Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tracking in School (Part Two: The Shortcomings of Inclusion)

In efforts to level the playing field and ensure everyone the right to an education, many public schools have practiced the philosophy of inclusion. Inclusions means having the sluggish kids, even those with mental handicaps and severe emotional disorders, sitting and working in the same classroom as the best and brightest of the school. This practice naturally inflicts a blow to the idea of tracking, which separates students into different levels according to their ability. Those who advocate inclusion reason that those sluggish students will benefit from a mainstream education that provides proximity to normal kids. They reason thus: Like someone getting better at tennis by playing with someone better than themselves, these students will improve their study habits by being with better students. They will also find questionable (though never actually questioned) studies to support their argument. Unfortunately, they forget that the tennis players playing with those worse than them leads them to stagnate in their progress and even make them worse tennis players. Almost all intelligent people who have endured classes with ignorant troglodytes because of a school’s mission to equalize what nature has left unequal will tell you how little they learned and how much time they wasted in that class.

Most public schools have forsaken the remedial and special education track, so they could put these students in regular classrooms. They compensate for the kids' handicaps by providing a co-teacher to assist the teacher in the classroom. In theory, the co-teacher monitors the progress of the sluggish students and assists them when necessary. In practice, most co-teacher hardly show up to work (most of them seem to be coaches) and the teacher has ten extra students in his classroom that slow down the learning process of that classroom considerably. Rather than having the same expectation maintained for the whole class, teachers lower those expectations to cut down the failure rate and accommodate the mediocre students who normally act out when asked to actually learn. After a few years of this, the regular students internalize the academic ineptitude of their “special” peers and they plunge into special education status themselves. Due to this inclusion procedure, the number of special education students grow exponentially and the regular level descends into a greatly remedial level with the title of "regular".

Fortunately, thanks to ratings of U.S. News and the administrators who desperately need a few smart students to redeem their feral student body, public schools will try keeping an honors level geared towards taking AP tests at the end. By necessity, this honors bubble that holds about ten percent of a school body escapes the onslaught of inclusion advocates and allows those teachers (who are envied by every other teacher in the building) to set some actual expectations for their kids and work at their level without endangering themselves to a high failure rate.

Naturally, most schools have tried expanding the honors level with the same ideas of raising the general level of student performance and earning a place in U.S. News by practicing inclusion while still achieving. Unfortunately, the same deterioration of expectations results from this. The Honors teachers have less freedom in how they evaluate their students because the administrators have set a higher quota for more honors students, which must not be violated. Once more, inclusion knocks down a level, making the honors track just regular.

Therefore, for the sake of a few knuckleheads, all the other students have been sacrificed. Parents now fear of their children become dumber by going to school, which happens depressingly often. Most kids in public school who actually tap their intellectual potential will do it on their own. Too many times, school only serves to bring them down by asking them to put down Jane Eyre so they can pick up a glue stick and colored marker.

Charter schools, private schools, and schools in affluent suburbs exist and thrive because of this simple phenomenon. Desperate parents will do anything they can just to keep away from the dullards that now dictate public school curriculum. These are the schools that nurture the leaders of tomorrow and offer a glimmer of hope in the future. They also expose a disturbing disparity between the fortunate and the less fortunate. Those less fortunate, which include many middle class families, have simply accepted public schools functioning as daycares for kids until they reach legal adulthood. Like the teachers, they have also dropped their expectations of what education should be.

Luckily, more and more parents now call for reform, usually in the forms of charters, schools that run outside the guidelines of a district but still receive government funding. These schools allow an outlet for parents who can't afford to live in a rich suburb or pay the tuitions for private schools. The trend of charters will rise due to the choice they offer kids who want to achieve without the heavy weights of kids impatiently waiting until they day they can drop out ruining their classes. Unsurprisingly, public school districts will do all they can to deter their success, so they can remain blameless of neglecting the young minds that overpopulate their ugly campuses.

However, a great majority of children will remain imprisoned in the public schools filled with the detrimental miasma of inclusion. These schools need tracking to restore quality learning back into the building. This would address the needs of the good students, the regular students, and the poor students. Moreover, it would allow teachers to teach the whole class instead the ones that require the most attention, who are coincidentally the worst students. Noting the shortcomings of the present system, tracking for the three levels seems like a much better idea to explore than the irrational notion of forcing all kids into the same physical proximity with the hopes that intelligence will somehow radiate from the good students to the bad ones.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Crumbling of the Ivory Towers

All schools now want to push all their students to college. It’s in their mottos, slogans, mission statements, “educational philosophies”, etcetera. All kids must pursue a four-year degree in some abstract study whether they like it or not. This academic priority is based on some brilliant research that shows that people with college educations earn higher salaries than those without college educations. Never mind that these statistics reflect basic pattern of American workers over ten years ago and not an actual guarantee of success. The schools remain convinced that this ensures a higher quality education, better numbers on tests and graduate rates, and step towards progress.

Unfortunately, the opposite seems to occur. Education, especially the seemingly untouchable ivory towers of higher education, suffers from these campaigns for a college education. The standards fall, the numbers for tests go down, and dropouts continue. It also doesn’t help that most school leaders can only feel obliged to preach and set deadlines but have absolutely no clue how to achieve it. Their method usually involves maintaining the same atrocious learning environment for the students while yelling at teachers more often and assigning them more useless staff development sessions. Obviously, when this does not work out, most people recognize this ongoing drama for what it is: Another way of hiding the gross inadequacies of public schools today.

However, this drama of making every student a scholar has successfully wreaked havoc on educational standards. Colleges must now sustain the vast onslaught of unprepared slackers ready to get their priceless piece of paper known as a college degree. To do this, many colleges have created developmental classes (in other words, a mini-high school sponsored by the exorbitant tuition of worthier students) or they have sacrificed their standards altogether. This sacrifice has led to a disturbing trend among universities who now forsake the fine-tuning of academic aptitude for “practical career know-how” in order to save face about plummeting standards. In particular, literature courses have opted for shorter multi-cultural books and contemporary short stories rather than tomes of the respected Western canon. While these books might exhibit openness to diversity, many of them are easy reads, and even the most sanctimonious professors acknowledge that. In the other disciplines power point presentations replace writing compositions, Wikipedia replaces actual sources for research, and derisive jibes (often spouted from asinine professors) replace competent discussion.

The academic standards of high schools have also suffered. In the spirit of making every student a college prospect, many schools have streamlined honors courses and loosened the methods of tracking that separate the wheat from the chafe in the student body. They now drag at-risk students (educational term for prospective drop-outs) literally kicking and screaming into an advance placement class where they continue to kick and scream for the whole year. The teachers would normally fail these dunces, but they have so many of these students that failure is not an option anymore. At this point of no return for the teacher, their expectations normally take a beating on their grade book for a few weeks before they inevitably drop to a lower level.

Naturally, schools pushing college have done away with programs intended as alternatives to college. Many have disposed of useful vocational programs that could immediately equip kids with practical skills that the job market always requires. Rather, they are forced into classes that attempt to teach them the beauty of poetry, obscure theorems in advanced algebra, and the cultural celebrations of Mauritania. While a minority might appreciate this well-rounded though not altogether practical curriculum, a majority usually space out and hone their skills as slackers just to get through their days. Kids who might want, or need, to work after high school often come into the workforce handicapped because school has trained them to lazy, dishonest, and irrelevant.

The strangest fact that high schools seem to somehow overlook is that most universities lie outside the price range of most kids, even middle-class ones. Parents and students begrudgingly paying off their loans understand that universities, both public and private, presently charge extortionate tuitions. These costs especially encumber students in states that have deregulated tuitions. Considering the quality of education received in these institutions that cater to profitable endeavors over educational ones, the notion of paying the equivalent of year’s salary of a white-collar worker is downright absurd.

Community college has become the only choice for many young adults seeking some kind of credential that might attract an employer. Unfortunately, they provide financial relief at the cost of accepting all students indiscriminately. Thus, the hopes some smart kids cherished in their bosoms of finally separating from the imbeciles of the class fly away. The state that needs them so badly has left them an additional two years of high school in the guise of a college.

To define success in terms of a college degree limits the definition of success completely. Students come in many different forms with many different mindsets. They all have a talent and a passion, and school must tap that precious resource in each of its students. Universities do not deserve the power that high schools give them, determining a person’s overall success in life. They should humbly serve as supplemental academic training to students desiring it. Other outlets need to exist for the other students ready to work or gain a profitable skill. A high school that respect this and aspire to opening more possibilities ultimately succeeds as a beneficial institution over one that alienates students and tears down academic standards due to their narrow-minded view that college is the only way.

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