When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now. 

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Learning Is A Beautiful Thing

img_0026A young woman that I know rightly noted that learning is a beautiful thing, and in the same breath wondered why our methods for conveying it garner such anxiety. We have somehow managed to take one of the loveliest aspects of being human and turned it into what is often an onerous competitive blood sport. In today’s world education is all too often a numbers game in which young people who are still developing are ranked and classified in life changing rituals that sometimes have the effect of changing the course of their destinies. It is a process that affects not only our students but also our teachers and our society. The attempts to quantify the learning process has ignored the more subtle aspects of people, and instead stamped them with life changing numbers that have the power of affecting where they will eventually work and how they will live.

The idea of joyful learning has become secondary to test scores and grades, often wringing the joy of schooling out of the equation. The message that we send our young is that education is a numbers game overseen by mega testing corporations and the College Board. The test is the thing, and those who learn in ways contrary to mastery of often trivial and subjective standardized questions need not apply. All too often the difference between an opportunity to follow a dream and condemnation to a lifetime of frustration is found in a rigid reliance on numbers, even as we somehow know that such things are incapable of truly determining the worth of someone’s talents.

As a small girl I was repulsed by situations that ranked me and my fellow students. The teacher who created a bulletin board with rockets bearing our names to identify those who were soaring to the moon versus those who crashed and burned at takeoff became loathsome in my mind. I understood that I knew how to please her, but that others also had great but different gifts to offer. I suppose that living with my brothers had taught me about the ways in which we grow and develop, not at a constant and linear rate, but in a kind of spiral with stops and starts. One of my brothers had a brilliant mathematical mind that was far advanced over the rest of us. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time that he was five. My other brother and I drifted here and there. As a people pleaser I was able to convince my teachers that I was indeed quite intelligent, but only by towing the line that they required of me. My little brother was more rebellious and thus often considered less likely to be successful. The truth was that he had a complex and creative mind that would eventually prove to be exactly what an entrepreneur needs.

Today the pressure to conform to the numbers game is more intense than ever. Students are ranked from the first day of high school. They are told that class standing and scores on entrance exams will determine whether or not they are allowed to enter the most prestigious universities and majors. They battle for the top spots by adding premium points to their GPAs with countless advanced placement classes. They worry about every little test, every rise or dip in their grades. They take courses to learn how to be better test takers. They eschew subjects that sound interesting or fun because they might cause them to fall in the ranks. Often they lose the joyfulness of learning in the process of pursuing their goals. School becomes an odious task that must be endured so that the future will be bright.

Even when they reach the hallowed halls of a favored university they may find themselves once again being sorted into the stars and the also rans. Competitions for internships and jobs are based more on grades than personalities and the kinds of traits that cannot possibly be measured with numbers. A single point difference shuts doors and opportunities. It is only after entering the real world of work that things like effort and creativity become marketable skills. An ability to work with a team is often more important than making the highest score on a test but such things are rarely considered in the world of academia.

People often ask me about my experience as an educator. In that capacity I literally taught people of all ages. My initial foray into the life of a teacher began with four year olds. By the time I retired I had worked with virtually every age group including adults. The one constant that I observed is that we each learn and progress at a different pace. Those who are the quickest to master a topic are not necessarily the ones who will ultimately do the best with it. My eldest daughter was fifteen months old before she walked, but on the day that she took her first steps she literally ran and then became a beautiful and graceful dancer. The fact that she took so long to walk upright had zero effect on the rest of her life. Thus it is with each of us. Learning is very personal and should be cause for joy, not anxiety.

One of the finest teachers that I have ever known devised a grading system that allowed for differences in the learning curve. If a student initially failed to master a skill he offered additional tutoring and then retested the individual and eliminated the failing grade, replacing it with the mark that celebrated success. His students adored him and often reported that they not only walked away from his class filled with knowledge, but they also felt more confident and willing to take new risks. They learned how to be resilient from him, and they found great joy in learning about topics that might have earlier terrified them. This is the way education is supposed to be but all too rarely is.

The young woman that I know is so right. Learning is a beautiful thing. Let’s hope that one day we will find a way to universally bring the joy to those who embark on the journey of becoming educated.

Finding My Way

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I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a kind of bubble. I lived in a neighborhood that I rarely left for anything other than visits to the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I walked to my school and had classes all the way through the twelfth grade with many of the same friends that I had known since the first and second grades. My life revolved around a regular routine that was carefully orchestrated by my mother. I felt safe, secure and loved, but frustrated by how little I knew of the world beyond the borders of the small area of southeast Houston where I lived.

My single parent family had no extra money to send me and my brothers to college, so it was up to us to find ways to pay for tuition and such. I worked hard in high school and graduated with enough honors to be recruited by a number of private universities including some that were rather prestigious, but most of the scholarship offers would still have left me scrambling for funds and wondering how I would manage to get from Houston to distant towns. When it came time to choose a university I felt that I needed to be in an environment far different from the one that had nurtured me in my youth. Somehow the University of Houston appeared to be the perfect solution, and as it turned out I was correct.

I found myself surrounded by a of diversity of people and ideas unlike anything that I had ever before experienced from the first moment that I stepped onto the University of Houston campus. It was a bit frightening and exhilarating at one and the same time. Even though the school was only a short drive from the place where I had lived for most of my life, it was a world away in culture. With its massive student body I literally became a number which I had to memorize to identify myself in the system. I was little more than a face in a crowd as I learned how to navigate the brutal registration process and the routes from one class to another. I had to grow up fast and toughen myself just to survive. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed.

I soon learned that nobody was going to coddle me at UH and that I would have to use my own voice to make myself known to my professors. I overcame the shyness behind which I had hidden myself for so long. I had to develop a willingness to be an advocate by stepping forward and speaking up. I found it to be a glorious experience, and a way to become the person that I truly wanted to be. I may have returned to my mother’s home each evening, but during the day I was exerting my independence and finding delight in meeting people from all over the world. It was an exciting time that was transforming me at warp speed. I was quite proud to know that I was capable of paying my own way and choosing the direction of my life without adults hovering over me. At the same time I realized that I was receiving an excellent education as well.

In the beginning I tended to assess the students with whom I attended classes with the very narrow lens of the restricted environment in which I had spent my childhood and teen years. Suddenly I encountered people of different races, religions, and socio-economic status on a regular basis. I found that it was a mistake to categorize them according to my preconceived stereotypes.

I particularly recall one of my first classes in which the professor paired me with a girl whom I would never have chosen to approach. She literally exuded beauty, wealth and confidence with her perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails, and expensive clothing. I had noticed her when she first walked into the room and I had felt somewhat in awe of her commanding presence. I had thoughts of dropping the class when I learned that my fate was to be tied to her for the entire semester. I assumed that she would feel the same about being with me, but I was so wrong. In fact, she became a dear friend, someone in whom I was able to comfortably confide my deepest thoughts. We not only worked together in class, but spent time riding around in the sports car that had been a graduation gift from her parents. She was open and kind and unspoiled. She taught me the important lesson of getting to know a person before making judgements about character.

I certainly recall the knowledge that I gained during my time at the University of Houston, but it was the experience of growing up that had the most impact in molding who I am today. I suspect that the process might have been less encompassing in another place. The sink or swim atmosphere was exactly what I needed even though it was sometimes daunting. I would eventually realize that there were people just waiting to help me if only I took the time to elicit their support. I learned the importance of reaching out to my professors, getting to know them so that they would know me. I began to network and expand my horizons into an ever more expanding circle.

By the time I was thrown into the real world I was both knowledgeable and capable. Virtually every aspect of my talents and character were ready for whatever I might encounter. The best part was that my own confidence and way of viewing the world had grown in ways that might never have happened had I not chosen the University of Houston. By paying my own way and mixing it up in a place akin to a small city I had toughened up and become a true citizen of the world in a very short space of time.

My life would be challenged before I even turned twenty one. I would have to be an advocate not only for myself but for my mother and brothers as well. Luckily I was prepared. Without going more than a few miles I had managed to ventured far away from home into an exciting world in which I became my own person.

The original charter of the University of Houston indicated that it would be a place of learning for the children of the working people of the city. It has sometimes been said that the school is best represented with by a set of blistered hands with the grime of hard labor under its fingernails. It is a no nonsense place in which none of the “isms” really matter. There are no walls at UH on which to grow ivy. It is a living breathing microcosm of the world as it really is. I suppose that’s why studying there meant so much to me.

The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

The Real Education

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I enjoy nothing more than visiting with my former students. Like a mama bear I want to know that they are doing well. Whether by way of Facebook or through lunch or dinner dates I keep up with many of the young men and women who were once students in my classroom, and I always walk away feeling quite proud of them.

Sometimes they are apologetic that they are not working in their field of study. I can tell that they worry that I will think less of them. What they don’t realize is that I understand all too well the serpentine routes that life and careers often take. I know how difficult it may be to find that sweet spot that makes waking up each morning something to enjoy rather than dread. In my own case it took until I was in my thirties before I was certain that I had indeed chosen the right kind of work. Even then it took a few more years for me to develop confidence in my abilities.

In college I changed my major so many times that I ended up with over one hundred sixty hours of course work. For the longest time nothing seemed to fit, and even when I neared my graduation date I was being lured by professors who thought I might be a good candidate for the creative writing major at my school or even for a degree in art, both tempting ideas. I finally had to tell myself that enough was enough and I launched a career in elementary education that actually never really gelled. My first position was in the intermediate grades teaching mathematics. I became sought after for my minor rather than my major and my one foray into the lower grades demonstrated that I was meant to be a teacher of older students. By the end of my career I was teaching high school freshmen and sophomores and loving every single minute of the day. Eventually I mentored teachers and found my real niche.

My husband was a sociology major who went into banking. His best friend, also a sociology major, went into sales. One of my brothers was a marketing major who became a firefighter. In fact, the vast majority of the people that I have known ended up doing things that might never have occurred to them had not some grand opportunity presented itself. For most of us the world of work takes many different twists and turns.

These days it’s more difficult than ever for college graduates to find jobs that ideally match their interests and coursework. It used to be that a liberal arts major was a great way of entering a wide variety of careers. Now such a degree is far less valuable and sometimes even those who earn honors in college find themselves working in jobs that they might have landed right out of high school. The days in which diplomas from universities were a sure thing are long gone, and it is quite distressing to young graduates. All too often they find themselves having to be incredibly creative and flexible in finding jobs unless they have extremely high grades and particular skills.

We hear a great deal about careers in the STEM fields but the reality is that the technology and engineering majors provide the best prospects for jobs while the science and mathematics positions often require more advanced degrees or special training. Many who earn diplomas in these very difficult fields find themselves falling back on careers in teaching which are sometimes not particularly satisfactory to them. because of this there are a few too many educators who are simply marking time until a better offer comes along and then they are quickly out the door.

I always recommend that young men and women be open to careers that push them a bit out of the boxes that they have created for themselves. I also want them to understand that in today’s world they will most likely find themselves continually seeking new educational opportunities. Things are changing so quickly that they will never be able to simply be content with what they learned in a distant past. They will be trained and retrained again and again. Much as with limits in Calculus they will slowly approach closer and closer approximations of what they really want to do but may never actually finish the learning process.

I have a student that I thought might one day become president. Four years at a school in Washington D.C. taught him that politics is a cut throat business in which he has no desire to engage. He is now coding software. Another student with a business major worked for a time in corporate America and actually did quite well, but he now uses his acumen in his own thriving furniture building business. A student with an accounting major is managing several companies for an entrepreneur. An architecture student is building and renovating houses. A psychology major is successful in real estate. In other words, so many of my students have learned that their degrees have taught them how to think and to quickly learn knew skills and ideas which they are parlaying into interesting professions that they never considered entering but they truly enjoy.

I would tell any young person to think of college as a stepping stone. The degrees that they have earned demonstrate that they are able to learn a variety of information and that they have a willingness to work hard, forego instant gratification, and complete projects in a timely manner. Those are invaluable abilities that will serve them well regardless of the kind of work that they ultimately do. Those who will be successful are the men and women who show up ready to work day in and day out. They learn something new wherever they go and use that information to continuously improve themselves. They are ready to take risks and give it their all. Getting the degree was just the training. The real education comes on the job.