Classes will begin this week at UC Irvine, and for the first time in 20 years, I won't be teaching. If I were having any second thoughts about that decision, they were pretty much dissipated when I read a recent account of the welcoming speech made by the new superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District, David E. Brown.
Brown allowed as how his four major goals as superintendent would be: "A positive image, labor peace, good test scores and winning athletics."
When I realized that I would probably have had to teach remedial English in my writing classes to a fair number of Brown's ace students, it made my retirement from the classroom especially gratifying.
It also reminded me of a student I had from the Irvine school district a few years ago.
She was bright, eager, highlycharged--until I returned her first paper. It was bad from almost every standpoint. Sloppy grammar, superficial thinking, breathless writing. Since I had only 10 weeks with students, there was little time to say such things diplomatically, so my comments tended to be straight. These were, and I saw her cry when she picked up the paper and read them.
Half an hour later she phoned me in my office. She was obviously in a public pay phone. I could hear the sound of traffic in the background.
"I want to see you," she said tersely.
We set up a meeting, and she came in grim but no longer crying.
"I want to go over this paper with you in detail," she said, "and find out exactly what I'm doing wrong."
I liked that, and we did. From that moment, she began to improve--not dramatically, but steadily. Two weeks before the end of the quarter, she came in and told me for the first time that she was a high school senior who had been allowed to take one college-level class under an honors program in her school. She was carrying a virtually perfect grade point average, and was accustomed to getting straight A's and being told that her literary output should probably be carved in stone.
That's why my comments hit her so hard. She took them back to the high school teachers who had praised her so highly and asked them if my comments were fair and accurate. After a lot of prodding, her teachers admitted that the comments were technically fair but highly destructive to the psyche of a young writer. My student said, the hell with her psyche, she wanted to learn how to write well, and if my comments were accurate, why weren't they laid on her in high school?
Mostly she was told that her teachers felt that harsh criticism (a relative term: I didn't consider it harsh at all) might well destroy her creative juices. And besides, it wasn't merited when her work was contrasted with that of her fellow students. Her answer was that she was being ill prepared for what awaited her in college.
Which is exactly what appalled me about the new superintendent's welcoming speech. High school teachers have enough problems trying to keep education front and center. They work long hours, have too many students, too many classes, and too many papers to grade. Giving individual attention to students under such circumstances is difficult and sometimes impossible. That's why when students like the one described above show up, teachers tend to overpraise them because they really do want to learn.
High school teachers are taking a bum rap these days, and I don't want to add to it here. The fact that over the last decade, I've been increasingly getting students at UCI who don't know basic grammar, are hard pressed to write a single clear expository sentence, and tend to think in global generalities rather than tough specifics is not the fault of high school English teachers. It's the fault of a system that cares a great deal more about training than education and thus overloads its teachers in the interests of economy. And that attitude is compounded by school administrators who mouth those priorities and thereby undercut teachers who are trying--often against all sorts of odds--to educate their students.
I don't know Superintendent Brown, and I may be giving him a bum rap too. But his own words seem to indicate otherwise. A "positive image" is PR, pure and simple: selling the sizzle and to hell with the steak. "Labor peace" is a means, not an end.
"Good test scores" can be achieved without good education. I went through flight training with a 4.0 in ground school because I memorized and conned my way to good test scores without ever even remotely understanding the basics of flight. I suspect my student would have elevated the image of good old Irvine Unified with her test scores--but she couldn't parse a sentence. And putting winning athletics as a primary school district goal is to pander to the community instead of serving it.
Nowhere do I find a mention of education. Not even a back of the hand. If that's what the people of Irvine want, so be it--and God help us. I'm just glad I won't be dealing with Superintendent Brown's end product.