Saturday March 20, 2010

We understand that the teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island are unhappy about their mass firing but hanging President Obama in effigy, as a third-grade teacher did last week, didn't help anybody's cause. The president had angered teachers there by specifically endorsing the firings as an example of greater accountability, leading to the hanging of a foot-high Obama doll holding a sign saying "Fire Central Falls teachers." That was surely quite a sight for third- graders to digest. The teacher was given a "strong letter of reprimand," which may not have been that effective given that the teacher is about to be fired anyway.

It seems improbable that every teacher in the school is incompetent and deserves firing, but this action does provide an extreme example of how society tends to either underreact or overreact as it desperately tries to improve its schools. Inadequate standards are replaced by overly rigid standards in the form of MCAS, which encourages preparing for tests at the expense of educating, and devalues courses that don't lead specifically to the high MCAS scores that please state officials. Low graduation rates lead to an overemphasis on graduation at all costs, again to please state officials, even if it means graduating students who have no business owning a diploma.

A little more than half of the students in Pittsfield's middle schools made the honor roll last semester, which could mean the city is producing great students. Or it could mean that grading is so easy that we're becoming like Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Are the students learning good educational habits or having their self-esteem artificially inflated?

Frustrated teachers and administrators are likely to continue yo-yo-ing in search of answers because at the root of these problems is a society that doesn't value education all that much. Our culture is suspicious of intelligence and makes a virtue of ignorance. Instant gratification is demanded, sacrifice is shunned. Asking schools to be better than the society they are a part of is asking a lot.