Friday, December 2, 2011

Settling for Mediocrity

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is my opinion. You don't have to agree with me. You should think for yourself, do some research, ask some questions and form your own opinion. You should also know that I'm speaking in broad generalities and about the majority of schools in America. It is also important to note that I'm not singling out public schools. I'm referencing what I believe to be the current state of education today.

No Child Left Behind is a great slogan. Who can argue with it? It's a noble idea and it resonates with all of us. NCLB became law on January 8, 2002. After 10 years, students are still being left behind. Why is that?

It seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in revitalizing and revolutionizing the educational system in the United States is to begin by accepting the fact that the focus in most schools is two-fold:

1. Maintain or advance the average student.
2. Remediate and advance the poor student to a status of average and keep him/her there.
I know some of you will immediately start talking about gifted education and will assume that I've left it out of the mix by accident. I haven't. Quite simply put, the state of education for the gifted child is nothing short of abysmal.

Let's take a brief look at the purpose of education today. If you read most school mission statements, vision statements, values statements, goals, objectives, action plans, etc. you will predominately see rhetorical statements about making students "life-long learners" or about educating each child to his/her potential, or about ensuring each student receives an education that will prepare him/her for "the global workplace."

I want you to look at your local school's mission, vision, values, improvement plans and other documents. Most are available online. If they are not, you should be asking your school why they aren't. Most of what you will read will fall into one of the broader generalizations I listed above.

Now, ask yourself this question, "Is that what I want for my child?" Or, ask this, "Is that adequate?" Or, how about asking this one, "What, exactly, does that mean and what, exactly, does that look like at the central office, in the main office of each building, in each classroom, and elsewhere throughout the district?"

Next, go find some teachers in that district and ask them, "What is the district's Mission Statement? Vision Statement? Values Statement?" I'm willing to bet you your favorite drink at your favorite coffeehouse that no one you ask can answer that without looking it up. If you find someone who does know it, ask them this, "How does that relate to what you do as a teacher or administrator? How are you fulfilling that mission, vision, values, etc.?"

In a reformed educational system, I believe the Mission, Vision and Values of every school system ought to be stated similar to this:
Mission: The mission of this school system is to teach to each child as though he or she has a
genius I.Q.

Vision: In this school system, we recognize that all children, indeed all adults, have different strengths and weaknesses. In this school, each child is taught according to his/her strengths first and weaknesses second. We will focus on what that child does well and we will push him/her to excel in those areas. We will work on areas of weakness so that the student has a grasp of the key concepts and ideas so that an area of weakness cannot become an impediment to an area of strength.

Core Beliefs:
  • Every student learns from successes and failures. Students will be allowed to fail at tasks so that they may try again and learn from mistakes. Making mistakes is essential to learning.
  • Teachers will present essential information to students, but their primary role will be to guide each student as they embrace and hone their strengths and reduce their weaknesses
  • Grade configurations are meaningless. We don't use them.
  • Parents are the primary educator in their child's life and are expected to embrace that role and become active participants in their child's education.
  • We will not give your child gratuitous and meaningless praise and accolades. Only excellence and exceptional achievements will be recognized and honored.
  • Mediocrity is not acceptable. Everyone is capable of excellence.
  • Truly gifted students will be given the most rigorous education possible. They will be pushed to their limits and more will be expected from them.
  • Moral values and good character are essential attributes for all people. Administrators, teachers and students will be held to the highest standards.
  • Like Physicians, we will do no harm.
In a nutshell, that's how I think schools ought to operate. Forget race, forget gender, forget socioeconomic status, forget the idea that getting everyone to average is the ideal state. The ideal state is excellence, regardless of race, gender, economics and even learning disabilities.

Right now, our schools are focused on churning out the future checkout people at WalMart, KMart, Target, etc. In most classrooms, teachers "teach to the middle" because it's safe. We need teachers teaching to the highest performers. The "middle" kids will love it because they will know they are being challenged and they will learn from the higher I Q kids. The low end kids and kids with true learning disabilities will learn more as well. They will be pushed to higher levels of understanding.

We swell with pride when we hear that a local high school has two National Merit Scholars. Two students and we get all warm and tingly and talk about how great our schools are. What about the 400 additional students who didn't make that list? Does that make us warm and tingly feeling? I'm willing to bet that there were more than two students in that class who were capable of being National Merit Scholars but didn't hit the mark because they sat in classes where "teaching to the middle" was the norm. In my opinion, that's doing great harm. Mediocrity begets mediocrity and it destroys excellence!

Let's take a look at the abysmal graduation rate in many schools. Does that give you a warm and tingly feeling, too? It makes my stomach hurt.

"The primary reason nearly half of the young adults gave for dropping out was that classes were uninteresting. Another major factor was that the students spent time with people who were uninterested in school. These were among the top reasons selected by students with high GPAs and those who were motivated to work hard.

In general, feeling unmotivated or uninspired to work hard was a significant factor in the drop outs’ discontent with school. In focus groups, the young adults said school was boring, they didn’t learn anything, and school was irrelevant. However, many of these respondents said they would have liked to have been inspired. Further, while a majority said their school’s graduation requirements were difficult, 66 percent said they would have worked harder if more, including higher academic standards and more studying and homework, had been demanded of them to earn a diploma."(Source: Center for Exceptional Children)

Does anyone else see the bigger picture here? I know, from firsthand experience, that we are not going to convince 100% of our students to graduate. Some are simply lazy or come from homes where education is seen as unimportant, or they suffer from a mental illness, drug addiction, etc. I know those kids are out there. But, what if 50% of the kids who dropped out in the last schol year were the respondents in the survey above and they don't suffer from any of the conditions I listed.

It's reported that up to 7,000 students drop out of school Every Day. You read that correctly. That's one student very 26 seconds. If that is accurate, and it should be since it comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, that's around 1.3MILLION students dropping out every year. If 50% of those students drop out because of the reasons listed by the CEC study, isn't that reason enough to completely rethink and transform education?

Don't we owe it to those 650,000 students who were disengaged, unmotivated and uninspired? Remember, too, that these students who dropped out did so because a parent or guardian let them. I'm sure there were a large number of students who didn't drop out but wanted to. They skated through with grades just above failing. Is that a quality education? Is that who you want working with, for or by you?

My point is this, the American educational system has decided to accept mediocrity. Instead, it should be striving for excellence. There is plenty of fault and blame to spread around. It doesn't matter who we blame, what matters is fixing the problem.

Go back and review your school's Mission, Vision and Values statements. Do they promote mediocrity or excellence? What are you going to do about it?


  1. I'm on board with this, but my short time in the public school arena makes me wonder how to put this into practice. If I were to go back to being an English teacher, I would be HATED for the amount of work I would expect. Good writing, which can be taught, requires an awful lot of discipline and focus. The same goes for reading. I'm afraid that many of those who complain that school was boring and uninteresting are just unwilling to do the work -- and their failure can't be their fault!

  2. Exactly, Aaron! It's going to require a revolution in the entire field. We can't continue doing what we've always done. The educational model As it is, is based on an agrarian and an early industrial model that required assembly line workers. Education failed to evolve.

    It won't be easy, but it can be done. One building, one district, one state at a time. It's all about getting the ball rolling.

  3. Aaron! Wrong Kaiser! I'm the older and wiser brother (although I'm sure that he would be in agreement on these points).

  4. Not to be snarky, but it's easy to sit on the outside, after having walked away from a great opportunity to make a difference, and take pot shots. So many of your posts so far have been extremely critical of education and those who are working in the field. But people like you who bail are just as much to blame. As they say, those who can to, those who can't write a blog and cast stones.

  5. Laura,
    Good discourse is never snarky as long as the intent is to inform or debate. Snarkiness is having the intent to criticize in order to be a smartass or rude. So, since you say you aren't being snarky, I'll let your rudeness pass.

    Let me clarify a few things for you...
    1. The reasons I quit are myriad but primarily boiled down to a lack of support, a significantly different educational philosophy from the district I was in, and, most importantly, my personal health and my family life.

    2. I'm critical of the current state of education in the US because it is antiquated and seriously in need of fixing. We continue to do the same thing we've done for ages and we continue to get the same results. Failure is rampant and things aren't improving. It's time to throw out the old and try something new.

    3. I know that while I was a teacher and an administrator I did make a great difference in the lives of my students. I'm humbled by and proud of those accomplishments.
    4. I will review my posts but I don't believe I've taken potshots at anyone other than those teachers who are in education for all the wrong reasons. I've had the displeasure of working with people who were miserable human beings and who took their misery and transferred it into their classroom management and teaching. I've taught beside teachers who stay in the classroom because they are too close to retirement. That's a pitiful excuse for staying in when you are burned out. I've also taught beside some of the most dedicated people I've ever seen. They come in every day, give everything they have, and walk out exhausted only to go home and grade and prepare for the next day. They are critical and analytical when thinking about their day. In many instances, those teachers far outnumber the bad ones. The bad apples in every field usually draw far more attention than good ones. Thus, I will focus primarily on those in order to expose the damage they do. I make no excuses for that. I will, however, try do do a better job of pointing out the merits of those teachers who are exceptional.

    5. Finally, I've never heard the saying you made up. The saying is actually, "Those who can do; those who can't teach.". It's a very insulting saying and its meant to be hurtful. Your application to me is certainly an insult but I have far thicker skin than you might believe. I would challenge you to examine your life and ask why you felt the need to be snarky and rude to me. Perhaps you saw glimpses of yourself in some of my posts. The mirror can be kind and cruel. Instead of spending your time being negative and insulting, why don't you try doing something good. If you are really a champion of education and educators, make a donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri in the amount of $25. I'll gladly match it. See my post about needing $400,000 for a link on how to donate. Once you've made your donation, let me know and I'll make mine. (I'll make mine anyway.)

  6. You and I have a common acquaintance. I agree with your post. Would love to sit and talk to you and he about this. I am struggling with right/wrong for my youngest child and schooling.

  7. You can contact me privately at I'm always up for a good cup of coffee and conversation.


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