Home > Uncategorized > “Poor Elijah” aka Peter Berger Longs for a Yesteryear that is Not Coming Back

“Poor Elijah” aka Peter Berger Longs for a Yesteryear that is Not Coming Back

February 28, 2017

“Poor Elijah”, the pseudonym for Weathersfield (VT) English teacher Peter Berger, is a frequent contributor to our local newspaper who also publishes op ed pieces that appear elsewhere in New England. His most recently published article, Legitimate Concerns About Our Public Schools, which appeared in the New Haven Register, like many of his pieces, expresses a yearning for the kind of public education that once existed in our nation. Mr. Berger’s narrative describes a time when each town had its own school populated by children eager to learn who lived in a community where parents supported the schools financially and supported the teachers by insisting that homework be completed before the children could listen to their favorite radio show. In this column, as in many of his columns, Mr. Berger rails against the “reformers” who have a “disdain for teaching content, knowledge, and facts” and instead champion “critical thinking.” Like E.D. Hirsch and many other critics of public schools who believe that there is an irreducible set of common facts that all students must learn through direct instruction, Mr. Berger believes that critical thinking cannot be taught because “…you can’t think without something to think about.” What Mr. Berger and Mr. Hirsch don’t acknowledge, though, it that identifying a common set of irreducible facts is increasingly difficult in this day and age as Bill Gates and the advocates for the Common Core learned the hard way.

“Poor Elijah” also longs for the kind of schooling that existed “before 1970″…  before schools were asked “…to assume responsibilities that once belonged to other social agencies and home.”  Mr. Berger contends that a consequence of assuming these new responsibilities is a willingness for more and more parents to give the responsibility for raising children to the schools, which further diminishes the emphasis on academics. He writes:

At the same time that classrooms have become less focused on academics, they’ve also become more disrupted and even violent. Time is lost. Focus is lost. Learning is lost. Parents rightly are concerned about the threat to classroom order and their children’s safety. Sadly, the crusade against what reformers brand “school-to-prison pipeline” discipline, the inclusion of profoundly disturbed children in regular classrooms, and a return to the permissiveness that characterized schools in the 1970s have rendered too many classrooms hostile learning environments where behavior expectations are set by the most disruptive child in the room. This is just one of the lessons of the 1970s that schools have chosen to ignore.

The highlighted language is Mr. Berger’s biggest issue: he wishes that teachers did not have to deal with what he characterizes as “…profoundly disturbed children” whose behavior presumably sets the norm for the classroom. But this just in: federal laws require public schools to provide a free appropriate education for ALL students, even profoundly disturbed children… and that education must be provided in the least restrictive environment. Mr. Berger and his colleagues who wish schools could go back to the pre-1970 era need to adjust to this “new” reality or advocate a return to the days when these children were excluded from school or a future era where everyone needs to pay a premium to exclude them from public schools and presumably public life forever.

Mr. Berger also inveighs against the trend to individualize learning. He is clearly in the “stand and deliver” school of teaching, whereby the teacher crafts a well conceived lesson and presents it to the class who, in turn, take notes and are later tested on the information presented, presumably incorporating essay questions that give the students an opportunity to show that they can think using the information the teacher presented. This method, though, assumes that all children in the class are equally capable of absorbing the information, an assumption that is problematic unless the students are homogeneously grouped. In Mr. Berger’s idealized classroom, students are all equally capable, all eager to learn, and all parents are in full support of schools. Unfortunately, and it is unfortunate, that is not the world we live in today or the world teachers are expected to work in. Schools are expected to meet each student’s individual needs… and that reality unsettles Mr. Berger.

Parents have also been gulled by promises of individual attention that schools can’t actually deliver. These assurances sometimes have been well-intentioned, but in many cases they’ve been crafted to elicit parental support. Despite ballyhooed mechanisms such as “personal learning plans” for every student, there’s a limit in a classroom with 20 students as to how personalized and “individualized” any student’s program can be. Parents nonetheless understandably expect to hold schools accountable for these assurances. The difficulty is I’m a public school classroom teacher, not a private tutor. That makes a difference, especially when you’re the guy who’s expected to keep someone else’s impossible promise.

I’m not sure where or when teachers were NOT expected to keep “someone else’s impossible promise”. Teachers and public school have long been expected to provide equal opportunities for all children, have been asked to overcome societal obstacles like racial segregation, have been expected to overcome external obstacles like poverty in the child’s home, and have been expected to deliver day-in-and-day-out no matter what is happening in their personal lives. But Mr. Berger seems to believe that there is some positive external force that can make things right at the school level without asking teachers to make things right at their own level. His closing paragraphs are telling in this regard:

The problems at school aren’t all at school. Many reside at home. But until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.

I don’t believe that choice and alternatives to public schools can solve our nation’s education problems.

But I also don’t believe that schools can afford to ignore why parents increasingly want to choose something else.

IF parents want to choose something else because they don’t like their children being educated with profoundly disturbed children or children whose parents have different values or different religious beliefs, schools must ignore the reason those parents want something else and, I believe, the public should insist that they pay for that “something else” themselves. And if teachers want to work in an environment that is free of profoundly disturbed children or with children who are less engaged than they would like, then they should feel free to seek employment in a non-public school that is not supported by taxpayers.

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