In my last piece, I addressed some of the reasons why American public schools perform worse on standardized tests than their counterparts around the world. Of course, in such an article you can never fully explain things that require further explanation. So, this article serves as both further explanation and an exploration into my own beliefs on the issues involved.
The primary issue that is close to my heart as an educator comes in our overall goals as a nation. Simply put, we do not perform as well as those countries because our goals are different. The top performing countries do not consider public education to be a god given right. At least, not everyone is guaranteed a right to a college preparatory education. Many of these countries divert a part of the population into what we would call trade schools. So, the tested population represent the best and brightest.
Making such a statement would immediately cause some to assume I am advocating for such a system. While that might be true in part, it is more of a statement to explain the results. The scores don’t so much reflect a lack of performance as they reflect a difference in priorities. Since the mid 1970s, we have been moving in a direction towards what people in the industry would call inclusion. “No Child Left Behind” was the ultimate culmination of this philosophy and perhaps the most comprehensive (if not eloquent) defense of its philosophy and implementation.
The general idea is that we want as many people to achieve as much as possible. That is after all the American way. It’s what defines us as a nation. We want everyone to have an equal opportunity at the American dream. In the education business, we collectively believe that if we try and try again then eventually everyone will get it. At least, that is what the present philosophy is purporting.
I am one of a few that can honestly say that I have worked in all four educational settings (elementary, intermediate, high school, and college). Watching myself and fellow educators has been and enlightening and often times exasperating experience. On the one hand, we all see what watering down the standards has done for the overall product. Then again, none of us enjoy watching students fail and we actively look for ways to avoid seeing that happen.
At my present campus, teachers actively strive to have a zero percent failure rate. In the end, most settle for a handful failing after a final week or two of what most people would call mental gymnastics. I’ve never been on a campus where a zero percent failure rate was a reasonable expectation. As a intermediate campus, I can understand why many of the students we saw in high school failed early on.
In a moment of weakness, I might admit that I’ve temporarily enjoyed seeing some students fail, but that feeling has never lasted. Some students can push your buttons you know, and many exhibit the kind of sloth that just gets under your skin. Given that, the general idea of students failing has never been a pleasant one, but most of us recognize that it is a necessary one.
You could say that the standards need to be at a point where some people are unable to meet the bar. After being in education for nearly my entire life as a student and an adult, I can honestly say that in 99 percent of cases it isn’t about a student unable to meet the bar. It is about some students being unwilling to meet the bar for one reason or another. It could be a lack of maturity or it could simply be the same impulse that causes some to touch the burning stove even after being warned not to touch it. Some students (rightfully or wrongfully) believe you won’t actually fail them until it actually happens. Then it is too late.
Charities like “Houston Can Academy” offer non-traditional students a second or third chance to succeed. Heck, sometimes people are 20 or older before the light finally goes on. I say good for them. Better late then never after all. At the same time, that second or third chance comes at the expense of students going through the first time. In a world where people are increasingly worried about the dollars we are spending, education becomes a zero sum game. Every dollar spent on someone that needs an extra kick in the pants is a dollar that isn’t spent on good kids that need some enrichment.
It isn’t the extra funds I object to, but the fact that we are spending them in ways that aren’t particularly successful. There was a car battery commercial that showed two mechanics (as children) trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The two continued to hit the peg until they forced it in. Trying traditional methods on students that don’t seem to fit in a traditional setting feels much the same. What the rest of the world does seem cruel by comparison, but maybe they have figured it out.
In a perfect world, everyone would have a choice of what they wanted to do and they would be able to choose a path that made sense for them. Unfortunately, we don’t offer enough choices and when we do offer choices we don’t have a system in place to appropriately place every kid where they should go. In the meantime, the next time someone talks about how our kids don’t know what their kids know simply turn and ask them which kids they are talking about.