Academics in America: A very low priority
There has been a great deal of hand wringing over the past several years over how poorly American students do on international tests compared to students of other nations. This is usually blamed on the schools, and especially, the teachers who are teaching those subjects. The fact of the matter is that a major reason for our kids' poor performance is that our society is not serious about academics.
Let me share with you the story of Ben. Ben is in my seventh hour American History class, and he was there on Wednesday, April 26th. Ben plays baseball, and on Thursday the 27th, they had an away game, so he missed class that day. The next day--Friday, the local police put on a staged automobile accident program during the last two hours of school for all the kids going to prom to discourage them from drinking and driving, so he missed that day, too. Then on Monday, he had another away baseball game. Then on Tuesday, he had another away baseball game, but on Wednesday, he was in class. On Thursday, he had baseball at home, and the players usually don't miss any school for home games. But this was a double-header and they had to start early, so Ben missed again. Then on Friday, they had another away baseball game. Ben is also in the band, and on Monday, May 7th, the band director had requested a practice session during seventh hour for the concert that night, so chalk up another missed class. Then, on Tuesday, (Surprise, surprise!) another away baseball game. So between Wednesday, April 26th and Wednesday May 9th--a two-week period, Ben was in his seventh hour class a grand total of one day.
Fortunately, Ben is an unusually responsible kid, so he was regularly coming in before school hours to check in, pick up assignments, and take quizzes and tests. He is also very bright and a great reader, so he did amazingly well on the tests. His grade dropped a little during that two week period, but not very much. There are other spring extr-curricular participants, however, whose grades have dropped significantly.
You see, it isn't just baseball players who miss a lot of school. In fact, although seventh hour gets hit hard by that sport, overall they don't miss any more than the other spring sports. The boys and girls track teams take off early about twice a week, and they often miss at least half the day. Boys and girls golfers--varsity and junior varsity--generally miss two days a week, and when they miss, they miss the entire day. And it's not just sports. Knowledge bowl season just ended, and they missed an entire day once a week for seven or eight weeks in a row. And if you think the kids involved in knowledge bowl are all A and B students, dream on. One of my Basic American History students missed regularly because he was the Knowledge Bowl student manager.
If you are appalled by the amount of school some of our kids miss, I can't blame you. But if you want to blame the people running our activities, I'd disagree with you. The baseball coach is one of my best friends on our staff, and he is charged with running that activity. He is trying to do the best job he can, and I think he is succeeding fantastically. If you want to blame our principal for allowing this, I'd disagree with you. If he tried to restrict those activities, parents of kids in those activities would be upset; they'd go to board members, and board members would go to him, and believe me, it wouldn't be to tell him to keep supporting those academics. And if you want to look down on our school district for allowing this, you'd better think again. This goes on throughout northern Minnesota, and I'll remind you that Minnesota has one of the best reputations for K-12 education in our nation.
The only people who really care about all those kids missing all those classes are the teachers of the classes they are missing. And if when they complain to our principal or superintendent, they get about as much sympathy as gnats buzzing around our heads on a muggy day. Like I said, they have other pressures they have to deal with. After all, we are a public school, and I have never heard of a phone call being made to anyone by any parents complaining about how often their kids are missing English or history or math. Kids can miss so many classes for so many activities in our school and others because our society doesn't see them as being very important.
Missed classes for extra-curricular activities is not the only evidence of this. As I've said before, in athletics, if a player is disruptive, lazy, or doesn't show up for practices, he or she will be kicked off the team. We won't put up with it. And I'll guarantee you that there would be calls of complaint to the athletic director from parents of other players on the team if any coach ever tolerated that. But in our academic classes, we accept that as standard practice.
Two years ago, the Minnesota State Legislature passed and our governor signed a bill prohibiting public schools from starting before Labor Day. They did this under pressure from resort owners around the state. Fall sports are allowed to begin in early August, however. Can you imagine the public outcry if high school football was delayed? Our legislators wouldn't dare do such a thing. Nope, it is only our academics that they feel free to jockey around.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post defending high school athletics, and I'm not backing away from that. I've heard many non-coaching teachers complain that sports are too important, but that is not the problem. The problem is that in our society, academics are so unimportant. When it comes to the things the American public is interested in, academics are so far on the back burner that they barely register.
I hate to speak heresy, but I can actually understand why the public feels this way. We've treated academics as a low priority for as long as I can remember, and our economy keeps rolling along. We had full employment through most of the nineties, we have full employment now, most people coming out of our schools end up with about the type of jobs they had hoped for, and they have decent lives. I wish all of the kids I had over the years had cared more about American history, but I guess I can see why they think it's not that big a deal. I honestly don't know many parents who dream about their kids getting an academic scholarship, and I don't know any who dream of their kids becoming a history professors. On the other hand, I know plenty who dream about their kids getting athletic scholarships and pro contracts. And if their kids have any musical talent they probably dream of one day seeing them on American Idol.
It's not that the American public doesn't care about academics at all. They want enough academics to allow their kids to get whatever it is the parents want for them. Granted, there are parents like those who participate in edublogs who view academics as very important, but they are the exceptions. Generally speaking, parents are getting what they want, and as long as that is the case, they aren't going to want to see the priorities of American schools change.
The American public doesn't put a very high priority on academics, but the elites of our nation do. They want change. But in order to bring about that change, they don't dare tell the public that their priorities are wrong. That would not be good politics. So instead of that, they tell them that there is a crisis. They tell them that the schools are the bad guys, they tell them the schools are the failures, and they tell them schools are not giving the public what it wants. An actor says we are doing a terrible job teaching civics, rich entrepreneurs say we need to break up the teachers unions and use merit pay so we can find better teachers, blue ribbon commissions are formed so they can shake their heads in disgust at the total job we are doing, and politicians tell people that those bad old schools are leaving children behind.
Maybe we do need change. Maybe we should put much more emphasis on academics in this country than we do. But it would be nice if some of those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians had the guts to come straight out and try to convince the public that academics are more important than they think they are. I suppose it's possible that those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians don't understand how low a priority the American public puts on academics, but I really don't believe that's the case. I suspect they won't talk straight to the American public because they think they're just too dumb to understand.