Mandatory Opportunities

While I am at heart an anarchist, I admit that many rules are sensible. Wearing a seatbelt needs to be a law because some people don’t have the individual sense to preserve their own lives. And we’re all here together in the circle of life.

I said that wrong. I mean we’re all together in the spiral of ‘out of control insurance rates.’

What I object to are laws that are actually thinly-disguised ‘mandatory opportunities.’ Laws should protect us from people who hurt other people, not from ourselves.

Compulsory education is such a law. Up until the age of about fourteen, it makes sense to compel children to go to school. For one thing, some parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously, and their children might never get an education otherwise. For another, it gives everyone the basics. What they choose to do with those basic skills is a different matter. But we all learn to read, write, and do math. We all learn where Ohio is and how many inches there are in a foot.

Politicians talk a lot about education. They all have an answer, even though most of them haven’t been in a school for years. But nobody will touch the issue of compulsory education, a ‘mandatory opportunity’ for all kids, because America is supposed to be the country where all are educated, not just a select few skimmed off the top of the primary school vat. We don’t believe in ‘tracking’ kids by performance or ability — an educational class system. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, even those who drag their feet or sit down and refuse to budge.

What we teach kids is that there are no consequences. There is nothing a child can do that will get him or her kicked out of school permanently — until the age of eighteen, when they are dumped into a society that gives few second chances.

I believe in second chances. Messing up teaches us useful lessons. It forces us to take a realistic look at the consequences of our choices and look for an opportunity to fix what can be fixed. Instead of forcing kids all into the same mold, why don’t we provide other opportunities? Give a fifteen year old a few months of working at a minimum-wage job, and he just might return to school ready to learn.

If I were the education czar, I would create high schools for these returning students. Huge numbers of kids already drop out of school. Once out, they are no longer a problem of the school system, no longer part of our statistical Race to the Top. They have become society’s problem. How many twenty-three year old dropouts realize their mistake and wish they had a second chance? Give it to them — the best students are the ones who understand the value of education.

Meanwhile, they won’t be taking away choice from everybody else. A seventeen year old ‘child’ who refuses to respect authority, follow rules, or learn anything is hurting himself, of course, but he’s also messing up everyone else’s mandatory opportunity. About ninety percent of teacher time is spent dealing with about seven percent of students who misbehave or refuse to work.

And your children – the ones quietly sitting there while the teacher removes a kid for cussing her out, the ones who do their homework and raise their hands to ask questions, the ones who stay after school or come in early to get the help they can’t get during class — your children are the ones who lose. Not only are their math scores lower than the scores of kids living in Japan and India, they are also bullied and harassed by the same kids who disrupt class.

Kids in other countries know that if they mess up and get kicked out of school, their opportunities for success diminish. Only in America do we let children believe that they can be or do anything, regardless of how hard they work, regardless of their ability or talent. They never learn the odds, and go out into the world expecting the world to recognize and reward their specialness.

Failure is Not an Option — as long as fantasy is an alternative.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. theteachingwhore
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 23:34:54

    What an awesome column–especially that last line. I definitely believe in the opportunity to fail. Some schools have a ZAP program, which is something about Zeroes aren’t permitted. Why the hell not? Sometimes the students who fail end up being the ones who then progress the most after that failure. We need to get tougher about kicking out kids who do nothing but displace molecules in the room or cause trouble. But schools are pansies.


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