Class War

Marty Rochester wages war against the dumbing-down of public education -- even in the best of schools

"If you read the National Council of Teachers of English national standards, which Clayton English teachers swear by," he continues, "they reinforce the notion of inventive spelling, of sloppy imprecise use of language. At a Clayton Citizens Curriculum Council meeting, I mentioned that the NCTE awarded a prize to two authors for an essay in which they urged writers to intentionally make errors in the use of standard English conventions so as to protest the tyranny of the English language. I quoted that to a Wydown Middle School teacher, a leader in language arts in the district, and she refused to repudiate the quote."

One of Rochester's lesser quibbles is the application of "school-to-work" curricula for both public schools and vocational-technical academies. The heavy use of computers and hands-on learning and the emphasis on practical job preparation "are of the same one-size-fits-all cloth," he says. In that 2001 article for Schlafly's Eagle Forum, he wrote that "the anti-textbook, anti-lecture, anti-homework pedagogy being prescribed for the St. Louis Career Academy, a local alternative, vo-tech school ... is the very same model being pushed in world-class and college prep districts." (The St. Louis Career Academy was launched in 1996 in a federally mandated Career Education District as part of a desegregation order.) Rochester noted that "at Wydown Middle School, a School-to-Work consultant was brought in to talk to a class of students, 99 percent of whom will go to college, including Harvard, Yale and other elite schools, and proceeded to tell them they should not necessarily consider going to college, that there are many ways to have a productive life."

The one-size-fits-all claim, says Senti, "is absolutely untrue. That whole school-to-work thing is a buzzword for the right wing. They think there's a conspiracy by big businesses to control what kids go into."

Ryan Greis
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis
Amy Bautz
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

School-to-work is a peripheral point, Rochester acknowledges: "I certainly don't want to hang my whole spiel on that. I do recognize that many conservative groups are very upset, and I share that concern only to the extent that schools tend to treat all kids, whether college-bound or not, in the same mindless way. That not everyone should think of going to college is a valid message, but why would you send it to a heterogeneous classroom in which many kids are MIT material?"

You can almost hear the kids on the playground shouting, "Fight! Fight!" Yet in the education wars, there's no way to win; everybody comes with a singular bias, parents judge by their own kids' experiences and consensus is rare.

Rochester calls today's emphasis on so-called active learning -- in which students participate in class discussions, group problem-solving, and brainstorming -- the "Socratic method minus Socrates." The teacher who lectures these days is ridiculed as the "sage on the stage," he says, claiming that lecturing is taboo in Clayton. As evidence, he cites an article in the Clayton Curriculum Quarterly, in which a teacher said his colleagues felt they needed to apologize if they lectured.

But Senti says lecturing is "probably still the primary method" used in Clayton's classrooms. And Jossie Lake, a junior at Clayton High School, says her advanced-placement U.S. history class and her honors English class are both solidly lecture-based.

"They do still have very strong honors and AP courses," concedes Rochester, "but only because people like me have applied pressure.

"The very idea of factual knowledge is put down as rote memorization," he continues. "But if you can't remember something, that means you don't know it." He leans forward. "Educators take good ideas and go crazy -- like students doing 'peer editing' of each other's work, which is the blind leading the blind."

"Group editing is a good technique," argues Senti. "It doesn't mean the teacher doesn't grade the papers. It's just a technique for teaching writing --and there's nothing the Clayton district does better."

Nonetheless, Rochester remains convinced that Clayton is watering down its standards, trading rigor for multiculturalism and luring minority kids into AP and honors programs as a way of righting past wrongs of prejudice, poverty and disadvantage.

"Why is it that public schools are demeaning themselves?" he asks. "Why should working-class parents not have opportunities for their children to excel if they are very bright? Administrators rarely say they are eliminating honors courses -- they just say they are going to make them open to virtually anyone. I'm seeing this now with Clayton's AP courses. How can they be the ultimate capstone of academic challenge yet be doable by almost everyone? They're trying to square a circle."

Rochester recalls his younger son coming home and telling him about a brilliant African-American girl in middle school: "She was crying because the eighth-grade teacher had just told her not to worry about how she did on the exam to get into the high-school honors classes; the district wanted to see more African-Americans." The girl was insulted to the point of tears by that brand of reassurance. "Again, the policy is very well-intentioned, but I think there should be a standard all kids are expected to meet. Without that, we invite racial profiling."

Senti readily acknowledges that Clayton is trying to "close the achievement gap" and make its top programs more accessible and diverse. But that doesn't lower the assessment standards, he points out; AP tests, for example, are standardized, and they are scored off-site.

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