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This started as a letter to the editor several years ago. It obviously ran away from its author and got far too long for any newspaper to stomach, even in an Op Ed. But every year when the drop out rates are published, the same sentiments arise. We'll pull it off the site when we see an improvement — or when we retire, which, as far off as it is, is more likely to come first!
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On Graduation

It’s now just past that dreaded time of year again when the high school senior class either graduates or does not, as the case may be, and the hated “dropout” word resurfaces. Our kids may have moved around, gone to trade school or even taken an extra year to finish — or, worse still, gone out and gotten a GED and a job. But we don’t really know for sure where our “dropouts” have gone — we should be keeping two scores: those who dropped out, and those who moved out.

Nonetheless, fingers are pointed in multiple directions and action is demanded of our schools and political leaders to fix the dropout problem now right now. The enemy must be identified and slain like the ignoble dragons of yore and our dear local press has a field day cheering on the lynch mob. Fortunately, the mob has real short term memory and a week or two after the gnashing of teeth and thundering editorials it will all be forgotten.

smiling graduate cartoonIt’s a really good thing that we, as a civilization, do not run our agricultural business like we run our schools because, as any farmer will tell you, if you dig your crops up continually to check how they are doing, you are going to get a mighty pitiful yield. It's prepare the soil, plant the seed, nurture, nurture, nurture and have faith — and behold from a lowly beginning comes a mighty harvest. Same with our students in the school system (except someone else does the metaphorical planting, of course). What is this incessant need to test, test and then test again, then retest so that some far off figures of myth can measure how well the system or its victims are doing?

Teachers have known for eons that there are fast starters and slow starters in every subject under the sun; that some students will have stronger preferences for a particular subject matter and some weaker; that late developers abound in every subject known to man (as our community colleges, with their legions of elderly and not-so-elderly continuing education scholars can attest). Education and learning empowerment is a constant lifetime journey, so what’s the big deal about this metaphorical time bomb?

This argument has been going on for over 2000 years, since the days when Socrates preached the need to seek the truth and fulfill the soul, as opposed to the Sophist view that valued mastery of grammar, fluency of expression, agility of vocabulary use and the ability to manipulate the facts. (Note how the Sophistic terminology is replete with images of force, like tests.)

Many years ago, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, created the famous human psychological type assessment called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). MBTI classifies the very different comprehension experiences that occur between introverts and extroverts, intuitives and non-intuitives, and more. Psychologist Howard Gardner identified at least seven different ways of learning anything, and which he named the “seven intelligences.” Some people are spatial learners, some are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and some are not. There are myriad indices that measure these differences in the way individuals perceive and assimilate information that are routinely referenced in hiring decisions as well as curriculum design, so what drives this great urge to test for commonality?

We, as humans, are all different, but some bright wunderkind keeps steering education into a standardized cul de sac, and the results of these tests show it. Let’s see, we have now concluded that stressful environments are really bad, period, and even for animals in medical testing this needs to be avoided lest it corrupt the data — but students in a test environment need to be stressed through the roof. I thought this sort of regimentation was the basis for tactical military training, not for the real world, or at least not for the one I live in.

No one has ever been fooled by this insane logic and every student from the days of Aristotle has ultimately come to the point of asking “What has this really got to do with the real world where I am bound?” If we don't do something to end this cycle, then future generations will continue to think they are the first to challenge this logic. Imagine the lawsuits that would fly if everyone in adulthood were required to take similar tests every year.

One of the best ways to seek truth and logic in anything is to try to explain it to a another civilization and see if it makes sense to them. Let me introduce a some allegories to demonstrate this problem. I grew up in Southern Africa and the first time I ever heard about graduates versus dropouts was from some American colleagues serving in the Rhodesian army with us. Sitting around a campfire under the beautiful southern hemisphere night sky in Wankie (now Hwange) National Park, the stories rolled about what had actually brought us here. Our American friends were describing the progression from school, graduation, college and then to Vietnam and, coincidentally, the speaker of higher military rank was the dropout and his subordinate was the graduate.

They felt the need to explain all this, and as the audience consisted of native speakers of English, Nama, Ndebele and Afrikaans, the translations became fast and furious. The Ndebele and Nama became totally confused when Kevin, one of the Americans, described the testing pressure by banging his fist against his head and this immediately was translated to the group as “The Americans punish their children by hurting their brains every year until they finally fall down (drop out) or don't (graduate).” This was viewed as some kind of weird western “what does not kill them makes them stronger” philosophy, and all the head shaking and rolling of the whites of the eyes emphasized how ridiculous they all thought this was, along with the loud comments of “OHWWWWWWWWWWWW spugapu,” which literally translated means “really, really stupid.” For weeks afterwards the Americans kept receiving small gifts and pats on the shoulder from their team, as everyone now knew they had been hurt as children by this strange, strange system.

crippled eagles insigniaIncidentally, the American contingent who served in Rhodesia wore the insignia of the crippled eagles. In Africa, the spiritual relationship between man and the animal (wildlife) kingdom is especially strong and tokens or representations of powerful creatures of the wild are highly respected. The crippled eagle said to the Africans: “We are wounded and have been hurt (by Vietnam and the indifference of government bureaucracy), but we have enormous latent power and will recover. Respect us!” I cannot help but think of their adopted symbol as a metaphor for today's dropouts.

Two married friends of mine in Texas run a very successful construction and engineering company and the company résumés are really, really impressive, mostly as a result of the testing skills of Jean Claude, the husband. Jean Claude has a remarkable skill set, in that he can study for and take any test, often in record time, and qualify with honors. His hobby for many years was accumulating technical certificates and degrees of varied types. No matter what the subject matter, he could fly though the tests with sometimes only the most rudimentary pre-study. He does, however, have a very big Achilles heel which Brenda, his wife, keeps this under firm control: although he has some of the highest electrical trade installation and engineering certifications in hand, when he picks up a screwdriver everyone runs for cover, because when he is confronted with reality, his theoretical skill sets evaporate and he becomes an absolute klutz — and this sadly applies to nearly every one of his vast array of certifications. Jean Claude is phenomenal at theory, but the practical world has totally passed him by.

Last, but not least, when I first arrived in Santa Fe and eventually found the plaza (after getting diverted to De Vargas mall) I ended up sitting on a bench with a character I can only describe as an Archie Bunker clone from Detroit. Several low-riders and other tricked out auto specials were traveling around the plaza and occasionally one with special hydraulics would leap in the air or boogie-woogie, depending on the driver’s whim. The colors and finishes of these cars and trikes was dazzling, and every time one did a special display the Archie type would shake his head and “tut, tut” like crazy. Eventually, I could not resist my curiosity and I leaned over and asked him what the problem was. Startled, he responded “No, no! You don't get it: what these kids are doing is phenomenal. I am a retired engineer from General Motors and I can tell you I would throw away all my degrees, years of security, hell, even my pension, for just one year in the garages where these kids work these miracles. My world of design engineering is theory, theory, meeting, meeting, BS, BS, BS, and in the end the top results my best guys produced could not hold a candle to what these youngsters have accomplished!”

Once students reach near-adulthood, as our great high-schoolers have, the environment they need is one requiring emulation of the real world, helping them to become learning-empowered with real world skills and real world examples, and that’s sadly not even attempted at the university level. We don't need to teach so they can past tests, we need to make the students learning-empowered and give them real life usable skills. It’s appalling how we use constant irrelevant comparisons to tell one and all they are not going to make it, and I can imagine how successful our metaphorical farmer would be if he just ignored his crops because, shucks, they are not going to make it either.

Before a student is taught any practical trade or professional skill sets, whether mechanical, medical, intellectual, or whatever, to succeed in the world today they need to master three major skill sets: (These, by the way, are the skill sets that Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines credit with their success.)

  1. Intra- and interpersonal skills (how to get on with yourself and with other people — all types of people). Acting and performance art is great to develop this.
  2. Problem-solving skills (how to fix any problem, any time, anywhere). You cannot be taught to solve problems, you need to become “learning-empowered,” to understand what something is and then actually tactilely, physically handle the problem to success or failure, which in itself is one of life’s great learning tools — doing it wrong is the best way to learn how to do it right.
  3. Typing for communications (how to use the digital world to extend the first two skills). It’s still common in many schools to follow such rigid ideas as Lucy Calkins’ The Art of Teaching Writing (yuck), but in the last 10 or 15 years there have been radical changes in the way basic correspondence, communications, writing has evolved. From pen/pencil and paper first came a digital transfer medium (word processing) that uses very different rule sets, then came email which radically overhauled this medium once again, and now we have abbreviated text messages and instant messages, which radically overhauled it once again — but our schools still faithfully teach the same methods as that were taught when we were still using quill and ink as the medium. No wonder the kids look at the curriculum with glazed eyes and text under the desk around the room 2MI4COL (“Too much information, for crying out loud!).

Can anyone tell me where these skill sets are taught, at any level? And, when it comes to these skills, testing is doing, period, and learning is doing it wrong.

Everyone can remember specific people who influenced them beneficially in their life and these great people become guiding templates for really doing it right. This should also equally apply to our educational system, but the system and its long-suffering inhabitants demonstrate again and again they simply do not walk the walk or even talk the talk, so don’t be surprised when the students react to this hypocrisy accordingly.

During a recent educational meeting, it was pointed out to me that most schools follow the same design patterns as prisons and that one of the reasons schools are under-funded is the need for huge capital to build prisons, and I could not help but compare the students’ reactions to those of prisoners — and for some reason that totally resonated. When I first looked at an elementary school in Santa Fe with its ad hoc cheap construction and dreaded corral of outdated, dilapidated portables, I was stunned at the decrepit state of affairs in the richest country in the world. I can truthfully say that I would not have been given a permit in Africa for a basic construction camp developed like this. Can you imagine the psychological effect on a young child when they are told how much you love them and then they are shoved into a leaky, decrepit portable that the local jail would not use on its worst overcrowded days?

Bluntly, our school designs are locked in a 1920s industrial mentality and, sadly, the products that come out of these Frankenstein castles reflect that. To prove a point, I recently asked a group of senior school board officials and parents, as well as students, to name one school they had seen in their life that they thought was a great place to visit and to work in and that they felt passionate about, and no one could come up with a single name. But they could name individuals who were great teaching staff and who battle this war constantly. That, unfortunately, is a whole ’nother subject: the damage and stress done to our teaching staff by this sad state of affairs.

Also at a recent meeting with some up the hill (Los Alamos) types I was asked what our high schools needed to “get them out of the rut.” My response was simple: “As many truck loads of hope as your can send them!” (And by the way, “up the hill” is not setting a very good example.)

The road ahead is full of fun, and what makes our country really great is its focus on “the pursuit of happiness,” which every member of our system is entitled to. Let’s not write these great kids off just because someone missed a hypothetical deadline imposed and designed by people who probably hated school anyway, or one day you may be sitting around a campfire in Africa trying to explain why your advanced civilized society purposely hurts their children’s brains.

Soar my eagles soar, the only thing that can stop you is you.