As a teacher by profession, having taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than 37 years, I am concerned about the crisis over high school graduation requirements and the unacceptably low rate of culmination for far too many of our children!
Throughout my career, I (like so many other educators) always promoted high standards for K-12. However, what we have come to witness is an ongoing abuse over curriculum and matriculation standards—a significant problem that must be rectified with some urgency.
Although I worked at middle schools for most of my tenure, I made it a point to teach summer school in high schools throughout a broad swath of the City. Over the years, I taught in a variety of neighborhoods and came to understand the culture and history of those communities—the low-income, crime-ridden, poorly maintained housing projects of the inner-city (although there are vicinities within that really stand out as places to be emulated); the downtown, more metropolitan areas; and the San Fernando Valley.
I’ll never forget how on a pupil-free day just before school opened for all students (and on my first day under contract), I was told by the department chair (herself a minority at this South LA school) not to expect much from “these” students. I was aghast but had already made up my mind to hold the bar as high for this school’s students as I would for any others in the District.
In fact, for a long time I refused to take Honors classes because I wanted to concentrate on those who so often fall through the cracks. It became readily apparent that these children were faced with problems far more severe than those they faced at school. I earned their trust and they often shared with me the incredible and often horrendous conditions they faced every day at home and in their neighborhoods.
Many children lived in fatherless homes but when there was a father present, he often abused them physically and mentally. It was common for the mother to be too afraid to intervene, herself often a drug addict with a crime sheet in her history.
Some children had poor attendance records (how can you learn when you’re not in school?) because they had to stay home to take care of younger siblings or a sick grandma. Others were expected to find some kind of job to supplement the family income. Some were victims of unreported sexual attacks [incidents which teachers (if they know about the situation) are required to report to the appropriate authorities but often to no avail].
Incidentally, many in the prison population about whom I have been writing, started out experiencing the very same circumstances—a statistic which should instruct us that we must do something for our young people before it is too late!
Later in my career, I began teaching a mix of classes--from “problem” learners to the more advanced. In working with and listening to those in my remediation and regular classes, I recognized (among a meaningful number of my young people) a genuine eagerness to learn and participate in class discussion despite doing poorly on tests and not doing much homework.
As I nurtured these students, I felt strongly about recommending many of them to honors classes for the following year (despite poor grades). Sometimes, I would beg counsellors to put these students in my own advanced classes where I knew they would flourish.
If my 8th or 9th graders were moving on to high school, I would write a letter of recommendation, asking that they be placed in honors programs in order to provide them an opportunity which I believed they would surely live up to despite their previous academic history. And, lo and behold, they often did so well that they would come back, proudly proclaiming how they had achieved the highest grades in their classes!
In the meantime in middle school, I would frequently have to fight new rules sent down by the District. These rubrics were like a Catch 22. If students did not earn a B in their regular classes, they could not be placed in honors classes (even if they demonstrated clear ability and aptitude for them). If they were somehow placed in an honors program and didn’t immediately get at least a B, they would be sent back (in the middle of the school year!) to a regular class where they would undoubtedly find themselves behind.
We must never be guilty of dummying down our standards, but the standards must never be so draconian that many students would be discouraged from pursuing a meaningful education.
Furthermore, if learners were obviously advanced in, let’s say, math, but not as scholarly in literature, in order to get into the honors program, they had to take all honors classes or none (inviting defeat in the class for which they were not ready while not allowing them to take the honors class for which they were prepared and skilled and had shown great potential).
For those who made it to the more advanced classes, there simply was no structure to help these students make the transition or to tutor them until they acquired the skills needed to succeed in those higher-level and more demanding programs. The result was discouraging for them because it only reinforced their low self-esteem and diminished the confidence necessary for them to succeed.
The point is that, overall, schools here and nearly everywhere are not doing what they could and should be doing to help all students succeed! And this brings us back to the issue about graduation.
In no way should we lower standards or the bar, BUT requirements should be reasonable, accessible, and logical. Yes, all students should receive a foundation that could lead to college, but not everyone, for any number of reasons, is meant for college. There are, though, any number of beyond-high school alternatives that are equally meaningful and productive.
We shall always need mechanics and artists, musicians, truck drivers, and cabbies. Such jobs should be promoted as necessary and important because they are! What would we do without the electrician and plumber, the store clerk, those who stock shelves?
Many other countries have a very practical process by which there is more than one path to graduation. Students can choose (sometimes assigned to) tracks for college prep or trade schools or licensed certification in such fields as para-legals, court reporters, dental assistants, coding, etc.
We certainly need and must go back to the day when schools (beginning in 7th grade) offered a wheel of required classes from which self-selections were made on a quarterly basis. Such programs included cooking; sewing; tutorials including wood, metal and sometimes even auto shops.
Taking such classes, at the very least, created well-rounded future adults and for many, introduced them to courses that could lead to a variety of career possibilities (many of which they might otherwise not have considered).
In the final analysis (as Roger Mudd used to say), we must never be guilty of dummying down our standards, but the standards must never be so draconian that many students would be discouraged from pursuing a meaningful education. We must also create pathways that lead to diplomas that, in turn, lead to meaningful and fruitful careers.
When we create such an attractive school atmosphere, we will see a reduction in drop-outs (and crime) and a concomitant rise in graduation rates.
Maybe, after all, everything old is new again. Let’s rethink our ideas about education and how the process should be executed. This is America, after all. We always hail ourselves as leaders in the world. Let’s be leaders in how we educate our young people.