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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

A High School Teacher’s Caveat

The nation’s governors have been meeting at the National Education Summit to hear alarming accounts of the state of American high schools. “We can’t keep
explaining to our nation’s parents or business leaders or college faculties why these kids can’t do the work,” said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner who was chiefly responsible for the summit taking place.

The governors attending heard report after report on how high schools fail their students (as opposed to the usual vice versa experienced by their teachers).
The facts they site include the fact that out 100 ninth-graders beginning high school, only 68 graduate on time and only 18 make it through college on time.
Once in college, one in four students at four-year universities must take at least one remedial course.

The governors heard Microsoft chairman Bill Gates claim, “America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they’re broken,
flawed or under-funded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools — even when they’re working as designed —cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.” Gates and others called for tougher courses for students and to have their graduation requirements match the expectations of colleges and the business

As a high school English teacher, I believe that I speak for the vast majority of my colleagues when I say that we will take whatever educational policy
comes to us and work to the best of our abilities to make it succeed, just as we have always done. However, allow me to add a caveat to all the heated
rhetoric from those who by and large have never spent a single year in an American high school as an administrator, teacher or janitor for that matter. Be
sure that you pick our educational policy ruts carefully for us because not only will we be in them for a long journey; we need to be certain we like our destination.

First, let’s look at the claim by Bill Gates, a college dropout, that every student needs to be prepared for college. America is just about the only industrialized country where the mantra “all students need to go to college” is repeated so often that we don’t even question its validity. I remember when the high school where I teach did a student exchange with a group of teachers and students from Germany. During one of our faculty meetings, the German high school teachers gave us an overview of their high school system. First, unlike America, the school system is run by the German federal government, something that would raise howls of protest from American conservatives.

Then, in Germany, there are three different types of high schools: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium. Each one educates its students to the level of their ability. The Hauptschule is the lowest level of education. It lasts from the 5th grade up to the 9th grade and after the 9th grade they achieve the lowest certificate of education. In the Realschule there are those who learn faster and they are taught until the 10th grade.

Gymnasium is for the college bound and includes a 13th grade. All the teachers visiting us were Gymnasium teachers. All of their students were potentially
college bound and therefore their standards matched the ones that Gates and the governors call for. One can easily see why. One teacher told me personally, “I could not imagine teaching in a school where you have so many different levels of intelligence as you have in your classrooms.” The German system of education matches those in other European countries as well as those in Pacific Rim countries like Taiwan and Japan.

We do it differently in America. Sure, we could maintain standards simply by teaching only students willing to meet those standards as do the Germans. However, this would go against our American democratic education traditions that require every child to be educated on an equal basis regardless of aptitude or ability. In America, we want to have all children to have a college prep education despite the fact that not every child wants or even ought to go to college.

Yes, we need engineers, business executives, doctors, teachers and lawyers (well, maybe not), but we also need plumbers, electricians, builders, contractors and other skilled workers. And who was it that decided
that we need to fill all empty desks in our colleges other than college administrators who may have to face the fact that we continue to build and maintain more colleges than we actually need? Is it any wonder that we have high school students taking remedial courses when colleges will admit nearly anyone who walks through their doors with sufficient available financial resources?

Not long ago, achieving a high school diploma was as far as one could reasonably expect in this country. College was for the very few. Then along came the GI Bill which brought in a different kind of collegiate and helped to fuel the boom of the 50’s both by educating a new generation of Americans and, not coincidently, keeping them out of the job market till it could absorb them. Then came the 60’s with its Pell Grants and National Student Defense Loans (both now woefully inadequate) which paid for Baby Boomers’ college expenses. All of these helped to create a beast which high school teachers are called on increasingly to feed.

Of course, jobs once available to drop outs have been shipped to third world job
markets, but this is not the fault of our high schools, only the corporations whose heads call us “failures.”

America needs to decide what kind of education system it wants, but we teachers ask them to remember that we didn’t create the beast, we merely are given the responsibility of tending it in its cage.

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