There's no room for hand holding

May 28, 2008|By GREGORY KANE

Air Force Staff Sgt. Wallace Tidwell was wise beyond his 40-plus years when I met him early on the morning of March 29, 1974.

I had just arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, with a group of other equally green recruits from around the country. Tidwell was our military training instructor, responsible for turning us from scraggly, clueless civilians into well-drilled, sharp military personnel.

Tidwell made two things clear to us immediately: He told us we could make no excuses if we messed up, and then told us what excuses are. This being a family newspaper and what all, I can't print those remarks.

But I can tell you what Tidwell said about "hand-holding." Those of us who couldn't cut the mustard would not have our hands held by the instructors. There would be no remedial help, no one coming to our rescue if we didn't meet the standards of basic training. Being shipped out to a motivation platoon awaited us, and once he gave us an idea of what went on in motivation platoons, we were kind of motivated to learn what we had to learn, as quickly as we had to learn it, and get the hell out of basic training.

I don't know if Tidwell is still alive, but if he is, Andres Alonso, head honcho of Baltimore's public schools, might want to have a chat with him about that "hand-holding" thing. Because hand-holding is just what Alonso is proposing for "academically struggling" students at elite and revered city institutions such as City College, Polytechnic Institute and Western High School.

Standards at those schools are high and the work is tough, the better to prepare graduates to compete in rigorous and elite colleges and universities like Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When alumni of City College, Polytechnic Institute and Western get to colleges and universities like those, they're not going to have their "hands held." There will be no administrators who are going to say, "We know you're bright and academically able, so if you're flunking out, it must be our fault. We'll put in place programs that will guarantee your success."

That is, basically, what Alonso is saying. Here are Alonso's exact words, according to reporter Sara Neufeld's story that appeared in Monday's paper, when asked about the numbers of students who had to transfer from elite schools for academic reasons:

"That's unacceptable," Alonso said. "It represents a lack of accountability on the part of the school given the fact that they begin with students who by definition are the most academically able students in the city. My expectation is that they succeed with them, that they put in place not only extraordinary educational programs but also the interventions that are necessary."

I tend to get woozy when I hear academic types use words like "interventions." I got even woozier when I read the paragraph in Neufeld's story that followed Alonso's quote:

"From now on, high schools with academic entrance requirements must demonstrate that they are providing struggling students with academic and behavioral interventions, such as tutoring or mentoring."

Anybody notice something missing here? Anyone? Anyone? Sergeant Tidwell, where are you now that you're really needed?

I can't imagine the sarge telling me, "Airman Basic Kane, you've displayed conduct that shows you're in desperate need of a behavioral intervention." I can imagine him saying "Kane, mess up one more time and you're gone from here to a motivation platoon."

In basic training, recruits are expected to meet basic requirements. In elite city schools, apparently nothing will be required of students. Did the student flunk the test? Must be the school's fault. Student goofed off and didn't get that paper in on time? Clearly the school didn't provide enough academic intervention.

What's so egregious is that Alonso acts as if those interventions he's talking about weren't happening before he got here. I know of at least one case in which they were. My oldest grandchild is a City College sophomore. During his freshman year, he struggled with algebra. His parents and grandparents still bear the psychological scars to prove it.

His algebra teacher did everything but bend over backward to help him. He eventually muddled his way through and is doing fine now. But I'm sure that algebra teacher isn't an isolated case at City College, Poly or Western. In many cases academic interventions are already in place.

When it comes to behavioral interventions, Alonso and I are clearly in alternate universes. There was a time when the blame for students who engaged in misconduct was placed on the students. Now it's placed on everyone but the students. Anyone looking for reasons why teachers in Baltimore schools get their clocks cleaned by students needs to look no farther than the system's "behavioral intervention" policy.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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