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.



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