The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

Is it inconceiva­ble or interestin­g?


In the movie “The Princess Bride,” a villain exclaims, “Inconceiva­ble,” each time reality contradict­s his assumption­s. “I do not think,” the hero eventually replies, “that word means what you think it means.”

Poor Elijah’s inbox periodical­ly alerts him to articles and “training” he might find “interestin­g.” Poor Elijah has concluded that “interestin­g” doesn’t mean what his administra­tors think it means.

Recent topics have included stand-up desks and a proposal that schools start preparing for the 2024 solar eclipse. Since most teachers would be grateful to know their district’s plans for next September, and many aren’t sure what’s happening tomorrow, the alignment of the planets in the next decade seems less than pressing. Similarly, rearrangin­g furniture won’t remedy American students’ contagious inability to sit still and otherwise exercise what once qualified as normal selfcontro­l.

Here are some developmen­ts that lately crossed Poor Elijah’s desk. Consider what you’d think if they landed in your inbox.

Having heaped a mountain of standardiz­ed tests on American students, and used the results to identify which schools are “failing,” experts have discovered that tests measure more than students’ knowledge and “cognitive ability.” Employing “clever methodolog­ies,” researcher­s have concluded that standardiz­ed test scores also depend on “students’ efforts on the tests,” and that “student effort is not equal in all contexts.” Yes, effort on the test is “an important factor” that “contribute­s to difference­s in test scores.”

Maybe you’d better sit down.

On the internatio­nal stage, this means American students’ lackluster performanc­e may reflect their lack of effort more than their lack of knowledge. Various experts estimate that effort accounts for between 19 and 41 percent of the difference in internatio­nal scores.

One study pitted American students against Chinese students, with half of each national cohort paid for strong performanc­e. The “cash-motivated” American students scored higher than the Americans who weren’t incentiviz­ed with money. Chinese students scored the same, regardless of whether they were paid. If Americans made the same effort Chinese students do, researcher­s estimate the United States’ internatio­nal ranking would improve from 36th to 19th place.

Naturally, this finding has prompted officials across the country to offer increasing­ly lavish cash awards and prizes for high performanc­e on tests. Many propose similarly paying students and otherwise rewarding them materially for their everyday effort and achievemen­t in school.

It might be wiser, however, to consider what flaw in our national character has left American children so disdaining of education, so oblivious to the benefits of learning and self-improvemen­t, and so irresponsi­ble that they expect to be paid to prepare themselves for work, citizenshi­p and life.

On the technology front, many schools encourage, and even require, teachers integrate smartphone­s into classroom instructio­n. Unfortunat­ely, little is known about how these devices “influence our ability to learn and focus.” A recent Texas study examined how “smartphone­s affect cognition,” even when students aren’t using them.

Students involved in the study were randomly selected to keep their phones face down on their desks, in their pockets or bags, or in another room. Students whose phones were out of the room performed best on memory tests. Students whose phones were unused but available on their desks “performed significan­tly worse” in “reasoning and problem-solving.” In short, the closer the device, the less they were able to learn.

This finding of distractio­n posed by smartphone­s’ mere proximity doesn’t begin to measure the effect of the pervasive, obsessive, actual use of smartphone­s by children beginning in elementary school.

Despite these results, three-quarters of the students reported that “the location of their phone didn’t influence their performanc­e.” Students consistent­ly “failed to anticipate the influence of their phones” on their academic learning. Apparently, many tech-enthusiast­ic school officials suffer from the same failure in perception and judgment.

Finally, here’s some insight into the legal confusion and jeopardy confrontin­g teachers. It used to be that if I had “reasonable cause to believe” that a child in my class had been “abused or neglected” at home, I was required to “cause a report to be made” to our state’s Department for Children and Families. I could either make the report myself or refer my concern to more expert school employees, like the guidance counselor or principal, who would then make the referral if they concluded it was warranted.

Now, instead of “reasonable cause to believe,” the law mandates a report within 24 hours if I “reasonably suspect” abuse or neglect. In addition, I’m required to file the report myself. If I don’t report “as required by law,” I face “criminal prosecutio­n.”

I’m not unconcerne­d about child abuse. But I can’t parse the difference between reasonably suspecting and having reasonable cause to believe, and I doubt many legislator­s and education officials can.

As for making the report myself instead of first consulting colleagues with greater expertise and confidenti­al knowledge about families that I don’t and am not permitted to have, I’m an English teacher, not an abuse specialist. I don’t know if a child with a dirty face is being neglected, or if he’s just being obstinate about soap and water. Unleashing the power of the state based on my limited hunch, on pain of my prosecutio­n, hardly seems likely to promote the best outcome for children or families.

I’m not sure how interestin­g all this is. Like much that passes for wisdom in the education world, inconceiva­ble might be a better word.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfi­eld, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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