Do we really have a school crisis in America, or is it a “crisis” of unrealistic expectations? What are these expectations? That all kids can achieve at the highest levels, that all kids can be successful in school and in life, and that all kids can go to college if they really try. And isn’t it the school system’s job to make sure our expectations are fulfilled? A pretty tall order, wouldn’t you say?
In some school districts, parents who can provide transportation are able to get their kids into schools of their choice, such as Magnet Schools or Charter Schools. The kids who are left behind remain there because their parents don’t have the resources, the education, or the foresight to get them into a better situation. As a result, most kids who are left behind are not average achievers. They tend to be low achievers, yet we still rate our teachers based on these students’ achievement test scores. How colossally unfair to teachers.
Let’s consider an analogous situation. Nurses who work exclusively with the critically ill are respected for their professional knowledge and efforts, but a good percentage of their patients die! Would we compare their patient outcomes with nurses in a general hospital? No, of course not. That’s because we have altered our expectations to a rational level based on our correct supposition that not all patients will live forever and that nurses and doctors can’t cure all of their patients.
How did we develop such unrealistic expectations about our educational system? I believe one of the culprits is IQ. Despite scientific studies of IQ that have continued over the past 100 years, we are in denial about the fact that some people have higher mental abilities than others (for whatever reasons). Do we look the other way because IQ does not fit our self-concept as a nation? After all, we were founded on the principles that all men (and women) are created equal, and all have a right to happiness –– or at least the pursuit thereof.
This fear of differences leads to unrealistic school policies. There is pressure for all students to succeed in academics, regardless of their ability, motivation, or lack of early support and stimulation in the home. This pressure for all to succeed translates to everyone needing to attend college, which in turn means pressure for all students to prepare for college. This in turn means everyone should graduate from high school and that American schools have failed because some students are below grade level in reading or math. There is also a denial of the fact that a high academic mental ability is necessary to achieve in academics. Critics of our school system say: “surely everyone can at least learn to comprehend reading and math at grade level.” But they can’t.
When we pull back and get some distance from these school policies, we can be more objective and accept voluminous research showing that about 35% of our students are capable of a true college education, and that a good number of students are not capable of completing an academic high school. If all students can complete high school, then what is high about high school? Wouldn’t it more correctly be called middle school? And if the bottom 25% ability-wise can graduate from middle school, then what is middle about middle school? Perhaps we should call it lower school.
In the 1940s, about half of students graduated from public high schools. Today, the graduation rate reaches 70%, and in some schools even 80%. (Of course, schools for the gifted or other selective magnet schools may have a 100% graduation rate). These changes in graduation rates may have more to do with how one defines high school and the “dumbing down,” social promotions, and clever statistical analyses employed to achieve these rates. These higher, unrealistic rates are then used to push and coerce our kids to fulfill our unreasonable expectations.
Critics often say that everyone can read at an advanced level if they receive enough help, even if they don’t have average mental ability. But that’s not true. High-level reading requires comprehension, and comprehension is based on mental ability (reading comprehension should not be confused with simple, repetitive, “word-calling,” that some people refer to as reading, in the early grades).
What is the result of this misperception and fear of human differences? Kids who do not have the ability or motivation for academics are bludgeoned with heavy-duty tests and restricted from career education because their grades are too low, or there isn’t enough time because they are retaking required academic tests (for the third or fourth time) –– or there is the myth that career education is for losers. Career education is the education that the majority of students would find relevant and that would result in real-work success in the marketplace. This bludgeoning by well-meaning folks on the political left and right leads to low self-esteem, depression, and failure. Not just failure in school, but failure in life, sometimes leading to criminal activity.
Please don’t think I’m pushing for a “soft” approach to education or giving up on kids. Career education can be rigorous and draws on aspects of intelligence that are not tapped by academics. By accepting the fact that students have different interests and abilities, we would also be in a position to offer more rigorous courses for those who are college-bound and reduce the behavior problems and distractions that affect all students.
So perhaps we do have a school crisis, but we may need to take a hard look in the mirror, because much of it is a crisis of our own making. As Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”