In the Middle lies the Problem

This column, by Thomas Friedman, is the most emailed NY Times article today. His primary point is that the US’s economy is facing greater problems because of the poor education of so many of our citizens. On that point, I can wholeheartedly agree. However, I am not so quick to penalize teachers or public schools generally as Mr. Friedman might be. In fact, I greatly attribute my educational opportunities growing up to being the daughter of a fantastic teacher, in particular, being the daughter of a middle school teacher.

Why middle school, you ask? Well, because middle school is make it or break it time, in my opinion. Mr. Friedman points out that fourth graders in the U.S. perform on par with fourth graders (or similarly aged children) in other industrialized nations. However, by high school, the knowledge gaps between U.S. students and students from other developed countries are quite pronounced. What happens in between? Middle school. Herein lies the problem. Middle school education, for most American children is a joke. For most American children, you could probably take away grades 6-8 and put a graduating fifth grader into class with ninth graders and that 11 year old probably would be on par with the 14-15 year olds in terms of knowledge. I don’t blame the middle school teacher for that. What I do fault is the actual Middle School + the mentality of the average middle school student.

Here is the problem with middle school – kids suddenly become EXTREMELY image conscious in middle school. Suddenly, cliques are incredibly important. Clothes are really important. Cheerleading becomes really important. School dances can become really important. Popularity contests like student government associations become really important. The more important these trivial things become, the less important the actual content of courses are. Here is my simple equation, the greater the amount of time schools allow these ridiculous distractions to perpetuate, the less time students actually spend worrying about whether or not they are going to be able to get into the algebra class for eighth grade so they can study geometry in ninth grade. Then there are the middle school parents, don’t get me started on this (so much about who ultimately takes education seriously really has to do with who a student’s parents are…).

So this is where being the daughter of a middle school teacher (who taught at my school) helped me tremendously. I had always been a good student in elementary school, but so were lots of kids that today are working at Walmart cash registers across America. The fact is, in middle school, my peers saw my identity wrapped up in my position as a teacher’s daughter. Therefore, they already didn’t trust me. I was an outsider – I never fit into any of the cliques. The only people that consistently liked me in middle school were the other teachers and they liked me because I worked hard in their classes. This was an anomaly in middle school. I knew I could never win a popularity contest (lost every student election I ran for). What I could win was every poetry contest, every weekly science trivia game in Mr. Helton’s class, the stock market game in Mr. Gilmore’s civics class, etc.

This doesn’t mean that I had good relationships with all of my teachers. Quite the contrary – I once sabotaged a spring concert of my middle school band because I had a bone to pick with my band director. But that was in eighth grade, when I knew I would be getting out of that place shortly. The reason that I had courage to do something that brazen (willfully squeak my clarinet through a performance of Ritual for Band), was because by being the unaccepted teacher’s daughter, by the end of eighth grade I felt that I could claim my own identity this way. Sure the cheerleaders didn’t like me because I refused to let them copy off of my math tests and I got called Dougiette (after Dougie Howser, M.D.), but it turns out being rejected socially benefited me academically. It ultimately led me to reject the high school where my classmates would be attending in favor of the IB program at Pensacola High School, which was the best thing that could ever happen to my high school education.

I have my Mom to thank for that – a lifelong public school teacher. If these notions of merit pay ever live to see the light of day, the “merit pay” calculation for my mom probably will not take that into consideration. But it should. Her three daughters, all with advanced degrees and working in academics today should be all the evidence that any “merit pay” calculation should need.

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