What happens to the children who don’t have “elite” public education

I’ve been griping about my and my children’s transition to a very high-rated public school. I still think my gripes are legitimate but even I, who am the whiney kind, recognize that it could be a whole heck of a lot worse. A friend of mine who works in a major urban public school district sent me the following report:

Sometimes the cost of educating vast numbers of children of illegal immigrants becomes frustratingly apparent. Children get moved from grade to grade but without knowing the basics.

Today I met with a nice 10 year old boy in the 5th grade. In his very low performing school in which most of the students are either illegal or the children of illegals themselves, he did not qualify as needing special ed, despite his poor academic performance. That’s because the rest of the school are at about the same level. Today he told me that he was having trouble in math and other subjects. He told me that he had to do a report for science and he chose to do a report on lunar and solar eclipses. I offered to help him a little.

Two days before the (not started) report was due, this is what I found. He did not know the definition of solar or lunar (despite the Spanish words sol and luna). He thought the sun went around the earth. He did not know that stars were suns. He did not know that the moon orbited the earth. He did not know that planets closer to the sun would be hotter than those farther from the sun. He did not have a visual concept of our solar system. He did not know that earth spun on an axis. He did not know that one orbit around the sun was one year. He did not know that planets farther from the sun took longer to complete their orbit than those closer to the sun. He did not know how many days were in a year. He did not know how many months were in a year. He guessed 8, then 6. I gave him a calendar. Turning the pages he counted 13 not realizing that page 1 had the 4 months of September through December preceding the new year. He did not know the 4 seasons or their climates, with the exception of the recent July and August. January he guessed was cold (the calendar had a snowy picture). February he guessed was hot. When asked why he thinks earth has life and the other planets don’t, he answered, “Because earth has things.” He hasn’t wondered about these things or asked.

He is not retarded. He is under-stimulated and exposed and in all probability has never been to a museum, concert, or for a hike in nature. His world consists of a few blocks. His mother can barely read in Spanish. She has been in the United States for at least 15 years and cannot communicate at all in the English language. He has an absentee father and a different father than his brother. His brother is a teen father. The baby receives insufficient nurturing by his immature parents (who are no longer together). The baby’s mother receives AFDC.

He is a nice boy, not yet a conduct problem, but without a trade program in our schools, without extensive tutoring after school because there is no one at home to help him with his schoolwork, what will his fate be? We subsidize this apalling “education” for thousands of kids whose families leave them unprepared for school, whose parents fail to model the importance of learning, and it is on our dollar.

My comment to this grim story, for what it’s worth, is this the above is a story that’s dreadful at all levels, whether it’s about the societal cost of illegal immigrants, the horrible job our schools do, or one nice little boy’s downward trajectory.

I thought my friend’s point about trade schools was interesting. I’ve always been a huge fan of the trade school idea and cannot figure out why we don’t have trade schools in. Why in the world should a kid who is decided non-intellectual, but who likes messing about with cars or building things, be consigned to years of failure in school, when he could be learning a useful trade. This is a real perversion of democracy to deny people a chance to better themselves based on some impractical, naïve idea that everyone can be marched through factory schooling and attain the same intellectual heights.

What are your thoughts?

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  • alex

    I live near a group of folks who claim to homeschool their children for religious reasons. I have no problem with that and in fact, think it could be a great idea.
    However, I had the opportunity to help one young man (17 on the cusp of 18) who came to me asking for help with “science”. Over the course of the next few hours, I found that he quite similiar to the boy above in knowledge. He had been given ONE science text book, that had no color pictures and was printed in the early 80’s and could be best decribed as a ‘survey of science’ (while discussing atoms, it had no table of the elements and no atomic diagrams. When I asked if he thought it was a good text book, he said: “It’s the only textbook we’ve been given.” The concept of ‘better’ had not occurred to him.
    Hoever, his parents had made sure that he had a manual labor job at age 16 and were encouraging him to take one a second full time job when he turned 18. They fully expect him to succeed on his own without even a GED, but he has virtually no hope of ever letting go of the shovel and grabbing a pen to make his wage.
    My point is, while a trade school can be quite an asset, especially for the student described, it can also be a prison where a perfectly bright child is condemmed to a trade that he may not care for at age 25. At that point, without a broad general education, what options does he have? How do we know for sure what kind of child we have until he has a chance to grow and learn? Maybe use a Euro type model, giving the high school age student an option to go to trade school but maintaining a uniform elementary system? Possibly.

  • Trimegistus

    We don’t have trade schools because of an unfortunate congruence of upper-class idealism and working-class pragmatism. Weathy liberals like the idea that everyone gets equal college-prep education. The idea of tracking offends their egalitarian ideals. Meanwhile people with skilled trade jobs don’t like the idea of trade schooling because training more skilled workers in the various trades cuts into their bargaining power and threatens their income. They’re still attached to the idea of apprenticeship.

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    Alex: I certainly don’t believe children should be channeled into trade schools immediately. I do think, though, that it is apparent by the time a kid is 15 or 16 whether or not they have an academic or more practical bent. At that point, it is almost cruel to keep the non-academic, practically-gifted child sitting in a class in which the teacher proses on about the visual symbolism in some vapid piece of post-modern literature.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    This brings to mind the idea that assimilation will win over the illegal immigrants, that the Democrats have. No, I think not given what I’ve seen.

    Education is an integral part of assimilation. If illegal immigrants are not getting high school diplomas and college bacheloriates, then they are in big and serious dog doodoo, and so is the rest of the country in a generation.

  • edenz

    I agree with you 100% about trade schools. However, I think that the main reason they are under-utilized and under-supported in the US is social status. Aside from Hollwood and athletics, the majority of high status careers required college and/or advanced professional degrees. Most people are aware, at some level, that it takes inborn talent (or at least genetic traits) to succeed in Hollywood or in athletics, and that if their child isn’t born with those talents there’s little they can do to advance their child in those arenas. However, people believe that anyone can become a doctor, lawyer, etc as long as they get the proper education.
    All parents want better for lives for their children than their own lives, and most people mistakenly equate ‘high status’ with ‘better’. Even if a child’s parents are doing very well in their trade school jobs, they still want the status of a college/professional trade for their children. Thus they push for a college prep education for their children, while at the same time imprinting their desire for a ‘high status’ life on their children. This leads to children who don’t want to attend trade school, even if they might do better their, because they also desire ‘high status’.
    In the book “Millionaire Next Door” the authors touch on this subject – pointing out how many of the self-made millionaires they studied (most owned ‘trade school’ businesses) pushed their children towards high status occupations and away from the occupations that had made them millionaires.

  • erp

    I don’t care if kids’ parents are legal or illegal immigrants or native born, the schools should know how to educate them the same as they did in the pre-1960 public school systems in the big cities like New York with kids speaking dozens of different languages. I was one of those kids who didn’t speak a word of English when I entered the first grade. Nobody “helped” me thank God — not at school — not at home. I was expected to learn the material and learn it I did and in passing, I learned to love learning.

    What is happening is a travesty and nothing like the truth is being told.

    Learning is the most fun of anything we can do. That’s why gossip, finding out what’s new, is so popular in every culture, so how much more fun is it to learn about everything in the world we live in.

    Kids want to learn. Since many of the parents are themselves unschooled, they can’t teach their children, that’s why we are paying a bloody %^*()&%$ fortune to the edbiz to teach our children, legal or not, English speaking or not.

    It’s time we demanded our grossly swollen educational bureaucracy do it or get out of the way. Remove the ridiculous teaching certificates designed to keep those with some actual knowledge out of the classrooms and let people who want to actually transfer information to eager young minds into the classrooms and then watch those kids sit up and learn.

  • expat

    A trade school would not have helped this boy because he hasn’t learned enough to order a new carburator on the web, much less adjust the electronics systems of a car. It would be better to offer more variety in elementary school classes so that hands-on learners wouldn’t feel dumb in a class of readers. Extracurricular activities could allow the different classes to contribute to a common project using their own special skills. The school year could be divided to allow project weeks. There are books on the science of cooking. There should be lots of ways to connect classic educational goals to the real life experience of kids.

    I recently saw a tidbit in one of the German news magazines about a US college offering courses for truck drivers using audios they can listen to on the road. Business courses and ones dealing with relationships were popular. I find this kind of innovation encouraging.

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    The kind of flexibility you describe, expat, is definitely a good idea.

  • expat

    I had the experience of spending a day at the one room elementary school attended by a cousin (no, it wasn’t Laura Ingalls, and it was in this century). How did these teachers do it? I suspect that it worked because they knew their kids–and their parents and grand parents.

  • http://www.NorthStarMartialArts.com Scott in SF

    You’ve been duped, that story isn’t true. It smells like fish! Either the kid didn’t go to school, and was just like laying around somewhere, or he had the worst teachers ever, or he actually is a retard. You can’t socialize with other kids without knowing that stuff, so he must have been a loner.
    I’m happy to let immigrants and the 15% of high school students who drop out on their own gumption, like bill Gates, do the manual labor. Trades, what trades? You’ve got to know math and science and how to write if you want to be any good at a trade like say Airplane mechanic, or Electrical engineer. Work in a factory is so unstable you’d be a fool to go for that. Carpentry, weilding, plumbing and roofing are still hot, but everybody with good English skills is either a forman or their working for themselves. For that you need skills and I don’t mean trade school skills. You guys are living in another decade.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Schools can only be as good as the parents and other taxpayers that support them. The solution to the situation you described is for citizens and taxpayers to retake power from the school boards and enforce accountability. Trade-school tracking is an awful idea that, in Europe, results in caste-based societies tracking segments of the population into social classes based upon their family backgrounds. A 15 year-old kid does not yet know where they will excel in life and neither does the State. You can’t stereotype educational achievement. I have met people from well-off, highly educated families that were functional morons (no, I am not speaking of John Kerry in this case, although…) and I have met self-educated people from modest families of no education that were positively brilliant (I once knew a fur-trapper in Colorado who could recite and debate the course of ancient Egyptian history in great detail. It was his passion). The U.S. education system should remain flexible enough to allow all citizens to find their own level in life…and to suffer the consequences for good or for bad. That’s called “freedom”.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Some people don’t like freedom, danny. What are you going to do with them?

  • Danny Lemieux

    Good point, YM. I have a small parrot that does not like being out of his cage. When we take him out for exercise, he looks for the first opportunity to fly back into his cage, where he is safe and guaranteed a meal. I agree, like my parrot, some people don’t like freedom and search for someone (the State) to take care of them. Freedom scares them. This is a weaning problem that is endemic to society (and even more so in Europe). So, what to do?

  • jg

    I enjoyed listening to all these comments. Here’s a jab at America from one opinion seen at the Belmont Club. ‘American technology is inferior to the rest of the world, and will be so for the future because of an inferior educational system.’

    Erp pointed out: “It’s time we demanded our grossly swollen educational bureaucracy do it or get out of the way. Remove the ridiculous teaching certificates designed to keep those with some actual knowledge out of the classrooms and let people who want to actually transfer information to eager young minds into the classrooms and then watch those kids sit up and learn.”


    One of the small state universities has (somehow) done what ‘erp’ suggests: bringing older, often semi-retired professionals into the classroom to teach in job oriented classes.
    This one newspaper account reported that the students loved the different atmosphere; the university saved bundles; and the part-time ‘teachers’ were excited by the opportunities to share what they’ve learned with young people.
    What’s troubling is that general public opinion seems complacent about America’s inferior educational system.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Teacher’s certificates are crazy stupid, let my tell you.

    Danny, I wish I had a time machine or just a quantum machine. You know how much fun I could have with that? I could explore every ramification and consequence of every plan, action, on a quantum level. The only question I would have with such tools and power at my disposal is, do I really want to know the solution when I will very likely not have the power to implement it? Or maybe with a quantum machine iwill have the power to implement it, by looking into probability cooridors.

    I always found history interesting because of looking at one guy’s actions that he did because of x, y, and z having ABCD consequences.

    One of the most interesting courses I had was AP Chemistry, the teacher being one of those teachers that would go to workshops at Tech and conduct teaching assignments. He chose to teach high School, and I benefited much from his wisdom and preparation. That course alone could have been called “College Preparatory 101”.

    He would lecture us on behavior, good work ethics, and all the things “we needed”. It wasn’t just the course work and balancing chem equations. He made it interesting and educational because he taught us why things “mattered”. Humans like to form connections and to practice what they have learned. Classrooms don’t focus much on practice, so you have to TELL people why they are learning things. This makes their brains actually work you know, like nature intended. Humans are good at solving problems if a problem crops us, it’s how we survived against those big predators.

    Most course work is just simple memorization, what exactly are you solving for anyways? You don’t even understand why you are learning this, how could you use it to solve any problem?

    People with real experience can come into the classroom and say “this is what you need to know because this is how it is in the real world, forget theory”.

    The old human instinct to listen to the battle scarred elder cause he’s been in a 100 battles while you are just a neophyte, still going strong.

  • http://www.kevincumblidge.com Kevin

    Most course work is just simple memorization, what exactly are you solving for anyways? You don’t even understand why you are learning this, how could you use it to solve any problem?

    Agreed—but while I’m qualified to be a teacher, and think I could be quite good as I do tutor children occasionally, I wouldn’t be able to deal with the NEA so I would never consider it. I think that until the power of the teachers union is reduced dramatically, the profession will predominantly attract those who know that they wouldn’t be able to make it in industry; the hope for attracting people with real experience, while a laudable goal, is going to be extremely difficult.

    I would like to see a program that enables professionals to take a two year sabbatical to teach middle or high school. We’re lagging in science and mathematics precisely because a majority of the current teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects and therefore they cannot instill the passion necessary for a child to successfully pursue these difficult paths.

  • Lulu

    Since Scott thinks this is made-up story he has probably been away from kids who start school not knowing the English language and with uneducated, often even illiterate parents, as this child did. Without any educational toys, after-school enrichment, inadequate teachers, unmotivated classmates, his level is sadly unsurprising. I suggest you volunteer at a school like his- 95% children of illegal immigrants, and see for yourself.