MAGDZIK: Time to wake up for school

Making Magic

Sixty percent is a failing grade. Sixty percent is also where the high school graduation rate for Chicago Public Schools hovers.

It’s a shame when any child doesn’t pass, but when failure happens at this rate, it’s an educational crisis. When nine-tenths of the students in this system are low-income and more than four-fifths are minorities, it’s a profound social and racial injustice. And when the eventual alternatives are for these students to become fodder for back-breaking minimum-wage slavery, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, prisons and morgues, it’s a national tragedy.

Welcome to American education, circa 2012; this is what is at stake. Pundits have spilled veritable rivers of ink (keystrokes, really) since the Chicago teachers’ strike began last Monday. But they have barely begun to scratch the surface of the kind of sea change in national mindset we need to achieve to set our schools on track.

Much of the discussion in the wake of the ongoing strike has been deep down in the policy weeds, where bickering about school day length and the weight of standardized testing reigns. These issues are incredibly important, and I find these discussions fascinating. But the more I think about it all, the more I worry that Chicago’s latest iteration of the boisterous American education debate is emblematic of an all-too-human failing. We have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees.

What is that forest, the macro picture, exactly? It is nicely encapsulated by two statistics. One: A quarter of public high school students are not graduating on time, if they graduate at all. The other: Demographers tell us that, as of 2009, people under 20 years of age made up over a quarter of the U.S. population, or roughly 75 million.

Taken in conjunction, these facts indicate that this is a problem of colossal proportions, and one that is likely to become worse as even more children (the majority of them historically disadvantaged minorities) wind their way through the system. Seriously, people, it’s time to pay attention.

Seeing the forest also involves panning out from schools for a moment, to a global economy that is rapidly changing in unforeseen ways. More and more businesses are choosing to invest in capital instead of labor, for a host of sensible reasons. Machines don’t take vacation or sick time or maternity leave. They don’t require safe working conditions. They don’t force employers to shell out for payroll taxes. They don’t need human resources departments or managers. And they don’t leave your company or die after you’ve spent precious time and money training them. Machines are pretty much more attractive in every way — for business owners. This is why, in industry after industry, people are being replaced by incredibly capable robots.

Back to the schools. We produce millions of kids who are functionally illiterate and can’t solve basic math problems. Even the ones who make it through high school don’t have particularly employable skills. In an economy where many of the brightest are struggling to find steady jobs, we really expect them to do fine as capital continues to replace labor?

Some of the answers floated to this problem have already crept into the education debate: Narrowly-tailored, vocational education. Re-training after job loss. But these do not take into account the system we are working with. People who never learned to read cannot be trained to function in the new economy, no matter what new kinds of jobs get invented. What are you going to retrain them to do, when they start from such a low base? Biochemical engineering? Consulting? Programming?

Truth be told, the pitiful amount of funding and collective attention we’ve put into raising and teaching children is largely to blame. This is what looking at the forest means. The education debate is a fire that has given off a lot of heat but little light, particularly when our leaders stay out of it for political expediency (Obama) or offer platitudes like “increasing choice” (Romney). Our leaders need to inspire dramatic American unification behind the cause of education, instead of letting lip service carry the day.

If we’re to fix schools to a degree that will make a difference before it is too late, education needs to become a topic on par with the sacred space the economy and jobs have occupied in our public sphere. Those issues and education are more linked now than ever before, because the old jobs are not coming back.

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at .


  • The Anti-Yale

    Abolish the U. S. Department of Education, just as Yale’s president, A. Whitney Griswold abolished Yale’s graduate Department of Education, saying “It is unnecessary to teach teachers how to teach.

    Take its funding and redistribute it to the states, with the proviso that 80% of it MUST be spent on the first 8 years (yes, from birth) of a child’s life for education, healthcare, nutrition, parenting support.

    Currently, we trivialize early childhood and then spend the next twelve years in school trying to compensate the empty or damaged baggage a child brings to K-12.

    Using a long-ago-debunked pedagogical model we tell teachers to pour “knowledge” into an empty pitcher which is already cracked, and then we upend he pitcher pouring that ‘knowledge’ into a standardized test to see how much of it was retained, all the while failing to notice the fluid pouring out of the cracks.

    ” Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”.

    WB Yeats

    • grumpyalum

      Yale’s withdrawal from teacher education is one of the great tragedies of our time. That quote from Griswold is one of the dumber things I heard.

      • ldffly

        Griswold was right. Brewster took the next step and killed the whole program noting education theory’s general lack of rigor.

        Yale is de facto involved in teacher education by compelling undergraduates to study an intellectual discipline. What we have in a typical American public high school classroom now is someone with a B.Ed. who has little or no expertise in any academic discipline. Anybody with a Yale BA, the inclination, and some classroom apprenticeship should be able to do an excellent job in a high school classroom. Trouble is, the Ed.D. establishment dominating state boards doesn’t recognize academic expertise as a qualification to walk into a classroom and teach.

        • ldffly

          Sorry about this, but I thought I had navigated away from this after deciding not to post. My mistake.

      • ldffly

        I would ask anyone who believes that a college of education contributes anything to the intellectual caliber of either an institution or an individual to think about this. The overwhelming, vast majority of university faculty never set foot in an education class. I cannot even begin to compare the quality of classroom work I have seen in universities with what I saw in my high school. University faculty classroom work is far superior to high school. Why? What’s the difference? Is my perception of a huge difference in quality unique to me?

        I believe Griswold was right. Brewster finished the job by killing the remainder of the school of education, in the process commenting on the intellectual vacuity of education theory. Yale de facto actually does train teachers. It does so by compelling them to study an academic discipline. I submit that anybody with a Yale BA possessing the inclination and some classroom apprenticeship could do a first rate job in a high school classroom.

        • grumpyalum

          Look, I actually agree with you a lot here. AND…I think Yale has an obligation to demand academic discipline from students with practical training in education and in the creation of educational material.

          As someone who teaches and who has worked with many a TFA Yalie (but I don’t myself work for TFA), there are very different skill sets to being good inside a classroom and being a good Yale student. I think strong content knowledge is extremely important, but it isn’t good enough to work in most public schools.

          I work in one of the rougher areas in a major city and I can tell you, going in with little to no classroom experience but a lot of content knowledge is going to basically get you nowhere.

          You need more.

          Also, regarding difference between high school/college – part of that is that, well, you went to Yale. Let’s be honest here. Professors rarely teach at Yale, they relay information or they frame discussions. That’s fine. But you try doing that with 10th graders that don’t have the cultural expectations of training of nice white kids from the burbs of NYC.

  • The Anti-Yale


    That “baggage” metaphor doesn’t quite work.

    Short version, education iscurrently backwards—it’s a twelve-year trillion-dollar repair-job for the damage done in the first five years of life.


    (Early childhood education, healthcare, and parenting support, please)

  • ldffly

    If you want good general critiques of what’s wrong in the American schoolhouse, go back to the 1950s. Read Jacques Barzun’s “The House of Intellect,” and Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti Intellectualism in American Life.” Forget more time in school if we continue to fail to take learning seriously

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Anti Intellectualism in American Life. ”

    **” An intellectual is someoen who is capable of being EXCITED by ideas.”
    John Ciardi,
    Dante scholar whose translations of
    “The Paradiso”, “The Purgatorio”
    and “The Inferno” have surviived
    the test of time,**

  • The Anti-Yale

    A teacher is someone who helps students “catch fire”, thereby making them ipso facto ‘intellectuals” according to Ciardi’s definition above.
    Every child is capable of being excited by ideas.
    I’m afraid Mr. Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism may be a bit more snooty.**

  • JackJ

    Forget the theory and concentrate on how society can reaffirm family values. You have essentially two choices, take the children from their parents and place them in an institutional setting where they will be “taught” to perform intellectually but will suffer the loss of emotional support or set policies that reward family cohesiveness wherein the value of personal responsibility is taught by example. Failure of education in this country has almost nothing to do with the schools or even the teachers but changing societal values where everyone is a victim of something or someone and no one is responsible for their own actions.

    I am constantly amazed at the number of “students,” even in economically depressed areas, who have cell phones, bling and Air Jordan’s but for some reason don’t read well and can’t do basic math but can master video games and divide powders into gram containers. We construct multi-billion dollar training programs as part of the Great Society or this or that program and nobody comes. They don’t come because the planners made a fatal assumption–that people are willing to work for what they get, whether that is bling or education. In fact the Job Training Program and education in general failed and fail not because the programs, teachers and facilities (weren’t) aren’t there but because nobody taught people how to get up at six in the morning and catch the two buses cross town to the training center. Nor did they help create a society where attending such programs was thought of as a good thing instead of “Selling out to the Man” or some other such derisive comment made by those who have established their own society where might makes right.

    This problem isn’t about school facilities, teachers or education policies, it’s about values. Inculcate in the young a value for education and they will seek it out. Allow it to be devalued and they will avoid it. Discussions about more money, more teachers, more computers are like doctors who prescribe medications for the symptoms instead of trying to cure the disease. The disease here is a lack of shared values between those offering up the policies and those who could be educated.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “They don’t come because the planners made a fatal assumption–that people are willing to work for what they get, whether that is bling or education.”

    **Sounds a trifle racist to me.
    BTW—the problem is also that school is boring. How could it not be boring when teachers are forced to stifle spontaneity in favor of “teaching to the test”. Ever hear the expression “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” ?
    The Bill and Melinda Gradgrinds of educational reform are killing right brain spontaneity and creativity in favor of left brain quantifiable, measurable “benchmatks” and “outcomes”.
    That’s your kid Mom and Dad —an “outcome”
    Why aren’t you outRAGED!
    Folks—I’m retired.
    I have nothing to gain by entering this discussion.
    I could just walk the other way while you whistle past a graveyard.

    Why do I EVEN bother?
    Paul D. Keane
    M.Div. ’80
    M.A., M.Ed.**

    • JackJ

      Racist? Then you haven’t “bothered” to keep up with street slang wherein bling is used across socioeconomic boundaries by any number of groups not identified by their ethnicity. For example I currently reside in Appalachia and it’s a common term here as is the expectation of food stamps, hot lunches, social security disability, unemployment checks and socialized medicine. What was once the most independent area of the entire of the US is now one of the poorest and most expectant of government program support. And Paul, the people are as caucasian as a country club in Greenwich, CT.

      If “teaching the test” will produce adults capable of reading, writing and thinking beyond cable TV sound bites then by all means we should teach the test. About the only creative thinking that goes on in my little corner of the world is new ways to produce meth or how to conceal your marijuana grove in the mountains.

      As for bothering, Paul, I’ve seen lots of commenters who wish, nay, prefer you wouldn’t.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I am not responsible for the proliferation of slang in our society. Even in snow white Vermont kids address each other thusly: “Wassup homey? Gimme da 411.”

    As for the proliferation of drugs and drug culture: The ULTRA conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., in whose memory The Anti-Yale blog was created,, proposed a solution thirty years ago which would have ENDED the drug trade—————Take the profit out of it by legalizing it.

    We are too thickheaded to do the practical thing. Hence children and adults die—from John and Jane Doe to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

    As for my “bother” and your joy if i wouldn’t: Every time I try tom walk away , I think of Beethoven shaking his fist in futility at the sky, and realize, that’s the way I want to go out.


    • River_Tam

      Legalizing drugs would end the drug trade, but increase addictions.

  • The Anti-Yale


    In a culture in which priests are rapists; journalists are plagiarizers; bankers are crooks; and politicians are puppets; and parents are pawns in turning their kids into educational guinea pigs: It is no surpirse that gangsta rap, gangsta clothing and gangsta sexism have been beatified by the young as worthy of worship.

    Word up.

    Got your back., man.

    Later homey.

    • River_Tam

      Ah yes, the little-known story of how the Catholic priests, Jayson Blair, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation all contributed to the rise of the hood.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Forgot one: a world in which athletic records are fraudulent and athletic heroes are liars’