March 20, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Evolution of Dropouts

In 1940, 20% of the kids graduated high school and 80% dropped out. The first year in which a majority of kids graduated high school was 1953

The school is, in a sense, a lemon-producing factory. It's not because the kids come as lemons; the schools produce lots of kids who say to themselves "I am stupid because I can't answer the questions; I can't play the game that is being played here. Therefore, I am going to stop playing the game."

Albert Shanker, 1990

Almost all children start out by being loaded with enthusiasm. In nursery school, aside from nap time, kids are bundles of energy and enthusiasm. They smear paint with an abandon and confidence that any artist would give his eye teeth to re-acquire. They bring home paintings and their parents gush over them and hang them on the refrigerator. In the first few grades, much of that enthusiasm remains. When the TV people want to show you a class that's busy, it's usually little kids.

When you look in on a fourth grade classroom, something has happened. For many, that enthusiasm is gone. They are in school because they have to be there and some really don't like it. They are being prepared to live with a job that they might not like.

What becomes obvious by fourth grade started before that. It started the first time that a kid is humiliated; the first time he is told that there are things that he can't do that some other kids in his class can. It happens when what he can and can't do is compared with his classmates.

Sure, kids can't spend their whole lives playing with water paints and play dough; they have to learn to read, write and cipher; and that can sometimes be frustrating. It comes hard and it comes harder to some than others.

The great challenge for a teacher and a parent is to keep a kid trying, and trying and trying until he/she learns what he is trying to learn. Those teachers who do just that are rewarded with praise and with that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes with a job well done. It's easy for a teacher to do that with the quick learners who remember everything that they read and answer the teacher's questions the way that she wants them answered. But how about the other eighty percent? How do you keep them in the game?

There are kids who thrive on competition; who see it as a challenge. Other kids are crushed by it. The skillful teacher is able to estimate when a failure can stimulate and when it will crush a kid. Not challenging a student enough is almost as much of a mistake as crushing a kid by heaping more on him than he can take. To distinguish between those different kinds of children, a teacher has to be aware of the differences, which means that she has to know her students well. Teachers who think that teaching means throwing information at kids are a disaster. They may be worse than having no teacher at all. One route that seems to do somewhat better than the classroom is home schooling. The parent knows, or should know, her kid. Home schooling has an impressive record when compared to public school. It is very time consuming for the parent and it isn't possible for everyone. Most parents simply don't have the time.

One thing that our system seems to ignore is the fact that no two kids are the same; no two children learn at the same rate and kids may learn in different ways. To this day, if you asked me to recite the alphabet, I would sing it. Ask me how much is 9 x 4 and I will say that 9 x 2 is 18; then I would add 18 and 18 to get the answer. How do you do it?

It was in my junior year at the university before I realized that I wasn't stupid. I took a course that I was very interested in, that involved a lot of math, and found myself at the head of the class. The teacher who taught it was a true master of his subject and knew how to teach.

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