Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Pleasure of Making Somebody Else Work Hard

In the NyTimes, Rigorous Schools Put College Dreams into Practice.

This is the story of an early college high school that Bard college has opened in Newark.  The early college model has so far been used for elite students who want to get to college-level work quicker; now Bard is trying the same model for disadvantaged kids in Newark.

Why does this article bother me?

1.)  Hard work is not always a good thing.

I love hard work; I could watch it all day.  (Yes, that joke is a million years old, but it's relevant.) 

Schools love to crow about making kids work hard, and most Americans, with our Puritan heritage, find it difficult to criticize work.  As a dissenter, I'm willing to ask:  is the work worth doing?  Is it well-designed, so the students actually learn something by engaging in it?

And even in a perfect universe, where the curriculum is well-designed and appropriate, and the assignments are useful and interesting, there is still such a thing as too much.  There are only so many hours in a day, and human beings are only capable of so much scholarly work at a time.  Are we burning kids out?  What do they no longer have time for because of the workload?

I find an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism when a white reporter tells mostly white readers about black kids working hard.  This is the population, of course, that white people like to criticize as "lazy", going all the way back to the days of slavery (gee, maybe people are less motivated to work when they're paid absolutely nothing.)    

2.)  Learning is necessarily sequential.

From the article:
Gone is the thinking that students must master all the basics before taking on more challenging work.
The article describes under-prepared kids struggling through an essay called "Post-Modernism is the New Black".  The kids don't understand words like "phenomenon" or "sinister", and don't know what "Auschwitz" refers to.  It's just too much to ask anyone to simultaneously remember the meaning of a half-dozen complex words she's never seen before and also engage in a debate using the new words.

Learning is sequential, and you can't skip steps and expect good results.
I see this in my own experience teaching kids math in an after-school program in Philadelphia.  One of the kids I regularly teach is in 8th-grade algebra.  She's a good kid; hard-working and eager.  But it is almost criminal to put her in an algebra class and assign homework where she's expected to work out problems comparing weekly pay.  She looks at "2 + 3n" and adds it to "5n".   She can't reliably work with fractions or decimals or the distributive property.  I spent almost an hour a couple of weeks ago showing her how to add 2-digit numbers, and why it works to "carry" the 10s to the next place. 

It's as if you threw me into a 3d year Polish class.  How hard would I have to work to get anywhere at all?   Wouldn't it be more fruitful to start me out in first-year Polish?

For that matter, why is it universally accepted as a good thing that kids should do college-level work in high school?  

3.)  It's all a scam.

The economy is a mess, and middle-class jobs are disappearing.   But here we are tantalizing under-privileged kids with the prospect of a college degree and a good job.  How many of these kids will make it through college?  If they get a college degree, how many will be able to find jobs?  If we don't fix the economy, we're not doing these kids any favors.


  1. I agree on all counts. I especially wish Number 3 would get more attention. Suppose these kids "succeed" and end up getting better jobs than they otherwise would have. Doesn't that mean that some other kid now *doesn't* get that job? If all we're doing is giving some kids a competitive edge against other kids for the same set of jobs, how is the world a better place? If anything, it's worse, as now every kid has to work harder just to have a chance at a decent job.

    We should be trying to raise the standard of living for everyone, not just pitting kids against each other in a big competition for an insufficient number of decent jobs. These "rigorous" approaches to education do nothing toward that end.

  2. In the Globe and Mail yesterday, I noticed one of the political cartoonists drew a picture of a fast food eatery, with the server behind the counter saying, "Did you want a dissertation with that?"

    Personally, I'm putting bugs in my daughter's ear about the skilled trades. She is artistic and likes concrete tasks that have a beginning and an end. She's a "work-like-mad", "just tell me what you want done", "what's the bottom line", type of person. Oh, and she also likes making a mess. Ok, so maybe I just have a regular 12 year old, but she's not like me...and I was a bookworm put on this earth to study and go to university.

    I also don't think a yearly income around 100,000 dollars is anything to sneeze at, which is what the shortage of craftspeople will cause the incomes in this field to go to, if they're not there already. It's more than I make.

  3. PsychMom -- Have you read Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford? It's a really interesting book arguing that skilled trades are more fulfilling (not to mention less likely to be outsourced) than many jobs considered to be more desirable. The author is a philosophy Ph.D. who left his job as director of a Washington think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop. I'm only mid-way through the book, but am enjoying it.

  4. I will definitely get it Chris..sounds like it's right up my alley.
    There's a local woman who has developed a furniture making business, but her pieces are more like artwork and she charges accordingly. With the future heading towards recycling and having things that last, I just think having building skills will take you very far. Combining those skills with's a niche that hasn't been fully explored yet.
    I haven't gone anti-intellectual at all...I just think the internet allows us to know things at the pace we want to know them...and for some kids, going to university at 26 or 27 may make much more sense than at 17 or 18. It also may take them less time to get university degrees later in life.
    Considering something other than university after high school is not limiting choices to my mind. Learning a trade is an alternative to competing with the loads of degreed unemployed 20 somethings...

    1. Where I live, you are allowed to drop out of school after Year 10 provided you start an apprenticeship or go to a vocational skill or something along those lines. For some people, particularly those who know what they like doing and know that the school environment isn't right for them, this is the right choice. I know someone who was into computers, but his school didn't offer good computing courses, plus he didn't like the other subjects that he had to take, so he went and studied information technology at a vocational school and has now landed himself a job. He's probably in a better position now than he would have been if he had just struggled on through finishing school.

  5. Chris, PsychMom -- I like the way you think! I haven't read the "Soulcraft" book, but I read reviews when it first came out, and I was struck by his point that we have an old-fashioned hierarchy of work (thinking, for instance, that working in an office is superior to working with your hands), but we're swiftly entering a world where work will exist in two categories: work that can be outsourced and work that can't be outsourced. Plumbing can't be outsourced, but mid-level legal and other "head" work can.

    I have several times heard myself say "Quick! Call a plumber!" but I have never said "Quick! Call a post-modernist!"

    I'm not anti-intellectual, but I think I'm becoming anti-academic in some ways. At least, I don't think there's much of a future in academic degrees for most young people. If they want an academic degree they should be aware that there might not be a relevant job at the end of it.

    I think it's a shame that so many young adults are burdened with enormous debt that they took on to get a degree which might not lead to a well-paid job. I don't think it's entirely their fault, either. Everyone and her dog tells high school students that college is the right path.

  6. More than that FedUpMom...the big "They" are saying it's the only path.

    This is where Seth Godin has been influencing me, because he has been promoting the idea that what each individual can contirbute, that's unique, is the stuff that can't be outsourced. It's a mistake to tell kids to ignore what they love because it isn't profitable. Better to teach them how to make it profitable, whatever it is, because if they love it they will put their heart and soul into it. Those skills are far reaching and life changing. And if enough people start creating new things, who knows what will come of it.

    I agree with you...I think I'm becoming an anti-academic.

    "Quick, Call a Post-Modernist" is a great title for a blog post.

  7. "There are only so many hours in a day, and human beings are only capable of so much scholarly work at a time. Are we burning kids out? What do they no longer have time for because of the workload?"

    I totally agree about there being such a thing as too much homework. I wrote an article for a group of local magazines about that very thing:

    And yes, why do teachers have to rush through lessons because they are on some kind of timeline? I guess I get that they know what their students will face next, in high school once they are out of middle school, for example, but, in doing that, they sometimes seem to forget to consider their actual students: what they know, what they're still shaky on, etc.

  8. 'I was struck by his point that we have an old-fashioned hierarchy of work (thinking, for instance, that working in an office is superior to working with your hands)'

    Agreed. I question this hierarchy even when it pertains to power structures within companies: here you have managers earning higher salaries and prestige than, say, the programmers they manage, when the programmers may well be working at least as hard and deploying at least as much talent.

    'I have several times heard myself say "Quick! Call a plumber!" but I have never said "Quick! Call a post-modernist!"'

    Absolutely. I loved how my son's freshman engineering school orientation began with "engineers solve problems." (My mental segueway: "... while postmodernists 'problematize.'")

  9. The SPAM on this site drives me nuts. I'm sure it does you too. Any way to permanently block them? I suppose not.

  10. HWB, I might have to moderate comments. I'd still have to look at the stinkin' spam, but you wouldn't. You'd have to wait to see your comments up in lights, though.