Eddication: an update

by Wolf Pascoe on March 20, 2014

History assures us that civilizations decay quite leisurely. — Will and Ariel Durant



It’s been an exhausting week in Lake Wobegon.

Yesterday Nick was accepted to the middle school of his choice, the Grove of Academe. Today he was put on the waiting list at the other school he applied to, the Road Less Traveled, a school Nora and I might have chosen once, when we were Nick’s age.

Did I mention Nick is nearing the end of his decade at Fern Hill, and is scooting into his future?




There are many differences between the Grove of Academe and the Road Less Traveled, but the most telling is this: to apply to the Road Less Traveled, Nick was required to take the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam), a sort of nether SAT for sixth-graders. Not only does the Grove of Academe not require the test, it’s impossible to send them the results-—ISEE hasn’t heard of them.

While we’re on to standardized tests, full disclosure here. I used to be a whizbang test-taker: medical school, Ivy League school before that, high school all-star before that. I got so good at test-taking that it obviated the need for thinking. I never had to think for myself–certainly in school, and probably out of it–until I was way past the tests. This was not good.

In retrospect, the thing that my test scores seem to have correlated with was success at pleasing other people. The scores proved to have no correlation with anything remotely connected to well-being.

For this reason, I did not coach Nick on the ISEE.




But I was talking about the Grove of Academe and the Road Less Traveled. Private schools, both. The decline of public education in our hometown, which (more correlation) parallels the rise of standardized testing, seems to have all but eliminated that option for Nick.

The Grove of Academe is a small school, and Nick will receive a lot of individual attention there, which he thrives on. The Road Less Traveled is a larger place, which is perhaps why it feels more familiar to Nora and myself, who went to public high schools.

Once upon a time, the maverick director of the Road Less Traveled liked Fern Hill kids, but he’s moved elsewhere. The new director doesn’t know much about Fern Hill. The student profile is changing, perhaps to resemble other ISEE-requiring schools. The Road Less Travelled, I fear, is becoming the Road More Traveled.

I was talking about school shopping with a friend (her daughter also applying to middle school) the other day.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “When we visited the Road Less Traveled, they said they were all about the whole child.”

“I’m so over what they say,” she said.




Let me tell you a couple of stories about education.

Essay scoring:

Years ago I read an article I wish I’d saved about the scoring of essay questions on standardized tests. The article reproduced three student essays–examples of the kind of work the tests produced.

The first piece was poorly written: incomplete sentences, grammatical errors, half-formed thoughts. It had been judged (appropriately in my view) an inferior essay.

The second was somewhat better. The writer had tried hard to answer the question, but struggled to make her points. The result was ungainly but sincere. Judgment: average.

The third essay was masterly: on point and logical, with lovely, practiced sentences. It was clear the writer knew her business. This was judged a superior essay.

The article really concerned the middle and third essays. Read them again closely, the author urged. I did. The superior essay, though still beautiful, lost its zing on the second go around. It turned out to be full of hot air. Its whys and therefores and dependent clauses added up to zilch.

More surprising was the middle essay. Embedded in it, somewhat tied down by the awkward form, was that glad rarity, an original idea. I had missed it, and so had the examiner who scored the essay.

Career Counseling:

A career counselor was visiting a graduating high school class. High schools like to sponsor this kind of event–I remember attending several when I was a senior.

At this particular gathering, the counselor said, “I want all the A students to line up at one end of the room, and the C students at the other.”

The two groups faced each other.

“Take a good look,” said the counselor. “I particularly want the A students to inspect the C students–because these are the guys you’ll be working for. They’re not afraid to fail.”

As far as education goes, these are not cheerful stories. They are stories of futility, and jeopardy. I tell them because they give voice to my experience being lined up for many years with the A students, writing superior essays that amounted to zilch.




Nick, like all boys his age, is an Internet prodigy. One of the sites he’s registered on is Kahn Academy, a one-man educational website filled with zillions of spiffy videos providing “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”

The Kahn Academy is educational democracy in action. It’s one of the good things about the web, a gold mine for auto-didacts. Then, yesterday, an email from the Kahn Academy arrived:

Dear Nick,

Exciting news: Khan Academy is partnering with the College Board so that all students who want to go to college can prepare for the SAT at their own pace, at no cost.The College Board just announced that they’re redesigning the SAT for 2016, and we’re partnering with them to make free, world-class prep materials.

By spring 2015, you’ll have access to state-of-the-art, interactive learning tools that give you deep practice and help you diagnose your gaps. All of this will be created through a close collaboration with the College Board specifically for the redesigned SAT. Stay tuned.

Well. I get that the idea behind standardized testing is to provide an objective measure of ability that transcends school differences. And it’s great that preparation for the SAT will now be democratized. Great and not so great. Now everyone can spend years preparing to line up with the A students.




The lethal adjective in all this is the word standardized. A test is just a structure, and it’s not so much structure that bothers me its mechanization.

Structure works when it’s personal. The structures at Fern Hill (primarily social) are applied individually. As Nick developed socially, we discovered that he was a kid who needed academic structure as well. Reading was a struggle for him, even though he wanted to learn how to do it. We imposed a reading regime at home, and Nick learned to read.

The good thing about Fern Hill was that it gave Nick a childhood. He never took a test there, but got to watch the day go by and fill it with his choices. Which points to what’s bad about mechanization: people are not mechanisms.




My neighbor sent both his boys to the most prestigious prep school in our town, an institution that makes the Road Less Traveled look like summer camp. He’s watched Nick’s educational progress with interest.

“If I had it to do again,” he said the other day, “I wouldn’t have been so quick to push my boys the way I pushed them.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because I don’t understand how the world works. I thought I did once,” he said. “But not now.”

One of his boys works on Wall Street. The other is training in clinical psychology.

Nick? He’s off to swim today at a friend’s. Tomorrow, I hope we’ll have time for a bike ride. Summer camp. He’s still only eleven.

Of course I worry about his future. A new gilded age, a warming climate, energy depletion, foxes guarding henhouses, inmates running the asylum. Signs of decay, all. What’s not to worry?

I allow a wavering of hope for my son. He can read, can’t he?




The Grove of Academe

Image Credit: Mr. Natural, by the one and only R. Crumb.




How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power. The long view of our jeapordy. From a blog I love to hate, Brain Pickings.




Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

The Exception March 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm

One of the guys I work with is very excited to have his fourteen year old daughter start testing out of college classes. he figures that she can finish, at least, her freshman year if not part of her sophomore before she graduates high school. In fact, he is all about her doing her GED and starting/finishing college when her friends are just finishing high school. Thomas Freman recently wrote an article about the future work force; the importance of the skills that academics doesn’t teach. My daughter is looking at the IB programs – the depth and analysis required intrigues me though I think the treasure of her education is not only what she learns from books or lectures but the experiences she has and the people with whom she works along the way.

It seems that, at one point, there was just one way of doing it – and now, there are so many options with each parent and child looking at education from perspectives that didn’t exist – and as a parent, my perception is colored by my own experience.

Great post and one that reflects a discussion that I have enjoyed much of late.


Wolf Pascoe March 21, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Fuel to the fire: just read an interesting article about tests and ADHD. Here you go: Are Standardized Tests Leading to More ADHD diagnoses? (The article isn’t imputing cause, just correlation.)


Privilege of Parenting March 21, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Hey Wolf,

When I started down the private education path (because I didn’t want to make an example out of my children, and so knuckled under both socially and economically to provide the best available experience) I promised myself that after I was done with struggling to educate my own children I’d see what role I might be able to play in deconstructing a terrible system that is unfair and, at least to me, seems bad for everyone if one thinks about the good of the group.

Maybe between us all every road available is being taken and none of them are leading to the sort of culture (i.e. fairness, well-being, lives truly well-lived rather than white knuckled through) we likely all yearn for. Sometimes I think modern LA resembles Dicken’s London only with better weather.

At Davos this year there is increasing discussion (who knows if it is genuine) that seems to suggest a dawning realization that wealth inequality might actually spell some trouble even for the “winners.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/business-16715721)

It strikes me that we live in a time where 100% of people think of themselves as the 99% and that just doesn’t quite add up.

Here’s to hoping that the road all children may travel might lead to a true education, compassion, creativity, productivity, inclusion and a sense of contribution to, and benefit from being part of, the group.


Wolf Pascoe March 21, 2014 at 10:04 pm

“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” — John Lennon


Barbara March 22, 2014 at 10:13 am

I was one of those A students, as well, a major people pleaser. I didn’t start out that way. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid to fail when I was younger. It was when I worked at the chemical plant that I finally heard someone say “If you never make a mistake, it means you’re not doing anything.” Fortunately, we didn’t “learn to the test” when I was in school, not even the SAT. I had heard they were revising it to discourage all of the training for it, which I think would be great, so I was disappointed to read about the email your son received. Good luck to all of you on this next leg of his educational adventure!


Wolf Pascoe March 22, 2014 at 1:00 pm

We’re hoping for lots of teachers like Miss Frizzle: “Take risks, make mistakes, get messy!”


Kate April 17, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Years ago, when these tests were less, I spent a couple months as a grader. In a couple days we were trained to their rubric. After that, we read. Two readers for each essay. If we disagreed (our answers bubbled, just like the kids), a third or even fourth reader would join the silent circle with a number two pencil. It was not a fun job. My heart broke when a kid had barely managed to scribble two illegible words onto the page (or had written in Spanish which, unless you were given the bilingual test, resulted in a zero). A very few soared.

In one week, my eight year old will have sat through her first ‘high stakes’ test. Four hours each on two day. Everything since January has lead here. 3 full practice tests. Several more with less of the ridiculous structural requirements. (staff, schedule, etc) I am furious at the whole thing.

The teachers are judged and rewarded on the student’s results. Bonuses are handed out. Their ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are printed in the paper, so we can see who is a capable teacher of test prep. And so the teachers are terrified and pass that along. Education and terror go so well together.

The biggest thing my daughter learned this year? That she is a cog in the machinery and so those in power will try to use her to their benefit. But she doesn’t have to buy into their BS.

And also that everyone in school is stressed to the point of being physically sick.

I looked at private options. Unless I want to drive hours, they too are stress factories.

So I am left with a choice – to continue with our well meaning but deeply flawed school where my girls will learn that people come from more backgrounds than I dreamed possible at that age — or to homeschool where we can be passionate about learning and deeply engaged (though would it work or would we bicker and fall to pieces?).

I want the expansive social world AND a childhood of awe and wonder. I fear I ask too much.


Wolf Pascoe April 20, 2014 at 8:29 am

Sigh. The weight of our corporatized state bends our camel’s back ever closer to the snapping point. The problem with individual choices in such an environment is this: to be an individual you have to take on the whole world, and so you must pick your battles carefully.


Kate April 20, 2014 at 8:49 am

I fear I stand in the middle of several battle fields and the only way out is through one of them. Onward, my brave warriors!


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