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Sunday, January 09, 2005


Week 3: A Few Suggested Changes to the School System

The current education system in the United States varies widely between states, and, indeed, school districts. Typically, standards exist at the state level for individual school districts to conform to... but how they conform is left up to the district itself. Now, President Bush has advocated "No Child Left Behind", without realizing that's a very nice idea, but ultimately damaging to some of the students.

I don't have numerical proof, here. What I have is personal experience, and the experience of family friends to go on.

Some of the changes needed for our education system are relatively simple. Some are far more difficult, and are based on society-wide problems.

For the simple ones:

1) This will set some people to howling, I'm sure, but I've lived through it, dealt with it, and stand by it. Separate out the kids according to ability, intelligence, and zeal for learning. I'm an honors kid, what my mother calls "A-Rail" (a misnomer, in my opinion). From the time I was in fifth grade, I was in a program called "Gifted & Talented". This gave everyone in it a chance to learn more than our classmates -- learn what we were capable of learning, instead of throwing paper wads at each other and getting perfect 100s on our tests in all classes (although all of us were pretty bad about turning our homework in).

And this gets to the crux of why I say the honors kids SHOULD be segregated, for at least some of our classes. We easily got bored while in with the normal kids, and also tended to intimidate the normal kids, by showing off too much. Mind, I'm calling them "normal", instead of "average". Several of them were as intelligent as we were ... but weren't as zealous about learning, didn't find it fun to be challenged, and by the time we were in eighth grade, we had lost several kids to the normal classes, because of the workload differences. (This loss increased as we got closer to graduation.)

For seventh grade, we had a GT English class. We went through everything faster, more thoroughly, and covered things the normal classes didn't. The class size was smaller than the normal kids had to deal with (a plus for ANY class "level"), which did help. But we did things like learn some Latin roots so we could figure out unfamiliar words faster and easier, work on brainteasers, and several other things. We did debates, too.

For eighth grade, some moron at the either the state level or district level decided that everyone should spend all of their core classes together. We survived like that for one semester, barely. I remember trying to read stories in class. The GT kids would all have the 10-page story read in 10 minutes tops, and we'd spend another 10-20 minutes waiting for everyone else to finish reading. It drove every one of us absolutely bonkers. The GT teacher managed to wrangle us all into the same "team", and mostly into the same English class, for our sanity. And we also had our GT class (which was no longer associated with a core class, which messed a bunch of us up on electives). I would say we learned a third of what we did while we were separated out.

In the classes we had no GT or Honors or (in high school) AP options, we generally pulled 100s, more or less sleeping though class. And while that may sound good, in the long run it wasn't. Why? The answer is one word.


You see, we never really learned what homework was. We always did it in class between notes, or while we'd otherwise be twiddling our thumbs and chatting. Even with the AP classes in high school, with a few exceptions, we never were so completely challenged we HAD to do homework. In fact, the most college-like Advanced Placement class we had was American History under Mr. Beck. There's a reason he is viewed by a lot of the kids who had his class as a minor deity. Even Calculus wasn't that bad. I had to do homework for it, but only because it was part of the grade. Not because I needed to.

And the normal English classes, oy! the curriculum solely focused on getting everyone to pass the 10th grade TASS test (now the TASP, and supposedly slightly harder), but my younger sisters took it, and have assured me it's still nothing.

And then, I get to college.

A lot of things remained the same. But what killed me is where I previously didn't have to do the homework, I now had to. And that was hell, trying to learn that.

But in the classes where my imagination was caught and kept, I did outstandingly better than I did in the average, run of the mill classes. I pulled nothing less than an “A” in any of my honors level classes. (And I still sing the praises of said classes, every chance I get. Among the U of H Honors kids, you find two types – those who absolutely hated Human Situation, and those who utterly miss that class. I fall into the second category. I wanted to take it again, as a TA/upper level, but never could work it into my schedule.) My regular classes are actually what murdered my GPA… because I was so unchallenged, I didn’t even bother doing the work. Didn’t feel like it was worth expending the effort, GPA be damned (and it was).

2) The current socio-economic culture of the US workforce does not tend towards ensuring that enough teachers exist in the work force. And, just as often as not, the ones who are there can’t teach, whether they lack in knowledge in the field they’re supposedly teaching, or just have no teaching skills.

For example, despite disliking any chemistry more involved than “KaBOOM!”, I took Chem 2, which came in one flavor, Advanced Placement, two different class periods. A couple of the students figured out quickly that asking our teacher about the oilfields had him side-tracked all class, and we never had to take notes that way. Not that he ever had notes for us to take, he just tended to suddenly decide it was time for a test, over things he hadn’t even attempted to talk about, or even told us to read about in the book. And, on one of these tests, my class got grades ranging from 15 to 97. The other class period all managed, somehow, to get a 93 on the test (all twenty odd of the students). And we were the ones accused of cheating. Never did figure that one out.

Then there was the glorified typing class, where I ended up having to teach the teacher, on multiple occasions. (I also ended up competing in “Computer Applications” (glorified typing, and “can you use Excel?”) and placing first in the district to go to state by some four or five hundred points. I went on the band trip instead, since it was my senior year, and I’d never been able to go on the band trip before.) Another “computer applications” teacher, for the eighth grade, spent most of her time IMming her long distance boyfriends, in the middle of class. But because they had “degrees” in this stuff, they had the jobs.

Math and science teachers are hard to come by, as a general rule. If I could stand kids more, I would be trying to be a biology teacher, because the school districts around here need decent ones so badly. Of course, I took Calculus 3, so I’d also probably be fought over to teach algebra I/II, as well.

I won’t go into my rant over the English department teachers, because at least two of them were more than marginally competent. It’s just politics that ensured it was the nitwits who ended up in charge. Administration has to feel superior to the department heads, after all.

Which leads me to the next set of problems.

3) At least at my school district, it was Decided that because the new principal performed quite well on her back, and had had enough plastic surgery to pass for Barbie (faint plastic sheen and all), that her ideas of a) a trimester and b) a dress code were absolutely wonderful. (I have to admit that I only ever had scuttlebug as "proof" for her real behavior. But she sure acted like that's how she "got things done". I, personally, found her behavior disgusting.)

Can you say “disaster”? Good. Knew you could. However, she, and the entire school board, apparently could not.

For those of you not introduced to the joy and raptures of the trimester system, let me explain. It is the false idea that lengthening classes by about 35-50 minutes and decreasing the number of classes per day (by a whole two classes), while shortening the “semester” into approximately one-third of the school year, permits students to have the same amount of class time/note taking time/teacher time as shorter classes, every day, for an entire semester. In fact, supposedly, it permits more class time.


We suffered horribly, particularly the AP students. The AP tests were held about mid-third tri. So we had to have all our AP classes during the first two trimesters, so we’d’ve gotten through 75-85% of the material on the AP test… the remaining 15-25%, we spent cramming in during after school study sessions, with all our various teachers. It was murder.

Then, they had to increase the number of “credits” required to graduate high school, because the trimester system permitted students to graduate a year or more early – and can’t permit that to happen! The school district looses money when students graduate a year early.

And there is a maximum limit to how much attention even a teacher can spend on their subject, with any given class, before wandering off into Never-Neverland. Truly, there is a finite amount of calculus, chemistry, and suffering in the English classes that can be survived, per day. 90-100 minutes at a go just doesn’t work. I promise. We didn’t mind having that long per day for band, but a brass player’s lips only last for so long before you can’t make a squeak, let alone bust out a high D on pitch.

And then there was the Dress Code, which everyone called a “uniform”, including the superintendent, principals, school board, teachers, parents, and students. Mind you, according to the laws (as they read then), it wasn’t legal for it to be a uniform without having an exemption policy. So, in the wordage, there was a way to petition to be exempted. On paper, it existed. There was even a group from the school board and administrators that “reviewed” the petitions.

No petitions were approved. None of them (mine and my sisters’ among them). Doesn’t sound like much of an exemption policy, to me.

Now, let me explain the reason this “dress code” came into being.

Ms. Barbie-Wannabe I’m-Going-To-Wear-Mini-Skirts-To-Work-Around-The-Teenage-Boys couldn’t control the students. So the dress code was supposed to make the students easier to control, by increasing the punishments for not following it, while drastically limiting what the students could wear. (There was a “zero-tolerance policy”, for the dress code as well as the normal “zero-tolerance policy” crap.)

And then she simpered and whined, and made her mascara run, when – GASP – the number of students being disciplined increased tenfold. Who would have thought that by increasing what students could get disciplined for, you’d also increase how many you disciplined?? Just the increase in paper being used to write up detention slips must have cost the school district a whopping bit of money.

So, what do all these personal antecedents boil down to, as suggestions?

  1. Divvy up the kids according to zeal, ability, and desire to learn. Don’t make the distinctions permanent sortings a la Hogwarts Sorting Hat; some kids are later bloomers, others burn out. But make the distinctions. For everyone’s sakes. It may not be “politically correct”, but it’s a much more efficient use of the teacher’s and students’ time, if everyone in a classroom is roughly equal in ability.

  2. Start imprinting onto the next generation that there’s no shame in being a teacher. Start figuring out how to pay good wages to teachers, so that more of the bright minds not inclined to research don’t end up working in an office for the rest of their days, but go on to teach. And the administration needs to be sure that new teachers are being evaluated on a very regular basis, to ensure that their students are getting anything out of the class. Test scores may not be the best reflection of this – but if the students like going to the class because it’s interesting (not because they can catch up on their sleep), it’s likely the teacher’s at least doing a halfway decent job.

  3. Research sweeping policy changes thoroughly before applying them in a live situation. All programmers test their code before they present it to the public, and people still complain when a bug or thirty slip through something that complex. So don’t assume that a “great plan” to change “how we’ve always done it” is automatically going to succeed. And even if it succeeds elsewhere, it does not mean it succeeds in that particular environment. Rural kids need to be able to wear jeans, there’s simply too much mud to wear only khakis!

I could list more, I’m sure. But you’ve waded through this much, so for now, I’ll close my post. I’ll have a bit more to rant on/about for week four’s related question (I haven’t even touched on those experiences yet).

I am a public high school teacher in Washington state. I read with interest all the comments about changing public education and look forward to the comments about home-schooling and charter schools. I also linked this page to my own blog (

Most of the three suggestions (divvy, imprint, research) I agree with. Trouble is, the system is so diverse that it is hard to have wide change that benefits everyone. Noting is the cure-all.

As for Bush and his neoconservatives? They want to kill public education. That's what NCLB is really all about: Make it so hard to be successful that every school will be shut down. Waiting in the wings are the religious schools, and Bush would pay 'em with public money.

Keep the thoughts coming.

-- L.
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