Education in Chicago: Reason to Cheer: Common Sense About Schools From Thinking Observers

An attentive reader who's followed this blog since last May might be excused for believing that I'm only interested in carping, criticizing, and sneakily painting a flattering portrait of myself as a person superior to the incompetents who people my columns.

'Tain't so.

(Of course, I'm miles ahead of most college and university presidents. And I'm a much smarter and more valuable person than all college, high school and pee wee football coaches without exception. I can give useful tips to high school guidance counselors and principals. And as for my assuming an air of modesty when I compare myself to school district superintendents and other useless educrats ... please.)

But, I'm painfully aware of how little I really know about urban schools, and how much I have to learn. Why? Because I read the newspapers, and I can see from the testimony of others how blinkered, partial, and wrong many of my views are.

For proof I need look no farther than the May 20, 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal. The letter writer is Lincoln Smith, parent from Seattle, and his subject is the essays needed to complete college admissions applications:

Should 17- or 18-year-old high school students who have lived with parents and siblings their entire lives really be expected to have the richness of life experience to write a meaningful essay on some of these [assigned] topics? My answer is no.

In my view, the college essay is really a test of a mother's or father's writing and editing skills, something that the college administrators don't seem to understand.

Of course! Damn! Why didn't I think of that?

Reader, you know Mr. Smith is right. And I, too, am right to feel chagrin and envy because Smith beat me to the punch by pointing out a hitherto-unnoticed but obvious fact, one full of significance: Admission-application essays are ghost-written bunk.

The inevitable conclusion: Get rid of the admission essay. It means nothing.

Another reason for dumping it: the forced academic whimsy and labored cuteness of the "creative" essay topics thought up by a certain former head of admissions at the University of Chicago. They make me grind my teeth just thinking about them.

And by doing this, we'll thwart those odious helicopter parents. We now know they're helping their pampered offspring cheat their way into Princeton.

Here's a letter to the editor which appeared in The Chicago Tribune two weeks before (May 5, 2009) the letter above. The writer is Joseph Bauers, from Champaign-Urbana, who describes himself as "a retired teacher with 33 years' experience in Illinois schools."

Mr. Bauers had read the April 28 Tribune "Commentary" piece on "Forcing public schools in Illinois to measure up," written by Jim Edgar, the former governor of Illinois, and William M. Daley. Their op-ed aroused Mr. Bauers' just ire:

Education in our state may be depressing; more depressing, though, is how out of touch these veteran politicians [are] ...

... The authors lament the poor performance of Illinois students and suggest that if we had more 'top quartile' teachers working with low-achieving students, we could dramatically improve results.

Well, perhaps.

How we determine which teachers are top quartile and then how we attract more of them to work with poorly motivated students are points ignored.

Nowhere do they mention the money it might take to lure the best and brightest into public education.

(As he reads this, Bill Sweetland cheers wildly, waking up many older people in his Hyde Park apartment building.)

That's the hard part; being politicians they are skilled at avoiding the hard part.

But most grotesque is their single sentence suggesting that the state must engage parents of at-risk students to involve them in the process.

To anyone who has actually worked with such students, this is quite obvious.

Doing it is another matter.

Unmotivated, unprepared students coming from homes in which education is not valued provide a challenge that even the best teachers often cannot meet.

(Raucous profane bellows of approval by Sweetland. Will his downstairs neighbors call the police?)

Mr. Bauers, will you allow me to shake your hand if I am ever so fortunate as to meet you? You have said with finality what needed to be said about the ignorant, misleading, bloated, orotund, bombastic phrase-making of Edgar and Daley.

Readers, have you ever wondered why intelligent politicians like Jim Edgar and William M. Daley routinely talk nonsense about schooling? I have.

Neither Edgar nor Daley is stupid. Why, then, do they blather just like the dean of some university school of education? And it's not just these two. All politicians do it.

Even President Barack Obama, the most intellectual president since Woodrow Wilson.

That's right. I said it.

Even Barack Obama occasionally spouts windy, empty educationese. (Full disclosure: I am an extravagant admirer of President Obama. I voted for him last November and I'd do it again con amore.)

Both Obama and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, have said that the U. S. must increase the number of graduating students in its two-year colleges by some ridiculous number, I think by five million, by the year 2020, so as "to lead the world again in number of two-year college graduates."

This, when right now 60% of those who attend these institutions receive remedial instruction in either English or math, or both, and half drop out before earning a degree.

No, Mr. President, first we must make sweeping fundamental reforms in our lower schools. For the first time in our history.

We must make our lower schools much harder for all students -- bright, middling, and mediocre.

And that, as Mr. Bauers points out, will be one tough job. It will take big money and just as important, it's going to demand will power that we can't seem to muster, even after being told repeatedly by experts and commissions that we face disaster if we don't act.

But the question remains: Why does President Obama sometimes talk about education in the conventional political-orator blowhard tone he very carefully avoids on all other subjects? I have no answer.

(Next post: More extraordinary common sense on schools from ordinary citizens)