"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Monday, November 29, 2010

Real Achievement Or Hoop-Jumping in Schools?

The New York Times has an article today called "A's for Good Behavior" about the difference between "compliance" in schools -- doing all the homework, handing things in on time, doing neat work, etc. -- and actual academic achievement, which ought to mean ability to master complex subject matter.  Here's the hook:

A few years ago, teachers at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., might have said that their top students were easy to identify: they completed their homework and handed it in on time; were rarely tardy; sat in the front of the class; wrote legibly; and jumped at the chance to do extra-credit assignments. But after poring over four years of data comparing semester grades with end-of-the-year test scores on state subject exams, the teachers at Ellis began to question whether they really knew who the smartest students were.  About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.
One of my favorite bloggers, Ann Althouse, comments:
It seems obvious to me that schools should give achievement in learning the primary place it deserves and should also demand appropriate behavior. Students need to be decently well-behaved, diligent, and organized, but it's wrong to treat teacher's-pet-type students as if they are the best. That drives many smart kids into rebellion. And, frankly, it's likely to create unnecessary problems for lots of boys. And it doesn't do girls any favors either, since real careers aren't about handing in all the homework and pleasing the authority figure.
As the father of a really really smart but not very well-behaved thirteen year-old boy, I couldn't agree more.  My boy is going to be a huge success in life, and I worry every day that most of what will happen in school between now and then will hinder that success more than it helps. 

Look, this will sound harsh.   Everyone deserved dignity as a human being, from the least intelligent to the most intelligent.  But the truth is that most of what has raised society from the jungle has been accomplished by individuals at the east end of the bell curve -- invention, entrepreneurship, leadership, victory, problem-solving, creation.  To the extent that our schools do not cherish and focus on the most capable minds -- not the neatest, not the nicest, not the most polite, not the most punctual, but the most intellectually capable -- they are not only disserving those children, they are disserving America's future.  

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