A couple days ago I blogged about the theory of giving all kids trophies, i.e. raise their little self-esteems and justify it by claiming they’re participation awards. Even if a kid never swung a bat, or caught or threw a ball. That idea bothers me - as it does a whole lot of other people. Another issue that I find irritating is the philosophy that every child needs to go to college.
As I tend to do, allow me to relate a story. Last weekend, as my wife and I have done every weekend since the basketball season started for the Cal State Monterey Bay Otters, we traveled to watch younger son Alex play. On afternoon prior to a game, we were at our room in the Marriott, watching, what else? - other college games on TV when the CBS station went down. All the other channels worked, just not CBS. A call to the front desk brought a relatively young guy up to the room. He immediately fixed it, we thanked him and, no sooner had he walked out the door than it went blank again.
I saw him down the hall, called and he returned. He looked at it again, thought for a moment and said he had an alternate plan. Sure enough, presto, CBS. I asked him if he’d gone to the local college. His response was that he didn’t, that in fact, he hadn’t even gone to college. “I went to electricians’ school.” I told him wherever he went, he must have paid attention because he had no trouble fixing our problem - even if he did have to go to Plan B. We told him how appreciative we were, I offered him a “green” thank you (which he refused) and everybody lived happily ever after (at least so far).
My point is that here is a young man who is providing necessary service, making a living, doing what he likes (maybe loves) to do and is probably pretty proud of himself. He isn’t a drain on society and chances are, he never will be. What’s wrong with that? Admittedly, I don’t know whether or not our TV savior was a good math student in high school. I regret I didn’t ask.
When I returned to classroom teaching in 2002 (my last math classroom assignment was in 1972), I saw changes at the administrative level. One was the belief that every student should take (and pass) algebra in the eighth grade. When the No Child Left Behind law was passed, it reeked of politics. How many actual teachers were involved - and whose input was valued - I don’t know but I am convinced that politicians were more deeply involved than teachers. Listen to it: No Child Left Behind. Sounds like a vote getter. The question we teachers posed was, “Did you really think we were leaving kids behind before you invented your Pollyanna, cockamamie law?” Really? The numbers said graduation rates weren’t where they needed to be, colleges were turning out inferior students (compared to other nations as well as what we’d produced in prior decades) and, damn it, we needed to do something about it! So, how do politicians and administrators go about fixing things?
They have meetings. Obtain data. Come up with a catchy slogan. Then, when it’s time to do the actual work, turn it over to the people. If it works, take the credit; if it doesn’t, ignore it. Unless it’s too big. Then point fingers.
The problem in this case was the entire feel-good operation was fundamentally flawed. And here was the main flaw. One of my former fellow teachers - without the use of data, technology or even calling a meeting - put it better than anyone I’ve ever heard: “We don’t leave any children behind,” she said. “Some of them choose to stay.” And one reason (of many) is that the powers-that-be who decide what curriculum should be taught have the notion that, among other impractical beliefs, every child take and pass algebra in the eighth grade.
I had juniors in some of my classes who couldn’t pass algebra, no matter how many times they tried. Sure, the politicians and administrators claim, Jaime Escalante got it done but the Escalantes, just as the Shakespeares, Michael Jordans, Babe Ruths, Picassos, Gates’ - you get the drift - are in short supply. Just as the Abraham Lincolns and Geoffrey Canadas are. One reason kids have trouble with algebra is they can’t see the relevance. While I had many examples of the crossover value between algebra and life (actually, math and life), kids at that age need more proof. My “proof” is my electrician friend from the Marriott. Although I didn’t ask him what grade he got, my guess is that if he went to electricians’ school, he probably went there instead of college or, as several youngsters I’ve taught, went after an attempt at college.
Many years ago I had a freshman in an algebra class who didn’t do anything in class. No homework, didn’t study for tests. Naturally, he was failing. I checked his other classes and noticed he was failing nearly all of them. One day I asked him, “If you’re not doing homework or studying, what do you do after school every day and night?”
A glow appeared in his eye and he said, almost defiantly, “I can’t wait to get home every day. My dad has an old Chevy in our garage and I start working on it as soon as I get home until I go to bed.” I thought about it and said, “You must know that car pretty well.” I’d never before seen such passion in his look. It was like he was saying, “Go ahead, ask me something about that car. As a matter of fact, ask me something about any car!”
I told him - and the class - that when I was in school, we’d make fun of the kids who took auto shop. Then, one day, I was at my mechanic’s garage getting my car fixed because I knew as much about cars as he (looking at the young boy) did about algebra. The class laughed. He sneered. My mechanic fixed it - and I got the bill. $1,200! That was when I wished I had taken auto shop in school. I praised the boy for thoroughly understanding something so practical.
Then I made a statement that politicians and administrators would have thought blasphemous. I told the class that no one had ever died from lack of algebra knowledge. I looked at that boy - who was listening more intently than at any time all semester - and said, “Not everyone needs to go to college.” I continued, “So why, then, do you need algebra? To get a high school diploma. My mechanic didn’t go to college. But he graduated from high school.
“Many of you have parents who can’t help you with your algebra homework, right?” I now had their attention. About 75% of the heads were nodding. “Yet, at one time, your parents could do algebra. Which means one thing: you don’t need to know this forever.”
Studies have shown that, after being tops in education for decades, the U.S. is currently behind many countries in math (other subjects, too, but math was my area). During my next-to-last year, one of our other algebra teachers had a student teacher who was born and raised in China. One day at an algebra meeting we asked her why the Chinese were so proficient in math. Her answer was, as I had read about Japan, that students were tested in their early teens and placed in one of three categories: military, vocational or college.
The reason I was given when I asked why we didn’t employ the same system was, “Oh, Jack, that would be tracking.” So? Isn’t it good to be on the right track? It seems there is a strong lobby, or whatever the group is called, that believes (see my blog from 2/26) every kid should get a trophy. The other countries are passing us by because they’re placing kids where they have the greatest chance to succeed. Rumor has it they save a ton of money on trophies, too. (Granted, there ought to be an “out” if a kid’s a late bloomer but how many late bloomers are there compared to those who are “miscast,” for lack of a better word?)
For example, hotels need not only outstanding electricians but gardeners, cooks, front desk clerks, order takers and food servers (aka waitresses and waiters), bus boys and girls, valet parkers, plumbers, bartenders, security personnel. Heck, there are more non-college jobs than positions for college grads. And that applies to so many other walks of life.
When it comes down to it, the number one goal in any person’s occupation is:
“Find something you love to do - and get somebody to pay you to do it.”
Let’s reexamine what we’re doing, identify kids’ passions and abilities, and give them the best opportunity to succeed. For them and the country.