Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

School’s Out for Summer

with 4 comments

So,  I’m looking at the comments, and to start I’d like to say that I agree with Mike Fisher 100%–in fact, it’s the same thing I’ve been saying for years now.

I’d also like to say that I’ve got at least one way in which I can do a rough check  on the differences between what is being called “high school work” now and what was being called that when I was in high school.

When I went to high school, the required math courses were Algebra 1, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Math 4, which we’d probably now call “precalculus.”

At my son’s private high school just six years ago, the required math courses were Algebra 2, Geometry,  Trigonometry and Calculus.

My students, however, routinely arrive with not so much as Algebra 1.  If they want a degree that requires some math–like, say, nursing–they take Algebra 1, Geometry and Trigonometry at “college.”

And in spite of what the university tells the students, it’s not some kind of super duper special “college” version of Algebra.  I know, because I once sat outside a classroom where Algebra 1 was being taught and listened while a teacher gave a lesson that was virtually identical to the one my younger son had that same week–in 7th grade.

To say that high schools have been dumbed down is to put it mildly.

Outside the Gold Coast towns and the private schools, an actual high school education isn’t even offered in most of the public schools in my state.

And my state has one of the best public school systems in the country.

And I also agree with Mike that the reason for t his is the stubborn refusal to accept the idea that there is such a thing as academic and/or intellectual talent and that some people just don’t have it.

But the reasons for that were entirely well meaning–at least as described–and in no way connected with what corporations wanted.

In fact, if corporations had gotten what they’d wanted, the educational system wouldn’t look like this.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been much better, but it would at least have been less expensive for the students.

But businesses don’t really care about graduation rates.  They care about skill sets.

What happens when schools run into the brick wall that is the uneven distribution of natural talent and still want to raise their graduation rate is that they lower the standards for graduation so that more people can meet them.

And then it all works out the way Mike outlined in the comment.

And yes, the people who are hurt the worst are the kids whose families don’t have the money to buy them a proper high school education.

And the next worst hit are the kids whose families do not have the cultural capital to give them at home what the schools no longer give them in class.

But there are two big problems with trying to fix this.

The first is actually the easier one to get past–and that is the fact that if we did return high school graduation standards to what they were in, say, 1940, the graduation rates would be even more skewed by race and ethnicity than they are now.

This would be true no matter what the distribution of intellectual talent was–it would be true even if African American and Latino children had higher native talent than whites or Asians.

That’s because it’s not enough to have an IQ of 170, or–okay,  much more commonly–130. 

A child needs other things if he is going to be academically successful, and a lot of those things are incredibly basic.

One of those things–and,  yes, this is my big hobbyhorse–is organization.

My bright remedial students (and there are more of them that you think) seem to report coming from homes that make absolutely  no sense to me:  no set time for everybody to wake up on even week day mornings, no set times for meals, no pattern from one day to the next.

I’m talking here not ab0ut rigidity but about basic organization. 

A kid who arrives in the classroom, even the Head Start classroom, who has never had such schedules and who leaves school every day to go back to the free floating chaos is inevitably using half his intellectual power just trying to cope.

Things you and I do without thinking about them are things that kid has to make conscious decisions about, day after day, hour after hour.

What seems  like mental slowness may actually be just this–the desperate attempt to figure out what to do in the next half second, what’s supposed to go where, what’s supposed to happen when.

The good news about this is that the  problem is fixable. The bad news about this is that the problem is not fixable in a single generation, unless you’re willing to go in for draconian policies that couldn’t get into a Congressional committee at this point.

Such as–removing poor kids from disorganized poor homes and  have them raised by foster parents very well paid and judged on their ability to provide discipline and structure.

Like I said, it’s not going to happen, and it shouldn’t.

It is situations like these that programs like Head Start are designed to fix, but without the draconian measures they can’t fix them. 

They can, however, make a dent–and that dent can pass down to these student’s children, where the dent will be deeper.  And that generation will pass the dent down to the next, where the dent may be just big enough to get the results everybody wants now and immediately.

But ALL of that requires resetting standards to the higher levels, graduating fewer people from high school, and having some kind of integrity about content.

And yes, it’s terribly unfair.  These kids did nothing to land in the families they have.

But reality is inelastic.  It can’t be done in a single generation.  It can’t be done at all with an attempt to pretty up everybody’s resume by giving them high school diplomas that not only mean nothing, but often mean that employers and colleges know to stay away from you at all costs.

The biggest problem with getting something done about this is the breathtaking racism of the teaching profession and the administrators and legislators who  support it.

It you want to see a group of people who honestly believe, right down to their gut, that black and Latino children are just not as bright as white and Asian ones, this is where to look.

But the real issue with fixing this will be the obvious–the money.

And no, I’m not talking about for-profit schools making cash off the skills crash, although that’s a (very small) part of it.

I want  you to think for a minute about how many people are employed in the US today to “fix” the problem of kids who don’t have basic high school skills.

There are, first, all the faculty and administrators at all the colleges, universities,  community colleges and all the rest, including both full time and part time workers.  These people are teachers and special tutors and “academic support staff” and a million other things, tens of thousands of them–maybe hundreds of thousands of them.

They include teachers teaching remedial education, teachers teaching prospective teachers of remedial education, teachers teaching “regular” courses on a hundred different levels, tutors and writing centers to provide back up for students who can’t spell or do grammar, ESL teachers, math tutors and support staff for math tutoring centers, bureaucrats at the federal Department of Education and all the state Departments of Education, bank employees hired to deal with student loan issues, bureaucrats hired to deal with federally guaranteed student  loan issues and things like Pell Grants–

I could go on, but you get the point. 

If we returned high school graduation standards to their 1960 level, a lot of people would lose their jobs, because there would be no need of them.

If we returned high school graduation standards to their 1930 level, we’d also lose tens of thousands of high school teachers, along with “academic support staff’ to provide tutoring and other “services” to kids who were flunking out.

Of course, the kids would be better off.  They wouldn’t  have to run up bills and debts to get the same skill set that would be available to them at around eighth grade.  They could go out and go to work earlier, enter the job market with more skills and more prospects, and–because they wouldn’t have those expenses and that debt–even be able to flounder a little until they got their bearings so they had a chance of ending up doing something they actually wanted instead of doing what they have to do not to default on those loans.

But, of course, this system is not being run for the benefit of students.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2013 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'School’s Out for Summer'

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  1. No basic disagreement. Can’t speak for the racism of the staff & faculty, but certainly some policy decisions make sense if the operating premise is that black and Hispanic students can’t be expected to perform at white/Asian levels. A couple of quibbles:
    First, I think the domestic chaos COULD be fixed in a generation–actually, if a few years–by replacing welfare and unemployment with work, even if it’s make-work. There’s nothing like knowing that your pay will be docked for punching in after 8:00 to get everyone out of bed on time, and nothing like coming home hungry every day at 5:00 for getting meals on a set schedule. We have removed the inherent discipline of farm and factory and replaced them with–nothing.
    And I have no thought that Headstart was ever intended to fix anything, or will. The deep indifference of the advocates to results, persisting now over generations, pretty well exposes the thing as a WPA project aimed at the Black middle class.
    If we actually wanted to solve the problem, we’d do something different. That we don’t is a pretty strong indicator that the powers that be are satisfied with the present situation. As you say, it works out very well for a large number of adults who vote and contribute to campaigns, and the students whose lives they ruin are unlikely to do either of these things.
    Worse before it gets better–possibly MUCH worse, and not necessarily much better.


    28 Apr 13 at 1:40 pm

  2. It’s not racism, it’s respecting and accepting cultural differences.

    Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but that’s what it was called here when someone doesn’t want to include the test scores of the Native children in their school evaluations.

    I don’t think our school system has made quite the same level of, errr, changes as I see reported from the US. And I really should remind myself that it’s been an increasingly large number of years since my interaction with the local school system has been limited to making polite conversation with friends’ school-aged children, and even that’s getting less frequent as they continue to grow up and graduate. So my comments may be out-of-date.

    I don’t think things can possibly be as bad here as you all say it is in the US, though. Not yet, and not even if I think it isn’t as good a system as it should be.


    28 Apr 13 at 1:49 pm

  3. This is a view from Down Under on the latest “quick fix” about to be introduced at massive (unfunded) expense for the disastrously malfuntioning Australian public education system. Gonski is the author of the eponymous Report that formed the basis of this “policy” if it can be so dignified:



    30 Apr 13 at 7:53 pm

  4. I found this in the New York Times magazine.


    What bothers me is that parents who can afford to pay $43,000 for primary school are spending their time wondering if their children are getting enough shushi. One wonders about the parents priorities.


    3 May 13 at 9:37 pm

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