Our high schools are not serving most of our kids

I love teaching. It is a calling, and it is one of the few things in this world that I believe I am very good at it. But I think high school, for most kids today, is a huge waste of time. When I was in high school we were required by the state to take one year of math and one year of science, but we were advised by our guidance counselors to take three or four years of each. I ignored my guidance counselors, took my one year of math and science, and filled my schedule with things I loved and cared about. Second semester of my senior year I took three choir classes (Varsity, Show, and Cardinal), Symphonic Band, and Advanced Creative Writing. That one semester was the only time in high school that my schedule reflected who I was and what I cared about. The rest of the time I was struggling, toughing it out, and feeling guilty for not caring about what so-called responsible adults were telling me to care about. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I am glad I ignored them and worked hard to create the life I wanted for myself. Unfortunately, the state is making it harder and harder for a kid to ignore the guidance counselors if they wish to graduate. And of course the only academic reason for most kids to go to high school in the first place is so that they can graduate and go on to education that they truly want and need and will prepare them for life.

I am angry that in the face of the failures of our public school system those in our state education department seem to think the solution is just to keep raising standards. Thank God I didn’t learn to think from these so-called educators, or I would think that the way to deal with funding issues in my church is simply to keep increasing our budget each year. Do they really think this is going to fix what’s broken? Really fixing it might call for some creativity, but of course classes that call for creativity are always the first ones on the chopping block when it’s budget time. No wonder the problem isn’t getting fixed.

Where is hypocrisy seen clearest in the current system? In the Individual Education Plan. Students complete an assessment in Jr. high school that ostensibly helps them to get a feel for where their interests and (so far extremely limited) experiences may be pointing them career-wise. They are supposed to use this (and their counselors use it) to guide their class choices in high school. The problem, of course, is that with state requirements continuing to increase, “electives” are finding themselves more and more crowded out. And of course the number of non-elective courses available in an average public high school is very small. So the hypocrisy is that “we are here to guide you and help you find a direction for your life” but you must follow the cookie cutter approach we have already stamped out for all Michigan students that basically disregards your interests and abilities and attempts to make a doctor, scientist, or engineer out of you. Even when I was in school, when we could take far more electives than kids can today, I always knew that high school had almost nothing to do with me as far as helping prepare me either for life or for navigating a world where I was going to be largely on my own in terms of figuring out who I was going to be. My three girls, who are honors students, still know this is true today.

As I struggled with math and science, my counselors kept telling me that if I hung in there I’d get the hang of it. But the point to me was always that I didn’t WANT to get the hang of it. Not only did I not want to learn that stuff, but I knew I wouldn’t have any interest in a career that required me to know it. And I think that’s what educators still don’t get. Do we really think that we’ll create more doctors and scientists and engineers by simply insisting that kids spend less time singing and playing instruments and going to skill center and more time doing math and science homework? Kids who become doctors, scientists, and engineers do so because they like the subjects those fields require and are good at them. Kids who don’t already hate those subjects, probably aren’t very good at them, and need to be directed elsewhere. Is that  a bad thing?

Let’s require a year or two of math and science at the most. Let’s make sure we have the kind of instructors in those classes that are charismatic and caring and know how to turn discouraged kids on to subjects they find difficult. If they can’t turn a kid on to math in that time, it’s not going to happen. Is that a bad thing? If we could see it for what it is, we could stop acting as if we are customizing an education for each kid and maybe start really doing it.

I can think of no two areas of life that are poised to cause more distress and human suffering than money and marriage, and failure in these areas takes a financial toll on society in the billions. But not one single course on either of them is required (or usually even suggested or available), as if we don’t actually know the principles on which sound marriages and sound money management are based. There’s some stupidity for you. And how about parenting? Nearly everyone will become a parent and we know what factors lead to basic success in parenting, and how critical success in this area is for communities and societies. Should we not teach these things? Is it okay to go on acting as if it’s all about math and science? Until the educators who determine our state educational standards start using a little creativity to solve our problems in education, they are part of the problem, and the solutions they create will only perpetuate it. Good god, it’s not 1857 anymore.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Holly Richardson

    I agree with you. As a high school teacher, I am extremely frustrated with our “educational” system. Not everyone in my classes will need 4 years of science, or English. Do you think your mechanic needs to write an essay and defend a thesis? I just really want the mechanic to fix my car and be honest with me. We have cut most vocational classes, so students who are hands-on learners are left feeling like they are not successful, when they are just in the wrong place, and teachers feel like failures because they are not teaching in “all” learning styles.

    • Thanks for commenting, Holly. Yes, one of the things I didn’t have space to put in the post is that virtually every teacher I know would agree with most of what I wrote. The ones who are actually doing the educating have almost no say at all in the process. It would be like if as a pastor, a board of some kind (that didn’t even attend the church) gave me every topic and text to preach about. It’s crazy. Most teachers I know care about kids and want to be effective, but they are given almost no say in what is going on, standards keep going up higher and higher (for math and science, that is), they end up having to teach to the test in order to meet requirements, and then — to top it all off — parents and the media routinely target them as being what is wrong with our educational system. Wow. You almost spurred me on to write a new post. 🙂