Archive for the ‘The Ronin Teacher’ Category

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

First of all, I want to make a disclaimer: I have nothing personal against iPhones, iPods, and other electronic devices that have become such a staple of everyday life. Neither do I have a problem with Apple and other manufacturers. Hell, I even wanted to get an iPhone, if it wasn’t prohibitively expensive for my tiny budget (which is becoming nonexistent as time goes by). What I do have a serious problem with is how it has taken away a lot of quality time that otherwise normal, emotionally-healthy families would have, at a bare minimum.  Once upon a time, before the advent of TV, before even the Industrial Revolution, it could be argued that the ties between families were strong, the right values could be passed on with confidence, and there were ways that members could strengthen those familial ties, with curiously mute rituals.

Then the Industrial Revolution came, along with all forms of improvised entertainment that corporate masters had to create in a hurry, in order to keep the masses amused.  TV and radio were the by-products of that era. It had its initial share of detractors. Who, for good reason, ranted that such entertainment would destroy what frail ties between parents and children existed, already exhausted by the 9-to-5 grind. When cheeky Baby Boomer programmers and their successors put on shows of questionable content, that more than proved that point.  Nonetheless, there are many good programs from all genres have served to be a gathering time and place, a moment for families to be stimulated or entertained, to talk about certain aspects of popular culture. On occasion, maybe even discourse on a good idea (Wow!). For that purpose, TV has served as a consolidator of sorts.  Even through its other various incarnations — movies, cable TV, and so forth — it has done its job well in that sense.  There’s an early episode of the Simpsons (“There’s No Disgrace Like Home”) wherein the eponymous family of the series undergo some extreme methods of therapy, including electrocution, in an effort to produce “family bliss or double your money back.” When that fails, the doctor gives them their money back — which Homer uses to buy a new TV, the Simpsons’ unifying force by default.

Nearly 20 years later, entertainment blazes across high-speed internet, and comes in all shapes and forms.  TV is no longer the mass-media entertainer it once was.  With the developments of technology, people now hunger for new, more compact toys for their amusement.  As the cliche goes, “Even instant gratification isn’t fast enough these days.” Tech manufacturers have all but swept up savvy users in a wave of technophilia, from Palm Pilots and other hand-helds, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, Shuffles, etc., etc. Facebook and other social networking devices can be accessed from any or all of the above.  That’s really great, and so are all the other cool programs that come with it.


What’s not so great is when I’m sitting in a room with two people in my family or friends, who happen to have iPhones, in their hands as we speak.  And then all they do is spend half the time on their iPhones… looking at stuff.  When I ask them, they get defensive. “I’m working!” they will usually snap. Or, “I’m looking up useful stuff!” Or some other lame excuse.  Well, if that’s the case, why even bother sitting in the same room with me? Why even bother showing up at all, when it’s You + Your iPhone, and I’m not even in that equation? What’s even more sad is that, after an argument, a consequence of what said device may cause, as I write this post and eventually post this on Facebook, said family member might stumble upon this, and they will be just two rooms away. Just as ludicrous is when two sibs text each other… when they’re just a wall apart, with no particular danger or circumstance requiring it.

Nobody even bothers talking anymore. People have used their iPhones as a crutch, to hide whatever awkward issues need to be addressed. There are a million things people want to say to each other, to voice feelings, frustrations, general angst about the state of affairs of the world.  Or sometimes, we just need someone to reach out to us. And what do the rest of us do? Reach for the nearest electronic device and avoid them altogether.  I could go on and say that tech companies now have a responsibility to advise people that using your iPhone should never, under any circumstances, be a substitute for any human interaction. Joke about it all you want: Sure, you can play games with your phone, do numerous cool apps, listen to music and what not.  But will you be able to carry on a meaningful relationship with it? That $400 model you hold in your hands right now will be thrown away like a used cheap $10 whore in a few years. Can you seriously say the same about family members?  With a TV, everyone can watch and no one has to be left out of the entertainment. Can you say the same about a handheld device? Will the rest of us in a room be able to partake of the entertainment that only one person is enjoying? That’s why they call it a personal handheld device. You enjoy it on your own time. It’s not a general handheld device, so no one else can enjoy it now, can they? Did you users stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re making the rest of us non-users feel awkward and inadequate, because we don’t have these toys?

Note that I haven’t said anything against these gizmos specifically. Because some of us, myself included, want one, too. We just can’t afford them. Bashing technology like this would be like me saying that guns are bad.  And, as that other cliche goes, “Guns don’t kill people, other people kill people.” Now replace that with “iPhones don’t cause socially-awkward moments, people using iPhones can cause socially-awkward moments.” I could go on a tangent about how I would use a handgun in a heartbeat, if it meant the difference between life and death. To a lesser degree, I would use an electronic device – if I could afford one – if it meant saving on time, energy and space, if it meant improving my life.

I will draw the line with technology, if it gets in the way of interpersonal relationships. Last I checked, I was still human – not some iPhone-flipping, gadget-playing, apps-adding, Facebook-posting machine. I may be socially-awkward sometimes, but even I won’t let that get in the way, if I can help it. The same thing goes for all of us. If we’re ever going to continue having families with good, strong, familial ties — don’t substitute love, affection and human interaction with toys – and that includes all electronic devices. They are tools for work and amusement, and maybe even another source of bonding. But if you can’t share them… leave them in your pocket, or your bags, where they belong. Use them wisely. And spend what rare time you have on Earth with your loved ones, talking about stuff that needs to be talked about.  You may not realize it, but they’re waiting. And they’ll love you more for it, more than any bright, shiny toy you can give them.

“Keep your toys, I don’t want them; what I do want you to do is talk to me.”

Copyright Anabasius 2009

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Thus began Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina. I don’t know why, but I thought the phrase appropriate for the occasion. The past weekend, some of my old classmates from high school in the Philippines held an informal reunion. Typically, graduating classes would be classified more as a blanket social organization than as a “family.” Our graduating class had roughly 150 students. Not so big for anyone to be lost in the crowd, and small enough to be the size a very large, extended family. Naturally we got to know each other quite well, whether we liked it or not. More than 20 years later and an ocean of difference away, I’m surprised to see all these (vaguely) familiar names pop up on Facebook, requesting me as a friend.

The names are familiar – the people are another story. Most of you who have gone through high school can relate. When we lose touch with our peers for more than 10 years down the road, we simply forget. So when Edward (not his real name; identities have been changed to protect the innocent) sent a whole bunch of invites to us via email, there was a mix of eagerness and reluctance. I was eager to see my old classmates in high school again, starved for news on how they had fared in life.  At the same time, I was reluctant to let them see how I’d fared. Which, I admit, isn’t that much to write about lately.

It’s amazing how sane, intelligent adults can still harbor immaturities, insecurities and irrational fears, the moment high school returns, so to speak. Smells Like Teen Spirit all over again, if you know what I mean. When you hit that critical 100+ in your Facebook Friends list and most of them are from your old high school, the old dynamics continue where they left off: The Class President tries to boss everyone into going to the Big Reunion. The Jocks start talking sports – and smack about everyone. The Princess gets all the attention (usually by posting a lot of annoying feeds this time, instead of the “Look at Me, I’m Pretty!” stunts), and all the old cliques reassemble to their former huddles. Nice thing about all of this happening online is that none of us have to put up with it. Most of us have grown up and out of that phase. Or so we hope.

Our graduating class didn’t have the usual stereotypes. There were no varsity teams, so there were no jocks. [All of us guys talked sports, usually basketball. And, yes, we talked smack about each other, everyone else and everything in between.] The class president, or presidents (I never could track who was which) had, well, led a path all the way to the New Land (America) and never looked back. All the old cliques were still there, but with new people jockeying for attention and popularity. The organizer himself, Ed, used to be one of the biggest dorks in school; now he’s a successful lawyer. He also happens to be a talented artist and musician.  Props to him for that.

As for the princesses – all of our girls were princesses! Part of the reason why I think I was fond of these guys was that they were still gentlemen, for all their childish pranks. Sure, we were still… well… guys. There were a few knuckleheads who even used mirrors or other such gadgets to peek up girls’ skirts. Unlike today’s hormone-driven, internet-fed kids, not too many of us felt so much pressure to get a girl to do the nasty, and that was all the difference.  By the time I was there, most of the students had known each other since elementary school; a fleeting moment of sexual bliss wasn’t worth ruining friendships. A few fights broke out between guys (some girls, too) but we always mended our fences quickly and laughed it off the next day.  We were a pretty tight-knit class.

So did I mention that our school broke some stereotypes?

It was a great school to be in, I realize now.  Everyone in that school was good to me and treated me as their friend and equal. A few girls even had a crush on me, which was great for my tender ego. I should have been in Paradise. That is, if my head wasn’t stuck in my ass back then. While everyone else lived carefree lives, happy to be with friends and goofing off, and just being alive – I was always thinking heavy thoughts any precocious teen would.  Will I find True Love? Will I be rich and successful, and prove myself to be better than these guys, and the girls who never seem to appreciate me? I was still getting over the fact that I wasn’t finishing in the high school I’d started out in, an exclusive Catholic school in Manila; that took up all of my junior year. I hit my stride as a senior, when I discovered I was a talented writer. And to a certain degree, talented enough to be able to solve physics problems in a bind. I was even one of the highest scorers on the National College Entrance Exams in school that year, around the 4th or 5th in a graduating class of 150. Not that it really mattered later on.

Because ten, twenty years down the road, people do change. Class presidents become CEO’s. Or quit and become more appreciative of life, in general.  Old jocks, like old soldiers, fade away, reminiscing about the Good Ol’ Days. Class jokers surprise us by becoming successful in life as lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, contributing to society.   Many in my graduating class led quietly successful lives, starting businesses on their own, or families. Things that we often took for granted when we were young.

There were a few of us who were expected to hit the Big Time, whatever that may have been. When I moved to California 22 years ago, I should have been one of them and for a while, I was headed down that path. Then something happened. Just as I was then, I was thinking too much again. I could justify it all I wanted, this time asking why I was working a 9-to-5 grind and that I was so much better than this, dealing with small-minded people at work. While I tried to suppress those feelings and tried to fit, I never quite could.  So… to make a long story short, my future is still being written as I write.

It would have been fun to see how that reunion turned out. Seeing Ed finally become the Star of the show, 20 years after being overlooked and smacked around… that must have been priceless. Noticing all the bitch queens in high school become fat and ugly after snubbing guys like me, that would have made it interesting. For most of us, just seeing how we all were now, glad to be alive and still full of life and fun… that would have been enough for us. It should have been enough for me.

I never did go to the reunion. Ed went through the trouble of setting up a live-cam feed, for those of us overseas. I’m not sure who of us expats participated. As for me… I was too chickenshit. I should have been content and happy to just see my old friends, even from a video feed. The reunion could have reinvigorated me, shown me that there was more to life than the grimness of daily living. But the old schoolboy insecurities haunted me again. While grown-up men continued to goof off and play games (online this time)… I was asking those questions yet again. Maybe I was meant to be.

I will add a fitting rewrite to Anna Karenina’s opener: “All happy people are alike. Unhappy people are unhappy, each in their own way.” Which is certainly a lot more true. In a reunion, all happy people are generally happy about the same thing – which in this case, is a happy reunion.  For those who didn’t go,  I hope they were happy, each in their own way.  As for those of us who weren’t at the reunion, and weren’t happy… it could have been poverty or misery, or a combination of both and more. I had the latter.  After a while, being on the outside looking in gets old.

For now. If nothing else, what I took from this experience (or lack thereof), is that it’s never too late.  If a nobody like Ed could change his life around – so can an overachiever like me. I won’t have to think myself to death and throw myself onto the train tracks like the tragic heroine of Tolstoy’s novel.  I’ll stop asking all those questions soon enough; better yet, they might be answered for me. Either way, and when I finally accept myself and my friends for who we are – I’ll stop having regrets and be at peace, and be ready for that next happy high school reunion. Whenever that may be.

Copyright Anabasius 2009