Is Our Children Learning?: Not if Austin Succeeds

The Keystone Cops who have taken charge of higher education in Austin, Texas have added a new adventure to their ongoing comedy series.  You will not be surprised to learn that they still do not know the answer to the question posed by George W. Bush during his first presidential run: “Is our children learning?”

keystone-cops-trainThe people in Austin are clever people gone wrong, and they think the road to answering Bush’s question is paved with standards. Hence, we now have a multi-colored booklet called “Texas College Readiness Standards.” The booklet, an Aristotelian nightmare,  shows not a single student talking on a cell phone, or drinking beer, or sitting in front of a computer looking at Facebook.  It shows instead numerous photographs of young people with books, more than once with armfuls of books.  In short, the booklet has no plans to touch down in reality.

The standards you encounter in the booklet are unsurprising, like reading a manual about how to build a pyramid and discovering that it says something about locating and moving about large, rectangular-shaped stones.

As part of the effort to involve more cops in the comedy, I and about one hundred other people in higher education from across Texas were brought to Austin on the taxpayers’ dime last week, only to find out that these standards resist questioning.  Even though the booklet clearly labels the items standards, Marty Hougen, Ph.D. and Project Manager, told the assembled group of educators concerned about English standards that the booklet offered not minimal standards but exemplary standards, and that no one responsible for this project on standards imagined the students needing to meet all of the standards.  She never said how many exemplary standards students would have to meet to be deemed ready (not exemplary) for college.  Clearly, you do not want the standards to be obvious, because then you cannot have meetings and lunches and break-out sessions about them.  It takes time to appreciate the slipperiness of the standards, developed by so-called vertical teams, though I am guessing the members sat down some of the time during the drafting of the standards.

Rather than a point by point examination of the booklet’s folly, you might benefit more by descriptions of a couple of quintessential moments at the Austin meeting that will confirm that if your child is a lump of ignorance today, and you send that child to a public school in Texas, well, at the other end of that schooling years from now, you will have a lump of ignorance topped with a graduation cap and a pretty tassel.

Moment #1: Marty Hougen, Ph.D., on several occasions during the group proceedings needs to gain the audience’s attention, and begins yelling, “Five, four, three, two,” and then stops  her grammar-schoolish countdown, expecting that people will, like employees on a television show, heed to a recognized formula that indicates the show is about to go live again.  You see, the part involving the audience members talking with one another is the dead, unimportant section of the show.  Marty Hougen, Ph.D., and her friends at The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and at The Meadows Center are being videotaped for posterity.  They are on stage with the lights shining at them, lights so bright that the stars on the stage report frequently that they cannot see the audience.  Indeed.  We are to be both unheard and unseen.

Moment #2: This moment meshes with being unheard, for Dr. Robert Wimpelberg, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Houston, his school’s location screaming out the point that he is not part of the Austin-centric stars on the stage, dares to ask a series of pertinent questions at the end of the day’s sessions.  He wants to know why our road-closed1stars are introducing standards on top of a previous set of standards (called TEKS — don’t worry, if you are unfamiliar with TEKS, the state wants you to be lost in Acronymville) when international experts have reported that the countries far above the U.S. (and as of this writing that still includes Texas) in global educational rankings employ very few standards, but spend a great deal of time ensuring that the students have a deep understanding of the material connected to those standards.  On other occasions, the Austin-centric crowd might have slipped some hemlock into Dr. Wimpelberg’s state-provided iced tea at lunch, but Marty Hougen, Ph.D., after witnessing her colleagues on stage fumbling about with a series of incoherent responses to Dr. Wimpelberg’s questions, declares that the entire session has run past the time printed on the agenda.  She thanks everyone for attending, and shuts down the meeting.  Applause. Lights out.

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