Oct 30, 2011

One Size Never Fits All

Image Credit: Flickr/Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)

This week a struggling high school student visited my alternative program asking about how to enroll himself. In a nutshell, here is what he said:
  • I am a senior and I really want to graduate this year.
  • I struggle with reading and writing, but when I ask for additional help from my English teacher she tells me that she's already explained things to the whole class and she doesn't have time to explain it to me again.
  • I am really, really good at math. My teachers just need to show me how to do a problem once and then I can do it in my head. But I've flunked almost all of my math classes because I don't show my work; or when I do, I don't do the problems the same way as the teacher wants them.
  • My school seems to think that one size fits all when it comes to learning...but their ways of teaching don't fit me! I wish I could go somewhere where I could test out of math classes and get extra help in English. I wish I could go somewhere that offered more hands-on learning because I learn better when things are hands-on.
I was so impressed with this student's self-awareness and motivation! He wants to graduate, he knows his academic areas of weakness and his academic strengths, and he knows how he learns best. These are all qualities that will benefit him greatly in the world of work. But in a traditional school setting, those same qualities are forcing him to consider dropping out or getting a GED. There is something very wrong with this picture!

This student is exactly the kind of student I recommend for enrollment in my alternative program---but due to constraints of the educational system, he cannot enroll.  Why? 

The student who visited me does not attend one of our partnering schools.  We are an alternative program not an alternative high school. This means that we do not offer our own high school diploma; instead, we partner with traditional high schools in our area. They dictate the graduation requirements for their students and provide funding to support our offsite program. When students have met all graduation requirements, they receive a traditional high school diploma from their home school.  If this student attended our program, any work completed in our program would be worthless because it would not count toward a high school diploma from a partnering school. 

Why doesn't the school just partner with our alternative program so that this student can earn a diploma? In this case there is one main reason: the school the student is enrolled in has its own alternative program. They don't want to send someone to another district when they have their own alternative classroom. The problem is that their alternative program only offers computer-based instruction for at-risk students. Their alternative program adopts a "one size fits all strategy" that is different from the traditional school's strategy, but still only offers one style of learning for all of the kids enrolled.

It is frustrating for this student to know that there is a program like mine that would offer him choices when it comes to learning, that would offer him more one-on-one assistance if he needs it, and that would allow him to graduate on time with his class--but he can't enroll because he doesn't live in the right district. It is frustrating for me to see a kid who so clearly exhibits qualities that will make him a successful adult, who is motivated to do what it takes, but might not graduate because of school finance and residency issues.

A lot of people talk about school reform. A lot of people talk about issues relating to teachers and how they are paid, about standardized testing and failing schools. But what about the kids? Where is the ed reform plan that focuses on the kids? The student who visited me is one of many, many kids who want to learn, but feel lost in the system. No amount of standardized testing or teacher salary-adjustments will help him be successful in our current educational system. At what point do we stop trying to fix the small stuff and realize that it's time for a system-wide change? 

In my dream world, that student would walk into our school building and be welcomed with open arms. Home address and financial partnerships between districts wouldn't matter. A kid wants to learn and a school wants to help him--that's all that should matter. How can we make that dream come true?

Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker


  1. This makes me sad for the student and angry at the system. I understand that no system is perfect. I also understand that cookie-cutter education falls short of meeting the needs of the youths who are in most need. I'm not so worried about the mainstream student population, but ones like this who will end up falling through the cracks. Shame on us.

  2. The worst part is that I know how much you could help this kid. Even better, I know that these kids are a teacher's dream to a certain extent. Can you even imagine him in a computer-based instruction situation. That sounds like a nightmare for this particular student. This is the community college professor in me, but do you know if this kid has plans beyond HS? He might be better off getting his GED, and then taking one or two English remedial courses at the local community college. They don't count as credit towards an associate's degree, but they would prepare him for whatever would be next. I've had some great students who got GEDs instead of dealing with high school. I even have a friend who went to a really tough school (drugs, gangs, and violence), got his GED, and ended up getting his Ph.D. in statistics of all things.

  3. Lonna, the first thing I suggested was that he get his GED and enroll in community college. I think he will make a great college student and a great worker! He said he wants a h.s. diploma, not a GED. So then I suggested that he enroll in the adult h.s. program that is housed in the same office as the GED program and told him I'd help him with English after school. That won't work either because while the adult h.s. program is free for people over 21, it costs about $125/class for anyone under 21. Students aged 17-21 have to transfer the credits back to the traditional h.s. in order to get a diploma. Community colleges are not allowed to grant h.s. diplomas (don't know if this is an Iowa thing or a NCLB thing.) If I talk to him again I'm going to tell him that "a community college prof thinks GED is the way to go." Maybe you'll be an influence from afar! He just needs to get on with his life and h.s. is all that is holding him back. (Isn't that a sad thing to say about the state of education?)

  4. You're right, Ezzy. The mainstream population will be fine in almost any system, but it's those at the top and the bottom who suffer most and fall through the cracks. We do a really poor job of working with kids who are non-traditional--gifted or struggling--and the thing is that the most effective ways of working with both groups are similar and would benefit ALL kids. We just need a system overhaul!

  5. Poor guy. He should be rewarded for being so self-analytical. CCs can't give out diplomas. The best we can do is dual enrollment, where they get HS credit and college credit, but that HS has to be on board with that and he has to go through official channels. That's done differently in each state, and I didn't deal with that at all when I was Iowa State. I see so much apathy, that it pains me to see a student who isn't apathetic not be able to meet their goals. 


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