Why AP Classes Spell Doom
June 9, 2008, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

There was a great debate in the Washington Post online today about who should be taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in high school. It can be found here. WaPo education writer Jay Matthews takes the position that the advanced courses should be far more inclusive, and educational guru Chester E. Finn Jr. argues that the courses should only be used as college prep for the most capable students. What is really great about this discussion is the thinly veiled contempt the two men have for each other. There’s plenty of petty tit-for-tat to go around.

The inception of this intellectual sissy fight is Jay Matthews’ annual ranking of schools who have the most students enrolled in AP or IB classes, take the most tests, etc. Finn claims that Matthews is fueling a misguided push to enroll kids that are not prepared or motivated enough to do well in these classes. That seems dubious to me. Although Matthews is a major advocate for inclusion in these classes, his lists merely compiles and codifies a phenomenon that is already happening across the country. As public schools continue to fail its students, the top students, followed by the mid-ranging students are flocking to more rigorous courses. Finn thinks this is a bad thing.

The dialogue between the two highlights an interesting dichotomy between two liberal-minded thinkers. Matthews is a populist who has for some intents and purposes abandoned (I’ll explain this in a moment) the public education system as we know it. Finn is an elitist arguing for the protection of public education.

What scares Finn – and is not fully realized by Matthews – is that the growth of College Board’s AP and IB classes that represent a failure of public school curriculum. It is the educational equivalent of “voting with your feet”. As our schools continue to dumb themselves down to the lowest common denominator, those students and their parents who want more substantial classes (or perhaps just a reprieve from unruly kids who don’t care to learn) move to more advanced classes. When “regular” A-level classes ceased to prepare kids for college, “Honors” classes became the norm for good students. Then everyone wanted these better classes, and teachers were once again forced to teach to the lowest common denominator. Thus the advent of AP and IB classes.

Make no mistake about it: these classes are a privatization of public schools – and for good reason. We do not let public schools enforce any real standards: you cannot fail students, you cannot exclude them from taking a certain level class, tests are made easier, teachers water down curriculum. By purchasing curriculum from a private company who provides a test that is rigid and gives a concrete score, public schools allow students to opt into a real learning environment. Public schools can continue to pass failing students and coddle trouble-makers, but decent students can be challenged. If we allow more kids into these challenging classes, will they continue to be challenging?

The whole movement of education says “no”. Up to the 1950’s, a high school diploma was enough to get a good job. That piece of paper meant something because standards were enforced in schools. Failing students failed. That simple system, loathed by liberal educators, still works today. Japan’s school are so good because they are modeled after ours post-WWII. The next couple of decades saw public schools turning into a social service they refused to uphold standards and discipline. The result was that an undergraduate college education was necessary for good salaries. More kids entered college, including more unprepared ones, so the universities picked up the slack. Today you generally need a post-graduate degree to be in the same place you would have been with a BA 30 years ago and a high school diploma 60 years ago. So goeth the way of the buffalo.

The upshot here is that more people from more diverse social stratum are getting more schooling. The downside is that the quality of the education is plummeting. I don’t know about you, but I would rather go through 20 years of solid education than 30 drawn out years. That’s on a personal level. On a much grander scale, the education of our country ensures our survival, primacy, and quality of life. Long story short, we must be able to compete with other countries. For example, or upper-level math and sciences are far behind other industrialized countries. If Japan’s high school seniors are at the same level of math that our third year college students are, that is bad.

So we have two options, represented today by Mr. Matthews and Mr. Finn. Matthews sees a quick fix to help students immediately by enrolling more of them in AP classes. Mr. Finn thinks this is doesn’t tackle the hard issue of fixing the system which is failing students to the point of a massive bailout to privatized curriculum. I tend to agree with Matthews up to a point, at which I flop over to Finn. Here’s why:

AP is successful because it is a brand colleges trust. Just like a private school that is known to turn out good students, a student who scores well on AP tests is quality-assured. Forget failing schools and rural schools and the whole gamut. AP is standardized across the board, so a perfect 5 is a perfect 5, and this is a tremendous boon to kids that aren’t in elite private boarding schools in New England. Because the tests are guaranteed to stay the same (College Board needs to keep that brand strong) it doesn’t matter too much if less smart kids are in the classes. They simply will not do well on the tests. The value of AP does suffer a little, as merely taking AP classes will become the norm, and more weight will be placed on how well you do on the actual tests.

This is an acceptable devaluation because in the long run it is still standardizing the curriculum. What is not acceptable -and why I ultimately side with Finn- is that the system itself needs to be fixed. More kids can enroll in AP and IB, but teachers cannot let the grading be easier. They need to be able to fail students that do no deserve to pass. They need to give C’s to students that deserve C’s. If the last few decades of public schooling is any indication, I do not have high hopes. What we will have is the inability of a broken system to implement a fixed curriculum.

Which leads me to think about a lot of complicated things. Why doesn’t College Board ramp up its teacher cert program to monitor scores and revoke certifications for teachers that have high graded students who score poorly on the tests? Why not have College Board branded teachers. Then you could count on quality education. Why not have schools become more entwined with a trustworthy brand? Why not privatize everything? This is why Matthews is a little naive, and Finn is so scared. AP has the power to destroy everything.

Which is cool because I’m all for charter schools.

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings by Counting Crows
May 26, 2008, 4:02 pm
Filed under: Music Reviews | Tags: ,

To put it simply, they’re back. Most people myself included think that Counting Crows have spent the past 6 years writing catchy little ditties for the Shrek soundtracks that appeal to both eight year olds and their moms who listen to it on the way to school. But when the opening track “1492” explodes like a shotgun blast to the gut, it’s a whole different game. The first 70 seconds of the album reference guns, all-night partying, skinny girls performing fellatio, and tranny whores. Ladies and gents, we are no longer in the Kingdom of Far Far Away.

“Hanging Tree” keeps the rapid fire good times rolling, complete with screaming guitar solos and all the hooks you could ever cram into a chorus. The song slows, then winds itself back up like drinking off a hangover. It’s the musical equivalent of running to catch the tour bus before it heads full speed for the next town.

“Los Angeles” starts out sounding like every Ryan Adams song about New York, which is to say it sounds like long, slow, whiskey soaked nights, which is to say it sounds like damn good rock n roll. Especially when the staccato chorus offers amends for sexing, drugging, and rocking: “I’m just trying to make some sense out of me.” Ah yes, rock n roll indeed.

“Sundays” trolls along with a Grateful Dead lead guitar before an echoing crash cymbal sends it into wistful crooning backed by mandolin. “Insignificant” is full of erupting guitar chords and high lonely solos that could be coming out of Springsteen’s amp. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’ve heard the song before, which is probably more a sign of a strong chorus rather than a retread.

The highpoint of the album naturally comes at the end of the Saturday half of the album. “Cowboys” returns to that crazy never-ending dizziness of “Hanging Tree”, but is darker. The song will turn sweet for a few bars but then it’s back down the rabbit hole. The song blisters as Duritz loses it beautifully. He gets angry, shouts, stutters, points fingers, and gives up. Favorite line of the album? “She says she doesn’t love me, like, like she’s acting/But it’s as if she isn’t talking/’Cause Mr. Lincoln’s head is bleeding/On the front row while she’s speaking”.

The second half of the album slows down to reflect on the morning after. The first song here, the lackluster going home song “Washington Square”, is a complete misfire. “Almost Any Sunday Morning” and “Michelangelo” are salvaged by pedal guitar, banjo plucking, and pattering percussion. In fact, these two are probably the best Sunday songs here with their tastefully rationed instrumentation.

“Anyone But You” helps break any mopey mold being cast. With its lilting coo, some odd effects, and a squawking guitar helps the album pulls itself out of a mediocre B side. The addition of the catchy first single “You Can’t Count on Me” buoys it even further. It has a simple 4/4 chorus that works well, which excites me because its not even their strongest song. If this one takes off with radio play then we could have a classic Counting Crows album on our hands.

But you can add “Le Ballet Dor” and “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago” to the scratch list. Combined with “Washington Square”, these are the major pitfalls detracting from the flow of the album. Which is a shame because at 14 songs they could have spared a few songs and made an airtight album. I’m sure the desire to balance out Saturday night with Sunday morning led to some weaker songs being included.

“Amsterdam” is the real tragedy here. It has truly amateurish lyrics, complete with over explaining the context of the song (see song title), and tacking objects and verbs on the ends of lines to make rhyme schemes work. Some nonsensical lines muck up the song even more. “She is the film of a book of the story of the smell of her hair” just seems dopey. Same with the melodramatic “Come back to me!” chorus, where Duritz forces his strong voice to compensate for a weak song. I seriously can’t stand listening to that song.

Luckily the album closes on a high note, just the way it came in. Same tempo, but with a more conciliatory message that fits the Sunday theme. It just sounds like a closer, as the wounds of Saturday night have duly healed on Sunday morning. And it certainly echoes the Counting Crow’s favorite phrase. There are probably a half a dozen references to coming home, coming back, coming up, and coming around. Pretty fitting for a great band that has done just that. Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is one hell of a rock n roll album, especially the heavier half. And just like we can forgive “Accidentally in Love”, we can ignore the few missteps on the album’s second half. Duritz even says as much: “After I’ve been missing for a while…We’ll still come around. We will come around.”

The November Rundown

About once a month, I’d like to do a rundown of the music I’ve been listening to recently, and I encourage everybody to do the same. When you don’t have time to do a full album review, just give us a word or two about each album so we can share what is worth checking out ourselves. My friend and I have been doing this all year, and I plan on posting some back issues to get us started.

A) “Sawdust” by The Killers
B) “The Wire Tapes: Volume 1” by Dashboard Confessional
C) “The Shade of Poison Trees” by Dashboard Confessional
D) “Boxer” by The National
E) “Cassadaga” by Bright Eyes
F) “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” by Bright Eyes
G) “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” by Bright Eyes

A) It’s that good.
B) Absolutely the best covers album I’ve ever heard. The breadth of Dashboard’s talent is really made apparent.
C) Sugar, baby. I’ve listened to this album something like 60 times in 2 months. 12 songs, 33 minutes, delicious pop sounds. *cough* Brian Wilson *cough*
D) Beautiful, wistful, symphonic.
E) Perfect.
F) Classic.
G) I-can’t-even-believe-how-good-this-is-considering-its-electronic-folk good.

N.B. Yes, I linked to MySpace. Its the best way to listen to a bands music quickly. I’ve noticed since nthe networking sites took off, bands have really let their home pages slide. Sucks.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
May 22, 2008, 9:16 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , ,

I’ve decided that On the Road is like Catcher in the Rye for college kids: it’s blurbed on facebook and spoken about in an attempt to establish hipster legitimacy. “Oh YOU’VE read Kerouac? Yes, but I thought Dharma Bums was much better!” I’m still trying to find the connection between college stiffs and Sal Paradise, just like I’m still trying to find the connection between AP kids and Holden Caufield. I think it has something to do with vague senses of confusion and aimlessness. Rich kids that feel alienated from their parents cling to Holden as a callous renegade. And my friends and I college students live out their fantasies of complete irresponsibility through Sal. So I guess the connection is really in spirit, since none of the towels people I know have approached anything close to the craziness of the Road.

First, some reactions. Sal is 30 YEARS OLD in the book. He is not a kid. He’s already divorced and still lives with his “aunt” (Jack actually lived with his mom). He repeatedly refers to himself as a “college boy” although he is no boy, and certainly puts college on the back burner here. He drives across country to get back in home time for the spring semester. But he doesn’t like to be at home in the spring, so he sets off again to hitch more rides and hook up with more moms.

But the hero of the story is of course Dean Moriarty, who is so manic and unhinged he is famous for being manic and unhinged. The guys is considered the forerunner of the rock and roll archtype, but he didn’t play music, write books, write poetry, or act at all. No art. Dudeman just lived such a crazy life he was known all over the country. Just driving around, lying, stealing, bumming, chasing skirts, making babies, doing drugs, working railroads, talking incoherently ALOT, getting married, getting divorced, and getting married again. This all makes for great reading, mind you.

And how the story reads is half the battle (the other half is knowledge!). The prose is as rambly and incoherent and hopped up as the characters within it. Kerouac typed the book in one long continuous scroll over 4 days, sans punctuation, chapters, paragraphs etc. Swears he was not on amphetamines at the time either. The Scroll is sort of famous now and goes on a tour around the country (how appropriate) to libraries, museums and campuses. It explains what the Beat Generation was all about.

So Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the like were the Lost Generation of World War I. Their work is characterized my the modernist attitudes: “the world has gone crazy, nothing makes sense anymore, the normal modes of literary expression are dead, let’s wander around and drink and write things exactly like we feel.” After World War II, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs and their ilk self-consciously decided they would be the the next generation. And so their crazy hyped up prose and poetry was lumped together in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they were the Beat Poets.

All the running around, all the insanity, all the drinking and women exhausted me by the end. Afterward I wanted to just crawl in bed and get my scrambled head straight. I’m pretty sure I could only do maybe one week of the hard living they do on the road. I think I enjoy regular meals too much. That being said, I’m all for striking out West in better funded, slightly less irresponsible trip. But theres always school and work and gas to think about. I’ll probably just end up like every other kid my age with a touch of the wanderlust, and just be satisfied with talking about how much I loved reading the book.

“There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together” -“Stuck Between the Stations”, The Hold Steady