As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.
I've been on vacation lately: fishing with grandchildren, playing on the beach, riding my bike, and -- here in the east -- walking in the rain. Vacation is supposed to be a time to decompress, to get away from my normal preoccupation, which is education and its complexities.
Wish it were that simple, but, unfortunately for me, almost everything seems to work its way around to education sooner or later.
I mean, take the songs that I sing (quietly to myself) while walking my dog. As I said, we've had plenty of rain, so maybe it was inevitable that I would sing songs about rain.
After a while I noticed that songs about bad weather are cheerfully, even blindly, optimistic -- starting of course with "Singing in the Rain."
Think about "Raindrops Falling on My Head," the song that runs through the movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." In that song, the singer says he's "never gonna stop the rain by complaining" and insists that there's one thing he knows:
The blues they send to meet me won't defeat me
It won't be long till happiness steps up to greet me
In other words, don't worry, be happy, because happiness is just around the corner. You don't have to do anything -- happiness is coming.
"Soon It's Gonna Rain" from the musical The Fantasticks is another happy song about bad weather. It's a duet between the two young lovers, and it's completely optimistic. They decide to build a house (in a tree) that will protect them from the harsh weather and 'happily we will live and love within our castle walls.'
For optimism, however, I don't think you can beat Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" because, when "the rain is gone," there are "no other obstacles in my way."
Perhaps it's human nature to think in extremes and avoid nuance. Certainly, sunny optimism makes for a good song. That song would not have rocketed to No. 1 on the charts if the lyrics were "I see more clearly now, the rain has gone; I can see obstacles in my way."
The blind optimism of the song makes me think of the education policy makers who have ignored reality for years when setting their K-12 academic standards. As Stephanie Banchero wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently:
In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the "basic" level on the national NAEP exam. "Basic" means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to "proficient," which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at "proficient" -- and that was only in fourth and eighth-grade math.
It's not really raining, these policy makers decided, and so they lowered the academic bar, thus producing lots of apparently 'proficient' graduates. For years their schools have asked very little of students, despite the reality of No Child Left Behind's approaching deadlines (100% proficiency by 2014) and the existence of an independent standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
How bad is it? As a federal study noted (again quoting Banchero), there are "huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP's 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts."
Blind optimism may be fine for a song, but it's not appropriate for education policy.
There's also blind negativism, which seems to me to be the position taken by a lot of education pundits. To these folks, that's not just rain; that's doom and gloom, Noah's flood and the end of the world as we know it. To me, these nay-sayers sound like Brook Benton's "A Rainy Night in Georgia," an unrelentingly mournful song in which It seems like it's rainin' all over the world
The song goes on:
How many times I wondered
It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it
It's life and you just got to play the game
The song ends on the same endlessly depressing note, fading away into silence: You're talking 'bout rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin', rainin' rainin', rainin', rainin' (fade).
Lighten up! Things are not as bad as the rainin' all over the world' folks would have it. We have thousands of outstanding schools, superb approaches like Core Knowledge, KIPP and Jim Comer's school reform program, to name just three.
But education also has problems that cannot be whistled away or ignored: 7000 dropouts every school day; huge gaps in educational outcomes; a teacher dropout rate that approaches 50% in five years, and so on. The rain may be gone but there are other obstacles in our way!
I am not arguing for compromise: Blind is blind. The challenge is not to find a healthy balance between blind optimism and blind pessimism, because those polar opposites have only one thing in common: complete faith in their own rightness. One side is convinced that the sun's going to come out tomorrow, while the other feels it's raining all over the world.
We don't need compromise. We need to lighten up. We need to listen. Above all, we need a measure of humility, some admission that perhaps we cannot see clearly. Another line comes to mind, though not from a song: We see 'as through a glass, darkly.'
I think I need a vacation.
Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow