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Revisiting Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, Madison’s English 10

Madison’s very well funded K-12 system (> $25k/student) has long attempted and often implemented one size fits all programs: English 10 and the ongoing efforts to abort AP and honors courses.

Yet, years after Madison’s one size fits all English 10 experiment…


Harrison Bergeron University

William Jacobson:

Yesterday I posted about the proposed elimination of “blind auditions” for symphony orchestras, so that race and gender could be used as selection criteria to help diversify orchestra musicians. It would be the elimination of what previously was a meritocracy:

For decades leading symphony orchestras have used “blind auditions” to hire musicians. That is, the musicians are not seen at all, only their music is heard. That way, implicit or explicit racial, ethnic, or gender bias cannot enter into the hiring decision, only the quality of the music. It is as close to a pure meritocracy as I can imagine….

The desire to move away from “blind auditions” hurts people who otherwise would have been chosen based on the quality of their music, or in other contexts, their academic performance on standardized tests and other objective measurements….

I mentioned in that regard that this overt intent to discriminate was, in campus-speak, called “equity,” which is the opposite of equal opportunity:

On campus, this is called “equity,” a euphemism for racial, gender and other discrimination. It’s the opposite of equal opportunity, it’s demanding equal results even if it means discriminating against some people on the basis of race, ethnicity or other immutable factors. It’s the core driving the “antiracism” movement on campus. When campus activists and administrators say “equity” (as opposed to “equality”), what they really mean is discrimination based on race to achieve a desired racial outcome.

As mentioned previously, the suggested Cornell summer reading and discussion topic is How to Be AntiRacist, which seems to be the roadmap used to develop the proposed compulsory racial activism for faculty, students, and staff. Here’s a key concept from How to Be AntiRacist:

To Raise Smart and Successful Children, Focus on Developing a Work Ethic


In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring short stories, Harrison Bergeron, everyone is finally equal thanks to the efforts of the Handicapper General. However, one of the many lasting messages of the story is a derisive one. In the futuristic world of Harrison Bergeron, accomplishment is no longer the measure of stature. Instead, it is all about trying, of recognizing effort, regardless of result.
However, a recent summary of three decades of research reveals that when it comes to raising smart children, developing their work ethic is in fact the most critical component. Whether it is success in school or in life, research indicates that innate intelligence and ability are simply not as important as a person’s level of effort.

When Policy Trumps Results

Marc Eisen makes sense:

Much to its credit, the Madison school board has mostly ignored the March 2007 recommendations of the district’s Equity Task Force. This earnest but unhelpful committee delved into the abstractions of what distinguishes “equity” from “equality,” how the board might commit to equity and what esoteric guidelines could measure that commitment.
This point needs to be emphasized. Madisonians aren’t afraid to tax themselves. They just want good services in return and know that their money isn’t being wasted.
But I can’t for the life of me see them rallying around a pompous and abstruse equity policy, especially one that reads like it was formulated by the UW Department of Leftwing Social Engineering. (Example: “Equity will come about when we raise a generation of children tolerant of differences and engaged in their democracy to stop the processes leading to inequity.”)
The school board, after a suitable 14-month delay, should politely shelve the task force’s recommendations when it finally gets around to voting on them in May.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron provides a timely read after Marc’s article.

Math & Progress

Eliminating 8th grade algebra in the name of equity.

Harrison Bergeron

Connected Math

Discovery Math

Singapore Math

“If everyone was out of school, and everyone had learning loss, then aren’t we all equal?”

Chester Finn:

Yet the complacency of most Americans regarding the performance of our K–12 system has long been noted, as have the many structural, institutional, and contractual obstacles to changing that system in ways that might actually alter performance. This dates back at least to 1983’s Nation at Risk report. One reform effort after another gets opposed, diluted, or repealed—or turns out to be sorely incomplete because, for example, it fails to address the school-and-classroom implementation changes that are also essential if it’s to succeed.

Covid-related learning losses and what (if anything) to do about them are the latest example. Despite being flush with federal “recovery” dollars, most places aren’t doing much or doing “more of the same” or using the “lite” version or making it optional. They’re proving unable or unwilling to agree to actions that would truly alter behavior.

As the MacGillis piece makes clear, we shouldn’t dismiss this failure as mere structural rigidities or lack of leadership, although those definitely play roles almost everywhere. But the Richmond example is one of visionary leadership and what appear to be workable plans to retool the school year in ways that would facilitate recovery, especially among students who would get additional learning time, while also tackling such enduring problems as “summer learning loss” and kids getting into trouble due to endless weeks of no school.

What killed the year-round plan in Richmond (save for a tiny pilot version that finally slipped through, affecting just two of the districts’ fifty-four schools and potentially one thousand out of 22,000 pupils) was a witch’s brew of complacency, timidity, resignation, incomprehension, union resistance, and school board politics, plus a soupcon of condescension or obviousness among elites to the true circumstances of disadvantaged families.

Related: Harrison Bergeron:

Bates Academy cuts ‘premier’ music program and beloved teacher

Micah Walker:

Behind the smiles and jokes, the school’s lone band, orchestra and piano teacher was masking her sadness and frustration. Thomas spent the last two months fighting for her job at Bates, a K-8 school on Detroit’s northwest side. 

Thomas said Bates Principal David Bailey notified her April 12 that she would be leaving Bates at the end of the school year and transferring to another school in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Thomas believes she’s being reassigned over too many absences throughout the year, absences the teacher said are protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that affords employees unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. Thomas said she takes FMLA time each year to care for her 10-year-old son with disabilities, but needed to take a six-week leave for herself earlier this year due to health reasons.

“Why would you take away a program that’s highly successful?” Thomas said. “We’re one of the premier schools.”

Related: Harrison Bergeron:

Eliminating Advanced Classes in the name of equity: Madison’s English 10 deja vu “This is a sound pedagogical approach to education”

Sara Randazzo:

The parental pushback in Culver City mirrors resistance that has taken place in Wisconsin, Rhode Island and elsewhere in California over the last year in response to schools stripping away the honors designation on some high school classes.

School districts doing away with honors classes argue students who don’t take those classes from a young age start to see themselves in a different tier, and come to think they aren’t capable of enrolling in Advanced Placement classes that help with college admissions. Black and Latino students are underrepresented in AP enrollment in the majority of states, according to the Education Trust, a nonprofit that studies equity in education.

Culver City High School eliminated honors English classes to try to improve racial equity, but many parents disagree with the move.
Since the start of this school year, freshmen and sophomores in Culver City have only been able to select one level of English class, known as College Prep, rather than the previous system in which anyone could opt into the honors class. School officials say the goal is to teach everyone with an equal level of rigor, one that encourages them to enroll in advanced classes in their final years of high school.

“Parents say academic excellence should not be experimented with for the sake of social justice,” said Quoc Tran, the superintendent of 6,900-student Culver City Unified School District. But, he said, “it was very jarring when teachers looked at their AP enrollment and realized Black and brown kids were not there. They felt obligated to do something.”

Culver City English teachers presented data at a board meeting last year showing Latino students made up 13% of those in 12th-grade Advanced Placement English, compared with 37% of the student body. Asian students were 34% of the advanced class, compared with 10% of students. Black students represented 14% of AP English, versus 15% of the student body.

Related: Madison’s English 10 expedition (Mid 2000’s)

2017, yet Madison’s long term, disastrous reading results continue (despite spending about $23k/student).

Madison’s recent attempt to eliminate honors classes.

Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron is worth a read.

Thomas Jefferson High School Governance Investigation

Matthew Barakat:

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares is launching an investigation into one of the state’s most prestigious high schools, acting on complaints that students there weren’t properly recognized for their achievements on a standardized test.

Miyares said at a news conference Wednesday that his Office of Civil Rights is investigating the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology not only for its failure to timely notify students of a commendation they received in a scholarship competition, but also the school’s recently overhauled admissions policies.

The public high school commonly known as TJ is located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax County and regularly ranks as one of the best in the country. Admission to the school is highly competitive, and parents map out strategies to gain entry for their children years in advance.

A majority of students are Asian American and for many years African American and Hispanic students have been woefully underrepresented. In 2020, the Fairfax County School Board dramatically overhauled the admissions process, scrapping a high-stakes standardized test and setting aside a certain number of seats on a geographic basis.

The changes prompted claims of discrimination against Asian Americans who had fared well under the old system, and a federal lawsuit challenging the new procedures is going through the appeals process.

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron.

“California should abolish parenthood, in the name of equity”

Joe Mathews:

If California is ever going to achieve true equity, the state must require parents to give away their children.

Today’s Californians often hold up equity — the goal of a just society completely free from bias — as our greatest value. Gov. Gavin Newsom makes decisions through “an equity lens.” Institutions from dance ensembles to tech companies have publicly pledged themselves to equity.

But their promises are no match for the power of parents.

Fathers and mothers with greater wealth and education are more likely to transfer these advantages to their children, compounding privilege over generations. As a result, children of less advantaged parents face an uphill struggle, social mobility has stalled, and democracy has been corrupted. More Californians are abandoning the dream; a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found declining belief in the notion that you can get ahead through hard work.

My solution — making raising your own children illegal — is simple, and while we wait for the legislation to pass, we can act now: the rich and poor should trade kids, and homeowners might swap children with their homeless neighbors.

Now, I recognize that some naysayers will dismiss such a policy as ghastly, even totalitarian. But my proposal is quite modest, a fusion of traditional philosophy and today’s most common political obsessions.

In his “Republic,” Plato adopted Socrates’ sage advice — that children “be possessed in common, so that no parent will know his own offspring or any child his parents” — in order to defeat nepotism, and create citizens loyal not to their sons but to society.

Today, a policy of universal orphanhood aligns with powerful social trends that point to less interest in family. Californians are slower to marry, and are having fewer children — our birth rate is at an all-time low.

My proposal also should be politically unifying, fitting hand-in-glove with the most cherished policies of progressives and Trumpians alike.

Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron is always worth reading and contemplating:

And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

“We Cannot Mince Words”: San Francisco Education Official Denounces Meritocracy As Racist

Jonathan Turley:

Alison Collins, the Vice President of the San Francisco Board of Education, has declared meritocracy to be racist even in the selection of students at advanced or gifted programs. As we have previously discussed, this has been a building campaign in academia as educators and others denounce selection based on academic performance through testing. At issue in San Francisco is Lowell High School where top students were selected through testing and grades.  Most cities have such gifted programs or institutions, though we have discussed calls for the elimination of all gifted and talented programs in cities like New York.  Lowell had a majority of white and Asian students and only two percent of its student body were African-Americans. Collins and other board members want to abolish the merit-based selection in favor of a blind lottery system.

Collins’ remarks from a San Francisco Board of Education public meeting in October 13, 2020 were only recently posted by Sophie Bearman of San Francisco’s online publication Here/Say Media. In the meeting, she declared “When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing…those are racist systems.… You can’t talk about social justice, and then say you want to have a selective school that keeps certain kids out from the neighborhoods that you think are dangerous.”

Collins made the statement in support of a resolution, entitled “In Response to Ongoing, Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School,” authored by Collins, Board President Gabriela Lopez, Commissioner Matt Alexander, and Student Delegates Shavonne Hines-Foster and Kathya Correa Almanza.

Newsweek quotes at least one Lowell teacher who objects to the elimination of the school as a place for top performing students and said that the system is blind on race and designed to reward “the hardest working kids in terms of academics.”

Gifted programs and elite academic schools are designed to allow students to reach their full academic potential with other students performing at the highest level of math and other disciplines. It is often difficult for such students to reach that potential in conventional settings. Teachers have to keep their classes as a whole moving forward in subject areas. That often means that academically gifted children are held back by conventional curricula or lesson plans. Those students can actually underperform due to boredom or the lack of challenging material. Many simply leave the public school system.  Moreover, students tend to perform better with students progressing at their similar level. Teachers can then focus on a lesson plan and discussions that are tailored to students at a similar performance level.

Related: English 10.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron provides a timely read.

“Structured Play” & Recess Consultants

Beena Raghavendran:

At the school, recess is made up of clear adult-facilitated activities.

On a day last week, a kindergartner said he wanted to play basketball. A recess coach explained that wasn’t a choice at the time; he decided to play another game.

Melissa Jackson, the principal at Forest, used Playworks when she was principal at Bethune Community School in Minneapolis.

She said she’s seen a positive impact on the school community.

After a few weeks at Concord, Playworks has become more routine. Students crawled through the play set and played jump rope games. A group of girls at Normandale acted out a game of television commercials on benches while others played four square.

Adults got involved in soccer and football games in other parts of the yard.

Away from direct supervision, some free-spirited girls at Normandale climbed on top of a spider structure, climbing higher and higher.

Related: Harrison Bergeron.

AP Program Gaining Increasing Prominence Nationwide

Tamar Lewin:

According to the second annual report from the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, about 60 percent of American high schools now offer Advanced Placement courses, and the average high school offers a choice of eight such courses.

“The number of students participating in A.P. has more than doubled in 10 years, and today almost 15,000 U.S. schools offer A.P. courses,” said Gaston Caperton, the president of the board, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

The percentage of American high school students passing A.P. exams increased in all 50 states last year, the report said. In the class of 2005, 14.1 percent of students received an A.P. exam grade of 3 or higher on one or more A.P. exams, up from 13.2 percent of the class of 2004, and 10.2 percent of the class of 2000.

A.P. exams in 35 subjects are given in May, at a cost of $82 each. They are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing A-level college work, and 3 representing about a C+.

Barb Schrank earlier noted that East offers 8 AP courses, LaFollette 13, Memorial 16 and West 8. The District’s efforts in these areas appear to be going in different directions, with a growing effort to provide a one size fits all curriculum (West and Sherman examples) while recently receiving a grant to increase the number of AP classes. The District’s approach to Athletics has apparently not changed, though Kurt Vonnegut via his short story Harrison Bergeron, notes that 2081 might be the year for that.

K-12 Schools & Technology

“The greatest asset of the American, so often ridiculed by Europeans, is his belief in progress,” Victor Vinde, in 1945
Mary Kay Battaglia recently wrote about the virtual non-existence of electronic communication with parents in the Madison School District. I agree with Mary Kay’s comments.
Having said that, I believe that any District technology investment should be made in the context of these three priorities:

  • Curriculum: we should strive to teach our children to be creators rather than consumers (writing and thinking rather than powerpoint).
  • High Expectations: Our children must have the skills (arts, languages, math, science, history) to compete in tomorrow’s world. Retiring Milwaukee High School Principal Will Jude refers to the Tyranny of Low Expectations:

    Graduation comes, “but it’s at the expense of content.” The student goes to college and finds other kids are way ahead. Jude’s response: “You were doing the A section of the book while they were doing the B and C sections. You covered a lot of material but it was very shallow. They covered a lot of material but it was in depth.” . Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (1961) provides further useful reading.

  • Inquisitiveness: Our students interest in and ability to ask questions, in other words, their willingness to question things that they read, observe and hear (Jay Rosen shows how important this is to our democracy).

Today’s communication tools provide our students and community with an unprecedented ability to converse, debate and learn. Our K-12 students, like their parents and those who teach them should be comfortable conversing in written form, email, cellphones, voicemail, weblogs and html.

The Madison School District, as Troy Dasler pointed out, will soon start to implement a new internet based Student Information System.


Celebrating Mediocrity?

John Tierney writes:

At one level, the debate is over current controversies in public education: Many parents believe that their children, mostly in elite schools, are being pushed too hard in a hypercompetitive atmosphere. But other parents are complaining about a decline in programs for gifted children, leaving students to languish in “untracked” and unstimulating classrooms. Some critics of education believe that boys especially are languishing in schools that emphasize cooperation instead of competition. No Child Left Behind, indeed.
But the basic issue is the same one raised four decades ago by Kurt Vonnegut in “Harrison Bergeron,” a short story set in the America of 2081, about a 14-year-old genius and star athlete. To keep others from feeling inferior, the Handicapper General weighs him down with 300-pound weights and makes him wear earphones that blast noise, so he cannot take “unfair advantage” of his brain.
That’s hardly the America of 2004, but today’s children do grow up with soccer leagues and spelling bees where everyone gets a prize. On some playgrounds dodge ball is deemed too traumatic to the dodging-impaired. Some parents consider musical chairs dangerously exclusionary.

Fascinating look at the tyranny of low expectations….