24 August 2010


High Schools: "I'm against Them!"

Earlier this month, I was tagged to do the "I'm against it!" meme. Heck, I agitated to be tagged for it. =P Of course, the second I was "in" was the second I realised that I didn't really want to write something for the Catholic blogosphere. But what to write, then?

Today I had my answer, when I came across this video . . .

Okay, so this speech could have been more nuanced.
Look at it this way:
she's an eighteen-year-old girl
from the generation that gave us Emo;
and she probably has post traumatic high school disorder.
We can cut her a break.

If you're having the same trouble with audio on your computer as I am, you can read the entire transcript here:

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, "If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years." The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast--How long then?" Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years." "But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?" asked the student. "Thirty years," replied the Master. "But, I do not understand," said the disappointed student. "At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?" Replied the Master, "When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."

This is the dilemma I've faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

This really, really hit home with me, because the President of the Philippines has just suggested that Filipino students should have two extra years of basic education. The idea is to bring the national school system up to the world's standard of twelve years of basic education.

My first reactions were: relief that I was no longer a student; disbelief that young people are going to lose an extra two years of their lives to pushing pencils and paper around; disgust that "the world" seems to think it takes twelve years to get a supposedly basic education; and anger that people with no relevant experience teaching in a classroom are making these decisions. Or in short: WTF?!?!?!

I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contend that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer--not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition--a slave of the system set up before him.

I'll disagree with anyone who says, "Marriage is just a piece of paper," but I don't know if I can argue with someone who suggests that institutional high school education is just a piece of paper.

Yes, it can be more, if the student is interested enough to have an educational life outside the classroom and is savvy enough to integrate classroom learning with real-life learning. But that doesn't always happen. Students are conditioned to think that what happens in school should be their Number One priority. And if you've ever grounded your teenager for bringing home a poor report card, thereby disabling him from pursuing his extracurricular interests, you know that what I'm saying is true.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school.

My own favourite quote about teaching goes: "Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a bucket."

But the image of "robotic bookshelves" is freaking gold. I think I just might have a new favourite . . .

Demand that the excuse, "You have to learn this for the test" is not good enough for you. [sic]

And this is where my experience as a high school teacher comes into play. For I am guilty of saying that very line and of helping perpetuate the system that makes such lines necessary.

This is what it looks like on the other side of the Faculty Room door . . .

A high school teacher isn't really an educator in an institution dedicated to learning; he is a record keeper in a bureaucracy dedicated to crafting standardised assessments and computing grade point averages. I learned that the hard way for two years.

Where I taught worked, the administration discouraged teachers from giving students anything to do or read that they couldn't earn credit for. Not that the latter were any better; they did know how the system worked and would ask, "Why are we doing this if we're not being graded?" (So young and already so jaded.)

In short, it was all about the grades. Which was difficult for me at first, because I didn't start caring about my own until I was in uni. I coasted through high school with a B minus average--not because I couldn't do A-level work, but because I had other priorities. So when my students started stressing out--really stressing out--at the grades I was giving them, it took me a while to see what the big deal was. They're just grades, right? (Bwahahahahahaha!)

Yet even as I thought my students should be more laid back about their grades, I was a hard marker. I didn't give A's unless I thought the assignments deserved A's. In my class, students who had been getting straight A's for years were getting B's again--or the first C's of their lives. Their parents were up in arms. (I thought one mother was going to have a stroke. "Why does my daughter have a C+ in your subject? She speaks English fluently!!!")

My superior had a chat with me about this, and we concluded that my standards were way too high. Given what my students had been used to during their previous three years of high school and the fact that I was still learning the system they knew pretty well, I had to accept that I was in the wrong about my marking system. So I adjusted it accordingly and hardly ever handed out another C. Well, why not? They're "just grades," right? =P

But it didn't stop there. For the greater issue was not that students should be graded fairly but that teachers should have their asses covered. I think I spent more time recording, computing, encoding, and double-checking grades than I did working on lesson plans, evaluating assignments or just interacting with my students. Grading sheets are hard evidence that students have learned something done some work. Nobody can quantify a moment of magic in the classroom or a casual remark during mentoring that changes a life forever. And parents who pay expensive tuition fees want to see results. They're not going to buy the story that seeds have been planted which are going to flower abundantly someday. Sometimes the only "result" that will satisfy them is an impressive report card to send in with the uni applications.

Basically, high school is one big bubble of busy work. Parents send their children there so that teachers can make them jump through hoops and grade them on their jumping; the teachers pretend that the jumping and the grades matter in the real world; and universities play along by demanding the jumping scores before they even consider admitting applicants who might be independently intelligent.

For me, the pressure not to fail students--even those who deserved it--was incredible. Perhaps someone plagiarised 95% of a major essay. No way to sweep that under the rug. But did I really want to be the bad guy who ruined her shot at a good university and pretty much the rest of her life? And think of the emotional scars she might carry for life! Okay, get me a broom; I'll do some sweeping. After all, they're "just grades." (What a double-edged sword, aye?)

The few students who did get failing marks were those who had nobody in the faculty room to make appeals for them--and no student ever flunked out without first pissing off a substantial number of teachers. And don't think they didn't know how the system worked: one of my biggest "scandals" involved being hauled in front of the principal because a student who hadn't done very well in my class believed that I was out to get her.

So, anyway . . . Institutional high school? I'm against it!

An extra year or two? I spit on its grave!


christopher said...

With you on both points, ma'am. This is a topic upon which my perspective has changed quite a bit over the years, as my perspective has also changed on "bigger pictures." Good timing too, as this was the girl's first day at school (Cecilia will NOT be one that gets "institutionalized" though, God help me... she walked in today at pre-K as if she owns the place).

paul bowman said...

Read this earlier in the evening & thought, Prime material — she's fired up today! I feel I ought to watch a little piece of that clip, at least, but I don't think I'm going to to bring myself to do it.

* * *

Must tell you that a young raccoon toddled out in front of my van a few min. ago, as I was coming here over to the shop to do some work tonight, and might've had it if I hadn't been braking then for a turn. Thinking about whether I'm destined now to think of you every time I encounter one of these little night prowlers.

Dauvit Balfour said...

Good thoughts. It seems to me that highschool is worse than useless. Even a good Catholic school (of which I doubt there are many left) will still have the same structure and general philosophy that are so damaging in a public school.

And even homeschooling isn't a perfect answer. There's still a lot of pressure to follow normal timelines with curricula, though you can play with it and do a better job. I wish I'd moved faster through maths, but the programs you buy aren't designed to do that. I went to college with a guy who was doing undergraduate level math by the time he was in his early teens. Preturnaturally smart, yes - probably win a fields medal someday - but how many like him are quashed under the heel of the system?

Sullivan McPig said...

Hmmmm..... Difficult.
I must say I do agree with you mostly (education in the Netherlands seems to get worse by the year as well), however:
There are lots of people/students who need structures like high school and it's way to teach them as it's the only way they learn anything at all. Not everyone is a thinker or a do-er, most of us are (sadly enough) consumers, not only when it comes to buying stuff, but in every way they view the world. These people need to be entertained and need to be told what to do (even with an argument: it will be on the test) to do anything at all.
So to change an institute like high school will only help if we also change the way the average human being views the world or they will learn even less than they're learning now.

Enbrethiliel said...


@Christopher: What did I say about her running Austin someday??? (You remember, right? I called it last year!!!)

@Paul: The clip is worth ten times this post. You can also always read the transcript.

(Brake for coons! That should be a bumper sticker.)

@Dauvit: I know what you mean about even curricula designed for homeschools following "regular" high school timelines. When I helped homeschool my cousin Fire Storm last year, we had such a problem with his Maths requirements. When we went at his pace--a very reasonable pace, I might add--he understood everything, but we were always two to three units behind. When we sped things up, he started flunking his tests on a regular basis--which led to his mother's direct order that I manipulate the grading sheets to bump up his final mark.

@Sully: I admit my post could be more nuanced, too. I like your point about some people viewing everything from the perspective of a consumer and that being a major contributor to the problem. Even I have experienced "motivating" students with the threat, "You're going to need this in uni," used as a last resort, because nothing else worked. Unfortunately, that has also just convinced me that the system is good for educating, training, motivating, and catching the below-average learners--but is ultimately very deadening to other students.

Yes, there is value in hard work and value in respecting authority and value in following the customs of your community--which are three goods that high school teaches along with its subjects--but it's awful to see that even these are not imparted very effectively. If I had more time (and if this were *that* sort of blog), I'd refine these thoughts on high school into a condemnation of general "one size fits all" education.

The Western Confucian said...

High School sucked. A complete waste of time. I remember sitting in the back of class pulling unread books off the shelf to fill my time during "lectures."

I'm on Mr. Nelson's blogroll, but wasn't tagged. As he said, "[K]eep in mind that a few in my blogroll seem to be against everything, so that may also account for why they weren't tagged." Maybe that includes me. I am against just about everthing.

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! If I ever have to do an "I'm all for it!" meme, you'll be the first person I tag, Joshua. =)

I'm sure a few of my own students found other things to do during my classes and are better people for it. I think one reason I was such a bad fit for teaching high school was that I didn't like making them do anything. Whenever the evaluations came back, most of them said, "Miss Enbrethiliel should be more strict!" I was never sure how to feel about that; to me, it was as if my students were saying, "I wish Miss Enbrethiliel had forced me to do my assignments." Yeah, kids, whatever . . .

paul bowman said...

(Oh, for sure.)

Salome Ellen said...

Hmm. As one who has been out of HS a tad longer (40+ years), I suspect the real problem is a level deeper. In my day, there was Home Economics -- for girls who knew their vocation was wife-and-mother, and Clerical -- future secretaries, and Agriculture for the soon-to-be farmers. Now it's assumed that everybody needs the Academic curriculum, which in my day was 1/3 of the student body at most. (Michigan, my state here in the US, has mandated two years of algebra for all.) It was MUCH easier to teach individuals when the system saw them/us as individuals to be educated, not uniform pieces to be moved through the machine. But it's not just the educators who have brought us to this. I could give several examples of parents who threw big public fits if their child was deemed to not be quite so advanced as some other child. And heaven forefend that ANYBODY should be singled out as "deficient." So the educational system has to treat many very different students as identical if they want the chance of educating any. It's not PC to "judge", even on a student's own merits (or lack thereof). ALL children must be "above average." And the slow and the gifted both suffer.

CMinor said...

Great food for thought.
Salome, vo-tech ed hasn't gone away completely in the South. But it's hard to enter a skilled job without a year or two of post-high school training as well.

Natalie Lloyd said...

I wasn't sure if I should leave a comment here or on your other blog (though I do adore the way you write on both!). I'll park here for a second and say, 1.) the raccoon in your profile picture has such a sweet face! I've never seen a raccoon that adorable before. And 2.) this post ties into a conversation I was having today with my mom. She's been thinking about going back to school but isn't sure she wants to sit through all the filler classes she would need to complete the program. I can totally empathize with that. I always feel bad complaining about school because I know I'm so blessed to live in a country with great schools. But school was most definitely full of classes I can now confirm I didn't need. It's hard for me not to be cynical (... in all things, but especially when discussing education). I haven't watched this clip yet because my internet is prehistoric tonight, but I am eager to do so! (Thanks for your kind comment on my blog, btw :)

Lesa said...

I'm always the oddball so of course I absolutely loved high school-- mainly because of AP classes and progressive fascinating instructors. The classes I took that were not offered as AP were pretty awful though-- drudgery really. The kids were as dull as the teachers.

I'd agree that high school shouldn't be forced on the kids who aren't college bound once the basics are met. Last year, I read about schools in the NE USA that were letting kids who weren't going to college graduate a year or two early-- it was better for the school economically. Sounded like a pretty good idea for the kids too-- they could get a job or start learning a trade.

Enbrethiliel said...


@Ellen: Let's get together someday and compare scary parent stories over a cup of tea! The girl I mention in this post who plagiarised about 95% of her paper had her mother come and speak for her the same day I handed the essays back. I will never forget the earnest look on the mother's face when she told me, "Please don't fail my daughter for this because she didn't plagiarise that essay. I plagiarised it when I did her homework for her." (!!!)

And yes, I agree about that the idea that education should be "one size fits all" is a major source of the problem. Of course, the first place I suggested it was in the classroom--as the way I think aloud is not limited to my blogs (!)--and some students were quite hurt at the idea that they might not be "good enough" for the academic track.

(Not that I named or singled anyone out, but I did say something like: "If someone doesn't like all this reading and writing and analysis and problem solving, then he'd be a miserable square peg in the round hole of a big university.")

@Cminor: Thanks! We have a similar problem in the Philippines. Hardly anyone will hire an applicant for a skilled job unless he has a college degree. But some colleges offer nothing but four more years of high school-level curriculum (e.g., basic subject-verb agreement in English class); in that sense, they're pretty pointless.

@Natalie: I'm glad you came here instead, because the other blog has been dead since February--or if you prefer, since I went back and posted some new stuff since then, undead. =P

A friend of mine took the picture of the raccoon when he was on holiday in Maryland a few months ago. The second I saw it, I begged him to let me use it for my profile pic!

When I was still teaching full-time, I had to keep taking classes for extra accreditation. (The standards change every year!) Some of them were pretty good; others were truly a waste of time. I took a Masters-level class once and spent two weeks listening to the teacher tell me why his fifty-year-old self was still a "vulnerable child" inside. (Sigh!)

Now, I don't know your mom and probably shouldn't be offering advice, but if she doesn't need the classes to boost her professional qualifications, then maybe she could take a language class or something that is obviously not just filler. I know I'd love to go back to school and resume my Latin studies!

Thanks for visiting. I love the way you write, too. =)

@Lesa: Hahahahahaha! I was waiting for your comment, to tell you the truth! ;-)

Your high school experience as a student is very much like my high school experience as a teacher. I had some really great students (Did you read about my pink elephants?) whom I loved to engage and to challenge. But a lot of other students were really just there for the grades and I had to deal with them accordingly. I guess they couldn't help being "dull" in the classroom; my problem was that they seemed to prefer the colourless teachers, too!

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Oh, I could go on. . . .
Have you read Ivan Illich?
His premise (one of) if I can paraphrase anywhere near correctly, has to do with that piece of paper. Licenses, diplomas, those kinds of credentials, they are pretty much about being in the seat checking off the boxes. You don't have to know or do to get a teacher's license, you have to have *taken* classes, *completed* courses -- been there. So, for example, my father was a Marine Corps general that taught men to fly jet airplanes in combat, but he was not qualified to teach kindergarten, because he had not sat through the steps.
So with school, the point is to be there. Is why attendance has become so essential, such a marker of a school that is succeeding, they have good attendance rates.
But he considers it more than just an ed system problem. My favorite example of his is building a house. He says only the very rich or the very poor can build their own houses these days. It doesn't matter if you are qualified to build a house, you have to be licensed. And being licensed doesn't necessarily mean you are qualified (although we hope there's still a shred of having to pass some kind of tests involved), it means you have checked all the government's and school systems' boxes. It's about who is in charge, and it's about uniformity. To get your license, it would be nice if you knew some engineering and architecture and physics. But what you really need to know is the *codes*.
Great comments by your readers, btw.

Enbrethiliel said...


Have I ever mentioned that I was never licensed to teach? The high school that hired me was very liberal about giving fresh graduates a chance--and not just the Education majors, who had enough credentials to take the licensing exam immediately, but also those who had majored in other disciplines and so still needed the required (Sigh) eighteen additional units in Education. So the deal was, "We hire you now and you get licensed by your third year of teaching with us. Okay?"

I resigned at the end of my second year, however, so that was that.

Anyway, yes, the point is not how much you know and how well you can do your job: if it were, anyone could take the teacher's licensing exam at any time. It's about those (probably pointless) "eighteen units."

That's what everyone calls them, by the way: the "eighteen units." It doesn't matter what you study, as long as the "EDUC" code is beside the paper's name and you rack up eighteen units' worth of them. Hey, kind of like high school itself . . .

PS--Yeah, I have the best readers in the world!!! =D