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Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Long As It's Black" and the Industrial Undead

When Henry Ford told a newspaper reporter that his customers could have a Model T in any color they wished, "so long as it's black," he was speaking as the foremost authority on industrial production.  The entire industrial era was predicated on the belief that uniformity and interchangeability were the key to efficient design.

It was at the ascendancy of the industrial era that our public school system was born. The main thrust of public education through most of the early 20th century was to prepare their products for consumption by the industrial world.  The focus of education for most students was obedience, basic skills, and a willingness to work.  There were, of course, exceptions, but for the most part the Factory Model School system was just that -- a practice factory for pre-workers.

It was only after Sputnik in 1954 that significant effort was channeled into creating a crop of young Einsteins and Oppenheimers to help us compete with the USSR.  This white, middle-class,Talented Tenth were the recipients of greater funding, more support, and greater encouragement than the remaining 90% of students.  This was the birth of honors classes and public school tracking.  The Talented Tenth took Trigonometry instead of Woodshop, Physics instead of Autoshop.  Their educations were focused on college because they were the great hope for the future of capitalism.  The rest were still going to work in factories.

And then the industrial era ended.

And then the USSR collapsed.

But we didn't change the schools.  They are functioning zombies from a world long dead, and they are in fact eating our brains.

It's not that we don't know what we want from our schools in the post-industrial era.  If you aggregate the body of notions regarding what we should be doing in schools, it comes out like this:

We need our schools to create adaptable, versatile, knowledge workers who will have the capacity to move between careers as the market changes.  Our schools need to create graduates that have a strong foundation in basic skills that allow them to be competitive with workers in other post-industrial countries and they need to be able to do this with all students, regardless of race, class, color, gender, or religion.

We know what we want, but we sure as hell aren't doing it.


We say that the modern worker must be adaptable and versatile, willing and able to change careers 5-8 times in their lifetime.

But we require extensive schooling and certifications for even the most menial positions, making it difficult or impossible for anyone who is not wealthy or well supported to change careers once they are established.

We say that our schools need to produce knowledge workers who are resilient problem solvers with a strong set of basic skills.

But we hamstring our schools with extensive, highly specific, knowledge standards that become the basis for the entire assessment of the institution, limiting their ability and desire to let their kids explore and solve problems.

We say that every child needs to have access to a quality education.

But we define quality education so narrowly that only successful college-preparatory schools meet the standard, implying that the only acceptable future for any child is a college education -- a political, demographic, social, and intellectual impossibility -- and tell all other schools and children that they are failures.

We say we need our students to be able to compete with the rest of the world

But we insist on local control of schools and then watch the localities slash education funding and add ridiculous mandates to the curriculum.  This doesn't happen in Japan and elsewhere because they have national education systems.

And then we're surprised when we continually pump educational products into the marketplace that seem brainless and that certainly aren't what we ordered.  No shit.

Instead, why don't we try this:

Eliminate the specific standards.  Students don't really need to know all 14 points of Wilson's 14 point plan, and if they need it, they can look it up.  What students need is the ability to look things up, and we suck at teaching that.

Eliminate the high-stakes multiple choice assessment.  Replace it with a battery of research and problem solving situations where students must prove that they are capable of accessing, self-teaching, and demonstrating learning from multiple disciplines and then applying the result in a real-world situation.

Bring back high school vocational training.  All of it.  Incorporate much of what is done in for-profit career colleges in vocational curriculum in the high schools.

End the "as long as it's black," belief about how schools should be.  We allow very limited variation in methodology in public education and absolutely no variation in expected outcome.  How on earth are we going to produce workers who are resilient and adaptable if they've all been forced to do exactly the same things for the first 18 years of their lives?   Set a minimum bar for basic skills and then allow for a diverse marketplace of schools that offer a diverse set of outcomes.

Federalize school oversight.  Not through punitive benchmark-based rigid tests, but through the process already in place through the school accreditation agencies.    Have each school set their outcomes under the supervision of the agency and have each school, under the direction of the agency, develop a curriculum to meet their stated outcomes.

Define quality education more broadly.  We cannot sustain a situation where every student must go to college.  Not only do large numbers not want to go, the reason that a college education is meaningful is because not everybody is able to do it.   People who work in the trades are equally as valuable and have the same (and oftentimes greater) earning potential and we need them a hell of a lot more than we need another communications major.   As long as we spend the money and the energy necessary to ensure that every community has both options and quality, we will be better off.  We are no longer in the industrial age and we don't need 90% of our educational products to have the exact same skills.

But all that would take money and political will, so I don't hold out hope.  Not right now.

But the zombies are still eating our children's brains, so our nation needs to either pony up or lower our expectations.

Of course, if the modern Know-Nothings take over, it's all a moot point, anyway, so disregard this post under a Perry Administration.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Facebook and The Slaughterhouse Principle

Blogger's note:  I apologize in advance for torturing a metaphor.

Just so you know, Facebook isn't about to charge us.  The warnings of our well-meaning colleagues, friends, family, and long-lost classmates regarding the impending $9.95 per month calamity, which are cute in an "Oh my, I thought you knew..." sort of way, can be ignored.  But that doesn't mean they didn't appear.

When my news-feed filled up with the ALL-CAPS warnings I thought about responding, but I couldn't think of a way to do it that wasn't embarrassingly patronizing.  Then a friend posted this:

It's cute because it has pigs in it, it's meme'y enough to viralate its way through the FaceBook, and it's simple enough that it might even permeate the veil of subscription-inspired dread that perpetually cloaks the more distant regions of our friends lists and save us from future adrenaline-soaked updates from the ALL CAPS Cassandras who there reside.

But the underlying message is more important than just FaceBook.  The principle at work here is one of the foundational principles of market economics and it is also one of the least understood.

Resources have value because they hold the two traits necessary:  Scarcity and Demand.  Gold is valuable because people want it and there is a limited supply.  Air is free because even though people need it, there is plenty to go around (at least until the CAA is gutted), and Dog Shit is free because even though the supply is limited, the demand is nonexistent.

So all resources have value and therefore if a resource is being utilized, it is costing somebody something.  In the case of FaceBook, the true value is in the advertising and marketing knowledge and so the consumers of the marketing information are footing the bill.  The user interface of FaceBook is simply present so that we will voluntarily tell them who our friends are, where we live, where we work, and what we think of Justin Beiber.

So, remember:  Whenever we are receiving a valuable service or product at no charge to us, we are not the consumer, we are the product.  Cows eat free at the slaughterhouse.

Cows eat free at the slaughterhouse.

Whenever we mistake an enticement for a service, we are unwittingly participating in our own exploitation.  Sometimes, this is fine.  If we don't mind having ads tailored to our status updates (if you ever want to amuse yourself, make a status update that includes the words 'freedom,' 'government,' or 'economy' and watch the Ron Paul ads blanket your page), then the slaughterhouse principle is benign.  

But this principle is at work in places other than the international online cocktail party and its effects can be pernicious.  This is especially so in situations where the cow pays a nominal fee to participate in something, but is unaware that the true cost of the slaughterhouse is footed by somebody who wants their meat.  That nominal fee convinces us that we are the customers when, in reality, we are only a product that helps defray its own cost.

Public Schools are a fine example.

The average student is very aware that public schools are supported by tax dollars and they'll tell you so if they feel mistreated.   Parents are generally even more aware of this than the kids are.   They have paid their nominal fee and therefore believe that they are the client.  But they're wrong.

Here in California, each student is attached to $6,300 which, if the student attends school each day for 180 days, the state gives to the school.  When this money is combined with the other few small remaining shreds of site-directed school funding, the amount being spent per student hovers somewhere around $7,500 depending on where in the state you are and in what school.

In order for a family of a schoolchild to truly be a "client" of the school system, they would need a family income of approximately $85,000 each year in net income.  These families have the resources to ensure that, since they are the client, their little products receive services that will ensure their purchase. Very very few families are clients of the public school system in California.  Those who do not meet this bar... their children are products, too, but their parents aren't the clients, so...

Who is?

As a nation, we are quick to pull out the "Our Children Are Our Future" flag and ball it up in our fretting fists as we bewail the state of public education while gesturing frantically with our free hand at the latest survey that shows that even our high school graduates can't point out Iowa on a map or identify the purpose of the legislative branch, but we aren't the clients either.

We may purchase one or two of these products to work in our small business or to perform some form of contract work, but we're small potatoes.   We're retail.  Who's the wholesaler?

Wal-Mart? Amazon?  KB Homes? Microsoft? Google? The US Army? The California Penal System?

Each of these will purchase a chunk of the product, but even together they won't ever come close to clearing the shelves and that's the problem.

Nobody ordered these products and nobody gave specs for their manufacture and so nobody is purchasing them and nobody wants to foot the bill.

We have a huge number of cows in the slaughterhouse, but nobody wants to buy the meat so we complain about the cost and the smell.  We blame the cows and the slaughterhouse itself for the problem.

"If these cows were of higher quality, people might want to buy them."

"If they'd just cut the meat better, then people would want to buy it."

Another basic lesson in economics:  When demand falls, supply falls, but before it falls, product tends to rot on the shelves for a while.

There is a solution, but its political feasibility is tenuous at best because it is straight up socialism:  When the private sector falls short and a market collapses, it is up to the government to step in.  We did it for banks and for the auto industry.  We do it for defense contractors every budget debate.  Now is the time to do it for public schools.  

Here's what it would take:
  1. A massive public works and infrastructure investment along with a massive expansion of public sector jobs of all collar-colors.
  2. A massive reinvestment in public schools under the idea that the the nation as a whole is the consumer and that, therefore, public schools need to provide products for all elements of our society, not just low-wage service workers, soldiers, prisoners, and professionals.  This means a return of vocational and technical programs, a new investment in programs like home economics (yes, Home Ec., I'm serious)
  3. A massive shift away from uniformity in curriculum, delivery, methodology, and assessment.  Since we don't have a single dominant work setting, there should no longer be a single dominant aesthetic for schools.  
This would cost billions of dollars and it would swell the size of government back to where it was under Ronald Reagan and it would mean that our taxes would have to be raised, and raised on some elements of our society considerably.   It still wouldn't ensure that our precious products would find homes, but it would surely get more of them off the shelves than the current system.  It's no guarantee and it would cost us lots of money, but then again:

If we are receiving a useful service and we are not paying for it, then we are not the client.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Lost Cats and Right-Wing Anger

When we first moved to Los Angeles, our cat, Ajax (from whom my name is derived), disappeared.  He had always been an indoor cat, having spent his entire existence in 425 square feet on the second floor and having only seen birds and other cats from windows and doorways, and even though he was a bit of a bruiser (We stopped going to the bathroom at night because it was too dangerous.  He was panther-sized, black, and strong and would stalk us mercilessly at night, pouncing and then wapping us hard across the Achilles tendon as we  dashed for the safety of the bathroom), we worried about him going outside.  He was sleek, big, and aggressive, but he was also dumber than hair.

When he disappeared, we decided to put up signs around the neighborhood.  We did them in English and in Spanish, transliterated directly because neither of us remembered much from high school.  Perdido Gato from Lost Cat.  It had a picture of him on it and a phone number.  We posted them.   Then we were reminded by a passer-by that, in Spanish, the adjective follows the noun.  With what we had written, what we wanted was loss that took the form of a cat.  A cat that was, in effect, Loss embodied.

Fortunately, that was exactly correct because we found him three days later under the house.  He had been there for days, crying softly next to an open vent.   Aside from getting lost under the house for days on end, he also predated on pumpkin innards and spinach at every opportunity.  If there was ever a lost cat, it was Ajax.

I love language.  Like most great things, it is as fun as it is useful and when I find myself using it well, it makes me feel oogy inside like almost nothing else can.  I write novels.  I write blogs.  I write poetry (but that's a secret).  And I talk.  I talk a lot.  I'm sure the captive-audience aspect of the classroom was part of the appeal for me and why I didn't go on to become a lawyer like I intended.    Since I loved language, I was fascinated by the difference in how Spanish and English dealt with states of being.

In English, we say "I am hungry," which implies that while we are undernourished, the state becomes the entirety of our identity.  In Spanish, "Yo Tengo Hambre," translates directly as "I have hunger."  The speaker's identity remains constant and is not displaced by physical, emotional, or social need like in English.

English is a language which forces its user's very identities to be supplanted by their own desires.

When we are hungry, it is who we are.
When we are tired, it is who we are.
When we are happy, it is who we are.
When we are angry, too, it becomes our identity.

And this is the problem identified so well by Daily Kos diarist, Mark Sumner in his diary entitled "Why Solyndra Signifies a Ray of Hope."  His main point, though hopeful, isn't what fascinated me.  It was his introduction in which he describes scenes from the Rush Limbaugh television show.  He gives us a fine exemplar of how, in English, our identity is our state.  Anger, on the right, is not simply an emotion, it's an identity.

They are anger.

It is not something that they have, along with a nice wardrobe, hunger, and faith, it is something that they are.

And they are angry at us.

Being angry at "liberals" and progressives is not about issues, it's about identity.  This means that the efforts we make to try and ameliorate their anger, or to re-channel it, simply exacerbate it.  When we say, "this helps you,too" and when we say "you are arguing against your own interests," their only response will be, "If you want it, we are against it because we are angry at you."

So what do we do?

How do you get somebody to willingly change their identity?  How do we get somebody from "I am angry" to "I am an American who feels frustration?"

I don't know.  I really don't.  If I had an answer, other people much smarter and more connected than myself would also already have it and they would be doing it and I would simply be saying, "Yeah.  What they said."    But they're not saying it and so I'm just lost.

But what I do know is that when we call ourselves progressives, they hear us say that we think they aren't good enough.  When we say we are liberals, they are angered by the fact that we are proud libertines.  When we say we want what's best for America, they hear that they are not it.

We can't stop saying it but we also can't simply allow 20-30% of our citizenry to stew on the sidelines.  That would be just plain dangerous.  We also can't let them have their way because they don't have a way of their own, they simply have the opposite of whatever we say.

This is why 27% of people with pre-existing conditions believe that our new healthcare laws will make them worse off.

This is why working class people are screaming for deficit reduction and reigned in government spending.

This is why workers are anti-union even as they drop like flies in Amazon warehouses.

This is why your conservative relatives argue that black is white (unless you say it, too, and then it's purple).

It's not about the issue, it's about you.

It's personal.


What do we do?   Please tell me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Fully Credulant Muse on Character Education

The article in the New York Times yesterday, entitled, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure," was a good read. In it, we are introduced to two schools, one private and highly competitive and one charter middle school that is filled to the tippy top with the types of students that historically have been doomed to failure by our current system.  Each school finds that success in life (and in college) isonly tangentially related to academic prowess and ismore likely to be indicated by character, which they define as set of 24 indicators that deal with ideas such as resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion.  The two schools change their foci to reflect a dual system of assessments that deal with both academic and character scores and discover what many educators already knew -- a dogged and curious student of moderate intellect will make it farther in school and in life than a bright student who cannot overcome obstacles and who doesn't feel any pull to investigate.

This is news in the same way that the wheel is news when it is discovered that the rectangles we've installed on the cart don't work very well.

What we are talking about are the honor codes that students from previous generations swore to uphold.

What we are talking about is the idea that creating a temporary bubble in a student's sense of self through inflated grades is destructive.

What we are talking about is the fact that an ability to do well on a test is not a testament to anything but test-taking skills.

We are talking about the idea that human beings are greater than the averaged sum of their grades.

What we are talking about is the citizenship score that was written next to the academic grade on my own report cards when I was a student.  Scores that were based on my willingness to try, my ability to work, my openness to my fellows, and my demonstrations of civic responsibility in the classroom and on the playground.

But it's not something we can just "bring back."  We are, I believe, too far gone to just walk it back up the line.  We are now generations removed from this idea and if we did manage to suddenly reset our educational system and produce a generation of ethically solid, hard-working, citizens, I'm pretty sure that the self-esteem generations that preceded them would not hire them.  Not unless they also had the proper credentials and certificates.

In the last thirty years, as character education and the attendant character that it instilled has disappeared from our society, we have replaced it with a new system that is now firmly ensconced and will be frustratingly difficult to dismantle.  We have replaced the individual assessment of character with the credential.  We actually do care more now about test scores and grades as a society than we do about the quality of the individual that produces them.

Character (as defined in the article) and diligence have become less and less of an expectation.   We have replaced a belief in the intrinsic qualities of our fellow citizens with credentials and certificates that, while not guaranteeing the quality of the employee, at least keep the HR department from taking the blame when some new hire turns out to be a shiftless and useless waste of a position.

We have become so risk-averse when it comes to our fellow citizens that we refuse to even look at them for jobs, no matter how good and how capable they are, unless they have a certification from an institute (we now trust institutions more than individuals, which is ironic in the face of the libertarian screaming in our current political scene) that states that the person is capable of the job and, if a person with a credential turns out to be completely incompetent, we shrug our collective shoulders and exclaim, "Well, they had a credential so we assumed they were competent."  And then it takes years of hard work to undo the damage.

This means that we are all, competent and not, spending many more dollars and many more hours proving our competence through coursework and tests and at the end, only the least competent have been weeded out, leaving all other players on an even field regardless of character.

We assess character through the ability pass a background check.

We assess character through loosely written recommendations from people we have never met.

And then we hire them based on their paperwork and an interview.

When I began teaching, my mentor teacher had been in the classroom for 25 years.  He had inspired generations of students, including my own self as a teenager, to do bigger and better things than we imagined we could.  He trained us how to think and how to reason and he was not alone.  There were other teachers, too, who inspired us to write and to think and to learn and not a single one of them had had to prove their subject matter competency through the CSET or the Praxis.  Not a single one of them had to pass the CBEST (The California version of the basic competency test for teachers, which is a ridiculously low bar by the way).  Not a single one of them had taken 60 units of post-baccalaureate coursework in education.  All but one of my best teachers in high school had stumbled into teaching on their way to other careers and stayed.  They were Mr. Hollands, each and every one.

Now, it is all but impossible to stumble in to teaching and we are worse off for it.  Character and ability alone don't cut it.

I was talking to a friend recently, who was considering making a switch from journalism to teaching.  She'd be a good one and she already works with a youth program and is successful there.  But she already has two masters degrees and is unlikely to want to go back to school again.  So she's probably not going to do it.  Our loss.

If we were still hiring on character and capability, she would be a teacher now.

Some will push back against this by arguing that, when hiring was a subjective process, employers substituted similarity to themselves for character.  It was true -- white men were more likely to think that other white men had character and competence so, since most employers where white men, white men ended up with most of the jobs.  White men.

This was certainly true and, without objective hiring standards, it might still be true, but I don't think it would be now.   And I don't think we're that much better off, anyways.  People on the outside of our proper society are no longer prevented access through simple racism and classism, but through the addition of multiple expensive and complicated hoops that must be navigated before one can even be granted an interview.

Many poor people are still prevented from becoming teachers.  They are more likely to become teachers' aides, instead; it's much less expensive and difficult to navigate the hoops.   My students set their sights on Medical Assistant, on X-Ray Tech, on Nurses' Assistant, on Legal Assistant, or on Lab Tech.  Each requires a certificate.  Each requires dedicated coursework, but none pay a living wage comparable to the profession they support.   Taking an entry-level job in a profession with the idea of  moving higher is impossible because one cannot simply "work their way up," anymore.  Not without further schooling.  Not without more and more expensive tests.  The fully competent worker who exudes resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion will forever be an assistant to somebody else so long as they cannot afford to buy access to the next hoop.

But if you're still worried about going back, you can stop.  We aren't going to collectively rip up or credentials and certificates.

But if we did manage to bring character back to schools, it's nice to imagine what we might be able to do with the rest of society.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cuphineous Debate

It all started at a staff meeting several years ago.   Something was being discussed and somebody was getting upset about something that seemed very important to them at the time -- which is what happened in most of our staff meetings -- and my good friend slipped me a note (you would think we wouldn't do things like that since we spend our days trying to keep others from doing the same, but we do) that said: "There is not a word in existence that truly captures the uselessness of this meeting."   She was right.  

For those not in education, you must understand that the only group of people teachers dislike more than administrators is other teachers.  Putting us in a room together and letting us talk freely can bring about UN quality frustration and resentment.    We, as a species, tend to be petty and competitive (and the higher up the educational ranks you go the worse it gets.  At the university level, educator toxicity is the stuff of legend), and we can't stand hearing each other whine about things that we are sure wouldn't be an issue if they were just not them. 

My friend and I discussed it on the way home.  Sometimes, even with the 750,000 words that already exist in English and the millions of potential adoptees from other languages, we still need a new word and this was one of those times.  

The word: Cuphineous  [Kew-fin-ee-us] (adj): An idea or a concern that is peripheral to the real problem but is dressed up in fancy clothes and trotted out for discussion instead of the real issue in order to preserve the feelings, work, ideology. or hidden limitations of the participants.

It seemed to sum up so much of what we sat through every week.  We would spend an hour discussing why students were "out of control," when the real issue was that some teachers weren't in control.  We would spend an hour listening to colleagues explain why they couldn't possibly do lunch supervision or patrol the sidewalks after school while losing sight of the fact that our students were currently unsupervised and getting into all sorts of shenanigans.  We would spend days preparing the school so it would look good for a site inspection from the district overlords instead of finding ways to make our school functional every day.  

Our discussions were cuphineous and cuphineous discussions are intended to be unproductive.  They are alluring distractions designed to protect the frightened.  It's so much easier to talk about something that is cute, containable, and easily identified than it is to talk about the deeper, more personally threatening issue underneath, so in a room typified by a lack of trust, cuphineous conversations were the norm.

The word began to seep into my colleague and my outside lives, too.  Cuphineousness was present everywhere vital conversations were being held and nowhere was it more present than in our national dialogue.

It's been years and not a day goes by when I don't think to myself, "cuphineous," as I listen to a news broadcast or read the newspaper or sit through a staff meeting (They're better where I am now, but we still have a tendency to cuphineate when things get too sensitive or too big) 

Any broad discussion of our current economy in the media is bound to be a cuphineous one.  Nobody wants to talk about the real issue because to talk about the real issue is to hit up against the unresolveable and immovable flaw in market-driven capitalism and the attendant political economy it creates.

Which is easier to get huffy about:  Federal Deficits or the concept that a market driven economy must forever expand into new markets in order to keep from collapsing and, when no new markets are available, it will inevitably contract or create an unsustainable bubble?  Federal Deficits have a number attached and if enough people think they care about it, we can probably make it smaller.  The tragic flaw of capitalism has no such simple solution.  So we cuphineously discuss the dangers of Deficits.   

As a species, we drift towards the cuphineous because they are the discussions that allow us to feel like we are getting somewhere without actually moving.  They are the discussions that we can drag out forever so we don't have to change.  They are a valuable defense of the collective ego and they protect the status quo, often long enough to prevent any possibility of promethean response to the real problem, creating a crisis that can only be resolved with a patchwork of reactive action that is then passed off as a solution.  

TARP, the stimulus, and the debt compromise come to mind as examples on the national level.  At our small school, the crisis usually presented itself in a 911 call or a threat of charter revocation.  And in each case, the discussors of the cuphineous then held up the crisis response itself as an example of the flawed thinking of those who tried to discuss the real issue that spurred the cuphineous chaff.

It's really enough to make one's head explode.  It helps to have a word, though, so the next time you find yourself getting worked up in a discussion about something and then you think to yourself, "why in the hell are we talking about this?!"  Just say to them, "This is all cuphineous to the real issue at hand."  They won't know the word and in the moment of confusion you'll create, if you move quickly, you might be able to get back to the real issue before they regroup.

It's worked for me in staff meetings.

Though I haven't had much luck with anybody who is convinced that the real problem of our time is federal spending.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Poor is a second language

"Why we gotta learn a language we already know?" I was asked today by Marvin, a student of mine.  He's a quick and clever young man who has been told by every teacher he's ever had that he's bright and has potential.  He's also on house arrest and a major player in his gang.  He has a quick mind and a hair trigger -- and he has trouble reading, writing, and speaking formal English.

This doesn't mean that he can't communicate.  He's an excellent communicator so long as he's able to be street about it, but he's not going to be able to get a job in an office or work in customer service, or hold any position that requires written and oral communications with middle class people -- he doesn't know their language.

It's the same thing I see with many of my Spanish speaking students.  They speak Spanish -- it's their preferred language for communication -- to each other, but even if they were in a Spanish speaking country, they would have the same trouble that Marvin does -- they don't know formal Spanish so they wouldn't be able to function in most non-menial positions.

Poor is a second language.

In 1996, the Oakland school board caused a national uproar by doing the right thing.  Like with most good things that cause national uproars, the good decision was walked back and apologies were made.  Most people who remember the Ebonics controversy from 1996 mostly remember that it was mercilessly mocked by people as diverse as Maya Angelou and Rush Limbaugh and was used as an example of just how far down the wrong track public schools had gone.  Only, it wasn't.  It wasn't a sign of the urban apocalypse.  It wasn't a sign of the death of America.  It wasn't the steep step down into the ghettification of our children.  It was a simple and pragmatic solution to one of the great problems facing urban (and rural) schools today:

When a child who grows up speaking street English (or street Spanish) is taught English as if they already know it, they don't learn it as easily or as fluently as they would if they were taught it using the same techniques we use with all other second languages.

When we teach an English speaker English, we base it on the assumption that they are hearing and experiencing proper English outside of school.  We base it on the assumption that the language in the home reflects that of the textbook, so we don't teach them about code-switching and we don't use situational communication tools such as role-playing and dialogues -- tools that we automatically enlist when dealing with children whose first language is Spanish, Hmong, or Swahili.

Instead, we teach English through reading, writing, and memorization of patterns that we assume are being re-enforced elsewhere.  They are not, so our children do not learn formal English and they fall behind and they don't understand why they are failing classes that are in and about the very language that they think they are using every day.  

"There are two kinds of English, Marvin," I explained, "The kind that you use -- we call that vernacular or 'street' English -- and the kind that we teach in schools, which we call 'Formal English.  Formal English is the language of business, it's the language of money.  It's the language of White people (my students understand 'white people' to mean 'rich people,' which really means anybody in the middle class or above.  I'm 'ballin'' in their eyes because I'm a teacher and I earn 'bank') and White people have the money.  They also don't feel comfortable with people who don't speak their language and don't fit in to their world, so those who don't learn Formal English are locked out of most opportunities.  Learning Formal English is the single most effective way to make sure that you can succeed in business."

"White folk do got the money, though, blood -- that's why we rob them," (actual quote) Marvin asserted, agreeing with me.

"You rob them, you make a couple hundred and you've got a short career.  You learn formal English and learn to work with them, you'll get much more, Marvin, because you'll have a skill they need."

He looked at me, waiting for me to go on.

"You speak street.  40% of our country speaks and acts like you do.  White people (read: Middle Class), they only ever know Formal English.  They only know how to act in their culture.  You?  If you can learn Formal English, you'll be bilingual and you'll be able to be a bridge between cultures.  Urban culture drives the marketplace, man, and businesses need people like you to help them get at it."

I probably oversold the potential, but Marvin got my point -- he gets every one of my points -- like I said, he's bright and quick and clever.   He's also decided that English 10A might be worth it.  I think I'm going to begin doing role playing and dialogues with my students in Advisory, too.   They all want access to the big pie and it seems pretty fucking unfair not to help them get it.