Measuring equivalence

A few years back, I was in a discussion about the meaning of words such as “equal”, “equivalent”, “identical” and “same”. All those words appear interchangeable, but they are not. A substitute, by definition, is not the real thing. The question was asked, “If a boat leaves the harbor towing a barge containing all the parts to build the same ship, and during the voyage every part of the ship was exchanged with the parts on the barge, is it the same ship when it returns?”. Yeah, it’s amazing what you’ll talk about when you’re incredibly bored.

My step son isn’t terribly interested in attending school. He’s clever, and the phrase “if only he would use his powers for good” comes to mind often. Students are required to attend class, as well as get passing grades, in order to graduate, and there is a specific number of absences that are allowed. My step son knows that number. As far as he is concerned, that is how many vacation days he has during the year.

Schools are dependent upon funding, and funding is dependent on attendance and  passing grades. So, if you were motivated by keeping your job in the school district rather than by educating young people, your goal would not be impeded by a bunch of lazy kids who won’t pay attention in class. You would develop ways of moving the kids through, year by year, until they weren’t your problem anymore. I would suggest at this point that my step son is smarter than the system, not that it’s doing him any good.

All the numbers here are for example and only approximate reality.

Let’s say that the number of allowed absences are eighteen (per semester, over three weeks of missed classes). Let’s say that my step son missed twenty classes. Bummer. All that playing the averages with grades is about to go out the window (the kid could, does, get A’s, but only to balance the D’s he gets in the classes he’s not interested in). But not so fast, how can the school maintain its status if students don’t graduate? Oh, you can “make up” the missed time. Not the missed classes, or the missed information, but the time. So after school and on Saturdays, he spends his time in a room full of other kids who missed too many classes, surfing on his iphone. He “makes up” the time he missed, the school gets paid for “instructional” hours, and he graduates with a High School Diploma, which is literally worthless in the job market (for obvious reasons).

Somehow, when the school tells you that spending an hour in a classroom has the same value regardless of whether a teacher is present, it says a lot about the value of a teacher being present. You might come to the conclusion that the classes you did attend were equally worthless. Which in this case is probably true.

This would happen when I worked in the Philadelphia Schools. During inclement weather, school would stay open until one o’clock. The only reason was that if they were open until one they were paid for a full day. It wasn’t any mystery, they had to hold the announcement until twelve thirty, otherwise it would have been “obvious”. How obvious was it that regardless of the weather, school never closed at any time other than one?

My step son goes out into the world “knowing” that there’s always another chance to get by. His impression that school was simply incarceration and not education is reinforced. Should his children decide they would like to succeed in school and actually learn something, there won’t be a cheerleader at home cheering them on. There won’t be anyone to help them with their homework. If he should choose to attend college (he’s been accepted to the only school he applied to), he does not possess a secondary school education. He has learned how to get past a course, not how to pass a course.

If he were a slouch, I would be the first to say so. But he’s not, and had he been allowed to fail at some point he would have accepted the challenge and done what it takes to pass. Instead he was given chance after chance after chance. I don’t believe the world that is waiting for him will give him anything approximating the same leeway. I pray that the world waiting for him is not the same that was waiting for me, he would never survive.

It’s not that he’s alone. There were scores of kids at the school when we picked him up. And his school is not unique. Princeton High School has been investigated for falsifying attendance records. Test rigging is being investigated in Camden NJ and Atlanta GA, among other places. I had a colleague who used to say “You can’t manage a squadron into battle”. You also can’t manage a class into education. The profit in education is an educated generation. These are the people who will be paying in when I’m collecting social security, I’d like them all to get good jobs.

I know there are many dedicated educators out there, but they are outnumbered by “union members” and bureaucrats whose only interest is the money they receive. As bad as teachers are paid, it’s actually pretty good for babysitters. If we are to pay good teachers what they are worth, we need to cut the teachers who are motivated by their pension. Unrealistic goals, such as one hundred percent graduation and zero failing grades, undermines instruction.

Teachers are rarely less intelligent than their students. It seems everyone has figured out how the system works, at least how to make it work for themselves. The sad thing is, it doesn’t work. Unless we intended to prepare our kids to fail, without providing the tools to deal with failure.

If that’s the case, we’re doing a great job.


One comment on “Measuring equivalence

  1. Mari Collier says:

    Amen. I could mention one of my grandchildren. He’s brilliant, but only when he wants to be.


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