Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Full-Throttle Schools

Schools are for functional kids. For the non-functional, other approaches must be tried.

Functional kids are like functional cars: they run, they get on the road, and they negotiate the terrain of life. They may not all run with the same speed or energy efficiency, but they run. This is analogous to the students who are preparing to become adult citizens. Like the cars in the analogy, they are being equipped to meet fundamental standards: they must know how to read, write, do basic math, engage in critical thinking, have an awareness of science and the environment, and of our history and civic institutions. How well they can do beyond these basic standards is analogous to whether a car can meet new and rigorous environmental and safety standards. Some may, others may not. But they all have a right to be on the road.

Just as car manufacturers want to improve the quality and efficiency of their products, so educators want to improve the quality of their students' educations. So they set certain standards, hoping to gradually improve the quality of learning as time goes on.

But this is where the analogy breaks down. Because students are living, conscious beings. Unlike cars, they must be allowed to fail. If school is like life -- if life is a school -- failure teaches lessons that can ultimately make the person stronger. But there are two types of failure -- a failure that derives from lack of teaching ability or lack of concern on the part of the teacher or lack of resources on the part of the institution, and failure that comes as the knowing consequence of the student's own behavior. If a child is not ready, or willing, to apply him or herself, of if his home environment is so difficult as to preclude his being successful in learning, this is not the fault of the institution. And it will be unavoidable in some cases. These students will have to learn from these setbacks in their own way and under their own power. Can a school substitute for a loving home? Sometimes, and sometimes not.

So because schools are not the same as factories, and students are not the same as cars, educators must be prepared to realize that some students will not succeed and must be allowed to fail. Not easily, not without the greatest effort to stop failure from happening. But with the knowledge that if there is a benchmark for success, it must take this reality into account.

An educational benchmark can't be 100% success -- 100% on or above grade level -- because this means one of two things: if the benchmark is set too low, achieving it will not challenge most students and the institution will be failing in its mission. If tests and standards are dumbed down to allow everyone to pass, the school will be failing the student who needs the edge of difficulty to hone their skills and stimulate their intellect. If the benchmark is set too high, pressure on teachers and students becomes unbearable, and ways have to be found to expel the poorly performing students, while teachers will face discipline which is unfair and punitive. Punitively high standards will create a permanent underclass, as those who fail will be marginalized.

If the benchmark is set to an appropriate level of difficulty, the demand that both students and teachers meet unrealistic goals will not have to be satisified. Occasional failure will be accepted from a relatively small group of students -- failure that does not mean ostracism, but that means acceptance and understanding. These metaphorical cars may not meet the toughest standards, but they can still be permitted to ride the highways of this land and find their own destiny.