Friday, October 12, 2007

Our Children, Ourselves



What are we doing?

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of articles about school and college that have moved me from anger to sadness.

In The New York Times, dated September 19, 2007, writer Patrick Cohen detailed the debate in American colleges about ending the SAT, the test students take to determine acceptance to, or rejection from universities. Social scientist Charles Murray is in the middle of the fray, authoring an article advocating abolishing the test. Murray is the co-author, with Richard J. Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve (1994).

“Unlike other critics of the SAT, Mr. Murray does not see the test as flawed, nor does he think that the wealthy have an unfair advantage because they can buy expensive coaching,” Cohen writes. But he does believe the test “is rigged to favor the rich.”

Murray’s article was first published in the conservative magazine, The American. He claims this view is just an extension of ideas he espoused in his earlier book.

Murray’s ideas are not so far fetched. Many college admissions departments will rank high school grades and standardized subject test scores as better predicators of success in college, according to the Times article.

My students nearly all take some kind of SAT prep course in the eleventh grade year, and even into senior year, to achieve the highest score possible on the exam. This is in addition to Advanced Placement exams, application writing workshops, and even special individual college counseling coaches. The expense must be enormous, and God pity the poor student who cannot afford such amenities. Does anyone get into college the old fashioned way—by earning a seat through study and hard work without the expensive payout for resources and individual coaching? Not that these students are not working hard, but they also have access to resources most economically poor students only dream about.

Murray has broken down the higher education situation in this country to four, what he calls, simple truths: “ability varies; half of all children are below average; too many people go to college; and the future depends on how the gifted are educated.”

I agree that student ability varies. Recognizing the different strengths of students in a classroom is one of the joys of teaching. Realizing the various limitations of students in the classroom and trying to help overcome them is the job of the teacher.

Grades are inflated. C is the new F. B is a C, and an A is still gold. It’s graduate school in fifth grade. I must send home a deficiency notice if a student has a C- or less. C by definition is average, so a C- means slightly below average. In any crowd, there is a large group in the center—the average—and a few on the top and bottom. Nowadays, we are placing the majority up in the B range, so most students are told they are above average. If a student is a C-, she is deficient.

Based on the inflated grades, too many people might get into college when they should not. But I would argue that in a democracy, the opportunity to receive an education should be given to everyone. I do not think we should even charge tuition. Now if a student cannot make the grade in the class, then that is the end of the road. The opportunity might be granted to everyone, but one must meet the standard to keep that opportunity.

As for number four, I believe the future of our country depends not on how well the gifted are educated, but how well we educate everyone. Gifted kids excel whether I am present as a teacher or not. They are driven. They are motivated. Often, I just have to get out of the way and let them run with it and they learn. The challenge is to get the kid who is average, or even below average, and get him to rise above. I tell my principal often: the best teachers should work with average or below average students. They need the inspiration, the encouragement, the expertise of the veteran teacher.

Although Murray seems like a bit of an outsider with some of his points, I believe there is good reason to look at the successes and failures of the SAT.

The next series of articles made me mad.

First there was the College Issue of The New York Times Magazine, published on September 30, 2007. There are many highlights and lowlights in that issue, so here are just a few.

An interview with the Education Conservancy’s Lloyd Thacker reveals that schools now “want more applicants so they can turn down more applicants. Selectivity is a factor in the rankings.” Thacker is referring to college and university rankings as listed in U.S. News & World Report. Thacker goes on to say that colleges now follow the “business model,” which means “trying to get as many people as possible interested in a product and only selling it to a few.” So colleges can sit back and collect those application fees and the more students they reject, the more prestigious they become in the rankings.

Another piece by Rick Perlstein compares college students of the 1960s with those of today. He interviews a first year student who tells him that people in his class “are so insanely uncreative, and they are proud of it.” It is as if they have “had to spend their entire high school experience studying for the SATs or something and didn’t really get a chance to live life or experience things.”

I find that my students now, in high school, lack creativity. It is not their fault. They are given little time for creative thinking. Everything is about numbers—G.P.A., SAT scores, AP scores—there is not a moment left. We make a lot of noise about “thinking outside the box,” a cliché almost the first time it was uttered, but how much of this creative thinking is really required or utilized in the classroom?

Susan Dominus profiles two students who are preparing their application materials for college. The pressure on both and their parents is remarkable. One is “quiet and formal when she’s feeling shy,” but is “quick and witty…when in the right company—her family, for instance, or anyone else who will catch her Oscar Wilde quotes and P.G. Wodehouse jokes and Shakespeare references.”

The other has a 4.0 average or better, is co-editor of the newspaper, scored a 2200 on the SAT, was co-captain of the cross-country team, and took college courses in German.

Who are these people? Are they kids? Were they ever kids?

I have great respect for their accomplishments, but I am wondering what the cost will be. There must be a cost for all this perfectionism, perfect scores, perfect grade point averages, perfect application letters, flawless essays, all night study sessions, the tight wire lifestyle of knowing that you are one screw-up, one low grade, from cascade failure. What are we doing to our children? Everyone makes mistakes. What’s more, everyone is allowed a mistake occasionally. We are only human, unless we are applying for college in a few years.

I blame parents. Every day for twenty years, I have seen it. Parents live their lives vicariously through their children. They will be the success the parent was not. The child will play baseball better, get better grades, become a virtuoso pianist, go to the best college, marry the perfect spouse, have perfect children, and then start the process all over again.

Life is going to deal us setbacks. It will force us into a hole. Life is hard, and it is even harder, in life, to be perfect. Again and again and again, it is how you recover from mistakes, from failure, from the obstacles life gives you, that determines who you are—your character. If you never fail, what do you learn? I can safely say I have never learned anything from an A grade. May be, I learned how to keep getting the A for a while. But I learned volumes from failure. It is a great teacher.

Yeah, your kid didn’t go to Harvard. He had to go to junior college and claw his way to the top of the class in order to claim the seat at that decent state university where he had to excel and fight and struggle to become third in his class in order to get into that graduate school on the east coast, not Harvard, but that school that sits across the river from Harvard and receive a Masters in order to get that mid-level job at the moderate-sized firm in New Jersey. What a disappointment!

But he lived a good life. He had friends. He raised children. Made a good marriage, brought joy to others, read some good books, danced with his wife at his high school reunion, loved others, including his parents. Hey, the kid will turn out all right. Let him live.

Our children are not us. They have their own lives to discover. You cannot give them yours to do over. You can give them everything, or give them nothing. Who they become is for them to find. I have seen parents give their children everything. I have seen parents abandon their children. We can only hope. It is all up to the child and the road she decides to take.

The final article was from the Los Angeles Times, dateline October 9, 2007. It is called “All Dressed Up and Ready For School.” It begins: “After waiting at the corner of 4th Street and Towne Avenue for 96 hours and five minutes, Quentella Robinson and her two children were among the first to enter when the gates opened Monday morning—while behind them stood about 4500 people in a line stretching three blocks.”

Ms. Robinson, her children, and 4500 others were in line to receive donated clothing and school supplies given away, as they are each year, by the Fred Jordan Mission. She drove three hours from Bakersfield for the giveaway.

These kids most certainly won’t have money for special SAT training, or workbooks to drill AP mandated skills, nor will they be able to employ individual college counselors to help them get into the college of their choice. But I am positive beyond all reason, that in that three block line were future graduates of some of the magnificent universities of this great country, doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, teachers, captains of business and industry, lovers, parents, friends, and yes, decent human beings. And that last one is the lost and unappreciated reason why we hunger to learn in the first place. We did not seek knowledge to score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. That is just stupid.