Success Means Nothing If Failure Is Impossible

I will tell you exactly the kind of job I want: one where my supervisor and my company are subject to legal and financial penalties if I do not do my job successfully.  If my employment experience is not proceeding satisfactorily, I will qualify for additional training by well-paid outside consultants who will have only one goal in mind—to ensure that the irrelevant fact I cannot do my job does not disqualify me for promotion.

This fantasy world rarely if ever exists in the private sector—unless, by chance, you are the only child of the business owner.  However, I fear that this is exactly the kind of fantasy world we may create in our public schools—one that will leave many young adults unprepared for life away from a public school system that will be legally obligated to shield them from their academic shortcomings.

My father often pointed out to me that there is a fine but distinct line between self-esteem and self-delusion.  Self-esteem is born from mastering challenging tasks where the possibility of failure exists; self-delusion springs from hearing you are more able than you actually are while living in the safety of a consequence-free cocoon.

States are currently permitted to set lower goals for high school graduation rates, but what originally drove No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation at the Federal level and made it so attractive was the idea that by 2014 all students would meet the Federally-mandated benchmarks for achievement in reading and math as measured by state-administered standardized tests.  Let me repeat that.  All.  Everyone.  100%.

I am not aware of any endeavor where 100% of students are proficient.  Whether it is playing a musical instrument, shooting a basketball, or writing an expository essay, normal variations in human ability usually mean some will succeed and some will fail.  This is the way of the world, and we benefit as a society when our teenagers move into their adult years with an understanding of their strengths and deficiencies based on their class work in public school.  How else can they expect to continue their lifelong learning with a clear sense of purpose?

If States are eventually pressured to all meet the original intent of graduating all high school students by 2014, requirements for passing grades will surely have to be lowered to ensure that “no child is left behind” and public school systems are not subjected to legal and financial penalties for “failure”.  Modifying the NCLB legislation to explicitly recognize that you cannot mandate success with a law—no matter how well intended it may be—would be a huge step forward.  The only other option is to continue to build gigantic loopholes into our measurements so every student achievement benchmark will met via creative interpretations of the word “progress”.

If we fail to thoughtfully re-examine this premise of NCLB, what might a high school diploma mean to an employer or a college in 2014 if we compel our schools to meet the original intent of the law?  Not much, I would hazard to guess.  Ironically, I suspect the importance of standardized testing of all types would dramatically increase as employers and colleges struggle to determine who actually learned something in high school—the diploma itself would be meaningless.  The public schools we may inadvertently create if we do not act today will produce the most perverse of all educational outcomes: All of our students will certainly meet federally mandated performance benchmarks and graduate—but no one will succeed because everyone will, by law, be required to succeed.

Moreover, what will be the reaction of tax-paying parents and their high school graduates when they discover that all those passing grades possibly meant nothing at all and a world far harsher than that those students were prepared to enter is waiting?  Even worse, will success in our public schools be failure in disguise for some of our most at-risk students?

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A Good Education Will Tend To Offend—And Lead To Change

Often it is a particular novel.  Sometimes it is a unit in a history class.  It could be something as mundane as a certain discussion topic during a single class.   Whatever it may be, we read and hear frequently about “controversial” curriculum in our public schools.  The question we must ask is a simple one: Are these episodes a sign that our schools are doing something wrong—or something very right?

No one, of course, enjoys having their beliefs or opinions questioned.  Most of us believe we have a functional and—quite frankly—an admirable system of values that we hope others will accept and emulate.  Every parent knows what is right and what is wrong.  Every parent knows how best to live one’s life.  Every parent hopes their child follows their life example when grown.

Of course, every parent—indeed, every citizen of our great country—also should understand that what everyone “knows” is not precisely the same.  We have only to look at our recent Presidential election and the vast differences between the candidates and their followers to know just how different perceptions of the “right” beliefs can be.  A huge component of the glory of our humanity is the wide variety of our experiences and the value systems these experiences shape.  We forget this basic truth at our own risk, and we risk much if we forget to nurture it in our children.

Education, if it is to be worth the name, is going to challenge cherished beliefs.  If you think back to the not too distant past, our ideas about science, world cultures, religion, politics, literature, gender and racial relations, technology, economics, and a host of other topics have undergone a transformation as profound as any one can imagine in the course of just a few generations.  This did not come about because each generation passively accepted the habits and beliefs of their elders.  Progress is a messy—and sometimes profoundly insulting—process that demands much of us.

In order to grow as individuals and as a society, Americans must support efforts in our schools to challenge accepted wisdom and encourage our students to think about the most basic precepts upon which we order our lives.  It does not take much imagination to conjure up a vision of where our world would be if the accepted wisdom of only a half century ago were still the norm.  Every facet of our lives would be so profoundly different than what we experience today that it would be nearly as impossible to imagine as life on some distant planet—a future which right now some child in America is scheming to create, by the way.

It goes without saying that to exist as a society certain basic truths must be, as our Founding Fathers would have put it, “self-evident”.  However, what was self-evident to those men—that some human beings could count as only 3/5 of a person and that women had no right to vote—has changed more than a little during the life of our country.  In just the last few months we witnessed both a woman and an African-American battling for the highest elected office in the land, and surprisingly few Americans seemed to find it all that incredible to behold.

Perhaps we can give just a bit of the credit to our public schools for helping to build the road we now walk through the books that were read, the historical truths challenged, and the “controversial” discussions in classes over the past 50 years of relatively solid support for the idea of schools as places where children where sent for a challenging educational experience.  Let’s not forget that disagreement and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, and let us remember the importance of encouraging this vital quality in our schools.

Are Public School Teachers Treated As Professionals?

Imagine you are in treatment for an illness, and your doctor comes in to review your progress.  Imagine further that, when you ask about your options for therapy and medication, you are told the following: “This is a list of approved treatments and medications for your condition that has been supplied to me by hospital management, and you may have only what is on this list.”  You would probably be shocked and outraged, expecting that your physician’s professional training and judgment would be the major factor in determining your treatment.

Now imagine that you are a parent talking to your child’s teacher who, when you ask about some book or course of instruction, is told that it is not an approved material or method; your child, therefore, may not be taught it.  This common situation points out the eternal conundrum of education: We expect our public school teachers to be professionals operating within the narrowest of professional guidelines, which, or course, calls into question whether you can truly be considered a professional if you do not have the ability to exercise professional judgment in the course of your duties.

Some operational guidelines, of course, make perfect sense, just as they do for all professionals.  We do not want any professional, regardless of occupation, to engage in activities that are of highly questionable efficacy or are potentially harmful to those in their care.  Also, in order for effective instruction to reach across grades, there must be some basic agreements in place to guide the types of material that need to be covered in different grade levels and in different academic content areas.

However, one of the perverse effects of the performance mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation is that the options offered to teachers for instructional methods and materials grow fewer and fewer by the year.  This happens because, faced with poor results and increasing performance pressures, those in charge of our schools respond as managers in all businesses do—by increasingly systematizing the workday of their employees, in this case the faculty.

The only problem with this is opportunities for teacher initiative and innovation are lost.  In fact, trying to do something different than what is in the binder provided by the school district is bound to get a teacher in a good deal of trouble these days.  Therefore, we see more and more cookbook instruction and methods that inspire neither those providing the education nor those receiving it

The outcome of the ongoing effort to turn teachers into instructional automatons is that fewer and fewer talented and imaginative individuals remain in the profession because they may be disinclined to remain jobs that are, as one of my former colleagues put it, increasingly run according to “Management by Shut Up”.  Do we really want to create a system where the only people who will stick around are the ones who adore acronym-filled memorandums and procedure manuals?  We have to remember that our schools are supposed to educate children, not process them like peanut butter.  Education cannot exist without the excitement that creative professional teachers bring to work every day.

Also, the more you turn schools into top-down bureaucracies, the less likely you are to have teachers in the system who will speak up when they see a wrong that must be righted.  Whether it is an abuse of power, money that is being misspent, or a child who is in harm’s way, absolute obedience to a rulebook is prone to cause many more problems than it solves because those who live under the rulebook have been taught that the best way to get along is to go along.  Professional teachers must have the prerogatives—and protections—of professionals in other occupations, or they will not be able to effectively serve the communities in which they work or educate and protect the children in their charge.

Enforce A Dress Code—For School Employees

My wife is the youngest of four sisters, and recently we had the opportunity to look through her oldest sister’s high school yearbooks from the mid to late 1960’s.  The clothes and hairstyles were, of course, a hoot.  However, I was struck by something else while we were flipping the pages.

The administrators, faculty, and staff looked so . . . professional.  Men in jackets and ties.  Women with neat hairstyles and stylish attire.  When looking at the group shots, it was quite easy to distinguish the adults from the teenagers without checking the captions under the photographs for the answers.

We make much of the inappropriate attire of the young men and women in our high schools (and middle schools and sometimes even elementary schools as well).  Anyone who has ever spent any time in a public school most anywhere in these United States will tell you they have seen much that should not be placed on public view.

However, perhaps we fail to pay enough attention to what the educators sometimes wear to school.  I realize it may be simply a function of what is currently considered stylish, but I’m not sure if our schools are well-served when the administrators, faculty, and staff often dress in jeans, tee shirts, sneakers, and (I’ve seen this) sweat pants when they come to work.  Enforcing a professional code of attire is, sadly, a problem with which many businesses are currently struggling—ask anyone who is running a college recruitment program for a major company how often they have to remind new hires that tattoos should be covered and nose rings removed before coming into work.  However, I believe the problem is compounded when your business is working with young people who, like it or not, look to you to be a role model.

There is, for example, a credibility factor to be considered.  You can’t tell a student to dress well when you don’t practice what you preach—your request for improved appearance will, most likely, be met with a smirk if you are not a good role model yourself.  Moreover, even if there is no direct exchange of words about attire, believe me when I say that students do very much notice what the adults in the building are wearing and how well they are groomed.  If you are not a frequent bather, young noses will figure that out right away.  If you have a visible panty line, it is noticed and derisively described at lunch time.  If you have a problem with extravagant nose hair, it will be all anyone remembers about your classroom for years to come.

In addition, adults should know they send a message about respect with their grooming and choice of clothing.  If I show up at a business meeting in shorts and with a piece of spinach stuck in my teeth, I’m letting those in the room know I don’t care a bit for them or the service they provide.  By the same token, if an administrator, teacher, or staff member is dressed in an inappropriate or slovenly manner, they are making very clear how little they respect the school where they work, their colleagues who look to them for support, the parents whose taxes pay their salaries, and the students who are there to learn.

Finally, it is ever more important in these times when our classrooms are roiled by a seemingly never-ending string of scandals about inappropriate contacts between students and school employees for the dividing line between the children and the adults to be cast in stone.  Perhaps we never fully appreciated the wondrous advantages of teachers looking older and distinctly unapproachable back in the day.  It may be the case that we would be far better off than we know if we had more ties and a fewer tight shirts collecting paychecks at our nation’s schools.  We need the adults to look—and act—as adults for the sake of the children in their charge.

Students Often Want To Be Challenged In the Classroom

Around this time of the year, every public school student’s thoughts turn to one thing: Summer Vacation.  It is understandable.  After month upon month of construction paper and Calculus, the coursework may begin to seem like a dull grind.

However, I am concerned when I hear the same complaint at the outset of the school year.  If, after only a few days or few weeks, a student is turned off to what is being offered in the classroom, it does not foreshadow success.  Indeed, it unfortunately seems to be the case that too many children and young adults are already looking forward to the summer before the first leaf has turned in the fall.

The reasons can be many: social pressures, loneliness, undiagnosed learning disabilities, bullying, inappropriate academic placements—the list is as varied as the students we send off to school each year.  Nonetheless, it seems likely that the main contributing factor is plain and simple boredom.  Please understand that I am not suggesting learning is boring.  Far from it.  Education is a dynamic process that should challenge and enlighten our students.

However, what if the material taught in your child’s school is neither challenging nor enlightening?

Most students are astute enough to know when they are being fed cookbook curriculum, and they are more than clever enough to notice that the teacher is as uninspired by the rote material they are being compelled to teach as the young people in their classes.  Students may dislike the hard work that comes with challenging content material; I can, however, guarantee they hate being forced to be bored.  Do you ever wonder why some students “act up”, particularly in the lowest level classes?  Perhaps it is sometimes less that they are troublesome and more that they need some stimulation to counteract the low quality of what sometimes passes for education in our public schools these days.

If you wonder why more and more parents are home schooling, you need only look to a gentleman I met recently who has home-schooled all four of his children.  By the time they were fifteen, they had all “finished” high school and were beginning work on college level work for credit.  He would be the first to admit that his offspring were not super-geniuses by any measure.  He attributed their successes to trusting them to step up to the challenge of more difficult material and letting his children discover they were capable of far more than they ever imagined possible.

The vast majority of children and young people are capable of working at a far higher academic level than they are at present.  However, if they are taught the lesson by our system of education (and sadly by some of their parents and not a few in our society) that “good enough” is more than enough and hard work is for fools, it should not be a surprise that so many students poke along aimlessly and find their joy somewhere other than the classroom.  School should not be something that our young are forced to endure; it should be a place where they can count on being pushed to excel, learn about talents they never suspected were within them, and become confident young adults who are certain of their capabilities and know how to rise to meet the next challenge set before them.

I encourage all parents to ask their children if the material they have learned during this school year is too easy or too hard.  I believe you might be surprised by the answers