Thursday, February 14, 2008
Annals of Edumacation
...But he wore a hat,
And he had a job,
And he brought home the bacon
So that no one knew...
--Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casales (Devo)
To be able to accurately assess the condition of American education, we need to consider the case of the guy who taught high school for 17 years even though he was unable to read or write.
Now it can be told. Ashamed and frustrated, John Corcoran finally learned literacy skills at age 48, partly so he could write a couple books recounting the details of the life of a completely illiterate college graduate and secondary teacher.
I was neither amazed nor particularly surprised by Corcoran's story (as one of my former teaching colleagues said, "He would have made a great administrator."). I've personally known classroom teachers whose academic skills were so marginal that they had major problems passing California's little CBEST teacher qualification test, which is considerably easier than the high school exit exam currently imposed on California's students. However, I was impressed by his innovative and creative ways of dealing with his situation, and by his unusually brazen chutzpah.
During his primary years, Corcoran's strategy was to try to make himself invisible and, when teachers cornered and called on him, to completely clam up. In middle school he switched gears and decided to become a trouble-maker, successfully hiding behind a "troubled child" label. He blossomed as a kid who, in his own words "didn't have a reading problem as far as the teachers were concerned. He had an emotional problem. He had a psychological problem. He had a behavioral problem..."
When he got to high school he changed tactics again and learned to cheat effectively, and his book details how he raised the art of cheating to new and perhaps unprecedented degrees of refinement. He continued using that strategy all the way through college and into a classroom position, where he was apparently repected and well liked.
"I created an oral and visual environment. There wasn't the written word in there. I always had two or three teacher's assistants in each class to do board work or read the bulletin," said Corcoran.
I have a lot of questions about Corcoran that the linked news article didn't answer. Was he able to bubble in a grade sheet, or did his teacher's assistants do that for him? Was he able to sign his name to that sheet? Or was his "oral and visual environment" one of those progressive, forward-looking classes in which the instructor isn't required to keep or post grades other than "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory?" I guess I'll have to read his biographical book if I want to find out.
However, this revelation, which amounts to an expose of the condition of American education in many, many places (not all) shouldn't surprise anybody. Consider: we have a president who can't speak English without mangling it, whose idea of history is the mythology routinely handed out in high school U.S. history classes (especially in those schools where the football coach is the history teacher), and whose grasp of ethics leads him to conclude that it's o.k. to attack a country that has committed no act of war against us, on the grounds that they might want to commit such acts at an unspecified future date.