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December 17, 2015

No child gets ahead

Ken Kellar

President Barack Obama has announced a new program to replace the horrible “No Child Left Behind” program. It’s called “Every child succeeds.”


I’m not joking. Other than having a slightly more optimistic tone, I see no difference.


Imagine two military goals that a general could promote at the start of a challenging military campaign. First: “No soldier will die.” Next, the more optimistic: “Quick victory with no casualties.” I believe the troops would be right to question the sanity or veracity of their leader.


As our public school systems chase rainbows while continuing to avoid basic sound education, I reflected on my own public education.


I’ll focus on my high school, an old dingy school with crumbling plaster centered in an industrial area of the Midwest. I did pretty well there. I took all the hardest classes and graduated seventh out of about 400 and had the highest ACT score that year. That record helped me obtain a full Navy ROTC scholarship.


I developed a theory of academic achievement during my days in high school. That theory was that “most students are intelligent enough to do well in almost all classes. The critical factor is interest and desire.”


I sometimes got pressure to lower my test scores so the curve would be more forgiving. I was told: “You are smart; it’s easy for you and hard for me.” I would answer that the only difference is that I was interested in the subject so I tried hard.


Back then the school system didn’t demand you make a career decision before you kissed your first girl. They didn’t offer nine chemistry classes, five physics classes and have specialty high schools. I recall one physics class and two levels of chemistry and biology. Math offerings were pretty limited, too.


The approach back then for students was pretty much: technical college, non-technical college and no college. I shared about every advanced class (be it literature, history or science) with about the same set of students. We were the ones who went on to become scientists, engineers, doctors, dentists and lawyers. The lawyer had a sound background in science and the engineer had a good background in history and literature.


Our advanced classes were attended by other students who showed some academic interest and capability. I recall a “burnout” in my honors history class. (Back then honors meant the hardest class on that subject. Today?) I didn’t see him in any other hard classes. His wife shot him dead in his driveway several years after graduation.


Another occasional participant in the hard stuff became an FBI agent. Our star quarterback took the most advanced math classes but no other hard classes. He didn’t go to college and stayed local. He didn’t get rich but meeting him several times after graduation I think he’s living life well, happier than many. One of my better friends in high school took the easy “average” route and became a draftsman. He went to night school and became a successful engineer and real estate investor.


Our valedictorian was one of the slowest students I knew. Clumsy in chemistry, she spilled and broke things. I saw her yelled at by several teachers as they reached the limits of their ability to explain concepts she was not grasping. I spent many hours on the phone with her talking her through her math homework.


At Ohio State University as I awaited the giant lecture hall to be emptied of the organic chemistry students so I could start my chemistry class, I saw my school’s valedictorian down at the lectern asking the professor for clarification on some concept. She just didn’t grasp things quickly.


That slow student is now a successful doctor. How? Desire, work, persistence. She didn’t get special counseling, or have someone interpret her test questions for her. She wanted success, badly. And she got it, on her own. I’m a little scared to think of her as a doctor, she was pretty slow! However, I have the deepest respect for her character and perseverance.


So back to our latest teaching theories, they don’t accept reality. Most people will do “good enough” in school. A small percentage will do great. And a certain percentage will fail. They will not succeed.


Refusal to leave them behind, or refusal to admit they won’t succeed, harms everyone. How are the average and superior harmed? Our schools keep the unruly animals in class disrupting everyone. Our money goes into remedial course work, counseling and tutoring for kids that don’t want to be there.


That means the average kid doesn’t get that one little bit of help to grasp a concept. Disruptive classes spend less time teaching. Advanced students don’t get quality time with teachers who can help them with advanced concepts, or discuss current trends in the world.


All they have is an army of counselors who have degrees in what? Physics? Chemistry? Engineering?


Yeah, right!


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