December 02, 2005

What is the goal of education?

The goal of education must be excellence. To achieve excellence we must set high standards for our students, and they must strive to reach those goals. Teachers must hold the students accountable for meeting those high standards. Many will succeed. Some will fail. There are those among us (teachers) who favor equity over excellence. They believe that we must compromise our standards in order to accommodate the students who do not reach established goals. I whole-heartedly disagree. Not because “the world needs ditch diggers too,” but because I know from experience that students will only achieve when they are challenged to do so. Although some students will not master the challenge at a 100% success rate, their efforts to do so will be neither in vain, nor un-worthwhile. By keeping the standard high, the student who fails to reach the ultimate goal can still take pride in the effort they gave, and the objectives they accomplished.

It’s like the wall obstacle exercise some leadership groups use to build teamwork, mutual respect, and understanding. You know the one. A team attempts to get all of their members up and over a wall that is just tall enough that no one person can get up and over it alone. If you’ve never participated in this opportunity, next time you get a chance, give it a shot. The focus is on the fact that EVERYONE can make it over the wall, but NO ONE, can make it alone. And the height of the wall is never changed. Think about how that applies to the classroom.

I teach high school elective courses full of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders. Each year we begin at the same place in the scope and sequence, but at very different places in both interest and ability levels. We start slow, too slow for some, too fast for others, and gradually pick up the learning pace as the year goes on. Some students who do not have the benefit of having a computer at home, or have never taken a computer course realize very quickly that they are in over their heads. (There is a 9th grade level prerequisite course to my courses, but sometimes students slip by, counselors.) Other tech-savvy students catch on right away and sometimes complain that we aren’t moving fast enough, or maybe even that they are bored. My response to them is to challenge, and sometimes assign, them to assist other students who are not as tech-savvy as they are. Their jobs are to help the others catch up and eventually keep pace. This is a very successful strategy for both types of students. Many teachers believe in peer tutoring, and I can tell you that not only does this approach to learning improve my class grade average; it also engages ALL students in the process and heightens their awareness of their responsibility to each other. “He ain’t heavy…” Together we make it over the wall and on to the next challenge.

What would be the benefit of lowering the obstacle wall? How low would the obstacle wall have to be before everyone could make it over without help? What would be the benefit of such a challenge? Would it be a challenge at all? And if not, then what would the purpose be? So that everyone could feel all “warm and fuzzy” about not needing help to scale the obstacle? So that they didn’t need the fellowship of their peers? What kind of personal growth occurs when the challenges we face, aren’t challenges at all, but mere hoops to jump through? Hoops so low to the ground, that they don’t require any “jumping” at all.

In California it feels like we are making these exact modification with the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Educators have been told that our high school students will be held accountable for passing this test, or they will not graduate, regardless of earned credits. The year that the students will start to be held accountable continues to be pushed back, even though the regular administration of the test has been going on for some years now. It is a tragedy that a student can spend four years in high school, but not pass a 6th and 7th grade level test. I feel for the parents of these children. What does it say about the education the students receive in our high schools? How can it be that a student can pass their courses, but not pass a state test? Some districts have introduced a replacement graduate certificate available to kids who have the credits but who fail the test and still want to graduate. To me, it just seems like we are lowering our standards, and shorting the obstacle wall.

Sure there is a stigma attached to not graduating. Yes, some people will feel bad. Parents will be disappointed in their children, the schools, and potentially themselves. No one wants to feel bad. However, education is not about feelings. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Of course self-esteem is important. I once asked a close friend and very successful coach about working with kids on the athletic field. I was coaching little league baseball and I was concerned that all my young players feel positive and confident. The expectation was that everyone should play, and that sometimes made winning even more challenging. I asked him what the secret was to establishing these feelings in my players. My friend told me that playing felt good, but winning felt great. If I was not doing a good enough job preparing my kids to win baseball games, then I was doing them a disservice. The key to success was in making sure that every player was prepared to succeed at the highest level. They all worked to rise to the level of the best players, and not the other way around. Excellent and useful advice both on the diamond and in the classroom.

Back to the obstacle wall. We teachers are the ones who either stand on the bottom and push or reach down from top and pull our students up to the platform. Our job is not and should not be to break the wall down. If we do, our students will never have the opportunity to experience the view from the top of the wall or discover what’s waiting for them on the other side. The more they struggle to scale the obstacle wall and reach the goal, the more we push and pull. The more experience a student receives, the more they learn, the more they grow. Mediocrity is derived from the excuses and rationalizations that are made once we fatigue, get tired, and quit. Excellence is achieved when we all work together to scale the obstacle wall and reach the goal, regardless of how much time, effort, or sacrifice it takes.

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