Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted October 25, 2009

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Responsibility and Effort are Required

Just Existing Doesn't Earn a Trophy

by Annmuma

What do students need to learn? Contest Winner 
What do students need to learn? Perhaps my answer is too simplistic:  They should learn everything they are capable of learning while being allowed to excel in their particular cubbyhole of excellence.  The more complicated question for me is:  How do we get there?

What is wrong with today's educational system begins in the child's earliest years, grows deeper during day care, buds through elementary and high school to finally blossom in college --for the ones who make it that far.  

As an employer, I have multiple opportunities to interact with today's graduates, high school, junior college and four year universities.  Too many don't know how to spell, cannot add without a calculator or write a simple business letter deserving of a signature.  The three "R's" are where formal education must begin.  Unless one can read and write with some proficiency in addition to  understanding primary mathematical concepts, no further formal education can occur.  No child should leave the third grade without acquiring the principle skills of learning.

That's a given, but an equal tragedy is too many people carry a high school diploma, but don't know or particularly care that they lack the central skills for success.  And I am not talking about inner-city or under-privileged youngsters, though I believe they should be held to the same standards as every one else. The subject of this essay is middle-America high school graduates where the prevalent attitude seems to be: You know what I mean.  I passed.  Isn't that enough? 

No, it is not.

Somewhere along the line they did not learn to respect themselves or others enough to want to do it right.  They were rewarded with trophies, pats on the back and attaboys just for showing up.  Organized, parent-supported athletics, cheerleading, scouting events, most extra-curricular activities supported the idea that all participants earn a trophy by virtue of participation. Excellence was not required for them to get the gold, only a minimum of effort.  Expectations were too low to generate any desire to challenge themselves.  By the time these kids were handed over to their kindergarten teachers, they were infused with their own importance.  Their caretakers were so busy building self-esteem they neglected to teach the truth of enduring and worthy self-confidence.  Left out of those parental lesson plans were the most basic of stepping stones to personal accomplishments: Sacrifice, empathy, accountability  and the desire to do one's best are the responsibilities of every human being, and the rewards worth chasing are the ones we earn through effort.

The misshapen cornerstone of integrity they've been given is further undermined by the unrealistic desire to hold an educational system liable based on the results of standardized tests, a recipe for disaster. Our children are the casualties in need of an immediate rescue attempt.  Too many teachers are required to teach "tests" to the detriment of what they should be teaching.  Whether it is Shakespeare or the logarithms is not as much of consequence, as is the stretching of the students' minds, encouraging them to think, to reason, to follow scenarios to their logical conclusions.  Standardized tests preclude original thought and reinforce the learn-enough-to-get-by attitude that runs rampant in our schools.

Sure, there are those kids who don't have the ability to pass Accounting one-oh-one or acquire the foreign language skills they'll never use anyway.  Not every kid is college material and not every kid should be made to believe that skipping college is tantamount to settling for a second class life.  Society is in need of mechanics, computer whizzes, electricians, doctors, lawyers and grave diggers.  Schools should offer the variety of subjects necessary for our young to find their niche and to excel in it.  At the same time, excelling in one area does not give one a free pass from all others. Every student should be required to expand their minds to the furthest degree possible.  Whether that effort produces a passing grade in every subject should not be the focus, but the grade earned should be a by-product of the level of achievement.

It's the studying, the expectations placed and the windows opened that are important.  If one excels in mechanics and struggles in history, that's okay.  Society may gain an excellent mechanic and lose a history major.  But the resulting mechanic is a more informed voter, a better citizen and a more interesting person because he was exposed to history.  Being able to throw a touchdown pass or have a five-hundred batting average is no more deserving of society's applause than the same athlete struggling through the geometry theorems to gain another level of reasoning ability.

Education has become multi-leveled in that those who do exceptionally well scholastically get the advantages of magnet schools, advanced placement classes and private institutions.  The athletically gifted are shepherded through the necessary classes with nominal exertion on their part.  The remainder is thrown together in an atmosphere that encourages mediocrity.  It doesn't have to be that way.

I remember Miss Carpenter's 1949 first grade class in Tioga, Louisiana.  I had forty-one classmates and one teacher, and I still felt special.  Miss Carpenter divided her class into redbirds, bluebirds and yellow birds, based on our skill level in any particular subject.  One might be a redbird during the reading session, but fall to a bluebird level for arithmetic and maybe even become a yellow bird during the printing exercises.  Students who moved up from one group to another were celebrated, but no derogatory ceremony accompanied any slides down.  Those children realized more study, more application and more "heart" were required to get back to where they were.  And though there were no bird designations on the playground, we all recognized those more adept at social skills and those who exhibited greater physical prowess.  In a most innocuous way, we all got our turn to shine and to recognize another's strengths as well. 

Our parents showed up at the parent-teacher meetings to understand and cooperate with our teachers to insure we all--the teacher, the parent and the student--were on the same page and path toward our best product. Personal agendas and one-upmanship were left at the door of the classroom in favor of honest dialogue and conversation.   That thought brings me back to the beginning of this essay and the very bedrock of what is wrong with today's educational system. Our educational system will become exemplary when parents stand up for their children as mentors and leaders by accepting and demanding only the best their child can give and requiring their teachers be allowed to teach, rather than manage a curriculum to the government's satisfaction.   

We, as parents and as fellow citizens, have the responsibility and the obligation to put our schools in the hands of the educators.  Only then will we have a satisfactory answer to the question of what our students need to learn.


What do students need to learn?
Contest Winner


Thanks, tteach, for the contest opportunity to expound on this subject! I know many will disagree and others will find the discourse too simplistic. My experience has been that most true answers are pretty simple when you cut to the chase. Thanks for reading and for suggestions.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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