kitchen table math, the sequel: Letter from a Child

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Letter from a Child

Thomas Sowell from the Hoover Institution takes time out to write about one of those inane letter writing assignments, but from the perspective of a recipient. It's a nice piece, except don't you think he should have complained to the teacher instead of the parents?

He starts be recognizing the general problem:

Parents send their children to school to acquire the knowledge that has come down to us as a legacy of our culture — whether it is mathematics, science, or whatever — so that those children can grow up and go out into the world equipped to face life’s challenges.

Too many “educators” see teaching not as a responsibility to the students but as an opportunity for themselves — whether to indoctrinate a captive audience with the teacher’s ideology, manipulate them in social experiments, or just do fun things that make teaching easier, whether or not it really educates the child. (Emphasis mine.)

But then he brings in parents as complicit:

Unfortunately, the dumbed-down education of previous generations means that many parents today see nothing wrong with their children being manipulated in school, instead of being educated.

Such parents may see nothing wrong with spending precious time in classrooms chit-chatting about how everyone “feels” about things on television or in their personal lives.

Well, okaaaayy, but a lot of parents have a big problem with this...it's just that we have had our collective hands slapped enough to know that that any objection will either (1) fall on deaf ears or (2) result in some type of subtle or not-so-subtle retaliation played out on our kids.

But while our children are frittering away time on trivia, other children in other countries are acquiring the skills in math, science, or other fields that will allow them to take the jobs our children will need when they grow up.

You betcha. It would be nice if someone pointed that out to the NCTM which reportedly just issued its high school guidelines. Now to the letter from little Johnny:

[S]chools are supposed to prepare children for the future, not give teachers opportunities for self-indulgences in the present. One of these self-indulgences was exemplified by a letter I received recently from a fifth-grader in the Sayre Elementary School in Lyon, Mich.

He said, “I have been assigned to ask a famous person a question about how he or she would solve a difficult problem.” The problem was what to do about the economy.

Oh yeah, we've been there. Stupid, stupid assignment. We tell our kid, just do it and get it over with. So what does Tom do? He's well-intentioned, but he writes back to the PARENTS!

What earthly good would it do your son to know what economic policies I think should be followed, especially since what I think should be done will not have the slightest effect on what the government will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be expected to deal with questions that people with Ph.D.’s in economics have trouble wrestling with?

Damn straight. But, ah, the parent didn't come up with the assignment.

The damage does not end with wasting students’ time and misdirecting their energies, serious though these things are. Getting students used to looking to so-called “famous” people for answers is the antithesis of education as a preparation for making up their own minds as citizens of a democracy, rather than as followers of “leaders.”

Indeed!

The fad of assigning students to write to strangers is an irresponsible self-indulgence of teachers who should be teaching.

Yeah! But, honest, I didn't ask for this assignment!
Then, predictably, his final pronouncement:
[T]hat practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end.

Yup, it's our own darn fault. Blame us for that lousy education our kids are getting! But that's a little unfair to Mr. Sowell, because he really believes (no snickers now) that parents have power.

Parents need a union.

15 comments:

SteveH said...

Yes, definitely do not ask him about economics, especially monopolies.


"[T]hat practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end."

That's all it takes? You may not want to write to him about anything.


"Getting students used to looking to so-called 'famous' people for answers is the antithesis of education as a preparation for making up their own minds as citizens of a democracy, rather than as followers of 'leaders.'

Um, what is he doing by writing a column? He is cultivating followers. That's what he is all about; getting more people to climb on his bus. Obviously, he didn't take the time to educate himself about the problem.


raw data ==>filter-spin==> opinion

Educate is missing in the middle.

My son once had to write a letter to an author after reading his/her book. He wrote a letter to the author of a book that talked about how a boy wrote to an author. Serves him right. He never heard back.

Anonymous said...

I thought we'd be done with those kinds of assignments when we got to high school, but no such luck. They never die.

SusanS

Cranberry said...

Thomas Sowell is 79 years old. In his lifetime, control over education has moved from the local town. In my state, under our education reform laws, the superintendent has far more power than in previous decades. I often find that people of my parents' generation overestimate the power parents have to influence the public schools. The bureaucratization and loss of local decision-making power have consequences.

Robert Pondiscio said...

I hate to disagree, but Dr. Sowell might have been a little kinder and more gentlemanly and simply written back a few lines of encouragement, rather than going to general quarters. OK, maybe it wasn't the best assignment in the world, but c'mon. There's nothing wrong with a kid writing a letter to a public figure. Just ask Samantha Smith or Virginia O'Hanlon.

palisadesk said...

The complaint is justified, but not the assumnption that teachers come up with this stuff or that the discussions on feelings or "text-to-self connections" or other stupidity is necessarily (or even usually) the teacher's idea. Amazingly enough, many teachers would agree with Sowell (and a lot of parents) that we should be teaching skills and content to prepare students for independent lives.

Guess what happens when teachers try to do this? They get slapped down by the "math coaches" and "literacy coaches" that act as curriculum police, or by administrators doing performance evaluations, who want to see more feely-weely stuff going on. They may even be directly forbidden to do effective, content and skills-driven instruction.

I gather Steve H's son had to write to the author about the novel, Dear Mr. Henshaw -- a good book; I used it once for a seventh-grade novel study because the students could actually read it and there were some other interesting themes to it. Betsy Byars, the author, is quite prolific and likely gets thousands of such formulaic "write the author" letters.

We had to do an assignment like this with all third graders one year as a required assessment piece for each student's portfolio. Teachers did not choose this assignment. I remember helping one child write a letter to Robert Munsch. She did a good job describing what she liked about the books. Imagine my amazement, however, when she got a personal reply to her letter from Mr. Munsch a few weeks later. Apparently he answers all mail from children that actually comes through the post (not email).

I empathize with Sowell's point of view, but feel his ire was misdirected. As for parents changing the system -- good luck with that. Bureaucracies, especially large and monopolistic ones, are notoriously impervious to customer complaints. Those in charge know that even the most militant parent will "age out" of the battle in a decade or less, and a new crop of starry-eyed, or simply naive, customers will present themselves.

SteveH said...

"Dear Mr. Henshaw"

That's it, but I forgot whether the author was male or female. My son read it in fifth grade and didn't like it. Even at that age he was getting tired of books about kids who overcome home and school problems. I think that book came right after Maniac Magee, or maybe it was Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. There were a bunch of books that seemed to tell kids that you couldn't trust parents or teachers. At least now (8th grade) the class is reading Lord of the Flies. He said he likes the book because it has "depth".

Sowell might be on the right track, but he gets it wrong because he doesn't do his homework.

Anonymous said...

"[T]hat practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end."

Bwahahaha! I think maybe we're just not getting his sense of humor here.

--Sam

VickyS said...

Palisadesk, point well taken. I realize teachers often cannot opt out of these stupid assignments any more than a student or parent can. And I guess maybe that's the point--Sowell is like so many people outside the education monopoly who (wrongly) assume that it is a system responsive to criticism. If that were true, the system should be self-correcting. When it strays, it should encounter pushback that gets it on track again. We on the other hand know it doesn't work that way anymore.

VickyS said...

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy--how many ways can you spell depressing? 2/3 of the way through I had to inform the teacher that my 10 year old would not be finishing it, whatever the consequences. How much sorrow is it necessary to inflict on these young hearts?

Beth said...

I have never felt more powerless and frustrated than I did as a parent at a public school.

Private school is a completely different story. I've actually had policy changes because of my complaints.

SteveH said...

"How much sorrow is it necessary to inflict on these young hearts?"

Maniac Magee was worse. Even in fifth grade my son saw it as moralistic and shallow. Oh, and then there was "The Outsiders". For him, the problem wasn't so much the sorrow, but the simplistic and moralistic tone. They're like reality TV. (I read them too.) Gotta make sure these kids know about all of these reality things because you can't trust the parents. In fact, that's the main theme of the books. You can't trust parents. How about the reality that many parents have a clue.

Robert Pondiscio said...

Interesting twist to this episode: Turns out there was no assignment at all. The enterprising kid, whose letter was lambasted by Sowell, wrote to the kid of his own volition

http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2009/10/09/the-thomas-sowell-affair/

Catherine Johnson said...

definitely do not ask him about economics, especially monopolies

loll

Catherine Johnson said...

"[T]hat practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end."

Obviously Thomas Sowell has not heard of PARENT TRIANGULATION.

Catherine Johnson said...

The bureaucratization and loss of local decision-making power have consequences.

In my case we have bureaucratization and loss of local decision-making power in a village of 6500 people.

I'm serious.