• Getting personal
    October 24,2013
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    When I was a kid in junior high, I wanted to be a doctor, an ambition that immensely pleased my mother. By the time I got halfway through high school, I’d discovered I didn’t enjoy dissecting frogs nearly as much I liked combatively exercising my larynx. Since lawyers, as I understood it, got paid to argue, the practice of law became my new career choice.

    Then toward the end of my senior year, I decided to be an English professor, mostly because I liked Henry Thoreau and corduroy sport coats. I clung to that vocation until one of my English professors talked me out of it.

    That’s how I wound up a public school teacher. I left out my elementary years when I planned to sell big cars with fins, as well as the decade I spent unloading trucks and building houses.

    Ever since the prospects of commoners like you and me expanded beyond lifelong employment as serfs, distantly related adults have been pinching children on the cheek and asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up.” Now education officials want to replace my great aunt. After 40 years in which education reform diminished American graduates’ skills and knowledge, and individual initiative gave way to entitlement, public schools are again being drafted to solve a problem education policymakers helped create and society at large encouraged.

    Enter “Personal Learning Plans,” yet another “education reform” that promises to “make education more relevant,” this time by “match[ing] schooling with a student’s career goals.” PLPs aren’t public education’s first “personal” plans. Since 1974 federal law has required “individual education plans” for special education students, based on those students’ disabilities and exceptional education needs. Those IEP demands have been difficult enough for schools to meet. Now the sages who run public education, typically from a comfortable distance, have decreed that every public school student have an individual plan.

    Memo to sages: I’m not a private tutor. If I were, I’d be ideally positioned to design and implement a personal plan for my personal student. In case you haven’t noticed, though, I don’t teach one student in his father’s paneled library. I teach 90 students, and many of my colleagues teach many more.

    But let’s set aside the impracticality of PLPs. Let’s not dwell on proposals that we “completely redesign” the school day so students, teachers, and counselors can hold regular “one-on-one meetings.” That, of course, would be in addition to the time teachers already spend helping individual students. It’s also on top of schools’ principal mission to graduate literate, broadly knowledgeable heirs of the republic.

    Let’s examine how PLPs would “transform” public education.

    Advocates insist that “students must be at the center” of PLP planning. Unfortunately, when A Nation at Risk identified what had gone wrong with schools, the problems that reformers keep claiming they’re trying to fix, Risk’s authors identified “extensive student choice” in planning their own education as a significant cause of America’s academic decline.

    Boosters intend PLPs to be standard procedure in grades seven through 12, with many extending the range down as early as kindergarten. I’m sure some of my students will grow up to be exactly what they think they want to be now. But I was a pretty conscientious kid, and I didn’t land behind the teacher’s desk until I was 35. It’s not wise to design an elementary or secondary education around the testimony and foresight of 6-year-olds, or even 16-year-olds.

    My friend Harvey wanted to be a doctor ever since his mother hung a stethoscope over his crib. One of my classmates wanted to be a politician and wound up a poet, a poetic friend is now a Manhattan attorney, and then there’s me. All of us, regardless of our career aspirations, needed to take the same liberal arts and science courses in order to prepare for college and informed citizenship. The fact is once you’ve identified high school programs for students opting for specific technical training and vocational trades, students headed for academic colleges need to take basically the same things, with the chief variation being not their intended major or career, but how selective the colleges they’re aiming for are.

    Proponents contend, for example, that students who like “science and animals” need to be told by their schools that they might want to be a vet or a vet assistant. Fine, let a guidance counselor or, even better, a parent tell them. But let’s acknowledge first that most children who like science and animals don’t wind up working in veterinary offices. Let’s acknowledge that the academic preparation required of a prospective veterinarian is significantly different from what you’d recommend in a PLP for someone who tends the kennels in his office, and depends far more on their aptitudes than their shared and very likely passing interest.

    If Harvey and I were in high school today, he’d be taking foreign languages, college prep science, history, English, and calculus to prepare for life and college so he could become a doctor one day, and I’d be taking the same foreign languages, college prep science, history, English, and calculus to prepare for life and college so I could become an English professor one day. You don’t abandon a balanced, fundamental arts and science program based on liking math or poems or pets.

    In a perverse irony, PLP advocates commonly insist that students be grouped in classes regardless of their aptitudes and interests. Many PLP disciples subscribe to the mantra “College for All” and refuse to concede that some students are suited for college while others aren’t, the one personalizing scholastic distinction that makes sense.

    In yet another distraction and assault on the academic day, boosters mandate that PLPs go beyond a “list of courses” and also include “experiences outside the classroom.” For example, our hypothetical student who likes dogs might take time off from school to “visit a vet’s office” or “intern” there as part of his high school course schedule.

    My passing interest in medicine is why I volunteered at the hospital, and why Harvey and I got summer jobs there. But that was on our own time in addition to our academic classes, not instead of them.

    Reformers clamor that American students must be better prepared for the 21st century. It would be good if they’d stopped doing all they can to keep that from happening.

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