Thursday, March 26, 2009

America: The Tipless Iceberg

Best of You - Foo Fighters (mp3)
Welcome to the Factory - Backyard Tire Fire (mp3)

"They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional..." These are the words of Mr. Incredible in one of the many scenes that make "The Incredibles" my favorite animated film of all time. If you want the entire marital spat, it can be found at the 5:00 mark of the clip below. If you don't wanna, and if you haven't seen the film, then just trust me that it's a great film about how our society doesn't particularly cotten very nicely to what is exceptional or special.

Oh, sure, America loves someone who is preternaturally gifted at throwing a round orange ball through a hoop. We love our athletes, with their gifts that serve to entertain us and earn them wild amounts of money, money they manage quite poorly (NPR). But when it comes to skills and talents that truly matter to our society as a whole, that could advance us or help us improve, we don't seem to give much of a shit about those folks.

When it comes to our children, America fights for mediocrity by calling it "equality."

The mother of two children, one autistic and one academically gifted, recently wrote a My Turn essay in Newsweek on the very subject. While her autistic son receives reams of additional assistance from taxpayer-funded initiatives and independent grants -- all so he is included with other children and provided "equal" exposure to the educational system -- her gifted daughter gets nothing. No arranging for advanced classes. No tutors to push her to what she is capable of if she surpasses her classmates. No funding for harder work, extra supervision, nada.

My wife and I had a similar experience with our oldest daughter in the fall. [Please note: This is not a "My daughter is the next Stephen Hawking" essay.]

All third-graders at her school took a test to determine where they fell on a series of academic skills. The test was to serve as a baseline. At the end of the school year, they would take the test again, allowing parents to see how far their child had progressed during the year. But here was the rub: on all but one of the criteria, our daughter rated at the top of the scale, and on that one she was a point away from it.

"So," I asked, "How will we be able to judge how much Carolyn has learned, since the only thing she can do with this test is go down?" The teacher kinda shrugged. She said there were a good half-dozen kids in Carolyn's class who had already exceeded expectations of this magnitude before the year began. For them, it was mostly about filling in some possible gaps, but otherwise, the end-of-year test would show us nothing.

We asked if she could be assigned harder work, or if additional work sheets could be offered, or if the teacher could suggest some books or other items. In no uncertain terms, the teachers answers were (1) No; (2) No; and (3) No. Not that the teacher didn't want to help, but rather, she was afraid for her job. Providing or encouraging additional work suggested that some students were more gifted than others, and someone in charge of her -- either from the county or the specific school -- had threatened people's jobs in matters such as these.

Part of me was suspicious of her honesty. Part of me suspected this teacher just didn't want to have to be responsible for arranging and doling out extra and different work for different kids. But either way, it's a damning moment for our public system of education. Either too many teachers are too lazy or uninterested in pushing all of their students to achieve at their highest levels, or the system itself aggressively discourages it. Either is shameful and without excuse.

Meanwhile, bigwigs in our local school system hold tremendous animosity toward schools like mine. We steal their smart kids. Public test scores suffer because so many of the smart kids go to the independent schools. While the Obamas were being excoriated for hypocrisy from pundits on the right for opposing vouchers, they were also being taken to task by pro-public school parents. How can Barack truly care about improving the public schools if he won't even entrust his daughters to it?

That's like suggesting I can't support regime change in Rwanda because I won't send my children there. Or maybe we can't truly support the military unless we make our children serve in it. That's some twisted, dangerous logic.

If you're below average, our society wants to help you get better. If you're above average, you're on your own. And if you won't feed your exceptional child to a system that has neither the time nor inclination to do right by them,then you're doubly damned.

In most ways, I consider myself a liberal. I believe we have a societal and, when necessary, governmental responsibility to those less fortunate or in need. However, when it comes to the nation's children, our obligation should be to all of them, to encourage and support all of them to go as far as they can reasonably go academically.

America doesn't want an iceberg. We want a long, flat, paved slab off ice that barely inches past the surface of the water and never goes much of anywhere.

"Best of You" is from In Your Honor, and "Welcome to the Factory" is from the exceptionally enjoyable album The Places We Lived. Both can be found online and purchased at a reasonable price. 


Anonymous said...

Dear author,

Just as an aside. How is this bad idea significantly different from other liberal doctrines that strive to eradicate differences in society?

If you were to allow your daughter to succeed, would your philosophy not support stripping her success away from her to provide to the others who were less successful?

Just curious why you draw the line in this instance?

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
Is that really all that you took away from the authors comments?

Are you just a contrarian or dangerously stupid? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have limited you like that. It's possible you're both.

It's hard to know exactly what you mean by 'stripping success away' because you were very vague in your comments, which stupid people often are. No one strips someone's success away. You've read too much Ann Rynd.

And the No Child Left Behind Act, which is driving this behavior, is not a liberal philosophy, but a program forced on public schools by former Republican President Bush.

T.R. said...

Excellent piece. As someone who went from a school system that catered to all levels of student ability by providing different sets of classes for each, and then going to a school that threw everyone in together, I have experienced this problem firsthand.

Your blog has become one of my morning reads.

Tockstar said...

Intriguing arguments. I see your point, and I agree. However, in a world of limited resources for education. (that's the REAL problem), it's hard to justify helping the smart kids get smarter while the dyslexic kid loses resources.

Billy Bob said...

Anon #1: Lines get drawn. We're a line-drawing species. Kids get special consideration with lots of line-drawing. Ever see that show SIMON?

Anon #2: Kinda mean, but I liked the Ayn Rand barb. She deserves it.

T.R.: I can't think of a much higher compliment, so a heartfelt thanks from myself and Bob.

Tock: I agree with your point up to where you deal with the level of vitriol so many public-education proponents carry for independent schools. It's one thing to acknowledge one's limitations and be frustrated by them. It's another to damn those who want more (and can either pay for it or find ways for others to pay for it) because they dare search for better. Don'tcha think?

Tockstar said...

I wasn't implicating private schools in making "smart kids smarter," but rather, pointing out that gifted programs in public schools do this. There's certainly nothing *wrong* with that, but, when funds are limited, officials will rightly leave the gifted children to fend for themselves and help the disabled kids who wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell otherwise.

However, I think the whole public school model is completely archaic. More funding, smaller class sizes, year-round school, more class aides, etc. would ultimately help everyone - gifted, not gifted, and learning disabled. But, if you're forced to make a choice, you gotta' go with the kids on the low end.

As for the vitriol, well, my parents did send us to public schools as a sort of populist statement (that and sending us to USN or Harpeth Hall would have broken the bank). I fully understand the resentment on *one* level: basically, if you have the time and resources that middle/upper class parents typically have, you can make a HUGE difference in your child's public school. Case in point, when I was in fourth grade, the morons on the city council completely eliminated the budget line for arts in elementary schools. At my school, the parents were able to step in and fill the void, thus also helping students of lesser means.

When I was growing up, we always saw parents who left public schools as sort of "abandoning ship" rather than working to make something better. That said, I did attend the best public schools in Nashville, where leaving to go to a private school seemed like a status symbol more than anything. I wonder how "populist" my parents would have been if we didn't live in Forest Hills.

As an adult, I see more of the grey area. (huzzah for abstract thinking skills!) Really, I find education theory fascinating and could debate it forever - as you can see. :)

Great post.