Scoring “Proficient” in Defenestration Avoidance

by Martin Harris

Ask your high school student of European history and/ or Latin about “defenestration” and he will explain to you that the term comes from two High Middle Ages events in Bohemia (the present Czech Republic) when kings first had such tossing-out-the-window executions performed on courtiers who professed any politically-incorrect opinions. In today’s non-kingly times, defenestration is now symbolic, not physical, and was exemplified in 2006 in its application by the Board of Trustees (the Corporation) of Harvard University to then-President Lawrence Summers. He was de-Prezzed for the verbal crime of speculating about possible reasons, other than male prejudice, for the scarcity of women in the top ranks of science.

Actually, the halls of ivy are pretty much gender-neutral in purging their professorial ranks of those who refuse to follow approved doctrine: there are now no economics profs at Princeton (so my young contacts there say; rebuttals would be welcome) inviting students to question the historical effectiveness (or not) of the Keynesian-deficit-spending-stimulus catechism, and Harvard itself quietly but successfully urged then-Prof Caroline Hoxby ( an otherwise valuable “two-fer” in affirmative action terms) to depart after she authored studies showing that the nearby availability of public school choice pressured K-12’s experiencing student departure to compete better by improving their instructional quality as a preventative measure. Even the University of Rochester, part of the public State University of New York system, found it necessary to cleanse itself of impure/incorrect thought by persuading Professor Eric Hanushek to seek a Stanford appointment, for his unwelcome analyses showing statistically that recent class size reductions in K-12 have raised teacher numbers and per-pupil costs but not student achievement. And within K-12, similar doctrinal-conformity pressures exist, which explains why highly competent teachers who could easily teach Reading and Math but are required to devote class time instead to various politically-correct ideologies are bitterly resistant to evaluation on the basis of student achievement test scores, which they know all too well aren’t good. In Vermont as in all other States, about 2/3 of students can’t make Proficient (roughly equivalent to functioning at grade level) in either essential skill, essentially because their teachers set a higher priority on avoiding personal defenestration. There is, however, a lone exception.

Where the required confession-of-educator-faith now requires denigration of achievement testing and advocacy instead for “creativeness and empathy”, Weathersfield Middle School English teacher Peter Berger does just the opposite. And in print. For his publisher, The Rutland Herald, his education-commentator role is the mirror image of that of Al Hunt for The Wall Street Journal, where for many years he served as the politics/economics-commentator, the WSJ Token Liberal-in-Print, exhibiting the viewpoint most readers wouldn’t embrace but should, at least, consider. Such isolated examples, curiously, retain their column-inches and aren’t defenestrated, not because they faithfully recite the party line but because they furnish reader-majority amusement by defying it. Here’s a sample Berger sentence: his target is the Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association, Kwok-Sze Richard Wong, Ed.D. (of course) whom he quotes as ‘‘there are regrettably too many teachers who think their task is to teach skills, such as math and science.”

Berger’s rebuttal: “…in contrast, when he (the Ed.D.) was an English teacher, he never believed that his job was to teach grammar and English. Yes, that’s right: an English teacher who proudly declares he didn’t teach grammar and literature.” And there’s more, using an actual Ed.D. quote: “ Rather than remain stuck in the 20th century and dwell on the skills-of-the-past like math, science, English, and social studies, we need to teach critical thinking, inquiry, communications, and community.” Berger’s defenestration -avoidance strategy: use the trendy edu-crat’s own words to discredit him before a reasonable audience.

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What the ASCA recites as “the new education” isn’t ASCA’s own invention but arose somehow as new doctrine during the less-than-soaring ‘60’s, the decade when New Math, new reading, new science, and, of course, a whole set of new non-academic but ideologically-correct doctrines became part of the curriculum, ranging from ecology and innovative marriage exposures to anti-business and pro-Gaia introductions, and including, of course, self-esteem enhancements enabling good feelings about poor literacy. There just wouldn’t be classroom time for all of these if the traditional focus on teaching all 36 symbols for Reading and Math remained on the lesson plan. As previously recited in these column- inches, the same overall objective-shift took place even earlier in the conferences of the National Counci l of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Sometime in the early ‘60’s, these various “new” curricula had apparently begun to show up to parents during the usual dinnertime adult-children conversations, which perhaps explains why, before the decade was out, DC politicians had instructed the Federal Education bureaucracy –then an office within Health, Education and Welfare, now a Cabinet-level Department—to develop, deploy, and publish the results of student achievement tests in all States, presumably in hopes (forlorn, as it turned out) that if, as suspected from parent/-voter complaints, student competencies were actually dropping, saying so in print would change things. Publication in the annual National Digest of Educational Statistics began with the first (1969) test cycle. For the next 31years, Reading and Math scores remained stagnant in the low 200’s out of 500, showing that 2/3 of students could no longer make Proficient in literacy or numeracy: K-12 educator response during those decades: zero.

But, in 2001 came the No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-110) with its new requirement that almost all students be brought to Proficient by 2014, that the profession rose in wrath against a new triad of enemies: the mere notion of –ugh– achievement testing, the violation of States’ Rights in such Federal interference, and the “unfunded mandate” inherent in any such unreasonably expensive demand. Vermont’s educators led the nation’s into a lawsuit claiming, inter alia, that nowhere in any educator’s job description is there any requirement or expectation that any percentage of students be actually educated into Proficiency. Such dismissive rhetoric as “tests don’t show the real inner students, and we ineffably gifted leaders shouldn’t be required to teach students enough to pass them by forcing them to memorize mere symbols for letters and numbers” have since become commonplace. The intrepid Berger demolishes his profession’s test-results-damage-our-image construct with this paragraph: “Once upon a time, common sense would have told us that, if children aren’t learning enough math, science, English, and history, the solution isn’t to shift our focus away from math, science, English, and history. That catastrophic strategy is precisely what reformers like the Director have been preaching for the last 40 years.” The full essay appeared in the RH 24 May issue. It demonstrates a real educator’s Proficiency in English, yes, and perhaps even more skill-demanding, Proficiency in avoiding defenestration by his less-than-peer colleagues.