The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.

 

 

 

I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Like You Mean It

Reblogged from Angelo State University’s Navigating Higher Ed blog:

Back when I was young and still played sports, a baseball coach told us our goal each day was to “practice like we mean it.” The idea, and it’s a cliché we’ve all heard before, is that championships might be won on the playing field but winning foundations are built in the weight room and at practice every day.

I’ve often thought we would be well-served to apply some athletic principles to academic activities.

Of course, it’s possible I just want to blow a whistle really loud during class and wear shorts to work.

The reality, though, is that hard work and intentionality transcend the activity in which you are engaged. There aren’t many jobs or hobbies where being lazy and haphazard helps you gain mastery. You might be the best athlete on the field or the smartest student in the class but if you aren’t putting forth your best efforts, you probably won’t achieve the success you want.

Hustle beats talent, every coach you’ve ever met will tell you, if talent doesn’t hustle.

We can apply the same principle to the classroom. Learning requires that we actively engage with the materials. Good grades might be earned on your exams or your essays, but the foundation for those scores is built in the daily classroom activities and at the library each night.

Learning, of course, is a complex mix of skills that often differ by discipline, but every academic subject requires that we read well. Certainly, first-year students (and anyone who has read this far into the blog) can read, but reading and reading well are two very different things. In fact, reading like a college student involves more than simply flipping the pages and getting to the end of the chapter.

Be Intentional

Reading can be fun, adventurous, wild, exciting, passionate and enlightening. We’ve all had that moment when a book, a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase captured our attention and our imagination. Reading can also be tedious, dull and (when you have eight chapters covering material you find about as exciting as clipping your toenails) disheartening.

Let’s face it. Sometimes reading can be about like shooting 100 free throws a day. The first 10 are exciting. Number 99? Not so much.

Practice, though, makes perfect and as readers we have to remember the reason we’re reading. Before you read, I tell my students, ask what you are trying to gain. Be intentional. Read your syllabus. Review your class notes. Why are you being asked to read this chapter? How is this information important and why do you need to know it? We might not be in control of what we have to read, but we can be in control of what we want to learn from the text.

Location, Location, Location

Where you read often matters just as much as how you read. Reading well requires that you focus your attention on the goals you set forth. If I had a dollar for every student who told me he concentrated better while listening to music, I would be sitting on a beach feeling sorry for everyone still sitting at their desks putting in a full day’s work.

If, I like to ask those students, I told you to learn the material by tomorrow or I will take your cell phone, smash it into tiny little bits, and send you back to junior high gym class, would you listen to music with the TV on while your roommates sit around playing poker and telling jokes?

One of the more important lessons incoming college students have to learn is that reading at this level is a high-stakes event. We have a compressed time frame and your professors expect you to read and retain information in a relatively short period of time. Since that’s the case, reading well necessitates that we find that location that allows us to focus all our energies on the words on the page.

No One Runs a Marathon on the First Day

I had a friend who, at 38, decided he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40. When he started training, he didn’t focus on distance. Instead, he ran for certain periods of time each day. The goal was to slowly but surely increase the length of time he could run. Doing so allowed him to also increase the distance.

Reading works the same way (and sometimes feels like a marathon). See how long you can read before you start thinking about food, your boyfriend, your roommate’s nasty habit of clipping his nose hairs each night, or what happened on “The Walking Dead” last night. When you get distracted, stop reading but try, each day, to extend the amount of time you can read while focused on the material. You’ll be amazed when the 10 minutes turn into an hour.

Look It Up

Since we haven’t smashed your cell phone yet, let that tiny little electronic brain serve you instead of enslaving you. Words have meaning and the people writing books choose words carefully. There’s no shame in not having a Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but there’s no reason to be lazy about it. Your library probably has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but Merriam Webster and Dictionary.com usually work pretty well, too.

Listen to Your Eyes

Reading should be an activity. Involve other senses in the process. If you read a particularly thorny paragraph, read it out loud. Find a friend to read it to you. Hear the words as often as possible.

Don’t stop there, though. When we read, we can often find meaning by visualizing the text. In my literature classes, I tell students to cast the roles and film the story in their heads. My colleague has students draw their thoughts. There is no doubt that words can confuse us, and we can get lost in the language within the chapters. When that happens, switch gears. Doodle your ideas, map out your confusion, and draw or listen your way to understanding.

Learning Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The other day in class, a student raised his hand and said, “I hate to be rude, but I don’t understand . . .” While I can’t speak for all professors everywhere, asking for clarification isn’t rude. Never be afraid to walk into class or stop by your professor’s office confused. If you are practicing hard and hustling, we want to help. Remember that your professors love this stuff. Being confused isn’t rude, but not working hard, then asking for help might be.

Read, Rest and Repeat

I’ve never met a good hitter who takes one swing during batting practice. Reading well, like hitting a fast-pitched softball, jumping hurdles, or setting a quick ball in the middle, takes practice, repetition and time. Make sure, I tell my students each semester, you have time to read, rest and repeat.

Most of all, though, I tell my students, you have to commit yourself to read like you mean it. After all, that textbook probably cost you (or your parents) a pretty penny. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of it.

New and Improved (?)

As any loyal (or disloyal) followers have noted, I haven’t posted in a pretty long while. My family can assure you I haven’t run out of things to say.

1-FrontCovBest-900

Coming Soon–click on the photo FMI

I have, though, struggled finding time enough to spout off.

Over the past few years, I’ve focused on essays of between 800-1000 words. Doing so allowed me to ramble my way in and out of clarity, but I also had the opportunity to re-introduce myself to the kind of academic writing my students needed to master. I was, for lack of a better cliche, practicing what I preached.

However, there is no denying that writing essays takes time. I tell my students every semester that the three keys to writing are practice, practice, and more practice. Like most skills, writing well is a product of habitually writing every day.

While I know some folks who can write well and write quickly, I’m not one of those folks. More importantly, though, I can’t write in loud places or if I’m interrupted. I have a friend out on Long Island who willingly (on purpose and everything) travels into New York to a particular coffee shop twice a week to write. I, on the other hand, rarely write at home if my family is around. Mind you, they respect my privacy and avoid my work area, but their mere presence in the house is distracting. Sitting in a coffee shop trying to write while Todd and Margot are ordering an Orange Mocha Frappuccino makes my head want to explode.

Likewise, I have a difficult time writing at work if I can’t disconnect the phone and shut the door. For instance, as I wrote the previous sentence a student called, wondering why her .380 GPA placed her on academic suspension. (Yes, the decimal is in the correct spot). The conversation was short, but the interruption breaks the train of thought. Resuming the blog, then, requires reading the previous sentences, reminding myself of my goal, and then getting back on those tracks headed, one hopes, in the same direction. Writing isn’t, as some might posit, a free flowing activity without structure or boundaries.

Certainly, we might draft haphazardly as we let thoughts spill out on the page, but a finished piece of writing is an articulation of our ideas and thoughts–our attempt at giving meaning to some thought or organizing some moment in time via language. Writing, for lack of anything better to say, is a search for truth through metaphor, symbol, and structure.

One of my problems (and my excuse) for the last year or so is that I was director of our Faculty Development Center, director of Faculty Mentored projects, teaching classes here and there, and trying to be a father and husband. Honestly, whatever truth I might have searched for was usually lost in a memo to someone who probably didn’t have time to read what I wrote.

Things don’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. While I’m no longer directing our faculty development center, I’ve recently been tagged as the last person standing (everyone else took that proverbial step back) as our interim Dean of the Freshman College. I don’t see much uninterrupted free time in my future. In fact, I’ve had three other interruptions since the paragraph above.

Time or not, though, my plan is to return to blogging with a new and improved (?) approach. Gone will be the long essays that might take me all day (or all week) to write. Instead, this blog will become a quick-hit aggregate of stories that interest me in any given day. I’ll begin linking to articles, videos, or other electronic items and offering pithy (and hopefully witty) commentary that might offer insight or incite outrage. I’ll begin taking note of books I’m reading or stories I’m teaching. Time permitting, I’ll do some flash reviews as I go.

Ultimately, though, the goal is a more regular interaction with blogging and an attempt at creating some order and organization to my thoughts and ideas in a shorter form. I’m sure the occasional long essay might appear, but I suspect those will be fewer and farther in between.

First, though, the next week or so will be an act of shameless self promotion on my part. One of the side benefits of writing the blog every day was a burst of creativity and discipline as a writer. Over the years, I’ve written (and published) a few short stories. Last Christmas, I revised those stories and produced a few original stories, submitted them to Lamar University Press, and we’ll see Love Is Not A Dirty Word and other stories on bookshelves in about a month. Feel free to click on the photo above and pre-order your copy.

Over the next few days (or weeks), I’ll be posting the first 100-200 words of each story to wet your appetite (or spoil your lunch). I’ll begin each post with a brief story about where the story originated, but then we’ll let the tale take over. After you read the openings, if you want to find out the rest of the story, you’ll have to pony up the bucks or convince your local library your town needs a copy.

And trust me, you really want to know why Love is Not a Dirty Word.

Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

Celebrate the Small Victories

I’ve often thought we should treat academics a little more like athletics and last night watching the National League Playoffs reinforced that idea. I’ve been conferencing with my first year composition students on their second essays. Three days of repeating concepts I’ve been discussing for 2 months makes me question my teaching ability (and my sanity), but I like to meet with the students to individualize the comments. Here, I might say, is a spot you need to work on. We can talk through a process that might work for each student.

Meeting one on one, though, also lets me point to small successes (and sometimes they are very small, mind you), but these little victories are easy for students to overlook when they get focused on the final result. We’ve trained them, it seems, to focus on the end result at the expense of the small tasks that get us to the finish line.

As the Giants stormed the field after Travis Ishikawa’s walk off home run last night, we could see the unbridled enthusiasm of a job well done, but we saw that same excitement throughout the game. Every time a player performed the crowd celebrated in the moment. The tension was palpable even in my living room 2000 miles away and every single play mattered. Imagine, I thought to myself, if my first year composition students could generate such enthusiasm every time they wrote an insightful thesis sentence or a well-developed paragraph instead of being obsessed with the final grade.

We see this celebration week after week in sports. Football players chest bump after a hard hit, soccer players high five after a great pass, baseball players tip their caps after a diving catch–Imagine how different sports might be if we waited until the end of the season to celebrate these moments. Last night’s crowd would only cheer after the game when we found out if that diving catch in the second inning helped the Giants win. Instead, we celebrate in the moment not months later after we have a chance to average out the plays to see if they players made progress, find out if they were consistent, or see if they can perform some routine plays in a high stakes tryout. Sure, we might say to Adam Wainwright, you threw strikes all year, but we need to test you one more time to make sure the previous 25 starts weren’t a fluke.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this idea before, and Bill James, in his Slate article “Verlander and Shakespeare” makes a similar argument, wondering why we are so good at producing athletes yet so bad at producing writers. He argues we should begin identifying writing talent earlier and creating opportunities for those kids to earn money and receive recognition quicker. Doing so would create competitive advantages for kids and, he implies, help us see writing as something worth developing. In essence, we should, James argues, begin treating elite writers the way we treat elite athletes.

There’s a lot to like about James’ argument and I’m always amazed how shy we are in our schools about celebrating superior writing and other academic achievements. Understand that I’m not talking about overall, long term academic achievement. We have dean’s lists and honor societies. Schools have banquets at the end of the year celebrating top 10 percent students and other academic achievements. These are often formal, sophisticated affairs where we treat academic achievement with a kind of gravitas we think lends it importance. Polite clapping isn’t exactly infectious enthusiasm.

Grades and academics are, we seem to say, above emotion, as if somehow and for some reason intellectual achievement is devoid of passion. More importantly, as James points out, we celebrate academic achievement after the fact with end of the year awards or recognition at graduation. Delayed gratification that leads to apathetic dissatisfaction.

I recognize the larger cultural context and the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people assume a smart kid is athletically inferior or an elite athlete lacks intelligence. Athletes and their supporters who mock non-athletes with superior (and often threatening) comments annoy me to no end, but I’m just as frustrated by intellectuals who refuse to recognize the value of athletics within the larger cultural pantheon of human identity. Sports matter and I have little patience for those who dismiss athletics (and athletes) as irrelevant simply because we celebrate their success more than we deify great writers or brilliant mathematicians. Intelligence and athletic ability aren’t mutually exclusive.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewarding long-term achievement and consistent academic excellence is great. Straight A students have proven they value the life of the mind and they have the discipline to work for excellence. They are the little mini-Derek Jeters of the academic world and we owe them our respect and sometimes understated, sophisticated humility befits the serious life of the mind.

But, we also need to let our bacchanal tendencies out of their cage a little more often in the classroom. It’s time for us to stop shying away from their daily intellectual successes and begin celebrating more like athletes.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m talking about pen flips after we turn a phrase, fist pumps when students ace that test, and even end zone dances when you know you’ve nailed that lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Booyah! The l=2w + 3, biotch! Come back when you have some real algebra questions.” Spike the pencil to the ground and strut out of the room.

“I got your rhetorical devices right here! Let me know when you have topic where I have to be critical and think, cuz right now you’re just embarrassing yourself.” Flip the pen and high five the class as you go out the door.

I’m not talking about a Tiger Woods fist pump for turning in papers or putting names on the paper. We don’t chest bump just because the off road bike rider follows the trail to the end or when the volleyball player stays in the proper rotation. We celebrate beating the time trial for that section or earning the point that serve.

Passionately recognizing success isn’t about rewarding people for doing the ordinary. Do average work, and you don’t get the victory hug.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to start spiking the chalk after an insightful comment and pumping our fists when the numbers all fall into place during class. After all, if it’s okay for the baseball player, it should be okay for the scientist too.

Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)