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Statistics: The Treacherous Task-Master

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Now that summer is long past and those of us who toil in the vineyards of public education are back at it, I could not avoid being reminded of how frustrating some aspects of that toil can be. All the more hollow and misguided does some of the rhetoric in educational journals seem; usually the name of the author is followed by some impressive title, implying an unhealthy distance from the real world of public education. If I seem to sneer at what looks more and more to me like ivory-tower logic, it is because I cannot imagine how some of its more articulate proponents might function in my vineyard.

Why do I fume? I am a lowly high school English teacher in an urban high school, trying to stimulate intellectual growth among hundreds of teenagers who have come into our school several grades behind in their reading, writing, and math skills. This means that in four years we are expected to turn hundreds of young people who are functionally illiterate, in both English and math skills, into mature, literate adults. This at the same time that we are teaching them how to protect themselves from AIDS, enlightening them about everything that is politically correct, and carefully cultivating their self-esteem.

Innovations abound. How can we despair with think tanks, consultants, and high-minded reformers giving us whole language, collaborative learning, ungraded learning experiences, portfolios, etc. etc.? Please do not misunderstand. I welcome innovation. I am grateful for any exciting new strategy that comes along and I am anxious to try it if it sounds promising. It is gratifying to discover new and practical methods of cajoling students into learning. Heaven knows, we can use all the help we get. I like to think I am still far from being afflicted with terminal cynicism.

On the plus side, I still cannot resist a pedagogical challenge. I believe intensely in the magical power of the human brain, even in the head of an adolescent who has spent the last four to 10 years being told, in a hundred different subtle ways, that it's O.K. not to learn, for fear his self-esteem might be dented. I still experience an adrenaline surge when a youngster who has always been a poor English student and hated reading tells me he couldn't put down a book. I still drool inwardly when the light of comprehension breaks on the faces of my students. And when they say, "You're hard, Mrs. Schwartz; you force us to think.'' I know I am still in the right line of work.

I also know there are no simple solutions to the problems that plague our educational enterprise. But there are two very basic tools which many decisionmakers seem to have discarded: time and money. Unfortunately, they have been replaced by something very dangerous: statistics.

Two significant events at my school occurring within the first two days of the term, precipitated this Commentary. The first was that our principal noted at the opening faculty conference that (1) the city's university system has been complaining that thousands of high school graduates in our city enter the university so drastically deficient in the most basic academic skills that it is impossible to provide all the remediation needed. And employers in the private sector are bemoaning the alarming lack of those same basic skills among the city's high school graduates. In short, we are handing diplomas to youngsters who have not learned what they need to learn to qualify as responsible adults.

The second event concerned me personally, along with two or three colleagues in my department. Taken in context with the first event, it is bone-chilling. The superintendent of our district projected a goal to improve the passing statistics in his district; he naturally apprised our principal of this concern, who in turn reproached our departmental supervisor that some teachers in his department had generated unacceptable passing statistics last term. In what he termed as "a highly professional conversation,'' our supervisor scolded us, individually, for our unacceptable statistics, and advised us that he would be closely monitoring our classes and insisting on "failing letters'' and "telephone calls'' to parents of failing students.

It is common practice among some of our colleagues, either out of elitist contempt for our working-class and welfare students, or weariness of dealing with a misguided and unreasonable administrative bureaucracy, to pass at least 75 percent of their students--some never pass fewer than 90 percent. Needless to say, this policy is never questioned, but rather encouraged. Am I whining? Am I making excuses? I invite observers to think what they will; my bureaucratically crippling punishment is not really the issue here. Certainly those of us who adhere to our requirements are being harrassed; there is no other way to describe such administrative heavy-handedness.

But the deeper meaning in this tragedy of errors should be clear to any sane, responsible, thinking adult. At no time during the conversations with our supervisor did he even once address classes; just a sickening repetition of the word "statistics,'' and how he feared dire consequences to his own status if he didn't succeed in getting us to improve our statistics. Meanwhile, in a city which had to open five new schools this fall, the educational budget not only was not expanded, it was actually cut. Students who need to make up courses may not do so this term, because there are not even enough of those courses to accommodate all those who are required to take them for the first time.

Certainly, bullying teachers into lowering their expectations and "improving'' their statistics will not solve this problem, unless we are more interested in getting students off our registers than in seeing to it that they learn all that we are duty-bound to teach them. One important ethic we try to teach our students is the value of deferred gratification--the old work ethic and the rewards of patience coupled with diligence and determination. Most adolescents operate on the principle of instant gratification; they want what they want now and are not willing to wait. They make judgments on the basis of what they see on the surface here and now and are not willing to probe more deeply into a situation. What a shame that our off-site education officials are guilty of the same immature short-sightedness.

When a district superintendent visits a school, he looks into a sparsely populated classroom and assumes that the teacher is not doing his job. Down the hall is a better attended class; obviously, Teacher B is a better teacher than Teacher A. Perhaps. On the other hand, co cld be quoteboxthe most unpopular teachers in most high schools are usually the ones with the highest expectations. Because they are in the minority, their credibility is undermined by colleagues who make smaller demands on students.

In the same way, looking at passing statistics tells less about what students have learned than what teachers are pressured into saying they have learned. If this were not so, we would not be confronted with such alarming deficiencies among the nation's high school graduates. Taking the argument a tired step further, we are reproached that if we insist on higher expectations, dropout rates will soar. Those who advance this argument either have forgotten or perhaps never themselves learned about the importance of deferred gratification; the rise in dropout rates would level off soon enough, and the rewards reaped would far outweigh the initial losses.

Let us continue with the innovations. Trial and error is probably the most thoroughly time-tested method of progress. But let us not discard the precious lessons we should have gleaned from ages of trial and error: There is no substitute for time and patience, and the money it costs to apply them. Students need more time to learn the growing body of skills and knowledge necessary in their adult lives, and the off-site administrators, along with the students, need to learn the patience to see the enterprise through. Making hasty judgments on the basis of one-dimensional statistics will only exacerbate the problem.

Freda Schwartz is a teacher of high school English in New York City.

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