Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It’s Not Just Me

Sometimes I get to thinking that I am the only person in the universe who views something in a particular way. Then I feel a little odd, and I start to doubt myself. The last couple of weeks, I’ve felt a little off about my worries about the local school system. I’m mostly concerned about the high school for a couple of reasons:

1. As of this Fall, that’s where my two school aged kids will be.

2. For over a decade, the emphasis there has been on sports over academics to a seriously negative extent; passing grades in classes for team players even when they don’t show up, burned out teachers babysitting while students do nothing or talk, painfully low standards, etc. If you’ve watched John Stossel’s “Stupid in America”, subtract the music and sprinkle a few more team jerseys around, and that’s the high school. (Note: NOT an endorsement of Stossel)

3. All the students know it’s like that there, and very few of them care. They like slacker classes because they can socialize all the time and get good grades for it. The fact that they will then flunk out of college doesn’t dawn on their adolescent minds. Never underestimate the mental laziness of teenagers when it comes to thinking ahead.

4. The adults like to talk about how great the school is, and bringing up anything to the contrary is like being a toad on a frosted turd. They like their illusions just fine, and they don’t want anyone squatting there, croaking to the contrary.

5. All my kids are smart nerds.

6. A large percentage of the honors classes are a joke.

So, unless I’m feeling unusually belligerent, I tend to let others reveal their thoughts, should the topic come up before I decide whether or not to publicly take a stance. Sometimes I shut up and wait for my teeth to grow through my brain and kill me, so I won’t have to listen to any more crapola; other times I sigh and speak up. I find agreement in small groups of parents with other smart kids, which is the best I can hope for.

I had a surprise today when I took Doodle in for his high school physical. We had the Other doctor in a two-doctor office, since our usual doctor was out of town. We moseyed on into the examination room, and the doctor and nurse came in shortly thereafter. He asked why we were there, we told him, and he asked if Doodle was going to the local high school. He then asked if he was into sports. Doodle said that he kind of hated sports and was more of a math and science nerd.

The doctor then said, “Well, you’re going to have a rough time of it at the high school. They’re pretty sports oriented over there. My wife and I moved into another school district so our kids wouldn’t have to go there and could go to a school where the honors classes had some value. We were glad we did so; our kids did well and are doing just fine in college.”

I chimed in the we were hoping to get Doodle into IMSA for 10-12, and the doctor agreed that that would be a good idea if he’s good in math and science, reiterating that the local high school is a bad choice for smart, ambitious kids.

This bowled me over. It’s been more like “Friday Night Lights” or whatever the name of the football series is/was around here. Sports are a form of entertainment for the adults of the community, and, up until we got out from under the yoke of an oppressively successful football coach, there was never any hope of it ever being any other way. Many people liked it that way and were very vocal about their preferences.

That’s changing, bit-by-bit. While the Big Tail was wagging the school, I could have easily had my house vandalized, my husband would have lost business, my kids would have been physically bullied, and my dog poisoned for openly speaking as the doctor did. Maybe he, too, feels a little freer to talk about his disgust with the school; I know I do. And so do other people, who are, a little at a time and in small increments, beginning to let their dissatisfaction be heard.

There was one mom who wrote into the paper about a practice of bartering grades for goods at the school. I’ve found a couple of other moms starting to question the content of the classes in light of the low standardized scores the school has on the NAEP (you can find results for your own state) and the ACT (with a very informative report on troubling changes). Parents whose kids have taken a full roster of honors classes and gotten good grades are wondering aloud why their kids are only scoring average or below average on the ACT. But the doctor was unusual, and a very, very, very welcome breath of untainted air. It was nice.

And, now for something completely different, it’s Festival time in my little town. All summer long we have one Fest after another. A beloved food feature of all the Fests is this kiosk, whose sign makes me giggle and think of Larry Bud Melman and his toast on a stick….


Bill Slankard said...

Pork chops on a stick? Where do you live - heaven? I am so envious!!

My own very bright son graduated high school last year with mediocre grades and non-existent study habits. I blame myself mostly, for not pushing him harder, but the school didn't do much to help. He didn't cause problems and got passable grades, so he wasn't a problem for them.

Reading Mortimer Adler's The Padeia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, excited me to what was possible for schools. He breaks the school day up into three parts: lecture, discussion, and individual work/problem-solving (like math problems, writing assignments, etc). This latter component would be as individualized as possible.

The most important part of the program is the discussion part. I went throught the Basic Program at the University of Chicago several years ago, and it was there I learned how to think. This is not taught in most schools. The discussion amoung ourselves, proposing ideas, defending them, and the give-and-take among ourselves was one of the best things I've ever done.

But teaching kids to think is a very dangerous idea. We mostly want to turn out little buying machines, in order to keep the economy going, and to let the government operate without interference by its citizens.

Don't get me started.

Kathryn said...

Yow! That sounds awful. The honors classes in my kids' school are quite rigorous, and the teachers tell the kids they're doing "AP-level" work. My daughter's freshman honors bio class this year used a college-level textbook. Is there a school site council you can get involved in? Or is there a serious PTA? Do you schmooze with school board members?
At least in this environment, your kids are sure to shine. And if they're not stimulated enough, get them into online classes.