26 October 2010

Tactics for Coping with American Public High Schools

Oddly enough, probably the best thing that the state and federal governments could do to improve student performance is to help school districts hire more bus drivers and buy smaller, more fuel-efficient ’tard buses. The rest of the mechanisms necessary are already in place.

I make my living as an educational consultant. I’m divorced. This being the USA, my ex, of course, got automatic custody of our kids. For the most part she did a fair job getting them through K-12. My son, however, proved to be a special case. As a result, he moved in with me when he started high school. Ironically, my son is probably the child most like my ex-wife, that is, very bright, good with languages and extremely hard-headed.

When he got to my house he was an educational disaster. He hadn’t memorized his number facts, his handwriting would baffle the best cryptographers and his compositional skills were for practical purposes non-existent.

I suddenly found that my day job had also become my nights and weekends job for the next four years as I laboured to prepare my bright and bloody-minded son for university. The effort was a success in which many people aside from me played key roles. He eventually participated in the Stanford programme for gifted youth and was offered a university seat there. He turned that down for a slot at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He’s just returned this week from a summer in Japan where he was polishing his conversational Japanese.

I mention all this to demonstrate to you that what I am going to talk about isn’t theory. It’s all based on very personal at-the-coalface experience. Someday I will write a detailed book about getting my son through high school. This isn’t the venue for that though.

At first glance, most thoughtful people see American K-12 public schools as a train wreck. Indeed, the litany of statistics on American education looks very grim. Fully a third of all American students never complete high school and those that do graduate on average perform at only a 9th grade level.

The annual comparisons of the educational systems’ performance of the 20-odd OECD countries cast a little more light on the situation. The standing of US primary schools is in the top quartile of OECD countries. Given the size of the US, its decentralized public school system and the diversity and economic breadth of its population that is fairly amazing performance.

Middle schools in the US rank about average amongst OECD countries while high schools are a real disaster. They rank just about in the bottom decile of OECD countries. Overall it’s not unfair to say that US kids on average learn nothing in particular in US high schools. As a colleague of mine once dryly put it, “high schools are kindergartens for big kids.”

Well, yes ... that’s true, as far as it goes.

Now, I’m going to tell you about the parts of the story that the politicians, whatever their political orientation, don’t tell you about because doing so is not in their best interests ... as they see them.

Most people don’t know that the US public school system is pretty much a carbon copy of the 19th century Prussian state school system right down to the set curriculum and the bells that signal when students are to go from one class to another. The resemblance is not superficial. Prussian officials wanted their youth to be well enough educated to be useful in their factories and mines. They also wanted their youth to respect and support the state. In short, what students were given in Prussian schools was not so much education as indoctrination.

It works the same way in the US.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that whoever is in control of the curriculum in American public schools owns the political future of the country. Thoughtful people who have actually been around American kids and American classrooms, however, reasonably question that premise.

I first got an inkling of the problem with that kind of thinking when I lived and worked in Sweden in the late 1970’s. The teachers’ unions were owned by the Social Democrats. They couldn’t understand, though, how after over a decade of constant indoctrination in classrooms more and more Swedish kids were graduating and not voting with the Social Democrats. It’s a sad fact that neither politicians nor educationalists tend to be, on average, particularly bright or thoughtful people.

For much the same reasons as were the case in Sweden, American teachers and school administrators form arguably are the most powerful of the coalition of interests that make up the American Democratic Party.

Not surprisingly the Republican Party also subscribes to the notion that whoever is in control of the curriculum in American public schools owns the political future. They, however, know that they will, as a practical matter, never win over the 4-5 million teachers who are owned by and own the left in the US. Instead, they contrive to make life difficult for public school teachers and school officials by such devices as the “No Child Left Behind” law and promoting the notion of vouchers to break the educational monopoly by the public schools that provide teachers’ secure and privileged employment position.

Once you recognise the dynamics in play you realise that the whole educational “debate” has little to do with education and everything to do with power and politics.

So where does that leave us? Remember that figure that I mentioned earlier about only two-thirds of American kids finishing high school? If you pause to think about that for a moment you’d quickly begin to suspect that if it were true, America as an advanced economy would have collapsed decades ago.

Here’s the bit that the politicians, whatever their leanings, rarely mention. If you check on American youth again at age 24 you’ll find that over 80% of them have completed high school. Where at? Mostly at community colleges.

Here is the abiding epiphany that four years of working with my son gave me. School choice in the form of vouchers as it is pushed by the American right still presumes that your kid will be going to a school and that schools are effectively single-source vendors for educational services. If you can break out of that mindset and stop thinking of schools as one-stop shopping for an education, you’ll realise that America, not its politicians and certainly not its special interest groups, has largely already reformed its educational system.

The reforms have happened in a uniquely American way. There was no grand plan, nor was there a guiding principle behind them. The reforms have been a result of a lot of small players trying to solve immediate problems in any and every way imaginable. What has emerged is a set of powerful tools for assuring that your child succeeds in getting an education. Here’s how it works.

Suppose you weren’t paying attention and your child actually fails a course in high school. This is your fault as a parent. You should never, ever let your child stay in a course long enough to fail it. The first tier University of California campuses will typically not admit a student who fails a course after their first year in high school. You should always withdraw your child before the drop-deadline the instant it becomes apparent that they can’t cope. It’s usually obvious within a few weeks of the fall semester’s beginning whether or not your kid is going to prosper in a particular course ... if you’re paying attention.

Okay, now what?

Suppose your kid has either failed or you’ve got them out of the course before they did. If you follow conventional wisdom your child goes to “summer school” to keep them on-track with the school curriculum. There they’ll attempt to do in 6 weeks what they weren’t able to do in 36. Like as not the same teacher will be running the summer school course.

What is wrong with that picture?

If your investment manager , for example, lost half the worth of your retirement account you’d change investment managers and probably long before they’d reduced your account’s net worth by half. Why should it be any different with teachers?

In practice what most educated parents in my area did was to put their kids in the equivalent courses that they’d failed offered by the community college in the summers rather than subject them to high school summer school. Surveying the course catalogs at the local community college and the local state university I discovered that both offered basically the whole high school curriculum.

Thus, I had at least two second sources for any weak places in my son’s high school’s course offerings. Actually I had more than that, but that is a story for another time.
At my son’s high school the “faculty senate” had set a limit of two courses out of six required could be taken off-campus in any given semester. Mind, state law allowed many more than that, but after you’ve been around unionised public school teachers for a while you’ll discover that they aren’t particularly intimidated by state laws, nor do they pay too much attention to them. I won’t get into the reasons for their confidence.

What took the sting out of their two course rule was the fact that the local colleges taught courses that the high school spent two semesters on in one semester. That meant that effectively was my son could take four of the six courses that he needed for a year outside of his high school. My son most often took more than that, but it didn’t affect the mandatory four courses taught by unionised teachers that he had to take at high school.

Often as not, high school students taking courses at local colleges and universities get university credit for the coursework if you are careful with your course selection. In my son’s case, he took five excellent courses in Japanese at the local state university. They were the direct equivalent of 5 years of Japanese had it been offered at his high school. As well, he received university credit for them.

In another case, my son substituted a combined history and government course at the local community college for the equivalent two courses at his high school. The course was taught by the county district attorney. I sat in on several of his lectures and found him to be a brilliant lecturer. I wasn’t the only one who though so, either. The University of California system recognized his course as being the equivalent of both the government and American history core curriculum courses for a University of California degree.

My son entered university last Fall as a second year student after four years of attending high school only in the mornings. Any parent could do that with their child using pretty much the same tactics that I did. It isn’t rocket science, just a lot of hard work and paying attention.

So where do the ‘tard buses and bus drivers that I mentioned at the beginning of this article fit in to all of this?

It’s simple, the hardest part of the whole experience of taking advantage of multi-source educational services was shuttling my son back and forth between his high school and local colleges. Mercifully, he got his driving license at age 16 and was able to do his own driving after that. For the first two years, however, playing taxi driver for my son was probably the most time-consuming part of the whole exercise for me.

If the state and federal governments were really interested in improving educational performance they’d buy those ‘tard buses and drivers for public schools and make them run regular shuttle services between their high schools and the local colleges. As it stands right now the only kids who get that kind of consideration are the ‘tards, the developmentally retarded students whose learning resources are already typically scattered out over several school districts due to their small numbers. And yes, that’s the name that high school students have given those small shuttle buses.


This article was written in 2005 for the French webzine, Agoravox, which had an English language edition at the time.  My son graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in English Literature and minors in creative and technical writing with an excellent GPA in three and one-half years.  The average time that takes in public universities is six years.

No comments: