Think Tank: The New Invisible Student Crisis

As much as I wish I could break the laws of physics everyday in my classroom, it remains a binding fact that I, as a teacher, can only be one place at one time.  This, combined with the No Child Left Behind culture and the constant push for teachers to provide more individualized attention and instruction, has created an intriguing, mostly unnoticed, and unintended phenomenon.

I’ve sat through a myriad of meetings where I have been admonished, encouraged and even demanded to spend more time connecting to, helping and inspiring the failing student.  But so far I have never been in an educational setting where the focus has been what to do about our struggling students that are succeeding.  What is a struggling succeeding student?  I’ll come back to that.  But first we must understand the current culture of assessment.

I am unaware of any governmental assessment system that is designed to describe how well the best students are doing.  A school’s score for every state test can be improved not by improving the skills of the best test takers, but only by working on the skills of the lowest.  Consequently, the results of these tests only tell us how a school’s worst test takers are doing.  I think the bureaucrats who came up with these ideas think that it must be implicit that a school with little or no failing students must obviously have a greater number of students excelling.  But the illogic of this should be readily apparent to those without bureaucratic blinders.

Additionally, I think many of us are tricked into believing that what we really want to know about a school is how the worst students are doing.  In what case would a parent, for instance, really want to know how the worst students are doing?  Only if said parent had a particularly struggling child or was afraid her child would fall into the culture of the students with low test taking aptitudes would that information be applicable.  Why do we not publish reports on the level of accomplishments of the highest or average students?  Most parents have students that fall in the average or bright categories.  How do these types of students perform at your school?  What is the culture of excellence?  If I have a bright student where will she or he be most fed and fulfilled?  I wonder why we don’t address these questions more.

But the current state testing assessments for schools does not take into account the accomplishments of the brilliant at all.  Since the only way to improve scores is to lift the less-accomplishing students, excellence in student achievement is either not addressed or its true definition is confused.  The culture of sports and arts programs in schools generally understand the quest for excellence much better than academics do.  Mostly because these programs are judged on the accomplishments of the best performers not the worst.  A basketball team’s success is much more based on the efforts and skills of the starters than those who only play a few minutes.  And those without the adequate skills are actually cut from the team.  Similarly, a drama production needs to ensure that they have actors with the best skills to play the main roles; much of the success of the production relies on how well these main characters portray the story.  It is a clear goal of both these institutions to build champions and stars.  From my vantage point I see no such goal in government driven academics.  The academic champion and star have no place.

This creates the new invisible student – the struggling succeeding student.  The current systems institutionally neglects the brilliant.  Educators often talk about individualizing education, but when they do they almost exclusively discuss catering down to those who are struggling to perform.  Mention of catering up to those who are accomplishing but struggling to excel is at best a brief footnote if mentioned at all.

All students have varying natural aptitudes and potentials to accomplish with help and inspiration.  But no matter the natural abilities, fulfilling a potential requires effort and struggle.  In this way all progressing students are on equal footing and should equally be struggling.  Why is it then that American schools have decided to focus on and measure only those students struggling below a certain bar and neglect those struggling at a higher level?

The mantra of No Child Left Behind has undoubtedly contributed to this.  And I wouldn’t discount the current leadership’s insistence that those who are rich should pay their ‘fair share.’  I actually think, in some way, there is the attitude that those who are intellectually wealthy shouldn’t have any more government assistance in their education because it is the government’s job to look after the intellectually poor.  There is a part of the current American culture that actually believes that it is unfair for smarter people to receive assistance to become smarter while there are those around them that don’t know enough.  What we’ve created in our academics is akin to a basketball team where, after try outs, the coach spends his time with the players who didn’t make the team.  While we do want everyone in America to be qualified to join the team the current system doesn’t provide for a coach or equipment once they’re on team.  Any coach will tell you this is no way to produce champions.  We’ve created Academic Socialism.

The solution to this problem is difficult since the current system is so fundamentally engrained into the education world.  But I do know that now there is no inherent motivation or reward for schools, teachers or students to excel.  In my classroom the system only cares about how many students aren’t failing, not how many are excelling.

The system would like me to spend my time working with and planning for those with lower academic accomplishment to the neglect of the others.  And while that is not a bad thing to do, I do think it is a bad thing for every teacher to do.  Teachers are human and limited.  And, consequently, some teachers need to be released from the state mandated care of the those below the bar and freed up to push those above it to greatness.  To promote this there needs to be a fundamental shift in how success is viewed and measured in the classroom in such a way that promotes the value of true excellence.

I reiterate: Excellence and Standardization cannot coexist.

-Greg

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Think Tank: No one ever whines about the A.

Guess what?  You’re not perfect. 

Shocking, I know.

But I probably don’t need to say that to you.  In fact, as you read this, I would imagine that unless you think you invented aluminum foil, you are probably not delusional enough to believe that I’m lying to you.  You know this about yourself.  You know that you aren’t perfect.  In fact, your response may have been something to the effect of: “Yeah.  No kidding.”  Any logical, normal human being on this planet knows this about themselves, and can rattle off a list of weaknesses (either legitimate or perceived) without even thinking about it.  And a good portion of these weaknesses are public enough that they aren’t a secret to anyone who knows you.  You know about them.  Your parents know about them.  Your friends know about them.  Everybody knows.

But what does this have to do with anything?

At the end of each academic term you come face to face with a little letter that means more to you at the end of a term than it does during the middle of it.  Theoretically, that letter is supposed to represent what you have learned and what your abilities are.  But we both know that isn’t always the case.  Every so often you end up with a grade that doesn’t reflect your abilities one way or another.  If the grade happens to be lower than you believe your abilities to be, you probably complain about it, or argue the grade to your teacher.  If the grade is higher than you deserve, you argue for a lower grade that is more honest.

. . . right?

Of course not.  Because no one ever whines about the A.  Recently I’ve had experiences with parents who have been frustrated with the grade their student received on a project – in some cases, these parents were complaining about a low grade on an assignment the parent had admitted earlier was targeted to skills the student was not good at.  By giving the student a lower than A grade on the assignment, I was agreeing with their assessment – and yet they still complained.  But once term grades came through and, in most cases, their students ended up with decently good passing grades, the complaints stopped.

What changed?  Not the skill level of the student.  None of the assignments was resubmitted.  In every case the parent (or student) tried to blame the subjectivity of myself or of English in general on the poor grade.  Even when the weakness was recognized and understood, it was assumed that I would give an A, overlooking the areas that needed improvement in favor of being “kind”.  Unfortunately I don’t see fake, dishonest grades as kind, and I don’t think you should either.

It would be silly to complain about an A, I suppose.  A’s look good on your report card and help give you that wonderful little GPA that gets you into college.  You want A’s.  But consider for a moment what that un-earned trophy does for your skill level.  Not a
thing.  In fact, in extreme cases, it lies about the skill level you don’t have.  If you were a life-level student, you would complain about this instead.  You would want to put your skill level where your grade is, so to speak.  You would want to demand from your teacher or coach – but most especially from yourself, that you be pushed and made better.  And the only person who can ensure that happens?  Not your teacher.  (They grade differently and weakly sometimes, after all.) Not your parents.  (They think you’re wonderful and that’s nice but not always constructive.)  Only person who can do it – YOU.

– Joni

Think Tank: Keep on moseying – don’t mind us.

Before you misunderstand let me make it clear.  I completely believe in not running over pedestrians with my car.  I feel pretty strongly about that.

But you know those moments when you’ve rushed all morning to get ready and every minute counts?  You’re watching the clock tick away feeling helpless; knowing you won’t be where you need to be and that every moment late matters.  Then this happens: you drive up to an intersection where a group of pedestrians decide to take their jolly little time to cross the street.  You have to wait because pedestrians have the right of way.  And they should.  But that doesn’t help the bubbling frustration brewing in your soul.  They probably stop to scratch their head, tie their shoe, notice the bird flying by, brush their teeth, read a book, do their taxes, discover the unified theory of physics!  You actually see grass growing under their feet THROUGH THE ASPHALT!

(sorry let me take a moment to settle down [“breathe . . . breathe”])

These hypothetical pedestrians have the right to cross the street, but if they were being a little more considerate and aware they would add a little hop into their steps to burden those waiting for them as little as possible. Instead they remain in a state of oblivious mosey.

I see the oblivious mosey growing beyond the confines of the white stripes at intersections.  There is a growing attitude that there are rights we can just take and we needn’t worry about the effect it has on those around us.  You can hear that principle demonstrated here as welfare recipients are excited about the handouts they receive but don’t realize that since they didn’t work for it themselves someone else had to.  They mosey along not realizing that every $100 they take cost someone else an hour or two of their life.

Now we all have to cross streets and get help now and then.  But how do you do it well?  In my mind there are three principles which which turn an oblivious mosey to a goal oriented march.

First, be aware of the effect you’re having on others.  Be aware when people are helping you, sacrificing for you or waiting for you.

Second, limit the burden you make for others by doing all you can.  I believe that mankind actually enjoys serving and helping one another when they feel that their efforts matter.  But when you use the generosity and patience of others to indulge in your own laziness or weakness it lessens the potential for them to want to be generous or patient in the future.  It makes it hard for them to see the purpose in what they’re doing for you when it looks like they are doing something you could but are unwilling to do for yourself.

Third, be grateful.  No matter what the excuse or circumstances it doesn’t change the fact that someone else had to do more than their fair share for you.  You created this extra work, sacrifice or wait for them.  Show appropriate gratitude and respect.

How does this apply to education?  One of the biggest frustrations I have as a teacher is when parents or students need extra help to get good grades and expect the teacher to bear the large majority of that burden.  It usually means an extra work load for me that actually hinders instead of helps the growth of skills and knowledge for the student.  I do more work to allow the student to continue in their oblivious mosey.

Your teachers and classmates want to see you grow and learn – they really do.  Use the means the teachers has already set up to facilitate that growth.  If you need extra help beyond that, have late assignments and other exceptions or need someone to do something for you use the principles above.  Be aware this is more work and sacrifice for those who will help you.  Do your best to lessen the load on those helping you by giving extra effort yourself.  Be grateful for what they are doing.  Doing this will ensure that the teacher will not have festering thoughts of running over you with a car.  It will also help all efforts move towards more growth, more ability and more accomplishment.

-Greg

Think Tank: Behold the Power of Excuses

Back in the late 90’s the American Dairy Farmers came up with some rather brilliant commercials that claimed to show the extraordinary power cheese had. (See two of them here and here.)  The commercials were pretty ridiculous and exaggerated.  They seemed to hold about as much truth as a Chuck Norris joke.  The commercials weren’t meant to actually convince people that cheese had amazing powers.  Rather they were meant as catchy jokes to get people’s attention and they worked really well.  I remember people responding whenever something particularly stupid, klutzy, or awkward happened with the catch phrase from the commercials – “Behold, the Power of Cheese” – as an ironic joke pointing out the obvious lack of anything truly powerful.

Let me make you aware of a vicious lie I see growing in popularity and gaining a stronger and stronger following of disciples.  From my perspective it seems as ridiculous as the cheese claims and it baffles me how strongly people hold to the idea. Somewhere and somehow (I think it came over on the same boat as participation trophies and “A for effort”) the idea that ‘excuses fix problems’ entangled itself with our culture.

I suppose I better define what I mean by excuses.  I’m not talking about a ‘My brother was sick and we had to rush him to hospital so I couldn’t finish my homework’ type of excuse.  Those type of things are not excuses; those are choices.  And in the case above I would say taking care of a brother would be a good choice.

‘This is really hard for me.  I’m not good at it.  I have weaknesses that other people don’t.’  These can become excuses.  Each of these excuses can be perfectly true.  People do have individual struggles, trials and weaknesses.  The excuses themselves are not the lie.  The lie is that people think that the excuse itself fixes the problem, that somehow the excuse makes it all better, that because they have an excuse someone else should take care of them and that the excuse makes it OK for them to stop striving for growth.

All of us have weaknesses.  Weaknesses often mean that we need extra help or a little leniency.  But we each should have the goal of moving past the need for others to make up for our weaknesses and strive as diligently as possible to stand on our own.

Resist the temptation to wallow content in the mire of excuse.  It’s a trap that chains people to mediocrity.  Although each one of us has weakness we were all blessed with the ability to grow, move past them and progress.  Never use weakness as an excuse to become less than you are.  Ask for help.  Get the accommodations you need.  But use them as a tool for growth striving for the time you don’t need them any more (or as little as possible).

If left unchecked excuses will seize the power to hold you back, trick you into believing the idea that other people need to do things for you and whisper that you’ll never be good enough so why care at all.  That is the real power of excuses.

-Greg

Think Tank: Self-imposed Prison

I had an intriguing experience recently as a teacher. The type of experience that I have from time to time, but they never cease to amaze me.

There were a handful of students who came into a study hall because they were not participating in a field trip their class was on.  These were not students who appeared to be known for their academic diligence.  I think they came in thinking they could chat and play and just hang-out.  Perhaps that is why they opted not to go on the field trip – so they could have more hang out time.

The teacher of this study hall, however, runs a pretty tight ship and these students weren’t allowed to bring any of their unfocused energy into the room.  She informed them they couldn’t talk and would need to find something to work on.  If they didn’t have anything to work on they would need to pick a book from the stack she had and read.

What happened next was so telling.  These students had nothing they could work on.  They were not prepared to make any use of their time.  There was nothing they were pursuing; nothing they felt motivated to accomplish.  As the teacher required they grabbed books off they stack she had.  They went back to their desks, held the books in their hands and then stared at the walls for about an hour and a half.

It was quite impressive actually.  I think if any teacher had ever required me to just sit and do nothing for that amount of time it would be among the hardest assignments given.  Yet these students imposed it on themselves.  They were surrounded with opportunity and removed from distractions.  Yet they had the discipline to ignore and abstain from the chance they had to accomplish something — anything.  Class that day for them was a self-imposed prison.

I don’t think I’m too far out of line in saying that no one would ever voluntarily sign up for a class called Prison Cell Wall Staring Skills 101.  But living a life in which you only accomplish what people make you leads to your very own prison, for when you are left alone and no one is making you get stuff done you might as well be sitting in a cell.

Choosing to do things leads to real freedom.  Every hour presents each of us with doors of opportunities.  To enter their worlds of possibilities you must choose to open the doors.

The strange paradox is that I think those students thought they were getting away with something that day.  But you can’t fool life.  They thought they were getting out of something when all along they were trapping themselves.

-Greg

Think Tank: Grade Level vs. Life Level

It’s that time of year again – the beginning of school time.  Students (and teachers) come with wonderful expectations and grand goals about how they are going to turn away from bad habits and towards better ones.  Most of these goals are pretty universal.  Go to bed on time so I don’t fall asleep in class.  Don’t procrastinate on assignments.  Get good grades.

I want to focus on the last one.  Because grades are pretty important, right?

. . . not as much as you might think.

I’m not trying to say you should ignore grades.  I’m just saying they’re not as important as you think they are.  Because what are grades actually good for?  Well, when you’re in school, they prove that you will move up into the next class and eventually graduate.  That’s not a bad thing.  Grades also help you win scholarships and are part of what colleges look like when you apply to higher level education.  Also not bad.  Some students get rewards from their parents for good grades (or punishments for bad ones), so grades give you a certain bonus in your life at home.

But that’s about where it ends.  Once you leave school, no one cares about your grade point average any more.  When I was putting my resume together to apply for teaching jobs several years ago, I included my GPA assuming that, as I was applying for jobs in education, potential employers would want to know that I had done well.  My academic advisor told me to remove the GPA, because employers would only care that I had a degree in my subject.  They were, she said, more concerned with my skills and abilities than my grade point.

In the classes I teach, we put it another way: there is a difference between grade level learning and life level learning.  When you are learning for a grade, you jump through the correct hoops at the correct time and leave a class with the grade you wanted – but how often does that grade honestly reflect the skills you’ve gained?  I would imagine that nearly every person who attends school and puts forth even some effort has, at one point or another, received an “A” for a class and left it knowing they hadn’t really worked that hard for it, nor do they have any more ability in the subject than they did before the class.  On the other hand, I would also guess that most people have fought quite hard for a C or a B in a class and left it with many more skills and much more satisfaction in a job well done.  It’s not the grade that makes the difference – it is the skills you gain.

When you are a life-level learner, you learn that the most valuable thing you can do is to take charge of your education.  You apply lessons taught in class to your own goals and aspirations.  Then you challenge yourself to go beyond and discover the skills you need to be successful in the area you would like to pursue.  If you, for example, want to work at Pixar, there are many skills you need that a normal high school can’t teach you.  There is no “Creativity 101” at my school, nor is there a basic animation class.  Life level learners see opportunities and take them – but they also create opportunities for themselves.  If there isn’t a class on creativity, then they learn creativity in other classes, and experiences they have outside of school as well.

So there’s your challenge for the school year.  Although good grades are certainly a valuable goal – you can’t graduate without them – I would suggest to you that when you strive to learn skills and become a life level learner, you will get the good grades thrown in as an extra bonus.

Think Tank: Who are You?

We’re constantly being told we should seek out and accept more cultural or ethnic diversity.  Diversity has become one of the great political action words of the 21st century.  I agree that we should be seeking out, celebrating and developing the beauty that is manifest through the diversity of talent, experience, culture and thought that exists on this immense planet.  There is so much to learn and so much to share.

In that spirit I would like to point out one area of diversity that is still being grievously ignored in education: Intellectual Diversity.  It is no secret that every individual is unique in talents and aptitudes.  We all have gifts from God we’ve been given with which to bless the world if we develop them and use them well.  The standardization of education, however, has led to a standardization of the definition of what it means to be smart — a philosophy in opposition to the God-given variation of life.

What is that definition?  In the state of Utah the only school subjects that are tested and, therefore, the only subjects a school is judged on are Math, Science and Reading. In the last Think Tank post, Joni referenced the US Secretary of Education’s comment that the only intellect they are interested in is how students do on standardized tests.  The effect of these policies has filtered down the system and clearly influences the culture of schools and classrooms.  So much so that it is common (and even acceptable) for someone for whom Math, Science or Reading do not come easy or someone who struggles with standardized testing to assume that they must not be smart.  Some of you reading this may even know how that feels — to be in an education system where the talents that seem to mean something are not the talents you have.

This past week I attended the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, UT with  a group of students from our classes.  We got to see Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie.  One of the characters, Laura, gets so nervous at school that it makes her nauseated.  She dropped out of both High School and the vocational school her mother sent her to.  She wears a brace on her leg that makes her so self-conscious that she thinks that is all people notice about her.  She spends her days now playing records and caring for her collection of glass animal figurines thinking she has nothing else really to offer the world.

At the end of the play a guy she remembers from high school comes to dinner.  For probably the first time in her life she has a evening with a guy who treats her like who she should be.  He does his best to inspire her to fulfill her potential.  He tells her, “You know what my strong advice to you is?  Think of yourself as superior in some way!”

This thought is new and awkward to Laura who responds, “In what way would I think?”

“Just look around you a little.  What do you see? A world full of common people . . . Which one them has one-tenth of your good points!  Or mine!  Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes — gosh!  Everybody excels in some one thing.  Some in many!  All you’ve got to do is discover in what!”  Through the course of this whole conversation your heart just aches for Laura and you long to see her stand up and throw off the false chains that are hindering her from becoming more a blessing to herself and those around her.

The world is full of people who are not great in math or science but go on to make great contributions in their own way with the gifts and talents they’ve been given.  It’s unfortunate, though, that the process of modern education may make them feel inadequate or somehow inferior.  Thankfully, there are great teachers out there who do help students find and develop themselves as they pursue their personal mission.  But teachers are becoming more and more under the threatening pressure of better standardized test results that such individual attention for individualized results becomes impossible.

So, be aware, in school you will be on the machine chasing standardization and it will help you learn many things and grow.  But it is no substitute for finding your own path, your own mission, your own talents.  And you may find yourself at times alone in this quest since the machine has no time for individuals.

We live in a diverse world.  I think it was designed that way.  God gave us each something unique to contribute here.  We simply cannot all contribute in the same standardized way.  In order for us to have all the beauty, vitality, knowledge, understanding and inspiration that is possible it takes each individual finding what they have to share.  That’s my definition of smart.

-Greg