to her high school counselor, who has to sign off on all of her choices before she registers each quarter, and asked him if she could take one of those classes for her American History requirement.

What do you think he said, friends?

Yes, you’re right. He said no. Only “white men and their wars” counts as real history. To his credit, he didn’t like the school district’s policy and agreed that she should be allowed to take the other courses. It’s not like there’s no overlap. Do you suppose the African American History course includes no discussion of the Civil War? It’s merely a question of perspective, and one perspective is privileged above all others.

That is a lesson my daughter is sure to remember.


About a million years ago, circa 1979, I began my journey through the peculiar American ritual best described as “phony, ineffectual foreign language instruction that will never, ever teach you to speak a foreign language.”

At the beginning of my first year of French, I loved the class. French, so lovely, so glamorous, so sophisticated. I couldn’t wait until I could speak it fluently.

By the middle of the year I hated that class so much that I had become a trouble-maker—a role completely out of character for me. I lobbed small objects at my classmates and smart-mouthed the teacher. But I got perfect scores on every test. That wasn’t hard to do because the class was just. so. easy. The glacial pace of instruction made me want to bang my head on the desk. Instead, I sat with my arms folded and glared.

Four years later I completed my high school French studies. Had I visited Paris at that time (and I should’ve, why didn’t I?) I probably could’ve muddled through, but it would have taken a great deal of patience on the part of the Parisians who had the misfortune to come into contact with my sadly monolingual self. Like the vast majority of native-born Americans, je ne parle pas francais.

Jumping to the present, my daughter Little Bit, now 13 and in 7th grade, has embarked on her phony, ineffectual Spanish studies. Studying a language is important to her. She’s jealous that several of her friends—the children of Asian immigrants—are bilingual. Sadly, she’s been taking Spanish for two months now and has already concluded that she will never, ever learn to speak the language this way. I don’t think she’s resorted to trouble-making, but she comes home and tells me that she got a perfect score on her Spanish test but that it’s no big point of pride because the test was just. so. easy. The pace is glacial. She wants to bang her head on the desk.

Why? Why must it be this way? The citizens of other countries learn to speak other languages—usually English. And English is notoriously difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. They begin in early childhood and prioritize it.

Given the ever-increasing globalization of commerce, should we not place a priority on teaching our students functional skills in key languages? The most obvious candidates: Mandarin (world’s #1 most-spoken language) and Spanish (#2, including over 37 million people in the US).

If you’re going to wait until 7th grade or 9th grade to even begin foreign language instruction, you’re going to have to step it up from the glacial, head-banging pace that torments your most capable students.

At this point I would like to offer my apologies to Madame McKirahan, my junior high school French teacher. My behavior was execrable. But so was your class.