July 16, 2005

High school is too easy.

Say the students. So, then, the teachers are slacking, right?


Bruce Hayden said...

No surprise from my previous posts here, but I see this as a condemnation of the public education monopoly.

My daughter starts high school next month, but I seriously doubt if boredom and not being pushed is going to be a problem. She is slated to take her first AP course her sophomore year, and will probably be taking mostly AP by her senior year. The big fight with my ex is whether she will take calculus her junior or senior year (she can already do most derivatives - that isn't rocket science).

The difference - she attends private school.

The problem, as I see it, is that there is little pressure on the public schools to do more than be merely adequate. There is little pressure on them if they fail to send their kids to as good of colleges as the kids are capable of handling.

I have to admit that I attended public high school, and acted accordingly. I asked myself, why should I take any homework home (which I didn't for my junior and senior years) if I can make the honor roll without. Sure, if I worked four hours a day, I might have made it to the top of my class, and been able to attend a top tier college. But, as it was, with my SATs, I was able to get into a very good small liberal arts school.

So, instead of studying every night throughout high school, my brother and I rode our horses on the mesa you used to see in the background on Coors beer cans. Much more fun.

My point though is that we got away with it. My daughter isn't going to be able to. And that, as is obvious from my commitment to private education, I believe is important.

Bruce Hayden said...

One adverse effect of this failure of public schools to adequately push many of their top kids is that the class structure in this country is solidifying again, after loosening up throughout much of the 20th century.

There was an article on this in the WSJ a month or so ago, and it pointed out that those with money, etc., and, in particular, those who attended top schools, are able to pass a lot more of it on to their kids, and one of the big reasons is that they often elect to send their kids to private schools to prep them for college.

Starting around the time that President Bush and John Kerry attended Yale, and Al Gore, Harvard, the elite schools in this country became a lot more egalitarian. Admission was much more based on merit. I seriously doubt if any of those three had the brainpower to compete at (or even get admitted to) their alma maters by the 1970s, and, in particular, since then.

But what has happened since then is that the better the undergraduate school you attend, the more likely you get into a good graduate school, and the better the graduate school and the more degrees you get, the more you make.

But then, all these people with all those degrees, and thus, in many cases, money, are spending the later buying private school educations for their kids, resulting in significantly higher chances of getting into the top schools, and repeating the cycle.

While not quite as bad as what Europe, including the U.K., had until recently, the type of aristocracy that we had up until WWII was really not, IMHO, a good thing for our type of democracy. My worry is that we are moving back in that direction, and a lot of the blame can be placed on the failure of the public school systems to get the most out of all of their students. As long as they don't, those who have the money and are willing to spend it on private school education, are going to continue to enjoy the best incomes, etc.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not sure if I would say the teachers are slacking. The public school systems are a mess. I think that if you asked the teachers in the high schools if they were slacking, most would say "no".

To some great extent, they are faced with classes that are probably too large, but, more importantly, have a wide range of students, ranging from those who find the subject matter trivial, to those who either struggle, or give up. Behavior problems are rampant because of this, and this disruption becomes significant, while in the private school context, it is essentially nonexistent.

But who is going to vote for more money for public schools so that classes can be made smaller, and probably more importantly in high school, can be better tailored to the aptitudes and interests of the students, when we all know where the bulk of the money that we appropriate is going to be wasted.

We have talked before here about how, because public schools are publically funded, etc., they become everything for everyone. So, you have sex ed, gay ed, multiculterism, etc. classes being taught, siphoning off precious resources from the teaching of the basics. And you have the public school systems spending huge amounts of their budgets on special education, again, detracting from preparing the bulk of the students for college.

Indeed, I find find it hard to justify spending more money on public education, knowing that in many school districts, much of that new money will be spent on more administrators, who, coincidentally make more than the teachers do (and, indeed, is seen by many teachers as career advancement over dealing with disruptive students).

So, no, I don't blame the teachers. Many, if not most, are highly motivated. They have to be. I blame the system they work in.

Jim Gust said...

Great comments Bruce.

I agree that the public schools are being asked to solve too many non-education related problems, but there is no obvious way to go back.

In the 1960s, when my wife attended public high school in New Haven, all the Yale professors sent their kids to New Haven public high schools, many of those kids were her friends. There were some very rigorous academic programs offered to top performing students (such as my wife).

But at some point priorities changed, those courses fell away, and my understanding is that most of the Yale faculty now send their children into the well-developed private school system that we have here in Connecticut.

And that's a destructive, self-reinforceing cycle, because without high-achieving students in public schools, there's no point in offering challenging AP courses.

It's not about the money, our public schools get as much and more per pupil as most private schools. But they seem unable to accomplish much with it.

Head of Royal Intelligence said...

Interesting story, although not exactly news. This has been evident to some people as far back as the 1960s. See, for example, http://www.simons-rock.edu/about/history.html , a college that lets students skip the last two years of high school and start college at 16. Full disclosure -- I attended this place, and hence I'm a bit personally invested in the topic. But I still think it's a great idea that should be available to more kids who are stuck in stultifying high schools--which is, apparently, most of them.

Ann Althouse said...

Head: Skipping kids ahead is an old-style solution. My mother went to college when she was 16, back around 1940. The solution we should demand is better high schools. In my city, Madison, we have very challenging high schools, and you definitely would not see survey results like this.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem with starting college so young is that unless everyone does, many that young are not socially ready, esp. guys.

I knew some kids who started a couple of years early. At 18, 19, we were starting to shack up soon after starting college. These kids, at 15, 16, were just starting to date. And, there were few there to date - they pretty much had to go into the high schools for that.

So, maybe if you have a lot of kids like you appear to have had at your college, it might work, but in most colleges, it is not optimal.

That brings me to my erstwhile girlfriend. She is borderline AS (Asberger's), and didn't talk, at all, through elementary school. This got her put in special ed one year. She was stuck with a bunch of people with IQ's roughly half hers, and it drove her crazy. She figured out that she needed to talk some, and did, just enough to graduate two years early. Her local university (UNLV) didn't accept that young, so she spent the next year in floral design school here in Colorado, and started college only one year early.

So, any time I think that my public school K-12 education was not optimal, I just think of her and my ex wife's experiences in much less affluent school districts (later was dissuaded from even attending college due to her sex - today she has two master's degrees in CS).

Adriana Bliss said...

I agree with Bruce Hayden's comment in which he says, "One adverse effect of this failure of public schools to adequately push many of their top kids is that the class structure in this country is solidifying again, after loosening up throughout much of the 20th century." I've seen this in action in my suburban city outside of Los Angeles. Because our valedictorians (AP classes, stellar SAT scores, broad extracurricular resumes) came from families of average means and came from schools in which the student population was generally of below-average means, the students were not able to get into top tier schools. The word across town is that we can pretty much forget Ivy League for our children. We don't make the cut. In my opinion, this is a direct result of the collapse of the middle class.

Freeman Hunt said...

I agree with Bruce Hayden. Except that I don't quite let teachers off so easily. I think a great deal of blame can be placed on the teachers' union.

I would never vote for a tax increase to pay teachers more. Aside from the fact that they are actually overpaid where I live, I don't believe in giving people raises without holding them accountable. Where I live the teachers' union fights against anything that offers even a modicum of accountability.

Having not been out of school for even ten years, I have a very clear memory of what it was like. I think teachers are mythologized to a ridiculous degree. I am not impressed with most of them. (Obviously there are some exceptional ones but not many.)

I remember being called into the office for having 112 classroom absences during the first semester of my senior year. They told me that I couldn't miss like that, and that I needed to have a better attitude. I was in all honors and AP classes, and I had straight A's. I told them that if their honors and AP classes were so lame that someone could miss 112 classes and still have straight A's, the problem was theirs not mine.

And I went to what was considered to be a very good school district. (We had many people go to top colleges.)

The government education monopoly is a disaster. I'll be saving money to send my kids to private school.

leeontheroad said...

and I hope Freeman that you as a parent will ensure your children at whatever school they attend learn that attending class is part of the requirment.

Where were your parents when you "earned" more than one hundred absences? and why did the school wait that long to haul your butt in?

Being brilliant doesn't excuse a lazy attitude. The ol'e inspiration vs. perspiration adage is precisely what brings changes-- from doing an experiement one more time, t runnign emd tests again, to piloting school reform itself.

So: about teachers-- why is it their salaries and not those of adminsitrators or other school officials that are at issue? I'm not thrilled with much of what I hear from (some) local teachers' unions. But I don't single them out for fault. That's an easy out for administrators, school boards, parents and other citizens.

Bruce Hayden said...

You shouldn't single out the teachers. As I indicated above, for a lot of them, going into administration is considered a step up. Indeed, it is the administrators who make the really good money. But, of course, this is never disclosed when comparing teachers salaries, except, maybe the superindendant of a school district.

When was the last time that you hear about the difference in salaries between administrators of different school districts, or, indeed, how much they actually make.

You don't because if you did, you might start wondering where all the money is going.

In my daughter's private school, there is a headmaster, three principals, two secretaries, and, a couple of college guidance counselers. At least the middle school principal also teaches a couple of classes a day, in his case, English classes. All for a school of maybe 1,000 kids.

Compare this with the average public school system, some of which have almost as many administrators as teachers, and you start seeing a problem.

Freeman Hunt said...

Being brilliant doesn't excuse a lazy attitude.

So you're saying that children who don't waste everyday sitting in easy classes are lazy? You sound like the teachers that I had. Why not just sit the children down in a basement holding room all day long? Instead of calling it school, we could call it lobby. That's often basically all it is.

Missing classes is not equivalent to laziness.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't single [teachers] out for fault. That's an easy out for administrators, school boards, parents and other citizens.

Often the administrators and school boards are fighting for accountability measures. At least they were where I lived. I don't know where the parents were. Hardly anyone ever showed up for school board meetings. Except once: Half the town showed up for a meeting where they demoted a principal who deserved it. (The people didn't want him demoted, but then again they didn't know what he did, and the board couldn't tell them because it was part of his confidential personnel file.) The times that the board and administrators met about curriculum, usually no one showed up at all. Kind of sad.

Bruce Hayden said...


I am in the category of those who slacked through high school, and indeed, undergraduate school. Only in graduate school did I finally buckle down and perform like I am capable of performing - but that was after being out in the workforce. Why? I ask that of myself.

One basic problem is that the judgment functions in the brain are typically not fully matured and complete until your mid-20s. So, telling many kids that they are screwing up their lives by not working as hard as they can right now plainly just doesn't work.

I know my parents tried. We had five boys. The oldest two of us slid through high school, on the honor roll, but not much better, then got into a good liberal arts school based on our SAT scores. Third and fifth busted their asses, and got into top schools, including Dartmouth for the youngest. Fourth, if possible, worked even less than the first two.

And then you have families which end up motivating all of their four or five kids. I know of two with 4 or so Boetcher scholorships (full ride, any school in CO, public or private) per family.

The problem was, for us, that my mother had always been motivated. Top of her high school class. But, now, I suspect that it was to please her distant parents. In any case, the type of motivation that worked for her, and she tried on us, only really worked for the youngest. The middle, who also excelled, got motivated, I believe, to literally compensate for his two slacking older brothers. But it turns out that his metric is himself, as compared to my mother and my youngest brother. Thus, in college, he was suicidal at getting a 93 on a physics test, despite being the only student of 200 over 90, and 25 being passing.

So, where were my parents when we were screwing off? Mm mother was probably taking care of the rest of my brothers, and my father was working.

Bruce Hayden said...

So, how do you motivate kids? The problem is that every one is different. As noted above, what worked for my mother and one of my brothers abjected failed for three of us.

For my daughter, it seems that my ex has managed to beat (not literally) good study habits into her, and then, she has built a lot of her self esteem from the successes that have come from being forced to apply herself.

So, my daughter and her friends are looked down on by the popular (and, often, very rich) girls for being geeks, and she and her friends look down on the popular girls for more than likely ending up in much lower tier schools, or, maybe even, heaven forbid, a state school like CU. As they start high school, they already know who is competitive for the Ivy League and who is not.

My gut instinct is that this wouldn't have worked for me. She is an awful lot like me - with one critical difference, her sex. On average, females are significantly more interested in getting approval than are males (Ann - normal bell curve thing here, of course).

In short, 37 years after high school graduation, I stil don't know how my parents could have motivated me. The only thing that might have worked would have been to send me to a school like my dauther attends. But when my parents looked at it some 40 years ago for me, they ended up keeping me in public school mostly because of the cost of sending my four younger brothers too, if they sent me there.

Bruce Hayden said...

Jim Gust

I would suggest that the big reason that public schools don't work nearly as well, for the amount of money spent, as do private schools is accountability. In a private school, if the kids are neglected, the parents pull the kids, pronto, and the school loses the money.

No such bottom line accountability in public schools. They get their money pretty much regardless of how well the schools work, and, indeed, constantly use the fact that they aren't doing well to argue for more money.

Unfortunately, we have exhausted this subject in previous threads here, and so am not going to try the patience of Prof. Althouse persuing it further.

Slac said...

School is not easy in the way that it is unchallenging, like it's easy for Lance Armstrong to bike a mile downhill. Nor is it easy by convenience, like it's easy to microwave a bowl of "Easy Mac" or something.

It's dumbingly easy. It's so easy that many have to actually sacrifice the valuable facets of their intelligence to get an "A." It stifles the creative instinct to take joy from learning, nay to take joy from life, and is akin to mass brainwashing.

Mandatory attendance in the kinds of schools that pervade today's educational system is a result of the first and highest form of prejudice that is committed, or the assumption that young people are inferior. Considering rates of suicide, mental illness, and violence. It's slavery, prison, murder, and more.

Bruce Hayden said...

Slac has a good point. Public school for me was mind numbingly easy. Esp. the scientific and math based classes - which is where my expertise lies. My problem with the humanities and social sciences was that they all seemed too subjective (which I think is a male problem).

In any case, I was bored in class, and the homework was mind numbing. Why should I, for example, have to do all those silly math problems when I can Ace the test without?

I would suspect that this too is a problem with public schools trying to be everything for everyone. So, you probably end up with, in many cases, two or three different tracks of classes of a specific type. But that means that the middle track has to handle kids with, for example, IQs of between 100 and 125. Quite a big range. And, as a result, it really has to be taught at almost the lowest level - say 105 or so.

Online Degree said...

"Trying to be everything for everyone" (Bruce).... definitely true. I believe that this is a definite source of many of the problems with public education.... however, can it really be any other way? I don't see an easy way to get around this. The alternative is private tutoring, so that a student can get the academic attention they need; but then they may not be getting the social attention they need. Perhaps this is one conundrum that may never be solved.

ashley said...

i am 15 years old and currently a sophmore in high school. i went through middle school with consecutive 4.0's and never had to study or try very hard at all. When i started my freshman year, i found things to still be fairly simple, but realized that i needed to work to maintain my grades. Needless to say, I didn't do too well that year, and i'm still trying to recover. Now, I sit through my classes, so extremely bored that i've finished my bookwork for the next 3 chapters in my economics class and i've gone ahead in all my other classes as well. I find everything to be so excessively simple, that I've stopped trying so hard and find myself slacking off. I try to concentrate in class, but it's difficult when the material is incredibly uninteresting and I'm surpasing all the other students by such a large gap. I'm not sure what significance this comment will have for myself, or if i'll get any feedback at all, but i would really like an explanation for as to what i could possibly do to make things more challenging. Is there someone i could talk to? Or is there something i could do to make my classes more challenging? I guess i'm just asking if I actually have an option in what i can do, or if i'm stuck in these too easy classes for the rest of my high school career. I'm almost ready to give up it's gone that far. Something needs to be done and I have no idea what my options are.

Ann Althouse said...

Ashley: I'm sorry to hear your high school is so easy. It's a drag to be stuck in a town that hasn't made its schools good enough. But you can't change everything from the position you're in now. If I were you, I'd get my work done quickly and put my energy into other things that are worthwhile. Read books that interest you, do some writing, get involved in activities in your community, or pursue some artistic endeavor. Try to find out what interests you and pursue that. College is not that far away. Concentrate on getting ready to go to a place that can get you into an area of work that will be valuable and rewarding. I'll bet if you talked to your favorite teacher, he or she would help you.

Laura said...
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Laura said...
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Laura said...

Um, just going to private school is no guarantee of a challenge. With a similar level of effort, I went from a 4.1 in a well respected private hs to a 1.6 my first term in college. I did eventually learn to study by starting over and going to community college, but again - it's about the individual school - JC math was way way harder than my high school math - There are no guarantees.