Originally Published at Tech Central Station, March 2, 2006
John Hughes Was Right
By Mark Storer
I remember watching John Hughes movies in the 80s. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and others bring back some pretty vivid memories. The “brat pack” would get together and bloviate those grand truths. You know; grand truths that only teenagers know. I was young, too — and I thought how cool it was to see such gritty reality. 80s teenagers knew more than anyone, didn’t we?
Plus c’est change…
Well, here I am 15 years into teaching teens in high school and I am hearing it all again. The same clichés from the same cliques. They, too, believe they hold grand truths that none of us adults could possibly dream of, let alone understand. John Hughes would be proud.
Meanwhile, we adults are busy trying to figure out how best to educate them — and we are falling short.
Today, every other article on education reform seems to be either a treatise on why we need vouchers or a lecture on why we need to make sure more tax money goes to public education. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is filled with wish-lists and the ever-popular unfunded mandates that seek to accomplish nothing, it seems, but higher test scores.
So our staff meetings at school now revolve around how to get our test scores up. We’ve finally arrived at the “new” notion that what’s actually keeping our test scores below where we’d like to see them… are the kids who do poorly. A shocking revelation. These are your tax dollars at work.
Meanwhile, the teacher’s union wants to increase dues by another five dollars a month — bringing the monthly tribute to somewhere just over $70.00 per teacher — and still not provide any substantive resources to teachers in return. Teacher training schools around the nation are turning out more and more people who want to teach — but with less and less classroom acumen. It’s amazing how many new teachers need help in the basic academics of their subject area. This is not to say that there are no good new teachers, only that they seem, perhaps, appropriately trained in how to tell if a kid needs self-esteem screening. The kind of imagery that’s present in The Great Gatsby? You won’t find that in the new teacher toolset.
Standardized to Death
Contrary to John Hughes’s formidable film-making sensibilities, teenagers really do not know it all and require some real teaching and a little maturity so that they can get grounded, find what they want out of life — or at least what they need. To be sure, there are plenty of bright, gifted, witty, wonderful kids out there. If there weren’t, I’d be working somewhere else right now. But they need an education that doesn’t want to measure them all day long. They need to expand their minds by exploring ideas, writing essays, doing projects, working with their minds and hands on the issues within the math, literature, science and history that provide a good, well-rounded education. Instead, they are relegated to a stifling curriculum — e.g. less than two weeks on the Civil War (only a couple of questions on it on the test, you know), and a paltry few opportunities to write long papers that require real research and synthesized thinking (that’s not on any of the state tests at all).
The bottom line is that what we are doing isn’t good enough. And NCLB is merely a refashioned design of what President Clinton’s administration attempted to do by also demanding more tests in the classroom. The word “accountability” has been batted around for some time now, but not with respect to the students and the parents. Our school is currently focusing on what we call a “structured, college preparatory environment” but there will be little to show for it when, in fact, the majority of our students go to two-year, not four-year institutions (and many of those never graduate).
In the search for better ways to educate our children, we have failed them by simultaneously holding higher standards for them, while lowering standards for the schools themselves. Outdated technology (Windows 98 in our school). Poor facilities. Over-crowded classrooms. Schedules that resemble something you’d find in a steel factory circa 1850. A school-year still based on a harvest calendar of the 18th Century when most of the nation lived and worked on farms. So much of the status quo has remained as we have demanded more and more from our students and teachers in terms of testing, but without providing the tools for independent learning. And nowhere is accountability discussed when it comes to the parent and the child. Nowhere.
In those John Hughes films, these beautiful, troubled and brilliant teenagers would sit and solve their problems with no adult input, except from some unlikely source — like the janitor or a homeless guy. The teachers, administrators and parents are almost always depicted as out-of-touch, dull and even cruel in some cases. They don’t have the insight to simply provide these kids with what they need to struggle through and learn some things for themselves…
On second thought, could John Hughes have been right?
Mark Storer is a sommelier, educator, and writer in California.
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