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Standing Up for Average Students

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

Teacher/coach Tom Krause worries that real learning and the average student' s needs are getting lost in the pressures of greater accountability and assessments.

By Tom Krause

I am constantly telling stressed-out students to try to keep things in perspective. I make these statements as a way of easing the minds of many of my students who feel like they are falling behind expectations placed on them by society. Mandated statewide testing, college entrance exams, and demands for higher and higher grade point averages have raised the level of stress placed on many of our average students.

When I was in school, a C grade meant average or normal. A C letter grade of some kind was the most common grade given. Now if a student gets a C, it is almost looked on as below average. It seems to me that nowadays if you look at all the grades given in most high schools, you see very few C's. All I seem to hear about are A's, B's, D's, and F's. Just like the disappearing middle class, the place for the average student seems to be fading away in today's educational setting. The question is why? Are students different from 30 years ago or has something else changed?

These are some of the factors I think affect average students.

GRADE INFLATION DUE TO EXPECTATIONS

One problem is there is too much focus on state test scores and college entrance standards and not enough focus on the true level of the students.

Students mature at different rates due to age, sex, heredity, etc. I once taught elementary physical education. One of the body movement skills I would teach was skipping. I noticed that in first grade, almost all the girls could skip correctly while many boys had trouble switching legs while they skipped. The next year when I taught skipping, more boys were able to do it correctly. By third grade, almost all the boys could skip correctly just like the girls. I learned that the reason boys had trouble in first grade and the girls didn't was a matter of maturation rate. Some boys simply weren't ready to skip in the first grade.

Because I struggled with advanced math in high school, I waited until my senior year in high school to take geometry. Had I taken it as a sophomore, I don't think I would have passed it. Looking back, I can see were the extra two years of maturity I gained by my senior year help me overcome the obstacles I faced in that subject.

Students with low grades have admitted to me that in some of their classes, the material is simply too hard for them. When I asked them why they enrolled in that class, their response is because it is a requirement to get into college. Education should not be in the business of promoting frustration. Education should have learning as its ultimate objective.

Raising standards on students is a good thing, only if standards are raised based on where students actually are in their stage of development. Goals should be realistic. A sports team that only loses a couple of games during a season can realistically set a goal for an undefeated season the next year. For a team that has lost all its games during the previous season, the same goal of an undefeated season the next year is unrealistic.

ACCELERATION OF THE CURRICULUM

Often schools fail to instill fundamentals by not repeating the basics.

In fifth grade, I played for a basketball coach who spent 90 percent of practice time drilling fundamental skills. At the time, we didn't understand the reason for this. While he made us work on fundamentals such as left-handed lay-ups or dribbling with our eyes up, all we wanted to do was scrimmage. He would tell us that practice was not for play -- practice was his classroom. Adding to our frustration was that when we would play a game, we would lose to teams who didn't seem to be concerned about all this fundamental stuff.

His response after every game was, "Don't worry, boys. You keep working on the fundamentals and by the time you get to high school, you will run right by those teams." Our coach was right. By high school, our game was so much better because of fundamentals we had learned. Other teams that scrimmaged all the time and skipped over the fundamentals had basically the same game they had in fifth grade.

Learning fundamentals takes time and repetition. Once, my stepson, who was in first grade, came home from school with a math assignment that involved graphing. He needed to contact a number of people by phone, ask them a question, and chart the results. My question to him was, "Can you even subtract yet?" His response was, "No."

HOMEWORK MYTH

While I do believe repetition of the fundamentals is a key to learning. I do, however, have a problem with unsupervised homework. Homework should be changed to class work were the student has the teacher to help with proper execution.

I have talked to many students who have discussed with me their frustration about not learning anything in a particular class. "I don't understand the material. The teacher doesn't explain it to me," are common complaints students make. When I asked them what kind of grades they were earning, I was surprised to hear some of them say, B's, and in some cases, even A's. When I asked them how they could be an A student without learning, they said by copying other students' homework and getting enough points in the grade book to earn the grade.

I go back to coaching. How effective would I be (or how long would I last as a coach?) if I lectured in practice and mainly relied on the athletes to practice skills at home? In coaching, I take athletes through the drills with me right there to make corrections as they appear. If the athletes are not executing for some reason, I know immediately. By game time, I pretty much know how the team should do given the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents.

In a time when educational institutions always seem to worry about having to prove their worth to society, maybe the only real standard should be when students are asked, "Do you feel like you are learning?" and their responses are, "Yes."

With all the attention given to special needs and gifted students today, let's not forget about the average kid in the classroom who is fighting the classic battle of a "middle" child -- feeling overlooked. Let's make sure we give these average kids the solid foundation they need to continue to grow, and in many cases, reach beyond their abilities into their dreams.

Tom Krause is a motivational speaker and writer who has been an educator and coach in the Missouri public school system for more than 20 years. He is the author of Touching Hearts -- Teaching Greatness: Stories From A Coach That Touch Your Heart And Inspire Your Soul.

This article also appeared in The School Administrator.

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12/16/2004