May 16, 2009

Urban High School Education

A rare post about the day job. Originally posted on my Facebook page March 12.

I wasn't going to post this until George F. Will quoted new DOE secretary Arne Duncan this week: dumbing down standards is the same thing as lying to children and their parents. So let's talk standards.

Your school district probably expects less than 10% dropout rates, but only requires about 60% of students to score a 60% or better on the Big Test. That means your government expects about three quarters of Test failers to be class passers. Does your child's teacher expect more? Well, that all depends...

High Standards "for all" sounds great but reality doesn't change. Enforcing strict standards with actual consequences would flood our urban areas with tons of frustrated dropouts, so we find ways to reward kids for whatever tasks they did well. That makes passing easy, but the Big Test is still difficult.

The only way to make underclassmen prepare for something so obviously inconsequential (at least, to them) is for teachers to motivate them through personal exuberance. Our personal input is pitted solely and directly against all other obstacles. And some people wonder why so many teachers burn out.

In the real world, a High School Diploma tells an employer the graduate learned to do three things: (1) show up on time, (2) follow instructions, and (3) complete tasks. That alone should be enough to take pride in. However, most districts also require *all* graduates to pass "college prep" courses, even though less than half of them go on to attend college, let alone finish. What does that tell you about the curriculum?

A good alternative, rarely offered in High School, is vocational training, which provides real self esteem and a practical future for kids that won't wind up in college. Unfortunately, vocational programs cause political problems in urban districts where such aptitude or merit-based "sorting" could seem discriminatory. Evidently, appearance counts more than reality.

Arne Duncan said we have been lying to parents, but too many low income parents seem perfectly happy to keep being lied to. Call it "the self-bigotry of faux expectations". But seriously, should public education risk creating an angry public? If our goal is to preserve the contentment of a stable lower class, then (ironically) the historical platitudes of the liberal program seem to be accomplishing precisely that. Why rock the boat?

If, however, the goal of public education is to cultivate our national human resources to maximum profit - for the ultimate welfare of all - then the US system is failing miserably. High (minimum) standards for all drags down as many as it raises up.

Every time Bright Bobby and Smart Suzie see Dim Danny and Slow Sally struggle but pass (in a "college prep" curriculum) they begin to conclude working hard is for dummies. So Bobby and Suzie slack off - and why not? They have rightfully deduced the true goal is to pretend we're all equal.

And how do I deal with all this? I'm super-teacher. I'm a dedicated professional who's currently overcoming all the problems of urban education with compassion, energy, teamwork and boundless enthusiasm. On my campus, that continues to produce genuine student success.

Seriously.

Relatively.

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