May 24, 2008

Education: The Road or the Destination?

I recently distributed a link to a NYTimes article about two private, extremely rigorous, Korean schools and their learning methods. See the article, here:

The responses that I received back were all extremely thoughtful. While some were humorous and others seemed distraught at the tactics of the schools, only one caught me off guard, at first. One person, a friend I respect tremendously and who I have known for a very long time, pointed out an interesting trend: “so, to what extent do American writers go to protect our schools from criticism? In every article I read like this, foreign students are characterized as maniacal, insanely-driven students with no goals. Yet, American schools fall behind in every measurable statistic. What are we trying to say in these articles? That other national will try to keep us but they’ll never succeed? Is this a way for us to claim superiority while our economic and social status continues to fall in the world? I’m confused by this article. Students from overseas are consistently smarter and more determined than their American counterparts—why do we vilify and mock them?”

Although I do not believe that the schools mentioned in this article- and any like them, domestic or international- are healthy models, there is an idea of achievement that they are pursuing, which, in relation to many low-performing American schools and in light of the competitive atmosphere for college admissions, is admirable. However, setting unsustainable examples for young people to try and live up to (also, see a more recent article, and giving them few reasons to achieve, never explaining what the purpose- or road- to achievement can provide for them, is borderline abusive.

In other words, let us think about the idea of education as the end, achievement as the byproduct of a healthy education. Perhaps I’m being obscure. What I mean to say is that no one can guarantee achievement- based on education, social class, physical prowess, etc . . . However, the one element that is universally understood as an indication of success is what a student can do in a discussion, in a free-thinking environment . . . in a classroom. Granted, not every family can provide the luxury of allowing their son or daughter the opportunity to pursue academics without the thought of earning potential. In fact, even if they could, many families insist from early on that their child(ren) begin to exhaust themselves in order to have a “better life”. But, just imagine if we could afford every student the opportunity to pursue whatever interested him or her, academically and vocationally. That it were somehow financially beneficial to pursue the study of philosophy just for the sake of ideas used to be something that people did. It seems like this is an antiquated idea of the American dream. No longer is it feasible. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a happy-medium between the students in the articles above and the typical, disinterested, unmotivated, purposeless American high schooler. I believe that this can be overcome, one book, one student, one mentor, one step at a time.

May 14, 2008

Quick follow-up on Potential

In my professional experience as an educational counselor and in education as an industry, there is a very disturbing vocabulary phenomenon: potential. This is the new overly- competitive or out-of-touch parent’s excuse for/defense of, their child’s underwhelming academic performance. It is my belief that potential has its place in the context of positive reinforcement. In other words, when a person is dedicated and committed to achieving a specific goal(s), I say they are putting effort into realizing their potential. This takes place in the classroom, the arts and the athletic arena.

However, all too often, parents defend their children by placing blame on someone, or something else, for the child’s own obvious lack of motivation, enthusiasm and success.

It is imperative for teachers to begin to reassert themselves in the classroom as experts on education and understanding each individual student in their care. In other words, the days of parents making phone calls to change a “B+” to an “A-” or complaining that their student cannot possibly be the cause of interruption as the teacher claims, should be over. Not only does this give a false impression of a student’s intelligence, it undermines the role of the teacher and punishes them for being objective, but it also gives the student an inflated sense of accomplishment and comfort while setting him/her up for failure when the primary school years come to an end.

May 6, 2008

The "P" Word: A Musing on Potential

Why are the educational appetites of our students so diminished? Is it the spirit-draining war in Iraq? Is it the fear of (not getting in to) college? Perhaps it is the cell phone, text message, email-age of quick communication, condensed vocabulary and instant-gratification? But why, when the current generation of our youth is viewed in contrast with other important generations in American history, does our generation come up so (a)pathetically short? Is it the comfort of middle-class American life which seems to be exponentially increasing this silo effect? I doubt that the answer is simple. I doubt the cause is singular. And I doubt that the remedy is achievable without drastic systemic changes being implemented. I do think that there are certain fundamental steps that can and should be taken which will, if seriously implemented, slowly reverse this current downward spiral. I can almost sense the lack of oxygen in this room! We’re all pondering the same question: where do we start?

First of all, begin to hold schools more accountable for why your child is not reading. Why are some schools focusing so much on teaching to these antiquated tests which have very little impact or long-term indication of student intelligence (or success, for that matter), instead of just fostering the creative senses that all children tend to view the world through . . . the senses that only reading, writing and activity can enhance? I know of a school that will not allow students in eleventh grade to advance to the twelfth grade unless they have taken the SAT and the ACT at least once (no matter their GPA, no matter their educational or vocational goals). This is certainly a marketing tactic which does resound with those parents who have been sold on the fear factor. In other words, ‘for those families who believe that education and children are a hands-off endeavor, here, we are the school for you.’ For the other 99% of parents out there, do not buy the pressure. Perhaps what you want to check out first, before enrolling your student into a school, is not whether they will help prepare your son or daughter for one, four hour exam, but whether the teachers can recommend any pleasure-reading books for your child? Perhaps they are keeping up on grade-appropriate reading themselves and they have recently read a story that your child would really enjoy because of a specific link in character between your child and the one in the story. Call me non-conformist, but I do not want a child taking swim lessons from a man who does not know how to swim, himself. And this seems to be the analogy that I can link to the idea of a teacher not being able to offer parents an idea or two for some simple, pleasure-reading books. Other questions: What are their homework philosophies? Are teachers accessible for after school help or tutoring? Perhaps, most importantly, what can your child learn from one teacher at “X” school that he/she cannot learn from another teacher at “Y” school? In other words, ask a teacher why HE/SHE would send a child to their specific school and not the one down the street. Sometimes, honesty and humility is exactly what you’re looking for from a person who will be influencing your child’s development.

Indeed, I am very good at what I do. I have some strong relationships with college and university admissions offices and I take my job as an advocate of education very seriously. That being said, I cannot help a student who was not already potential Ivy League-material gain admission into Columbia, Brown or UPenn just because a parent pays me. That’s not the goal of the “right fit” student/university relationship. I also know that there are no ways to “cheat” these standardized tests, the lengthy admissions processes or, for that matter, the rest of your life. All too often I hear the word “potential” used when a parent sits down with me to describe their son/daughter. A word of advice, do not think that potential is the answer to anything. Parents can only claim potential until they experience the reality: potential is like effort, but the bottom line is that a student either does or does not do something! In other words, “X Man” may have the potential to be able to finish a marathon under 4 hours, but as long as “X Man” keeps running 5 hour marathons because he chooses to not train, his potential is actually not so much “potential” but unrealistic and out of touch. Potential does not mean a thing to a high school physics teacher who teaches a class of mostly-failing kids, all of whose parents have been swearing, since the fourth grade, that theirs really has a lot of potential for science- if only they would be less lazy and apply themselves! Too often parents expect that their son or daughter will work with me and, voila, they will achieve off-the-charts results. On the contrary, my little reading “secret”, the one that I just shared with you, is the same thing that I tell even my most loyal and trusted families. Now, how we go about making this happen . . . this is a whole different mystery.