Our Depressing Education System

by Will on August 26, 2010

Conor Friedersdorf highlights a long, dispiriting letter from a longtime educator. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the part that had the most resonance for me:

Before I taught college, I taught at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA. I had one student who had a basketball scholarship to UC Berkeley, dependent upon getting a C average her senior year. She was failing my algebra course. We brought her parents in. Her dad told me to give her a C no matter how well she did in my course, because she was the first person in their family to get into college. I told her parents that grades did not work that way, and that she could get free tutoring before or after school, but that she had to pass my course on her own merits… She was a bright, likable girl, and very popular… As it became clear she might not pass the class, I had students and other teachers pressuring me to pass her regardless of her grade. I graded her final exam five times, each time being more generous, trying to give her enough partial credit to pass. I was able to work her grade on the exam up to 58%. I gave her an F and she lost her Berkeley scholarship. It still breaks my heart to hear her sobs when I told her. I still think I did the right thing.

This resonates with me because I’ve seen this sort of thing at numerous urban schools where I’ve done work. Kids expect good grades just for showing up every day and goofing off, and many teachers oblige. Teachers accept assignments that are obviously, obviously plagiarized, because they’re happy the student even made that much effort. Situations occur in which students are forced to attend school by court order, so they behave badly in a deliberate effort to get suspended. The kids whose behavior gets them kicked out go to Continuation schools, where the standards are even lower: students aren’t expected to attend most of the time, they can roll in whenever they want, there is a tacit understanding that some token participation will get them the passing grade they want.
Schools face a contradictory set of incentives. On the one hand, it’s in the school’s interest to strictly enforce rules, expelling students who can’t abide by them. Then the students who remain will take the rules seriously. However, schools also are funded based on the number of students, so it’s in their interest to expel nobody. There is also the fact that expelled students are almost certain to become criminals and exact hundred of thousands of dollars of costs to society, in the form of theft, property damage, legal proceedings, incarceration, and so on. It’s seemingly a socially better outcome to produce an uneducated graduate than to produce a criminal.
What can be done? I’ve thought this over a lot, and I think we ought to acknowledge that while academic learning is a good thing, it’s not for everybody. You can’t force it down people’s throats. There is no reason that everybody needs to have read Shakespeare or have heard of the concept of imaginary numbers. Sure, give them the opportunity. But if they can’t do it, or, as is commonly the case, are obviously not interested in doing it, there should be some other form of education: the non-academically inclined could learn to fix cars, or take photographs, or make pastries. There are lots of good jobs out there that don’t require a college education.

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Previous post:

Next post: