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Friday, October 19, 2012

How the Public School System is Failing Our Students

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

  I've recently learned that in North Carolina high schools, there are only two pathways of study: 1) the traditional curriculum 2) the Occupational Course of Studies (OCS).

Students must choose one of these paths in their freshman year and once they choose a path, they cannot go back and switch it. I think both of these pathways are very important and necessary, but it does have its flaws. Therefore, I believe this rigid system must be reformed and a third option available to students who truly fall between these two programs. 

We cannot claim to meet individual educational needs when we lump all students into two boxes and give them no other option. 

Such a system is rigid, unbending, and lacking. How do we expect our future leaders (those that spring from the middle class) to be prepared to compete in a global market when they are held back by "old school" concepts and thinking? Our students are capable of more if we don't fail them now. I'm speaking about the middle class because they are the ones who don't make enough to "buy" their way to wherever they want to go, but are too self-reliant to receive any government assistance, and still, most must rely on the public education system for their children and hope they've saved enough for college during the K5-12 years. 

The traditional curriculum is a curriculum requiring a certain number of classes that are designed to prepare students for university course work. These are the students who will be ready and prepared to take the SATs and other college entrance exams by the time they reach their senior year, if not before. Students on this curriculum path range from average performers to top performers and gifted performers. It's a huge range and it is the category that most people fall into. 

The Occupational Course of Studies is another great system for those who may have learning disabilities and special needs that may affect their ability to learn at the same pace as traditional students or in a limited capacity. They are required to take basic courses in the main subject areas, but then as early as their sophomore year will begin choosing occupational courses to prepare them to enter the workforce straight out of high school. The idea of this curriculum is that not everyone is meant to go to college, although some eventually attend college or at least a community college. They are required to have a number of hours where they are paid to work a job by 10th grade.

While both of these curriculum paths are good systems and necessary, I would like a third option. Too many students in the pool of the traditional curriculum are barely scraping by with low to medium performance and their grades and test scores show it. Some may excel in reading, literature, history and social studies, but struggle in math and science. Right now, the only other option is for students to be "identified" as having a learning disability, ADD, Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, delayed developments, or other health impaired. They need a "label" in order to get an IEP, an Individual Education Plan. This means they may stay on the traditional course of study, but certain things are modified so that they may take longer to complete tests, may have less homework by doing odd or even math problems, or they may have a block where they go to a special education teacher who may help them with their troublesome subjects. 

What happens to those students who are never "identified with a label" and continue to struggle with their weaknesses? Nothing. Their parents are left to either pay for private tutors or if they cannot afford it, they might be lucky enough to have a program in their school where they can receive tutoring from other gifted students, but don't be fooled into believing this is available in every school. Other students like my daughter, may have an IEP, but still require a little more one-on-one in one or two subject areas. Still, these IEPs have their faults, if the school system and/or teachers do not follow-through. 

For instance, my daughter's math teacher promised to help my daughter during her planning period, but her help consisted of parking my daughter in front of a video, and she left where my daughter had no opportunity to ask questions or discuss what she didn't understand. Geez, my husband and I could have parked her in front of a video. My tax dollars are paying that teacher to teach, even if she has to do her "planning" at home, just like I sometimes take work home. I often hear teachers complain of how many students they have and how hard their jobs are, and they do have hard jobs. I doubt few people would disagree with it, but other jobs are just as hard. Lots of people have plenty to complain about regarding their jobs, but they still don't get to use excuses if they fail to meet a deadline or their performance doesn't hit the mark. The excuses I heard for this were inexcusable when I confronted the IEP team.    

If a student continues to do poorly in one or two subjects, why should that student only have two courses of study available? It is very possible, that with a little extra assistance in 9th and 10th grades, that student will excel well on the traditional path in 11th and 12th grades. Why couldn't there be a middle path for the first two years of high school until it is certain that the student will not be able to transition into the traditional level? A lot can happen in the development of a teen between 9th and 11th grades. Why can that student not take traditional courses at a slower rate of learning or with a better student/teacher ratio for more individual assistance without being dropped to the OCS level, especially if that student still wants to go to college? 

The public system may claim they don't have the resources or funding for this, but believe me, the system will pay for it one way or the other. If students don't get the help they need now, the state will pay for it through other programs such as: 

1) Unemployment when they float from job to job because they never reach their top performance potential. 

2) Substance abuse programs because these people will become discouraged, frustrated, and lack confidence until they turn to other ways to cope. These are not good choices, but we all know it happens. 

3) Medicaid and other health programs because stress, depression, and frustration over a prolonged period of time will lead to other health and mental issues. Studies have proven it.

4) More students who have the same learning issues as their parents because their parents weren't able to help them because they were never able to help themselves will only continue the cycle through the next generation. 

5) Increased welfare and food stamp assistance because people who cannot perform at a high level paying job will eventually need help when they fall on hard times. They live in cycles from pay check to pay check and if anything goes wrong such as illness, divorce, car maintenance--all of a sudden budget and savings are depleted. They need help and always turn to the government when they hit a brick wall.

6) Child Care assistance because people will continue to have children whether or not they can afford them. They want families and they want to live the only life they have regardless of income level. 

It  is better to teach a man or woman how to fish than to keep giving them fish. We do this through education, from early education all the way to college. It begins at birth and it doesn't stop until they enter the workforce. Don't fail our students NOW before they have a chance to be who they were born to be and reach their top performance potential.  


Your article is so timely for me. My daughter is one of those students who falls in between and I'm currently at a crossroads with her education. She does have a physical disability but has always been in regular classes until now in 10th grade. She has been attending OCS classes for two weeks and enjoys the social aspect and not sprinting between classes in her wheelchair. Unfortunately she has gone from regular curriculum and homework to 1 question a night is her homework. I have been told its one or the other, regular or OCS regardless of the fact she can do the regular curriculum just not at such a quick pace. So do I sacrifice my daughter's education so she can be happy some students have time to talk to her or do I throw her under the educational bus and set her future goals low.

We understand your dilemma and are facing a similar circumstance ourselves. Our daughter is in the 9th grade. Right now we are electing to keep her in the traditional classes with her IEP modifications, but if it becomes too difficult we will switch her. I am so frustrated with our school system, that I am beyond words to describe my feelings. I hope and prayer you will be able to find a solution that will work for your daughter now and in the future.