Education in America

Wow. I needed (and still need) to release a little tension and frustration at my own inadequacies (most notably in math, physics, and communication skills), so I did a little research and am posting this.

I completed my first 8+ years of schooling in Texas, a state that tests its students more than most others. Every year, every semester there was another test to take. There were the TAAS tests (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills Test), some test with the name of an animal or plant, like the Okra test, or the Llama test in elementary school, I don’t remember exactly. But everytime we learned a letter of the alphabet in school, there was a state-given or district-given exam of some sort. To mark our progress and growth, they say. To provide our parents with a reliable account of our progress, they say.

Anyone who thinks standardized testing is an accurate assessment of a student’s learning probably hasn’t taken one in a while. We spend so much time in school preparing and reviewing for these tests, we have to cut short the time we spend on the new things that will be on the next test. Lawmakers of every level are being pushed by parents of students who may or may not be doing well in school to improve things. They want the school’s to improve. They want to know that their child is going to a public school that is doing better than all the other crappy public schools in the area. So the statemen have to show progress, with assessments. The word “assessment” should be (and is, among many students) considered a foul word. Here, in Charlotte, North Carolina (where students are tested only slightly less than in Texas), the schools are arranged around four “quarters” in a year, each lasting nine weeks. Halfway through this period, all students recieve (by law) a “Progress Report”, showing the student’s current grade in the class, and allowing the teacher to make any comments or requests that they deem necessary (like “Suzy Senior won’t shut her mouth in class”). At the end of every quarter, all students receive their official report cards. It’s not a card, really, it’s a carbon copy-style sheet of paper, but that’s besides the point. This report card tells the student’s letter grade in each class, the number of absences for each class, and a “conduct grade”, indicating just how much jabbering Suzy Senior has been doing. That’s a total of eight progress indicators a year. And that’s not counting any phone calls, conferences, or e-mails exchanged (although many parents never do this).

And then Mrs. Senior complains viciously to the teachers, the principal, whoever will listen when Suzy makes a D, or an F in a course. “Suzy’s a good kid, and she studies hard!” Did she ever ask Suzy what she does when she should be doing homework? For all Mrs. Senior knows, she’s writing long entries to an online blog that is unrelated to school. *smile* Did she ever read that progress report, that showed Suzy with the lowest D possible with a note by the teacher saying “Call me for a conference if you would like, 704-555-5555”? Complaints go to innocent teachers and then to congressmen about how “Suzy, my smart kid” couldn’t graduate because “that teacher failed her”. Of course, students never earn the poor grades, they’re given, right? Now, while there are teachers that are irresponsible, and alter grades based on nepotism or racial preferences, or something equally ridiculous, the majority of teachers are honest in grading. What point would there be in having a teaching career if you are going to delibrately fail students? It’s certainly not the money.

So these congressmen, loving their jobs and knowing their assessment period is just around the corner, take steps to show parents that the schools indeed are doing their jobs. But these test scores don’t just pop up out of nowhere–the school district has to spend the time and money to devise and print the tests, and then take away instructional time to test the students. That’s an entire class period, or even an entire morning, to test students at the high school level to see if they can read.

And it is very much true that there are students that graduate from America’s high schools that can’t read. It is also true that we need to help people who immigrate during their adolescent years learn to read English proficiently. So, yes, illiteracy is a problem.

Another problem that I feel is very much related, however, is the attitude that grows among young students is such highly tested environments. Such emphasis is placed on these tests by teachers, and sometimes parents (personally, while my parents have always supported academic ambition, they have never tried to force it on me as some parents seem to try to do), that, around 5th or 6th grade you can see a sharp rift in students. There become those that randomly circle questions on all multple-choice tests and then go to sleep fifteen minutes into the test, then there are those that take it upon themselves to do whatever is necessary to ace all tests ever given to them. This is a oversimplification, of course, but there is rapidly becoming no such thing as an “average student”. You are either in the advanced, AP, or IB courses, or you aren’t. My concern is for those in the second aforementioned group, the “over-achievers”.

Of course, they aren’t really over-acheivers. If they want it badly enough, they get it, so it’s really “over-” anything, is it? But it is over-stressful, and that stress builds steadily throughout the middle school and high school years. AP and IB students sleep less (by an internal ambition and feelings of necessity, not due to a sleeping disorder) than any other group of students. I found this while researching:

Who knows how much farther I would have gotten if I had enough sleep, kept normal hours, and stayed awake when I’m supposed to. I might even turn out to be a well-adjusted, productive and upstanding citizen. I don’t even want to think about the total number of hours wasted every night, year after year, by lying awake on my bed. Sleeping problems probably did affect my productivity as a student. When I was a teenager, I longed to have, perhaps more than anything else in the world, the ability to sleep whenever I wanted to. Why can I be like everyone else and just fall asleep when I’m tired? Why does it have to be an issue all the time? Why am I such a freak? Growing up was especially difficult because I was especially difficult. I took high school way too seriously, and I stressed out over everything. The worst thing about high school didn’t have anything to do with silly issues like teenage relationships, drugs, or trying to be cool and fit in. It was all about getting ahead of your competitors, GPAs and SATs, and most importantly, getting into the right college. Being a clueless college track whore like all my peers, I did way much more than I could handle. The reason anybody did anything was for the purpose of putting it in college applications. Insincerity was rampant. In addition to journalism, Amnesty International, and tennis, I was in more clubs than I could remember. A typical day’s schedule would start way too early at around 06.00. Being a stereotypical Virgo (if you believe in that kind of stuff), I would first make my bed, turn on the radio, brush my teeth, dress, and go through my usual morning routines. Around 06.15 I would turn on MTV (back in the days when it would actually play videos) and keep it in the background. I would then grab a toast, bagel, or strudel with milk for breakfast. Due to the fact everyone in my family had different schedules, we would each eat our breakfasts separately and silently, in deference to the cruelty of mornings. (Even though all members of our family have different morning routines, I think I would still prefer to eat breakfasts alone, or alone with MTV pop stars, than with my parents if I was given a choice.) I’m usually out the door by 06.30 and on the school bus less than five minutes later. Not surprisingly, I would sleep on the bus. Classes would begin about a quarter after 07.00. The next seven hours or so seemed hazy to me since I was often so sleepy. Boring classes like geometry would put me out completely and immediately. Most difficult moments included the first two classes, as well as trying to stay awake during the inevitable food coma after lunch. Despite the numerous naps here and there, fatigue and drowsiness would linger as I do my homework in the late afternoons and evenings. Fortunately, things tended to become bearable after dusk, and I would actually start to get work done. I even found energy to do household chores and help out with the dishes after dinner.

To try to stay awake some of the time, year after year, required fuel. Needless to say, I naturally developed an addiction to caffeine as the rigours of A.P. courses and preparations for the forthcoming litany of standardised college entrance examinations intensified. I hated coffee at first. It made me more jittery, nervous, and stressed out than I already was. A single cup of black coffee was enough to give me the shakes. However, it kept me awake, and that was what I wanted. I held on. My tolerance for caffeine increased, and pretty soon mere coffee just wouldn’t cut it anymore. I graduated to drinking Jolt cola, and eventually to pure caffeine pills like No Doze and Vivarin. Eventually, I couldn’t survive any morning without some form of caffeine, no matter ho much sleep I had. The same remains true today. Without caffeine, I’m slow, dim, useless, debilitated by headaches, and downright suicidal. Without caffeine, I’m nothing. After a caffeine pill or a nice strong double shot of espresso, I feel that life can be somewhat bearable after all. I feel almost happy, even though I probably have absolutely no reason to be.

This summarizes many IB/AP students’ existence at this point. And school performance does suffer. Worse yet, our lives and personalities suffer. It can be difficult to have time for “normal” social acticities; it can be done, but it’s difficult. I can name several students off the top of my head that cry when receiving B’s on report cards (myself included). And C’s? Often a cause for hysterical crying and getting sick. All of this severely harms self-confidence, which leads to a slew of other problems, such as obesity, anorexia, facial tics (it’s true; I used to have one), and anti-sociability. To compensate for our oh-so-well-hidden fears, we look down on that “other group”, the non-AP or non-IB students. IB students tend to form a little clique of their own, and can at times be heard to say disparaging remarks about “mere” AP students (ultimately, the course loads and difficulties are about equal) or “regular kids”. There is usually a reciprocal dislike, if for no other reason than the fact that “they started it”.

But the majority of these folks are smart. A few are really friggin’ smart (perhaps even geniuses). But IB and AP also have the reputation of stifling creativity. Many students have to make the choice of whether to have a good, fun hobby, or have the very best grades that they can get. So even the geniuses find themselves being squished into this mold of “memorize this” and “regurgitate that”, and “put that novel you’re writing away and do your homework”. And the rest of us, the average and below-average IB and AP students? We get crushed in the steamroller of having 8 teachers who sometimes think they are the only teacher we have. We spaz out over silly shit that means absolutely nothing and often lose the ability to retain and recall facts given to us. We can be (at times) the most emotionally immature people in the school (just read this site for evidence), all the while understanding (or thinking we understand) facts about atomic physics, evolution, and the quantum theory that no one else at our school will even have access to during their high school career. And we are the “potential future leaders of America”. Maybe the U.S. is better off putting a “C average” president up there. At least he probably had a social life and a chance to grow up emotionally.

But what about the other group, the “slackers” and “bums”? There, I find myself a little lost. I could say with a snobbish attitude that “I’ve never been one of them”, but I can’t remember how many times I have wanted to be, in one way or another.