Saturday, August 30, 2008

Challenge for the New School Year

(News-Herald, August 28) If you’re a parent, you’ve prepared yourself for the moment next week when your child makes the big trip toward another year of education. But there’s still time to pick out some piece of Parental Wisdom to impart to your offspring. If you haven’t come up with anything, here’s my suggestion for the new year.

It’s simple, really. Accept the challenge.

We talk a lot about raising the bar, about making our students more competitive, about being the best. But that’s the generality, the broad picture. As parents, our more natural impulse is to make sure that our own children are never unhappy, never suffering, never pained, never disappointed, never feeling the sting of failure. And so, with the best intentions in the world, we identify the biggest challenge our child could face, and we help him avoid it.

No Child Left Behind is supposed to address this and push all children toward excellence. It won’t. Two important things to remember about NCLB:

1) Within the next six years (if the law doesn’t change) every school in America will fail.

2) When reports say that students are being better educated, what they actually mean is that students are doing better on standardized tests. You can get students to score well without educating them; in fact, educating them often doesn’t help. And in the end, all you’ve proven is how well they do on a standardized test.

So NCLB doesn’t address the challenge of challenge. Neither does the idea of school choice.

Proponents claim that, free to choose, parents will choose the best, toughest, most challenging schools. That, unfortunately, is not true.

Right now, the high schools of Venangoland already offer choice. Most students can choose classes that challenge them a lot, a little, or not very much. Some choose the big challenge. Some have parents who force them to accept the big challenge. And plenty avoid any sort of challenge like the plague.

If school choice became law, someone could make a fortune opening a school that promised students would never have homework and would always get B’s.

Why do students shy away from challenge?

Sometimes it’s that parental desire to protect. We want our children to experience nothing but success. We hope they never feel pain, disappointment, frustration.

But the only way to do that is to duck the challenge. Lifting heavy weights to build muscles is hard and makes you sore; lifting two pounds is easy and doesn’t make you uncomfortable at all. Running a mile in four or five minutes leaves you exhausted and breathless; strolling a mile in an hour or so is much less uncomfortable.

Sometimes it’s simple short-sightedness. We have students who can take the long view about practicing long painful hours at a sport because they believe the sacrifice will pay off in the professional career they imagine having ten years from now; these same students then blow off academic assignments because they’d rather be at the movies tonight. Students spend a gazillion hours worrying about how to get in to college, but no time at all worrying about how they’ll handle the demands once they’re there.

Challenge, with its discomfort and strain, always looks bad in the short view. That’s when the long view matters. Ten years from now, how likely is it that you’ll be thinking, “Thank heavens I skipped every Monday and ate KFC in front of my Playstation” or “I’m glad I prepared by the world of work by never showing up on time for school.”

The long view of challenge is one of the areas where young folks in China and India have us on the run—they’ll put up with almost any level of discomfort and challenge now in order to have a shot at a better life years from now, while Americans declare that reaching the ripe old age of 15 entitles them to kick back and take it easy.

Now, accepting a challenge is not the same as beating your head against a brick wall or trying to run a two-minute mile. Everyone has their limits, and a good part of wisdom is learning to stay within them. But you can’t find your limits without testing them. You can’t build the big muscles without lifting heavy weights. And you don’t get anything out of a year of school by trying to just ease comfortably through it (and that goes for teachers, too). Make this year count for something. Take the challenge.

No comments:

From my Flickr