Monday, November 10, 2008

So Many Distractions; So Little Time

“… those who torment us for our own good, will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
-- C.S. Lewis

Several motivational posters are affixed to the wall of the women’s bathroom at an elementary school in Spokane, WA. One of them says: “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.”

That’s an idiotic statement – one that I doubt many teachers actually believe. The first time I noticed the poster, in the spring of 2007, I was running the school’s chess club with my husband, grading much of the math homework for our daughter’s 4th-grade class, and volunteering to tutor 4th graders in math. In math facts.

In my view, the people who are supposed to teach values are the parents, along with any other support systems the parents feel are helpful. Values should be taught in the schools only insofar as they’re an intrinsic part of the academic environment. As in: Don’t cheat. Do your best work every day. Speak up when you have a problem. Treat your classmates, teacher, desk, school, and textbook with respect. Don’t talk back.

This is a small, perhaps insignificant poster, yet the concept behind it is real and endemic to the nation’s approach to education. It appears that, rather than turning out competitors, the education establishment wants to turn out its particular vision of moral people. This talk about values is ironic because the values that could be emphasized in public school include building a work ethic and learning to be patient, honest, polite and respectful, learning to work together, to have integrity and to show self-restraint. Other than as it relates to academics, the “values” movement is a complete distraction from the job at hand. It helped create schools in which the focus is not on learning.

Many perfectly capable 4th, 5th and 6th graders can’t do basic arithmetic or work with fractions. They turn in schoolwork every week that’s a small, silent tragedy. With all of this talk about values and self-esteem, no one seems to question the devastation wreaked on the self-esteem of students who aren’t being taught basic skills.

In 2006/2007, that devastation appeared to have little effect on how this elementary school organized its schedule. Despite low pass rates on the state tests:

  • At the end of the college basketball season, students were allowed to watch basketball on television in the classroom.
  • The students attended an assembly in which a tape of American Idol contestants exhorted them to sell a product to raise money for the school.
  • Students celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday by spending an entire morning listening to a local author talk about his new book.

I went in the week of Dr. Seuss’s birthday to tutor 4th graders in math, and the teacher told me there was no time for math tutoring. She had to take her class to two huge assemblies that week, and she couldn’t fit the tutoring in. I stood there, staring dismally at the piles of math homework I’d graded the previous weekend. What could I do? I went home. Another day, the children were having a birthday party for the student teacher. I went home. Another day, they were having a party for the teacher of the class they partnered with. I went home. Another day, they were having a party for their own teacher. I went home.

  • In 2006/2007, there were computer classes, character classes, assemblies, class parties, fun events, a field trip, days off and late starts.
  • Children got to play games on the computer during “free time.” As I collected them to help them with their math homework, I had to peel them away from the computer, and some of them Did Not Want to Come.
  • At a PTA meeting, the principal rejected a parent’s request for a school spelling bee, saying that teachers had time for just 15 minutes of spelling per day.
  • There was also little time for science, geography, civics, interpersonal communication or math basics. There was barely enough time for lunch.

I’m not a Scrooge. I like fun. I want students to be happy. But in the quest for fun and happiness, the time left for actual learning is relatively tiny. And yet every day (except for late starts, holidays, long weekends and teacher training days), students spend approximately six hours a day at school. What are they doing?

In April 2008, Washington legislators decided they should be talking about people with disabilities. Legislators passed a bill called “Disability History Month” which requires schools to spend October recognizing the disabled. The signed bill says in part:

“Annually, during the month of October, each public school shall conduct or promote educational activities that provide instruction, awareness, and understanding of disability history and people with disabilities. The activities may include, but not be limited to, school assemblies or guest speaker presentations” (“Certification,” 2008).

Robert Crabb, a retired assistant principal, wrote a column about Disability History Month, saying:

“It’s very simple math. Start with six hours of instruction. Subtract however much time you want schools to spend on Disability History. Subtract the time you want them to spend indoctrinating students on moral issues or values. Take away the time needed for any other special agenda that sounds good. What’s left over is the time the school has to teach reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, health and all the rest. It’s a finite number of minutes” (2008).

Those few precious minutes are slipping away, leaving our children unaware of how uneducated they are. As legislators force schoolchildren to spend time acknowledging various groups of people, they’re interfering with the very process that would allow those groups to succeed in life.

This week, I wandered over to the elementary school to take a photograph of the poster in the bathroom. As I turned around, I noticed a poster on the opposite wall. This poster purports to quote Mark Twain, and it says, “Knowledge without experience is just information.”

I agree in principle with that statement, but I would add this as a corollary: “Experience without knowledge can be dangerous.”

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "So many distractions; so little time." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

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