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A Lesson On Today's Education

Memo Pad

A Lesson On Today's Education


Three mildly heretical thoughts about American education: First, given the impossible assignment we’ve given them — an egalitarian mission in a nation rapidly growing more stratified by income and class — American public schools are probably doing a better job than they ought to be. One big reason is greater professionalism among teachers. A lot has changed since I wrote a Texas Monthly article documenting the awful state of teacher education back in 1979, mostly for the better.

Despite melodramatic pronouncements to the contrary by sundry politicians, tycoons, tycoon/politicians and media-enhanced “reformers” like former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the available evidence shows American students performing steadily better on standardized assessments of educational progress over the past 30 years.

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. Donntheman November 17, 2011

    The question isn’t, Is our students learning. It should be, Is our teachers teaching?. Is we doing the best we can in teaching? Is we putting enough money into our educational eystem? Is we setting good examples for our children? Is we mixing up our tenses all the time?

  2. Delizia November 17, 2011

    Obviously as demonstrated by the grammatical error in this title, they are not learning.

  3. aexner88 November 17, 2011

    I summoned up my email and thought the “is our students learning?” bit was a joke to get me in here. Oops.

  4. James Meacham November 17, 2011

    Feather-bedding is a real problem with Unions. If we are to shrink governments to a manageable size, the employees cannot be union members. Also, contrary to the Propaganda unions do not assure the perfection of employees. If we want depth and enrichment in our schools (or other functions) we must get ‘shed of the dogheads.’
    Our students are learning, yes … but what? Are our students learning real and useful things … or is dey lern’n vat they kant tell mens on w’men?

  5. Polly November 17, 2011

    “Is” for singular, “students” is plural. Hmmm…

  6. Piwackette November 17, 2011

    “Is are children learning?” is a George Bush quote. Look it up.

  7. dpaano November 17, 2011

    Apparently, no one is learning anything…..”Is our students learning….” Come on, a reasonably intelligent person should know that this should be “Are our students learning.” Does ProPublica think ALL of us are illiterate???

  8. Pat November 17, 2011

    Thinking it was a play on words, I pulled up the article. And found another example of the national literacy crisis.

    This is the age of “her and I….” – “between you and I” (both incorrect, of course)and apparently all the King’s horses won’t be able to save the King’s English. Sad.

  9. cathied13 November 17, 2011

    Apparently some of these readers have never encountered irony before.

  10. Gene Lyons, the author (singular) of this “news” item are (plural) clearly a product of our dysfunctional education… no make that “a product of our dysfunctional, union shop, teachers system!!!” I would not hire someone who spoke or wrote like Mr. Lyons to shove burgers out of a drive in window. This is undoudetly the trashiest piece of so called journalism to ever dis-grace the bandwidth of an otherwise only slightly trashy web sight. But trash writing (no y’all, not righting) is the one and only thing the liberal educat…oops my bad, make that the one and only thing the Liberal Unionized Teachers Union Corporation of America knows how to teach. (I suspect the LUTUCofA have been moving their lips again while trying to read the graffiti on the boys restroom wall, and are overdue for “re-education”… no make that basic education.)

    There however is one thing on which I wish to congratulate Mr. Lyons. In this entire article he never once referred to America’s teachers as “learning” their students anything. TGFSM!!!

  11. deansocrates67 November 17, 2011

    The article was a very good commentary! I am glad to know that there is someone that shares the same points that I have wondered about for many years. It is good to know that the reading levels of disadvantaged African American students has come up in reading and math; yet the gap is not as wide. However, one must pay close attention should be paid to affulence of families as well as exposure to learning tools (field trips) or the lack of that causes this to happen. Another factor is that education itself is not valued as much with the generational difference with the parenting of children today; they have somewhat lessly envolved themselves in children as they progress through the grades in school.
    Another point is that student achievement should not be a major factor for grading a teacher’s performance;as tool for raises.Such measures have caused major cheating scandals in the southern states, and have caused teachers and principal’s to lose the livlihood that they hold dear; a measure that this most detrimental in this Depression like economy. If anyone have been in a classroom they can see that a lot of children do not have the learning focused minded, and are not self motivated students as those of the past. I do agree that those that pratice the miracle cures they are”charlatans”, when there should be made to look at the cure of old fashioned discipline. These Miracle cures, these programs only solve the immediate problems and do not place the emphasis on the longterm affects when these same students are to go post secondary options.
    And the last point that I would like to make is the effect on the morale of teachers. The morale of teachers has been the lowest that personallt can recolect at this time. Many educators are besieged with the raising test scores, concerned with the education evaluations, scheduled and unscheduled changes, as well as the pressures of state, county, and national mandates; all of which are contributors to the morale issue…As pointed out, “CNN and the editorial suites” have no clues as to what is really going on with the struggles of the nations classrooms; the only things that I hsve seen is the positives which is good; but not the real scene of an American classroom, urban and rural.

  12. bronte04 November 17, 2011

    Hope they are learning better than the person who wrote this article or proofread the one on the ‘debt ceilling’.

    Couldn’t prove it by either of those writers.

    Should be *are* our children (plural) learning, and there’s only one l in ‘ceiling’.

  13. Avi Zenilman November 17, 2011

    Hello readers — sorry for the late follow-up. The headline was a joke, playing off of George W. Bush’s 2000 remark when he asked, “Is our children learning?” We apologize for the debt ceiling typo in the newsletter — and we should have been clearer that we were in on the joke. Thank you for reading us!

    Avi Zenilman
    Executive Editor

  14. Totenkatz November 18, 2011

    Avi Zenilman, Executive Editor. It was a joke, okay I’ll buy that for a dollar. Of course it wasn’t a joke or a play off President Bush’s words or you would have quote him since he is a Republican. You would not have let that slip past your readers. Here’s the bottom line to education in America. Get rid of the Federal Government’s Dept. of Education. Get rid of all Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the others that are wasting money and not helping. Make education local like it was before Jimmy Carter screwed it all up by establishing the Dept. of Education. De-unionize all Teachers to ensure all education issues including teachers pay and benefits stay local. If the teachers want to unionize again it would only be at the state level no national union. I’m a product of the American Public School System before Jimmy Carter screwed it up and before the school system I attended had unionized teachers. Since Jimmy Carter and the introduction of the union into the school system. The schools haven’t gone to pot but they haven’t improved as much as you would have hoped considering all the money the federal government has spent on them and all the pay and benefit increases the teachers have enjoyed since unionizing. I mean it’s pretty bad when I have to correct my college educated children use of the English language, American history, social studies, etc. considering I don’t have a college degree.

  15. ohleee November 18, 2011

    Yes, Totenkatz (and friends), the title was indeed a joke.
    Also, Ms/Mr T: Jimmy Carter did not establish the Dept. of Education. Said Dept. was originally established in 1867, somewhat before Carter’s time.
    So maybe you should refrain from correcting your college educated kids?

  16. in.the.flood.zone November 19, 2011

    They may be learning, but WHAT are they learning? Certainly not correct grammar! The very next title below this one in the menu reads: “Voter’s Remorse” (how many voters? One?) and misspells “ceiling.” I have even written for an on-line publisher who spelled businesses, as “business’s.” He excused his “slip-up” on the grounds he could not catch all his errors when responding to 100 emails a day. Well, if he had done his homework he wouldn’t have made this kind of absurd error to begin with.
    This kind of sloppiness is only possible because the writer in question has not bothered to learn the correct forms. Yes, we the readers can interpret what is meant, but that’s not our job. Worse, sometimes the actual meaning becomes unintelligible. (Witness some of the halfwit attempts at written communication in some of the comment threads in mass-media sites.)
    This carelessness — or ignorance — damages communication and makes the writer look really, really dumb. Not the way to impress the people you most want to impress, for sure!

  17. in.the.flood.zone November 19, 2011

    “It is better to remain silent and be thought ignorant than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Mark Twain.
    @Been There Done: before you start using this as an opportunity trash teachers’ unions (note the plural form of teacher), let me give you a few tips to save you future embarrassment. You write: “Gene Lyons, the author (singular) of this “news” item are (plural)” . . . what on earth are you trying to express here? And: “union shop, teachers system . . . Is there supposed to be an apostrophe in there someplace or am I the reader supposed to supply it myself? And: “drive in window” . . . needs a hyphen, as in “drive-in.” And “undoudetly” . . . actually spelled “undoubtedly.” And: “so called” . . . needs another hyphen, as in “so-called.” And: “dis-grace” . . . oops! no hyphen here. And: “web sight” . . . hey, same-sounding words are not interchangeable! Should be “website.”
    Really, it isn’t that difficult.

  18. in.the.flood.zone November 19, 2011

    Somehow English teachers have abandoned the attempt to teach correct writing in recent years. Bandying about lofty concepts is thought to prove student achievement of some kind, but if the written result is like the lengthy comment of deansocrates67, packed with the most basic errors in mechanics (little understanding of capitalization, spelling and apostrophe, just to mention three) one must wonder if the achievement was real.

  19. Roger Breen November 23, 2011

    Quite simply, there is an attack on our schools from the right. 1) Spend so much teacher time on testing and evaluations, that there is little time for student learning. 2) Eliminate tenure so that teachers will be afraid to encourage discussion of controversial topics. 3) Let publishers – big business – drive the selection of what is true, and have state committees choose publishers who support Republican candidates. 4) Ignore the facts – lies elected George Bush and Tea Party candidates. Keep it up Carl Rove.

    OK, maybe that is an extreme view, but closer to reality than you think. Hey, let’s eliminate unions. They support Democratic candidates. No money, no opposition. And let’s make it harder for poor and minorities to vote. Fewer votes for Democrats.

    All too often when I tell people in a social gathering that I teach,I get the response – “I used to teach, but couldn’t afford the low salary.” Forty eight years in the classroom,thirty-two as a college professor, the most I made in any year was $65,000. In order to send my daughter to college, I refinanced the house and took a second job. But I kept teaching because I’m damn good at it.

  20. MichaelPaulGoldenberg November 28, 2011

    the broomsticks up your butts.)

    The various prigs weighing in on this article regarding the alleged grammar error, even AFTER the editor made clear that the source was GWB’s notoriously moronic pronouncement on education, are incapable of perceiving irony. For all their zeal in thinking they’d caught a solecism, they apparently are ignorant enough of (relatively) current events to have known the Bush quotation, though it’s made the rounds of the ‘Net and been t-shirt and refrigerator fodder for years.

    That some of these same folks can’t grasp the article itself is hardly a surprise.


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