Friday, October 10, 2008

The Problem is...

Education is a particularly hot topic right now because of the impending election and Bush's tragically unsuccessful "No Child Left Behind" Program. Add in Jamie Lee Curtis's commercial featuring the forlorn child reluctantly hoisting up the flags of countries with better education systems than ours, and you have disgruntled Americans of all ages up in arms about the state of the education system.

"I believe that every child deserves an education that allows them to reach their full potential," Curtis states, but what does that mean?

I obviously don't have the answer to the question, because if I did I would have put it to good use, but here are my observations after being both a student and a teacher in the public school system...

Not EVERYONE can be successful, and a major attitude adjustment is needed for even the majority of students to be successful. One reason why "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) was doomed to failure before it began was because it called for 100% proficiency in math and science, English and social studies. In Missouri, it does not account for immigrants who are not proficient in basic English communication, and therefore certainly not able to write an essay to a community leader persuading them to do something. It does not make concessions for the profoundly autistic, or the mentally retarded. There is no conceivable way EVERY student, regardless of race, creed, color, socioeconomic class or innate talent can be proficient in English and Math.

And that, Ms. Curtis, is why other countries are outperforming us in Math. It isn't because Japan's smartest kid is smarter than our smartest kid; it is that Japan's numbers don't include every teenager in the country. Germany's numbers don't include every teenager in the country. China's numbers don't include every teenager in the country. It is easy to say we are being outperformed in Math by these countries when their scores are higher, but it is important to look at why their scores are higher. Only the elite in Germany go to what we refer to as "High School." Many, many German teenagers go to a sort of technical school to learn a trade. In China, only urban students go to "High School" and not all of them at that. The United States has had compulsory secondary education since the 50's, wherein every minor is REQUIRED to attend school until they are 16 years old, and therefore EVERY student gets tested. So yes, Germany's elite are outperforming our total population in math. Of course they are. China's wealthy, urban elite are outperforming our total population in math. Of course they are. They should be. I would certainly hope the the average score on a standardized math test in a country where only the best and the brightest take it would be high. I would hope their scores would be higher than those from a country where the valedictorian and the kid with an IQ of 85 take the same test.

I am okay with that. I relish in the knowledge that I live in a country where everyone gets a free public education. I will put our geniuses up against Asia's geniuses any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Why don't I see commercials that celebrate the public education system, rather than criticize it? It has problems. I will fully admit that there is a discrepancy in the quality of public education depending on district. I will fully admit that there is way too much political motivation in the public schools. I will admit that there are teachers who should no longer be teaching. I will admit that school has gotten too easy. I will admit that grades are inflated. I will admit that some parents have made school too easy for their kids And this, friends, is why Canada is kicking our butts in butts in Math.

If a student gets suspended (OSS) for fighting, or vandalizing, or bringing a weapon to school, I still have to provide him with his homework assignments and accept them for full credit. Doesn't that keep it from being a deterrent and instead make it a vacation. They get to sleep in, not sit through class, hang out at home AND make up their work for full credit.

I have a student whose mother writes all of his essays, and when I try to point out to her that her son's in class writing in NO WAY compares to his out of class writing, she yells at me, telling me in class writing assignments aren't fair because the kids have no time to prepare and revise. I am not talking about the out of class essay being a little better organized. It has words in it the student can't identify. He doesn't even read the essay to know what it is about.

I have a student who does no work all semester. He gets a progress report that says he has an F, and a quarter grade that says he has an F. I email his mom to tell her every time he is missing a big assignment. And then, when wrestling season begins, he comes in crying (literally crying) because he can't participate if he doesn't get his grade up. Then I am ordered by my principal to allow him to make up his work because he is an all state wrestler.

These are extreme examples, but then you get advances in education like multiple intelligences and differentiated instruction. These are efforts to allow EVERYONE to enjoy school based on their preferences or skill. And suddenly everyone can "do" school, and the kid that takes Calculus has the same grade point average as the kid who took a math class that featured Sudoku.

Where do you draw the line? Is school for everyone or should it be school like? Is it okay to leave a few people behind for the sake of the "greater good?" I don't have the answer to these questions, but I do know this: You can't have it both ways. Either school is school with lectures and text books and essays and tests, or school is for everyone with collective learning activities and recess. School is hard and we excel but leave a few people behind, or school is not and we fall behind as a nation, but bring everyone with us.

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