Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I wonder if I'm overreacting or being a typical "my kid is smarter than you and can do no wrong" parent. I probably am, a little bit. But my (and my wife's) hide is slightly chapped. Last week, my son turned in what appeared to be a typical piece of homework, geared toward preparing for the state standardized academic tests he will go through later this year. We really have a problem with the outcome.

First, I have a problem with the entire process. I find that the homework, especially the math homework, is more geared toward teaching problem-solving mechanics than actually comprehending concepts. I've talked about this before. Teaching toward understanding concepts is more effective.

This time it was in a reading comprehension piece, not math. The story was an adaptation of the classic fable of Androcles and the Lion.

There were a series of multiple choice questions, and a final question requiring a written answer. The final question was "Did Androcles deserve to die? Why or why not?" My son's answer was very basic - No he did not, because he was escaping slavery, and nobody should be made to be a slave. My wife and I reviewed the answer, and agreed.

It turns out the teacher didn't and awarded 50% (2 of 4) for the question. Her comment was "What about helping the lion?"

What about it?

First of all, the question misses the entire point of the story - which is simply that kindness and friendship are repaid many times over. While it definitely influenced the lion's decision to let Androcles live, it has absolutely no bearing on whether or not he "deserves" death. Take the Lion out - does Androcles deserve to die simply because he is an escaped slave? Put the lion back in but assume Androcles is a child molesting AIG executive who routinely waterboards endangered polar bears. Does he deserve to live because he helped a lion?

Secondly, the grade automatically discourages thinking beyond the face value of the story. Which is bad because, as I stated, the very question was not germane to the moral.

But my wife and I were in an absolute funk over this. He wasn't happy either; he wondered what he could do and we told him he could always ask her about it and explain, which he did. Nope. He deserved to live because he took the splinter out.

Now I don't think we're going to press anything. It's small potatoes, really - it's not going to keep him from going to Harvard (the cost will, though), the state standardized tests are not "counted" at this level, and his teacher repeatedly sings his praises when we see her out and about. I'll just chalk it up to "It's those stupid standardized tests."

What we really wanted to do was write a letter and attach it to the paper stating that the actions of Androcles, while demonstrating friendship and kindness, have zero bearing on the ethical and existential question governing whether he retained or forfeited his right to continue breathing. I still might. Or, maybe I'll just write "What if Androcles were a child-molesting AIG Executive who routinely waterboards endangered polar bears?"

No, I won't do that either.


Dawn on MDI said...

education in America is like the opening to a Dickens novel - the best of times, the worst of times. Our kids can negotiate the internet and do things so far beyond what we were able to do at their ages, but their basic problem-solving skills surrounding a roadside flat tire or basic life stuff is woefully inadequate.
But then I remember my parents goaning the same kind of lament about my education.
Perhaps we survive as a species in spite of our best efforts. Or maybe some kind of divine practical joke.

Randal Graves said...

I think a lot of teachers (I have no clue what the actual percentage would be) loathe these standardized tests precisely because of what dawn said: lack of basic problem-solving skills.

One can apply the concepts of critical thinking across nearly every discipline, but everything is geared towards creating the next generation of specialized cubicle denizens.

Chef Cthulhu said...

Dawn - it didn't start with the current generation of kids. I know of plenty of adults who can't change a flat, balance a checkbook or comprehend a "Yield" sign. The number of 25-28 year olds who work for me who know NOTHING about cooking is mind-numbing.

Randall - sometimes I think we'd be lucky to get cubicle denizens out of what we're producing now...I remember tutoring an 8th grader in math. Smart kid, understood concepts, couldn't do the work. After two sessions I figured out the problem; he didn't know long multiplication. I wanted to find this kids teacher and say "How the fuck did you not pick this up?" Instead, I took 15 minutes, taught him long multiplication, and he didn't need to see me after that.