The Ronin Teacher: Gold Stars & Apples

Posted: February 6, 2010 in Dispatches from the Edge: Editorials, The Ronin Teacher
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The Increasing Dropout Rate in America, Why an Overhaul of Our Educational System is Long Overdue, and Where to Start

Our educational system has it all backwards, my beloved Partner claims. As we grow older, we tend to learn and retain more information, even the more complex bits like calculus or chemistry. In our younger days, a student was already remarkable if he or she could master second-year algebra before gra- duation. Today, second-year algebra is a bare minimum requirement to pass most high school programs. I am compelled to agree and further expound on this argument – and not just because my Partner is pretty and smart.


Today, many schools have in place advanced classes that neither I nor my Partner could ever dream of adding, back in our time. In addition to the battery of Honors and Advanced Placement prep classes generally available, there are now hybrid classes. For instance, a “Math Analysis” class combines the essentials of precalculus and first-semester calculus.  “Integrated Science” is a modular class that takes the most interesting parts of science – astronomy, geology and so forth. Why didn’t we have these before?

have been piled on top of preexisting requirements, as if they would seriously improve the declining aptitude skills of poorly-performing students.Yet, for each salivating choice, there are also more of the dry requirements whose usefulness is questionable, at best.  1-2 more years of Math and English. I have heard of and had to repeat some tired reasons for this grueling regime. “You need all these classes to get ready for college,” is the Number One most overused mantra.  Sure, I can think of many reasons why physics and chemistry are important. But I can’t, for the life of me, come up with one good reason why Pascal’s Triangle is essential. [These crazy mathematicians are imposing their views of the world like dogma, and it’s utterly disturbing.]

Photo by Joe Mabel

Educators today place more of a sense of urgency to finish even more classes (as compared to then) in the same amount of time is greater. Yet, the general statistics are alarming, to say the least. For the most powerful free nation on Earth, one would expect that more and more people should be finishing high school each year, but such is not the case. Most research now show that the rate of graduating high school seniors has decreased. As of a report dated March, 2009, California alone accounts for the most dropouts of any state (710,000). The most affected demographic group are Latinos and African-American, primarily because they are situated in poverty or other cases of hardship which, needless to say, do not enhance the learning environment. Parenting has something to do with that, but that’s a topic for another essay. This factor makes up about 70-80% of change that could be controlled by a student or parents themselves, following Pareto’s Law.

Beyond that, those of us in the educational field have a fundamental obligation to create an environment that will enable an optimal learning environment. It should never have been about what to learn that should have been the argument, but how to enable it. The other 20% of change, that can’t be controlled by individuals and their families, can be tagged on our current educational system.

I shall bluntly address this now. Our current model works on a numbers game that passes 70% of the general population – which means, 30% of our students, on average, will fail to graduate high school in a timely manner. Out of that 70% that pass, only 20% or less are expected to excel in advanced studies or material, which means that, other than those who are fighting for a better grade, or just simply to pass, the 70% that fall under the bell curve have no real incentive to excel beyond their comfort zone. For instance, a chemistry student coasting along a “C” or a “D” and doesn’t expect to make much more in the finals, won’t feel as motivated to bust a move studying all night, since it won’t make a critical difference. However, a student who’s a few points shy of a “B” or an “A” – does.

Kindergarten Classroom in Marina, California

Unfortunately, our current model – which, by the way, has been in place for nearly 200 years – carries over an academic version of Darwinian Natural Selection, a biased and oppressive mentality that has been responsible for two World Wars and other man-made disasters. It’s also been the basis of a flawed and outdated system that becomes more recalcitrant despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators alike.  I have come to realize that my Partner’s comment in the introduction, shockingly applies to teachers as well. For those of us in elementary and secondary education, I think we generally start out as good teachers with good intentions… and become increasingly stingy with age. In the beginning, I wanted to focus on making sure everyone was on the same page, and understood what was going on.

While my methods were crude at best, I now realize I cared a lot more when I started. As I progressed in teaching, I gradually fell into that mentality of “separating the wheat from the chaff.” Like so many thousands of teachers, I dutifully followed the Department of Education’s guidelines of differen- tiating work between students. “Differentiating” generally meant creating different standards of learning for a diverse group in any classroom. It is a lot of work, and very divisive and morale-lowering, in some cases, since it identifies excellent and slow-learning students alike, without the luxury of privacy or discretion. In general, dealing with an average class size of 30-40 students is a lot of work. This is where the Darwin-Pareto Method comes in handy, because it allows teachers to discriminate and use the law of averages to streamline work.

If you are feeling the least bit uncomfortable about that word “discriminate,” then rightly you should. Teachers, above all others, should never, ever discriminate. And yet, while we have been taught to never do so under any circumstances – we as teachers are guilty. This kind of discrimination does not focus on the color of someone’s skin, or sexual orientation, or any other physical representation. It is a kind that is subtle and glaring all at once. The subtle references are peripheral, and ties to underachieving demographics as mentioned previously. The more glaring aspects have to do with how it affects a child’s tender ego, as well as the fallacy of predestination that it imprints on our children. In elementary school, we hand out gold stars for everyone who can master basics; in high school, the most one can expect are “A’s.” As teachers, we are made to believe and preach that these should not come cheap, either, because at the collegiate level, there will be no mercy whatsoever.  However, it’s not as if the institutes of higher learning are making any effort to change. There is a disconnect somewhere, but I give the educators at the elementary and high school levels more credit for dealing with the crisis directly.

Besides, the hype about college has lost most of its luster, in light of the horrendous financial recession we are encountering. The face of post- secondary education is changing fast, from one that was teacher and classroom-oriented, to a more vocation-school-type setting, where everyone learns at their own pace, and with their own deadlines. That was how I learned my basics in typing and accounting, 20 years ago, at a business college. It’s the general trend of many college classes today, going online. The payoff is straightforward and clear: Master these skills, and you learn skills that are easily translatable to the working world, whatever the current demands may be.

If the realm of higher learning is changing suit, then isn’t it time the rest of the educational institutions followed suit? While we shouldn’t expect more gold stars and other perks that are more appropriate for children, we should create a system that provides enough rewards and incentives for people to continue to want to pursue a course. It could be jobs, or the skills needed to perform a job correctly.  Grades should be treated as an afterthought; they are not, nor have they ever been, a good barometer of a person’s total aptitude. For our society to continue to improve and advance, we must grow beyond the fallacy and irrationality of grades and numbers. A person who fails is our own collective responsibility. If we want to see a future that is beneficial to all 100% of our citizens, and not just 70%, we have to adopt a more caring and sensible apprentice-type approach to learning, one that simultaneously enables everyone to succeed in the basics and allows them to achieve higher educational pursuits.

Copyright Anabasius 2010

“High School Dropout Crisis” Continues in the U.S.

Educated in America: College Graduates & High School Dropouts

The Fallacy of Private School Education

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