Just a couple months after the prestigious Institute of Medicine urged that nurses be seen as “full partners” in redesigning the American health care system, they have received another vote of confidence, this one from the American public. According to the most recent Gallup poll, for the 9th straight year (and the 11th year in all), the American people ranked nurses as the most honest and ethical workers in the country.
When asked to the rate the ethics and honesty of people in a variety of occupations, 81 percent of those surveyed gave a “very high/high” rating to nurses. Doctors received a very high/high rating from a still respectable of 66 percent of respondents.
Despite being regularly scapegoated by politicians and the media for the past several years, grade school teachers still edged out doctors by 1 percentage point (a statistical tie), with 67 of those polled expressing high regard for the profession. Although this places teachers fairly high on the list of trusted professions—in fourth place, behind nurses (81 percent), military officers (73 percent), and pharmacists (71 percent)—the teacher bashing has apparently had an effect: Teachers have lost ground since the 2007 version of this survey, when they were rated "very high/high" by 74 percent of those surveyed.
Do the words we use frame the thoughts that we have? And, if so, does the language we speak affect how we think?
It turns out that linguists and cognitive scientists have been going back and forth on this issue for years. There is a fascinating article on the subject in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine (which I’m only now getting around to reading). It’s a piece by Guy Deutscher, an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and author of a forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.
First popularized in the 1940s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity "seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think." The lack of a future and past tense in a given language, for example, was supposed to limit some speakers’ ability to comprehend the concepts of future and past.
Although such ethnocentric and romantic aspects of the theory have been totally discredited, new research does suggest that language can have an effect on both thought and perception. For example, it has recently "been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue." As it turns out, different languages "carve up the spectrum of visible light" in different ways, with, for instance, many languages considering blue and green to be variations of the same color. And, astonishingly, "our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language." So, "as strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue."
Ever get the feeling that we are having the same old educational debate, over and over? A glance through the archives of the Atlantic Monthly helps to cement the notion.
One writer describes schools as “society's dumping ground,…a vast refuse heap for any and every unwanted service or task that other social or governmental institutions and agencies find too tough to handle. The community, the home, and to some extent even the church have used the public schools to relieve their consciences of feelings of guilt by passing on unfinished business which they have found [too] difficult …or just burdensome." That was 1959.
Another pleads for “education reform," while admitting that the term has been so overused as to become virtually meaningless. “America has been oversold on pedagogical gadgets which never perform up to expectations," he says. But, since “standards in American public education are deplorably and inexcusably low," something must be done. In a democracy, he writes, every citizen deserves “an education… [grounded] in learning, in mastery, in growing insight, in standards which really operate – and not just in going to school. So when multitudes of young people accumulate credits, pass courses, carry off elegant [diplomas], and come out knowing little or nothing, it is simply intolerable." That was 1939.
When it comes to closing the academic achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income families, we share the fate of Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced to spend eternity pushing a giant rock uphill, watching it roll back down, and then repeating the task.
The gap in school performance comes “pre-installed," as it were, beginning well before children ever step foot in the classroom. By the time they enter kindergarten, poor children are already at a huge disadvantage relative to their counterparts from high-income families. By the time they take their first standardized test, the differences in vocabulary, background knowledge, and non-cognitive skills are so large that most poor children will never overcome them – no matter what school they attend, which teachers they are assigned to, or how these teachers are evaluated. And, like Sisyphus, whatever gap-closing progress we may make with each cohort of struggling students after they enter school, we must start all over again with the next.
What can be done? Stop putting out fires and prevent them – address the achievement gap before it widens.
Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews recently sparked some interesting online chatter about why students aren’t better prepared for college-level writing, and what can be done about it.
In a first article, Mathews introduces us to high school history teacher Doris Burton, who asserts that state and district course requirements leave “no room” for the assignment of serious research papers of 3000 words (10-12 pages) or more. According to Mathews, “We are beginning to see, in the howls of exasperation from college introductory course professors and their students, how high a price we are paying for this."
The following quote comes from the Obama Administration’s education "blueprint," which is its plan for reauthorizing ESEA, placing a heavy emphasis, among many other things, on overhauling teacher human capital policies:
Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success.Specific wordings vary, but if you follow education even casually, you hear some version of this argument with incredible frequency. In fact, most Americans are hearing it – I’d be surprised if many days pass when some approximation of it isn’t made in a newspaper, magazine, or high-traffic blog. It is the shorthand justification – the talking point, if you will – for the current efforts to base teachers’ hiring, firing, evaluation, and compensation on students’ test scores and other "performance” measures.