Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Not Smart ...

Yesterday, on Facebook, Sheila posted a link to this story in the Chicago Tribune, a piece about Evanston Township High School District 202's decision to eliminate a freshman honors combined English and history course.

"The unanimous school board vote paves the way for freshmen of all races, socioeconomic and achievement backgrounds next fall to take the same freshman humanities course next fall. Proponents of the move see it as a way to diversify advanced courses and circumvent the traditional process of tracking students into courses by test scores that often places minorities in lower-level classes," wrote Diane Rado, the Tribune reporter.

To the members of the Evanston school board, may I just say, with no respect whatsoever: You're all idiots.

Now more than ever, it is asinine to lower educational standards, and that is exactly what you've done.

So, most of the high-achieving incoming freshman are white? And?

Let's agree on a few points:

1. Evanston Township High School is in Evanston, a wealthy-ish suburb, which, from what I know about its population, skews white.

2. The freshman entering the high school have likely gone to elementary schools in the area, and those schools, by virtue of being in wealthy-ish areas, are likely good schools supported by healthy tax revenue.

3. Having a good educational foundation, some of those kids are likely to do well in school generally.

4. Regardless of race, some people are simply smarter than others. There's a reason that there isn't one IQ score. There's a reason not everyone earns the same score on the SAT. Some people score higher, some people score lower. Some people are Einstein, some people are Forrest Gump. (Who turned out just fine, by the way, and yes, I know he's a fictional character.)

So what good is possibly served by casting every freshman into the same mid-level pool? Those who have had less advantage may be challenged, but those who are more advanced than the material will simply be bored. You'll be wasting their time. Which really means you'll be wasting their education.

I'm not an educator, but I'd be willing to wager that if a child isn't already an honors student by the time they reach high school, they're not going to suddenly become an honors student. I'm sure there are cases where some kids who weren't challenged suddenly blossom when connected with the right teacher, but you're not asking kids to blossom here. You're asking all of them to hover around the middle, the mean of their collective intelligence.

What is the point in that?

If you were sick – say you needed open-heart surgery – who would you want to perform the operation? The surgeon who graduated at the top of his class in medical school with a specialty in cardiology or the general practitioner who, you know, eeked by with a C average?

I was one of those honors students. Through whatever combination of genetics and education and a mom who started teaching me from an early age (I could write my name when I was 3), I did well in school, relatively speaking. I was in the gifted program in junior high and I was placed in honors classes in high school. Were most of my fellow students white? Yep. But at the time, my high school had a larger white population than black or Hispanic. Still, there were people with skin tones other than my pasty whiteness in the class.

So I was a good student. I was also a crappy athlete. Being tall, coaches wanted me to come out for volleyball or basketball. I had no interest. By comparison, there were some, of course, who were really spectacular athletes. Would I have wanted the really talented basketball players to have to play with me? Nope. I'd just slow them down. Don't pass the ball to me. Pass the ball to someone who can actually get the thing through the hoop and score.

My point is, we all have abilities. What high school, since the first educator thought up that awful, ego-crushing institution, hasn't comprised geeks and jocks and and every other stereotype? There will always be the popular girls, there will always be the goths. There will always be the theater wonks and the kids who hang around outside and smoke. There will be the guys who are really good in auto shop (and maybe some girls, too). Always.

So, dear school board, you've done no one any favors by trying to pretend that everyone is the same, that everyone will reap identical benefit out of the same middling course. You're not putting everyone on a level playing field because the playing field is never even. By ninth grade, educational ability has emerged. That's not to say that some kids can't do better, but why would you put the smarter kids in a position to do worse? Will they ace that class? Probably. But what will that mean? An A on their transcript. Swell. An A they didn't have to work for, an A they could have earned with their eyes closed? Meaningless.

As Sheila wrote when she posted the link, it's not the black kids who suffer with this decision nor the white kids, it's the smart kids.

What we need is a better educational system from the get-go. Children should not be passed to the next grade simply because the end of the school year has arrived. Likewise, smarter-than-average kids should not be stuck in a given grade simply because their age corresponds to that level. For all students, always, we should raise the bar, not lowering it. Challenge them, make them reach. All of which is a huge undertaking, I know.

But this?

What a bad decision, school board.

Not smart.


Anonymous Lynne said...

Brilliant summary, Beth. It was interesting - I had shared Sheila's comment on my FB page yesterday, and one of the people who commented was my friend, Joanne.

Joanne and I went to grade school and high school together. We were both "smart" girls and Joanne ultimately went on to become a university professor in London, UK.

Joanne is extremely liberal in her views, and I tend to be more conservative. But what I love most about Joanne is that there is always a respectful and interesting exchange of dialog on topics.

This one was no exception. While I completely disagree with her ideology on this topic, I did find the exchange interesting. If you get a chance, take a read through it. (And you and I make many of the same points on the topic...)

Great post. Couldn't agree with you more.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Thanks, Lynne.

I read some of the thread and while I see a lot of validity in what Joanne is saying, especially with the possibility that smarter kids can help other kids along in a group setting, in the end, it's not the responsibility of the smart kids to help the other students, not in their core education. When I was in junior high, I helped tutor kids in reading. But that was elective. I wasn't expected to do it as part of my curriculum.

More and more friends are turning to home schooling their kids. They see much more value in what they can provide and see everyday happenings as opportunities to teach, as opposed to sending their kids to schools where they're taught whatever they need to know to score high enough on tests in order for the school to continue to get funding.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

I suffered what, at the time, was called a "comprehensive" education in England. It was an experiment that did away with the old groupings, with Grammar schools at the top, and lumped kids of all abilities together. The simple premise was that the smart ones would encourage and help the less smart ones.

The exact opposite happened. Smart kids saw the less smart kids working less hard, making less of an effort and getting by just fine, so they lacked the pressure of being among their peers to maximize their potential through competition.

During my time in this awful experiment I saw many really gifted kids drop out and I didn't see anyone get any smarter than fate and DNA had dictated they would be.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Tom Erdman said...

Hi Beth,
I just got off a plane from China about two hours ago. The Chinese make sure the "smart" students get as challenged as they can, with exams and interviews at intervals, making sure the best education is possible for those with the most potential. That way, they will have leaders and emerging stars for the future. They know they cannot survive in the "new" world with mediocrity. They might be on to something. I agree with you completely.

6:44 PM  

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