I just finished a phone conversation with a parent of one of my students. The parent is distraught and discouraged because the student did very poorly on mid-term exams at the end of last semester.
Like many of the teenagers I work with, this student has some learning problems, has a tough time paying attention in class, and even has a hard time during one-on-one tutoring. However academically challenged this teen is, he is a phenomenal athlete, very witty, kind-hearted, and polite. Why are his athletic talents and quick wit any less valuable than his ability to perform well in academic subjects?
Schools today are pushing kids so hard into college preparatory programs. Students are required to take:
- multiple science classes (chemistry, physics, biology, and environmental science)
- at least algebra I, algebra II, and geometry
- four years of English
- two years of a foreign language
- two years of physical education (I actually think this one should be four years),
- one or more computer classes
- four years of social studies
- some type of class on personal responsibility
- if they are in a religious school, four years of religion classes.
Somewhere in there students find time for a business, shop, art or home economics class. Some even manage to hold part-time jobs after school and on weekends.
I am a teacher, and some of what I’m going to say may sound hypocritical, but bare with me, I have a point. I’m also a parent of a struggling child and a realist. Some academic level of achievement is necessary to function in the world we live in today. But to push a farmer or artist into physics and advanced math is ridiculous.
We, and society as a whole, focus so much on academic performance that we forget that not only are some students not academically gifted, but that they each possess gifts that are just as valuable.
We seem to forget that our kids won’t always be in school and they won’t have to keep doing something they’re not good at. We forget that they will likely succeed at something no matter what their grades are or how much we nag them about their high school studies.
With so much pushing going on in school to do well on standardized tests and get into good colleges, I think the pressure is doing more harm than good to more than a few students. We’re pushing them too hard to catch up on things they aren’t good at, and we’re teaching them that suffering through work is just a part of life. No wonder so many adults are miserable in their jobs. Nobody bothered to tell them that after they were out of school they could do what they love instead of what they hate and figure out how to make a living doing it.
We also forget that we had our own challenges when we were in school and that we weren’t all top performers academically. When we went to college we surely avoided the things we sucked at because you can do that in college. We also had control of how many classes we took during a semester. We could choose to take 12 semester hours (3-4 classes) and remain full-time rather than the 7-8 classes high school students are required to take. Seven or eight classes in high school is about equivalent to 16 semester hours. That’s a heavy load. Add a learning challenge to that and it becomes very hard to manage.
Our academically floundering students are usually intelligent. They are sometimes outright gifted. They are:
- great at connecting with and teaching young children
- great at working with other people
- can navigate any computer before we can figure out how to turn it on
- magnificent at using their hands to build things or make things like robots or fine furniture
- can fix nearly any mechanical device
- can make most anything grow
The list of non-academic gifts is nearly endless if you look at all the things in the world people do as a career.
By devaluing non-academic gifts in our children and teenagers, we devalue them and their God-given talents. We also do a pretty thorough job of harming their self-esteem in the process. How dare we write these students off because they don’t get geometry or chemistry or biology or can’t write composition papers on Shakespeare.
A New Path
I believe there are reasonable solutions to this problem. Here are my ideas. I hope you will write your ideas in the comments.
During 8th grade, students should be offered a wide range of future learning opportunities, from a further concentration in academics to allied health career training to culinary, mechanical, and artistic apprenticeships (hair care to plumbing). At the end of 8th grade, students would choose a future career path, and they could change their minds if they try something that doesn’t turn out to fit them.
The high school career path they choose may lead to a technical or vocational school after graduation instead of a 4-year college or university. And such a path will likely lead to a successful career with which the student is happy.
Change the Perspective
They will still have to take some academic subjects, but not from the perspective of a future college student. The subjects would be a wider overview of sciences, math that pertains to their chosen career path (applied math, business math, bookkeeping or basic accounting), social studies and applied English. The purpose of these classes would be to teach students the subjects from the perspective of why they need to know what they are being taught as productive adults, not because it will be on the SAT or ACT. The material would be much more concrete than it is now.
Today in the U.S., schools not only devalue non-academic talents, they are cutting budgets by eliminating programs that nurture those talents and they do not teach the most important things adults deal with in everyday life. A life skills or personal responsibility course should be required in or prior to 8th grade. Such a course or series of courses should teach at least the following:
- cook basic meals
- manage personal finances (balance a checkbook, live within your means)
- do laundry
- clean and organize a home
- take care of a baby
- take care of children
- how to treat their spouse or life partner with kindness and respect, and communicate with that person effectively
- interpersonal skills such as how to get along with others and work effectively in groups
- how to give first aid
- what to do in an emergency
- how to be good citizens
- thoroughly understand human reproduction and the disadvantages of becoming teenage parents
- the importance of the intact family unit to the future development of children
- the challenges divorced or single parents and their children face
The list could go on, but I think you probably get the idea.
Many people argue that these skills should be taught at home, but the sad fact is much of this is no longer being taught at home. A high percentage of parents can’t get some of this list right themselves, so how are they supposed to teach it to their children? Society must do something about it for the long-term good of everyone.
After splitting the non-academic career paths from the academic paths, future academic career paths offered should also be split into different areas so those gifted at English, performing arts and the other Bachelor of Arts degree areas can focus more on what they’re good at while those gifted in the physical sciences can focus on astronomy, geology, chemistry, physics and advanced math. Those gifted in the life sciences can focus more on biology, botany, agriculture and zoology, for example. Those gifted in social sciences and business can take courses directed toward those subjects.
The achievement tests at the high school level should test the students in their chosen career paths as well as on basic knowledge. By basic knowledge, I mean math up through 8th grade algebra; reading at the 8th grade level; English usage to the point that a student is proficient; science knowledge applicable to daily life, relevant social studies, ability to balance a check book, construct a budget and understand credit; know what factors are important in picking a suitable mate; how to manage intimate relationships; what the top reasons for divorce are and why, know what to do in several emergency situations; and assorted other life skills subjects. Students would have to make a C in all basic knowledge areas to graduate. The achievement tests would be given each year with more of the student’s career path included, but the same basic knowledge would be tested four times.
I chose 8th grade as the cut-off point because that age is the turning point in most teens’ lives. They go from middle school to high school and a lot of other things change for them.
It would benefit society greatly if everyone could read, write, understand world history, and do math at the 8th grade skill level. The average newspaper is written at the 4th or 5th grade level. Many of our unskilled workers can’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application. Eighth grade would be a far cry better than illiterate.
No Child Left Behind = All Fit the Least Common Denominator
The No Child Left Behind Act is failing because it’s goal is academic rather than functional. It’s also taking resources away from honors and advanced placement students and extracurricular activities to provide more resources for the bottom 10% of the student population. Children are being taught to do better on standardized tests rather than to do better in life. They are not being told why it’s important to be able to read, write, and do basic math. Too many things are too abstract. A lot more needs to be relevant and students need to see clearly why a skill is important to them personally. Since so many of our youth have a “what’s in it for me” attitude, we need to make sure to tell them exactly what’s in it for them if they learn what we ask them to learn, but more importantly, what will happen to them if they fail to learn what we ask them to learn.
Standardized tests should not be as big a factor in the college entrance process as they currently are because there are clearly more measures of success than one’s ACT or SAT score. A student’s grades in his/her chosen high school career, performance in a series of interviews by the college, a written essay (for some, not all) and submission of a portfolio of work should also be given equal weight in college admissions. Even a personality test might be a better gauge of future success than the standardized college entrance exams given now.
Education or Drive to Succeed?
Steve Jobs, co-founder and current CEO of Apple Inc. dropped out of college after one semester (you know, the iMac, iPhone, iTunes, and iPod guy). Bill Gates, co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft Corporation, dropped out of Harvard.
I’m not a proponent of people dropping out of high school or college, but we have to keep in mind that past poor performance is no guarantee of future failure. Successful drop-outs left school because school didn’t offer them what they needed to pursue their dreams. I propose we make school more relevant so students can pursue their dreams with the help school can provide.
There are also more than a few people with Ph.D’s who work at minimum wage jobs because their degrees are irrelevant to anything but teaching. If they don’t want to teach or can’t hold on to an assistant professorship long enough to be tenured, they have little to offer. Some could teach in high schools or community colleges, but many in this boat can’t use their knowledge to add value to anything. Some were misguided enough to think the degree itself would guarantee success. They were in for a rude awakening when they graduated and found out they actually had to apply what they studied in some way to make a living.
Our current public school system in Baton Rouge offers vocational education choices to it’s magnet students, but not to everyone. I propose there would be fewer high school dropouts if students could do more of what they like and are good at and less banging their heads against an academic brick wall that they could care less about. Why not send the non-academically gifted students on a career path that suits them in high school and help them succeed?
The next time your child gets a low mark or fails a grade, remember to think about the non-academic gifts and talents your child possesses and that in a lifetime, school is a relatively short period. Help them with their academic subjects and have reasonable expectations, but don’t allow their academic performance to value them as people or determine how successful they will ultimately be.