Driving to campus a few weeks ago, I was listening to a free iTunes song that my son had been listening to. We have very similar tastes in music, so I like to listen to music he has an interest in, and I also like to listen to the lyrics of songs that he listens to.
The song by Echosmith includes the following refrain:
I wish that I could be like the cool kids,
‘Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in.
I was heading in to teach one of my upper level classes that day, and this song got me thinking about who the cool kids are in my class compared to, say, a class in your typical high school.
The “cool kids” in college, at least from my perspective, are those students who succeed academically. This doesn’t mean just the A and/or B students, but those students who have as their objective to learn (Why not, you’re paying for it?”), and then set out to meet or exceed that objective. The slackers and others who couldn't care less about learning, don’t come to class, don’t do the assigned reading and work, continually text during class, fall asleep, never study, etc., are, again from my perspective, viewed as the “not-cool kids.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. This is totally different from most students' high school experience.
One thing I have is some interesting perspective as a parent of two high school students, one who attends a traditional neighborhood high school and the other a highly regarded charter school. We tried to get both into the latter, but were not successful in doing so for my eldest child. Fortunately, my second child hit the lottery and enrolled for their freshman year at the highly regarded charter school. What I have discovered is that the cultural differences between the two schools are pronounced.
When I've visited the campus of the traditional school, the students appeared totally disengaged, carried themselves is as if they were defeated, showed total disrespect for others and for themselves. After school while waiting to be picked up, they ignored those around them, preferring instead to bide their time texting on their phones. If they did speak to someone nearby, it was often coarse. And they looked as if they would rather have been doing anything other than having been in school.
On the campus of the charter school, I sense a totally different attitude. The students are engaged, smiling, discussing with each other academic topics and the work they’re doing in different classes, appear respectful, especially for themselves, talk nicely and professionally with their peers and teachers, appear to have much better rapport with their teachers, and just seem to enjoy learning.
I asked my children and members of the charter school student's carpool whether my perceptions were accurate. They all agreed they were. (Two of the four charter school students in the carpool have siblings at the traditional high school, and one attended it for a brief period.)
The one attending the traditional school is very strong academically and is somewhat demoralized by their experience at this school. As one of the top students in their class, they find it more challenging and very frustrating to learn when many students—not all—have little desire to learn and receive a disproportionate amount of attention from at least some of the teachers. Many of these students act out, have little interest in learning, perceive of their high school experience as a social event with which classroom learning should not interfere, and generally suck the life out of the classroom (my wording, not theirs). There is no peer pressure creating the incentive for students to excel academically and act according to more civilized standards rather than acting out roles from Lord of the Flies. To the contrary, it’s generally the slackers to whom attention is paid by many of the faculty and administrators, and for whom many of the students regard as “the cool kids.”
At the charter school, it’s the exact opposite. The peer pressure to excel academically is evident, and slackers are largely ignored. What is taking place across the whole campus is important and students are engaged with each other and with their studies. Although there certainly are minor cliques, often centered around athletics, students are generally very accepting of all classmates, with no teasing & bullying that I've seen or heard of. The “cool kids” are the ones who are engaged, have a passion for learning, and excel in their schoolwork.
What I’ve learned is that it’s not the teachers who are at fault for our poorly performing government schools, at least not at these schools. In the traditional school, there are plenty of outstanding teachers who have impressed me greatly. Not only are they knowledgeable in their respective fields and present the material without bias, they are effective teachers who set high standards of behavior and achievement, and students are expected to meet those standards. Those who don't meet the standards don't always face consequences, but I'll explain below that that's not the fault of the teachers. There are certainly poor teachers at any school, but for the most part, I have been greatly impressed with the majority of teachers at both the charter high school and this traditional high school.
So where does the problem lie, and who is to blame for our declining government schools? This email by a teacher who is now retiring from a Fredrick, MD middle school offers some insight. (Read the whole thing, especially if you’re planning on going into education.) According to her, the culture in our government school systems is antithetical to learning; it has incentives incompatible with learning. I agree. In their zeal to equalize outcomes, administrators and school boards have been quick to adopt whatever zany and unproven theory promoted by an academic who likely never taught in a high school. These zany ideas have largely resulted in lowering the bar in order to serve students lacking in desire and/or ability. Any talk of segmenting students in order to target their specific needs is usually regarded as elitist and racist.
But I blame primarily the parents. The problems truly begin in the home and the parents set the requirements for principals and administrators. It is the parents who do not actively participate in their child's education and then put pressure on teachers to pass their snowflake regardless of his or her performance. It is the parents who refuse to teach their child appropriate behavior and monitor them, turning a blind eye when junior is disruptive or engages in anti-social behaviors. These are the primary reasons for school choice and for why I opted for private schooling whenever that option was available and feasible for us. There are great teachers out there; unfortunately, too many are driven away by the lack of support as described by the email writer.
Someone once told me that socialization is very important for children and that’s what public schools promote, especially among people from diverse backgrounds. They say something to the effect of, “They’ll be dealing with people different from them later in life, won’t they?” Yes they will. And my wife and I taught our children to make good choices, including when they choose with whom they socialize. Accept people for who they are, but know that this doesn't mean you have to be with people who choose to disrupt the goals and objectives of others. My children know they have choices, including where they work and live, and with whom they choose to socialize. They are engaged and have a strong desire to learn, and I don’t want them wasting time in which they could be learning (and learning isn't just book knowledge) so that those with little desire to learn don’t feel bad about themselves.