Warning: Your average kid won't make it here

“John Dewey,” who’s training to be a math teacher, thinks his child’s high-scoring suburban high school shouldn’t count out average students. The new principal sent a letter to parents that suggests that smart, motivated, mid-bell-curve students will flop.

The “Middle Child” is the type of student who does not feel at home at Langley because, while they may be smart and academically focused, they are not academically superior like many of their peers. Nor are they outstanding in extracurricular activities. This student does not enjoy the prospect of coming to school to face the intense competition, which is ubiquitous in excellent schools, only to be disappointed.

The principal hopes for dialogue on what to do about these non-outstanding students.

Dewey wants to hear: “Every child matters; every child is as important as the next.” He wants to see “a culture in which students who aren’t getting the material are identified and the school works with them after school or in special sessions to make sure they understand.”

It’s a little frightening to hear that there’s no place for B students at a large public high school. What about C students? What about the not-so-smart, not-so-motivated students?

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Well – hopefully – they’ll be inspired by their peers to work hard and do their best. And hopefully their teachers will treat them as valuable individuals no matter what their grades are.

    Hopefully…

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    Instead of focusing on achievement, perhaps they could focus on effort?
    Isn’t there internal satisfaction in taking on a difficult challenge and doing your best, even if your best isn’t being in the top 50% of the class? Shouldn’t this principal be trying to create on atmosphere that demands the best from each student regardless of their class ranking and congratulates them on their individual effort?

    My observation is that people, whether really smart or only average, who are the hardest working are generally the most successful. Also, what about identifying meaningful activities that aren’t about achievement at all? Don’t we want well rounded whole people able to balance academic and sports achievement with involvement in a spiritual life in their communities?

    Achievement my get these high performers into Ivy League schools and lucrative professions, but it won’t necessarily guide them into meaningful lives.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    People should understand that Langley is the kind of school where the parents will be viewed as failures if their children end up at a university outside of the US News Top 100 and havng your child attent acommunity college would be considered child abuse.

    Children who are not competative would probably not enjoy the school year anymore than an average kid ending up at Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, Virgina.

  4. So at Langley, all children are above average?

  5. Children who are not competative would probably not enjoy the school year anymore than an average kid ending up at Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, Virgina.

    So you’re saying there’s nothing the administration could do at Langley to address the needs of students who are not destined for Harvard?

  6. I don’t know about Langley, is it a public school? If so, is this an attempt to scare lower achievers away from the school? This would no doubt raise the ranking of the school, which could only help the principal’s career.

    To me, it seems the principal is essentially arguing for streaming by school. (i.e. He doesn’t know of any way to educate two unequal groups of students equally well at the same school.)

    So you’re saying there’s nothing the administration could do at Langley to address the needs of students who are not destined for Harvard?

    The principal *seems* to be saying that the school’s core mission is to address the needs of the high achieving students, and that he’s unwilling to sacrifice that focus in order to better meet needs of students outside that group.

    It seems a fine philosophy for a private school (choose your market and serve it well) and a pretty bad philosophy for a public school (where you’re handed your market and you don’t have the right to ignore any significant segment).

  7. If high school is going to be focused on careerist competitions–and I almost never hear anymore strong arguments that it could be or should be focused on anything else (such as giving every student a strong understanding of who we are as a people, or ensuring every student can think clearly about moral questions) then I suppose we will do away completely with the notion of a common school and expedite getting kids into their competitive niches, which will correspond to an unsettling degree with their social class.

    In the market state which is replacing the old nation state, we only need to worry about ourselves. The narrowly educated smart kids who will end up governing us are not really going to do a very good job.

    It won’t work and it won’t last, but it appears likely that it will take cataclysm to change people’s thinking. There are educational approaches that could save us the horrors of learning from our own experience, but we have neglected them.

  8. Does this particular high school practice selective admissions? If so, then the principal’s attitude is understandable (though tactlessly put). The “middle” child is simply not cut out for the rigor and competition of an elite school such as Stuyvesant in NYC, Boston Latin, or Lowell in S.F.

    However, if this school is open to all students residing within the zone, then it is outrageous for him to be writing off a substantial percentage of his student population.

  9. Langley is a public high school. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand (which someone referred to) is public but has a selective admissions policy. It is a magnet school, and the students have to get a qualifying score on an entrance exam. Those students want to be there. At Langley, you don’t have a choice if you live within certain geographic boundaries. Believe me, there are a number of parents who would much much rather see their children at McLean High School but they live in the Langley District. McLean High school, while not number 55 in the Newsweek rankings, is still pretty respectable by that measure, and doesn’t seem to have its principal wringing his hands wondering what to do about the “dumb” kids, which is a blunt translation of what Ragone was saying in his letter.

  10. Maybe they should implement a voucher program for inter-district transfers.

    And Stacy, When you’re getting your house remodeled be sure to let the contractors know you pay for effort, not achievement.

  11. I could be all wrong here, but my best guess is that Ragone just doesn’t know how to be diplomatic. He lacks some social skills that he ought to have for that job. In other words he put his foot in his mouth. I can relate to that. I’ve done it often enough myself, usually with the best of intentions. I can read the offending paragraphs to mean exactly what we want to hear, that every child matters, and that he and his teachers care. Indeed, as I read it, that is exactly what he is saying. Obviously he is not saying it well, as a lot of people are reading elitism and rejection into it. But I don’t get from his words that he is counting anybody out, or predicting failure, or rejecting anyone.

    Apparently he has a tin ear for diplomacy, as probably do I. If somebody could explain analytically what is going on here I would appreciate it. Explain how his words are interpreted, and why, and how he should have said that he cares about the “middle student”. Parse every phrase. I’d really like to understand this.

  12. Stacy in NJ says:

    Mrs. Davis, I’ve already had my house remodeled. Thanks for you’re advice, though. I think there is a real difference between commodities (home construction) and learning achievement, and between adults in the working enviornment and children in school.

  13. superdestroyer says:

    To let anyone in on Fairfax Virginia. If parents are not willing to pay for private music lessons, the children are wasting their time in band or orchestra. If the parents did not have their kids on travel sports teams and pay for soccer/lacrosse/field hockey/baseball/golf lessons and summer camps, the kids are probably wasting their time in sports.

    In Fairfax, every strip center has a SAT cram school to help people get their scores higher. The state of Virginia is open about holding Fairfax and Arlington county students to a higher admission standard to William and Mary, UVA, and VaTech than the rest of the state. The WAshingotn Post had a story this year about a high school student in Fairfax who had a 1400 (math and verbal) SAT test who could not get into UVA or VaTech because he had a “C” as a freshmen.

    What the princple is saying is that students who would settle for C’s at Langley are probably wasting their time and will be at the bottom of their class.

  14. Mike Curtis says:

    It is most pragmatic to set high standards in school and let everyone know that they should strive to exceed them.

    To put this in perspective: Would you take your car to a repair shop that had a reputation for working real hard and almost fixing the problem? Do you want your chest opened up by a doctor who worked real hard at being a “C” student and who possibly earned his credentials based on partial credit? Would you like to see your Astronaut nearly hit the moon?

    “A” students are rarely gifted…they just work harder than the rest.

  15. “Academically superior” and “outstanding in extracurricular activities” are relative terms. For there to be some kids who are academically superior, or outstanding, there must be some kids who are “academically normal” or “ordinary at extracurricular activities”. This is true no matter what the entrance criteria for the school are; as long as skills are distributed accordingly to a bell-curve the most rigorously selective school in the country is still going to have a few kids who are academically superior to the rest.

    And thus it makes sense for any school to think about serving its non-superstars. Since it’s always going to have them.

    It is most pragmatic to set high standards in school and let everyone know that they should strive to exceed them.

    Indeed. But unless you are going to argue that kids are equal in academic ability and focus, there are always going to be kids who exceed them more than other kids do.

    To put this in perspective: Would you take your car to a repair shop that had a reputation for working real hard and almost fixing the problem? Do you want your chest opened up by a doctor who worked real hard at being a “C” student and who possibly earned his credentials based on partial credit? Would you like to see your Astronaut nearly hit the moon?

    Not relevant. There is always more to learn, and it is always possible to be better. Not everyone can take their car to the best mechanic in the best repair shop in the country. Not everyone can have their chest opened by the best surgeon in the country. I’m quite happy to take my car to a competent mechanic, and I just have to live with the knowledge that I’m unlikely to get the attention of the best doctor. The question of landing on the moon is an absolute goal: any number of people can achieve at that. Not everyone can win a medal at the Olympics 100m sprint, and not everyone can be “academically outstanding” by the standards of a certain school.

  16. there is a real difference between commodities (home construction) and learning achievement, and between adults in the working enviornment and children in school.

    Sorry your remodel turned out to be a commodity. Mine is an achievement, a work of art, that perhaps only the workers and I will truly appreciate; but one that gives my life great joy every day as I use it.

    The difference between children in school and adults is that the children should be being educated to be effective adults. Achievement is difficult without effort. But effort does not guarantee achievement. Rewarding children for effort and not achievement does not prepare them for the adult world.

  17. Um. Okay. Somehow this essay is functioning as a Rorschach ink blot for the commenters. I read the principal’s letter as an acknowledgement of something which is an open secret among the teachers, if not the parents, at this high school. I couldn’t find the letter online, but I did look at a year-end letter. The children at this high school seem to knock the ball out of the park in national contests. Here are two items, chosen from the June newsletter (I removed the students’ names, for their privacy. But, note the numbers!):

    “We also received the results of the National French Contest in which 100,000 students of French competed on the national level, of whom 19,000 were from our region. Congratulations to (NINE!! students) for ranking among the top ten in the nation and in the region. Bravo to all the students who participated!

    Newton Mathematics contest: The following students participated in a mathematics competition in March at George Washington University and were recognized at a banquet hosted by the World Bank on May 15: (16 students). Congratulations to these students and their parents for their success in mathematics outside of the classroom.”

    This is the result of what the author of _The Big Sort_ recently outlined. It is ridiculous to look for reaction from a principal in Iowa. Iowa’s demographics are nothing like the demographics of Fairfax Virginia, an area which draws many highly educated professional parents, who place a huge emphasis on academics.

    The principal is not stating that the “middle student” isn’t smart. As a matter of fact, the middle students at Langley might be the top of the heap at another school. As a parent, I don’t want to be given platitudes, and I certainly don’t want a school to hold back kids who can achieve, and who want to achieve.

    A certain degree of self-selection will affect school culture. It is right and fit to have a dialogue about this problem. It isn’t caused by the school administration, it’s caused by the real estate choices of thousands of upwardly mobile parents. Don’t blame the messenger because you don’t want to hear the message.

  18. “Sorry your remodel turned out to be a commodity. Mine is an achievement, a work of art, that perhaps only the workers and I will truly appreciate; but one that gives my life great joy every day as I use it.”

    Mr. Davis, When you attempt to sell your home, if you ever do, tell the potential buyers that your remodel is a work of art.

    “The difference between children in school and adults is that the children should be being educated to be effective adults. Achievement is difficult without effort. But effort does not guarantee achievement. Rewarding children for effort and not achievement does not prepare them for the adult world.”

    You’re making big leaps in logic here. I never suggested that they ONLY reward effort. I suggested that for those students, unlikely to achieve at the hightest levels, in a very competitive environnment, that emphasizing their very best efforts could be an added focus.

    In my middle-class world, very few people are super achievers, many are hard workers.

  19. The real shame is that there can’t be more magnet schools like Thomas Jefferson in places like NoVA. At the top Fairfax high schools, the teachers struggle to accommodate both the motivated and below average students with only mixed success. When I moved here, my son transferred from a private school to the local “top” public. There’s a lot of talk about how “tough” the top 3 or 4 Fairfax schools are, but the reality is that there’s a lot of busywork, and a clear separation between the high achievers and the unmotivated. If you have reasonable work habits, straight A’s are easy to get — at least compared to a good private school. The forced compromises frustrate both weaker and stronger students. Only more tracking and even more vigorous academic segregation can solve this mismatch.

  20. John Dewey and his child’s principal have obviously hit a nerve. I agree with Joanne, who wonders at the end of her post, if “…there’s no place for B students at a large public high school. What about C students? What about the not-so-smart, not-so-motivated students?”

    The principal’s defeatist tone is inappropriate — regardless of his intentions. As a parent and educator, I understand exactly why Dewey is so ticked off.

    It’s about sending the right messages and setting the appropriate tone for an academic institution required to serve all students. He has failed miserably. Like a previous commenter, I don’t want administrators to feed me and my fellow parents pablum or act like Pollyanna — but I also don’t want them to assume a position of defeat that accepts as “the way it is” that middle-performing kids will come to school unhappy and feel unsuccessful.

    Hopefully Dewey’s principal will think twice before sending out the next missive. Or at least get a PR person.

  21. It is right and fit to have a dialogue about this problem. It isn’t caused by the school administration, it’s caused by the real estate choices of thousands of upwardly mobile parents.

    In other words, he’s blaming the students who do not fit in for not fitting in.

  22. Achievement is difficult without effort. But effort does not guarantee achievement. Rewarding children for effort and not achievement does not prepare them for the adult world.

    Oh dear, I feel so terrible. My 24-year old brother had a bad accident, and had to learn to walk again. And you know what ghastly things my family did? We celebrated the first time he walked two steps without aid! Then we celebrated the first time he walked down the corridor without aid! And then we celebrated the first time he walked upstairs without aid! How could we have been happy with such paltry achievements, when your average 24-year old can walk for miles without pausing! What messages did we send to our younger cousins?! And you know what, even though he still can’t walk as long as I can, I am still so thoroughly unenlightened as to be awestruck by the amount of effort he has put into working through his disabilities.

    And I will say that I wish I had been obliged to put in more effort at school, rather than just being rewarded for achievement regardless of effort. I spent years achieving very easily, university came as a vast shock. Ideally, we should set goals that are a stretch, but are also achieveable, for every kid.

  23. Richard Brandshaft says:

    You need to be careful what average you’re talking about.

    “I had no pretensions about becoming a scientist (having been graduated near the bottom of my class at the Bronx High School of Science…” William Safire reminisced (New York Times, January 24, 2005).

    But that would have been at the bottom of the brightest kids in New York public schools at a time when New York schools were very good. Mr. Safire had to have been smarter than I was to have been in the Bronx High School of Science in the first place. (I went on to get an electrical engineering degree and made a living as a computer programmer.)

  24. “In other words, he’s blaming the students who do not fit in for not fitting in.”

    That’s your interpretation. I don’t think any amount of face-saving happy talk will change the experience of students who are smart, academically oriented, and are under great parental pressure to excel in school, but who are competing with academic superstars. I would call it exceptional to have NINE of the top TEN finishers in the National French Contest in ONE school. For most high schools, to have one kid finish in the top 1900, that is, the top 1% would be a great achievement.

    These aren’t students who don’t “get it.” The principal describes them as “smart and academically focused,…[but].. not academically superior.” These are relative terms, especially “academically superior.”

    I suspect this is more about the intense competition at the top of the class. Parental expectations and pressure will play a role. _The Overachievers_, and _Doing School_ , might be introductions to the extreme stress the nation’s very best students may feel.

  25. Oh dear, I feel so terrible. My 24-year old brother had a bad accident, and had to learn to walk again. And you know what ghastly things my family did? We celebrated the first time he walked two steps without aid!

    You celebrated an achievement, not an effort, which was well and good. But I’ll bet he didn’t get to that point by practicing with the UCLA track team.

    As your next paragraph indicates, you need to compete in your class.

    Nice tear jerking snark, though. Glad you made the effort.

  26. I don’t think any amount of face-saving happy talk will change the experience of students who are smart, academically oriented, and are under great parental pressure to excel in school, but who are competing with academic superstars.

    I’m not asking for “face-saving happy talk”. I think Cheryl VT said it best: “I also don’t want them to assume a position of defeat that accepts as “the way it is” that middle-performing kids will come to school unhappy and feel unsuccessful.”

    I erred in my interpretation of your remark: “It isn’t caused by the school administration, it’s caused by the real estate choices of thousands of upwardly mobile parents.”

    You and the principal are blaming the parents, not the students.

  27. I’m not blaming the parents. I’m observing the tendency for upper-income, highly educated professionals to cluster in a comparatively small number of school districts. Most families choose to settle in the very best public school district they can afford. Near large, important, cities, the public high schools can have very able student bodies.

    I seem to remember that Joanne Jacobs posted a few years ago about families moving away from a superb high school in California (Palo Alto? near Silicon Valley, at any rate), because the competition was too intense.

    Near my town, local high schools have chosen to deal with the issue of academic competition and bruised self-esteem by no longer publishing an honor roll in the newspaper. I don’t think that solves the problem, and causes other problems. There is something “off” about an academic institution which will not publicly recognize its leading students.

    I don’t think it’s a blame game. I think it’s the attempt of a courageous, new principal to tackle an issue which may be the “elephant in the room” in that district. It’s healthy to open a dialogue about school problems, rather than to impose a solution, or to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. It is probably better to say to the school body as a whole, “we have some unhappy students, and it’s not adolescent malaise, nor is it because they don’t work hard enough.”

    One way to solve the problem would be to institute admissions criteria, to turn it into an exam school, for example. That would be bowing to the existing demographics. Or, the school could institute strict limits on the number of AP courses students may take, and the amount of homework teachers may assign. The school could also do away with class rank, or substitute something like, “first decile” etc. None of these options would be popular, of course.

  28. superdestroyer says:

    gnn,

    Considering that it takes a 94 average to get an A in Fairfax, Virginia there are few Straight A students. You can look up the straight A honor rolls at most schools and they have few students on them. there have been complaitns from parents that the grading scheme hurts students when applying to college since their cumulative GPA is lower. Also, Fairfax does not rank students in their class. This limits the amount of gaming the system that students can do.

    Langley has a school average of over 1200 on the SAT. The SAT average is significantly higher than the Catholic prep schools in Northern Virginia. However, Langley still lags behind Thomas Jefferson but is ahead of the rest of Fairfax County.

  29. Another data point: my own public high school here in the suburbs of New York City. Also highly ranked, also filled with the children of well-educated, high-achieving parents.

    By all accounts, the high school here is a happy place, and I can see that myself, having had one SPED son attend the school for 7 years. Parents give credit for this to the principal, who deserves it. The person at the top really does set the tone.

    How does he do this?

    Interesting question. One of my kids is now attending a Catholic high school that is such a happy place the word “joy” probably isn’t too far off; the school is joyous and strict. At least, that’s the way it seems thus far.

    Putting the two schools side by side, I’ve begun to see common practices.

    For one: both schools plan orientation activities that have the effect of “inducting” freshmen into the school community. The Catholic school actually stages a formal ceremony in which seniors present freshmen with a special Freshman pin they are to wear on their blazers.

    For another: both schools foster “class cohesion.” The public high school, for instance, holds “color wars” every year. I gather that each class has its own color, which students wear in a competition that takes place one day a year. Students rave about it.

    The Catholic school bestows a new pin upon students each year, so that by their fourth year they will be wearing a string of four pins across their breast pockets, somewhat like military insignia.

    In short, both schools intentionally foster a group or community identity that softens the reality of individual competition for class rank and college admissions. Thus students develop a degree of commitment to each other as well as to their own work.

    The Catholic school also directly addresses the issue of individual competition with the kids. (It’s possible the public high school does, too — I don’t know.) The athletic director gives students a pep talk about how to handle not making the football, basketball, or baseball teams. His advice includes both an inspirational story about a kid who was cut one year but went on to be a star player the next AND the matter of fact observation that, “Everyone gets cut at some point. I thought I would play pro XXXX, but I got cut.”

    Another example: one of my son’s teachers told his class, “You’re not battling each other, you’re battling the course.” By this he meant that he doesn’t grade on a curve. “If you work hard,” he said, “you can get an A. I want everyone to do well. I want everyone to get an A.”

    Last school year my son attended the Catholic school for one day to see what it was like. As luck would have it, he was present on the day report cards came out. Students were handed their report cards in person, inside their small “mentor groups,”and they seem all to have known each other’s grades. The boys congratulated the two kids who had achieved “High Honors”; one student who hadn’t done so well told the group what he planned to do better next semester. Then they put away their grades and turned to a service project they do each year for a local nursing home.

    From what I have seen so far, this school hits all the notes. It pushes students — all students — to strive for excellence, teaches them to take disappointments in stride, and has them rooting for each other, too.

    All for one, and one for all.

    final thought: Students can’t do this on their own, and parents can’t do it from afar. The school must set the stage.

    …………….

    Before signing off, I’d like to make a comment about what the principal did or did not mean.

    None of us can know for a fact what his intentions were.

    That really doesn’t matter. We do know for a fact that many of us read his words as defeatest.

    It is the writer’s responsibility to make his meaning clear. If the principal did not mean to create the impression(s) he did, he needs to apologize for the misunderstanding and clarify his intentions.

    As for me, I share John Dewey’s reading; I also agree with parent2 that his message is (likely) an open secret amongst teachers and administrators. But that is the problem. As Tracy points out, all schools (including selective schools) have bell curves. If academic competition in this school is so “intense” that the vast majority of students don’t enjoy the “prospect of coming to school” that is a serious state of affairs. It is the kind of thing a professional administrator ought to have some notion how to address.

    I have to wonder whether the “Middle Children” in this school are achieving all they could be.

  30. Mrs. Davis

    As your next paragraph indicates, you need to compete in your class.

    Which, by having enough classes, is tantamount to rewarding effort. The point about this school is the students getting left behind *are* the class, or one of the major classes.

    Nice tear jerking snark, though. Glad you made the effort.

    Snark? It was a perfectly apt analogy. I’d say the only snarky comments on this thread have been your sarcastic and slightly rude comments to Stacy.

    When you’re getting your house remodeled be sure to let the contractors know you pay for effort, not achievement.

    I hope that craftsmen who find that their substantial effort does not lead to above average results leave the field.

    I *really* hope that students who find that their substantial effort does not lead to above-average results do *not* leave school.

    Rewarding children for effort and not achievement does not prepare them for the adult world.

    If you want children to continue to make an effort and thus eventually achieve, rewarding effort is *exactly* what you do. (Or, if you prefer, placing children in their appropriate class so their achievement is a considered sufficient.)

    Of course, in reality, we reward both effort and achievement, letting students know (if by some miracle it’s not crushed into them thoroughly before) where they stand in the as a whole, while rewarding achievements appropriate to their capability.

    By staking out the far end of the spectrum, Mrs. Davis, you risk making yourself look like an ideologue.