Editor's note: This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
Every Wednesday I wear my Gettysburg College sweatshirt. It’s part of our effort to encourage a ‘college-going’ culture. It’s one way I can be a role model.
I don’t mean to say that the only thing we care about here is sending everyone to college. We have academies that train kids in useful skills. We have one of the best shop programs in the Bay Area including wood shop, metal shop, graphics, and auto shop. Our school mission statement declares that we want to give kids options: four year college, junior college, trade school, public service.
But the goal of getting kids into college colors everything we do here, and sometimes that makes it tough on those who don’t want to go in that direction. If you want a diploma you’ll need to learn things that point you to more schooling.
To graduate you’ll need to take two algebra courses. You’ll need to be able to master exponents and polynomials. We won’t care quite as much if you can measure a piece of lumber or balance a checkbook. You’ll need to take economics where you’ll learn about the capitalist system. On the other hand it isn’t required that you leave us with the ability to use a spreadsheet or interview for a job.
You’ll take four years of English. You will read Steinbeck and Shakespeare. But we won’t let you near a crime novel or a sports magazine, at least not as part of the school curriculum.
I know there are a few magicians in the teaching profession who can take Shakespeare and excite the most disaffected kids. But that gift is bestowed on only a select few. I think the rest of us need different books and different methods to lead your children to knowledge. And the drive to turn every kid into a college student sometimes blocks us from having those tools.
Two hundred years ago when the US changed from an agrarian society to one based on industry parents needed a way to pass on a chance for a middle class life. The high school diploma certified that your child could enter the managerial class.
In the twentieth century the college degree took on that role. Today every kid comes to us believing that the difference between poverty and prosperity is that college parchment. To suggest to a student that he or she shouldn’t go to college is to insult their intelligence—at least in their eyes.
I don’t think most of my students should go to college. It’s too expensive, and often isn’t worth the investment.
But here’s the hitch. Let’s suppose I had my way. Suppose we taught more practical things and I got to bring in some popular literature. You know what would happen. Hidden in the ranks of 700+ kids would be a few kids, who, with the right push could become the doctors and lawyers of the next generation. And those would be just the students who would be cheated by my system. There just is no way to avoid the drift toward lower expectations.
I don’t see the value of teaching every student algebra, and yet, a school that teaches more practical math somehow infects the general population with the poison of diminished possibilities.
And so each day I wake up to find myself torn between the desire to challenge kids with great literature, and the knowledge that this is the very system that deprives me of the tools to reach most of my students. It’s a heck of a dilemma.
(You can read more columns like this in the archives of Strictly Secondary.)