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Friday, February 22 , 2019, 2:43 am | Fair 42º


Paul Burri: No Child Left Behind?

The so-called educational system, designed to foster mediocrity, is not a new phenomenon

I’ve been reading all about the No Child Left Behind fiasco lately, and frankly, I’m not surprised it was a disaster.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

Why? Because in an attempt to ensure no child was left behind — certainly an admirable goal — it created a system in which one of two things was inevitable. Either the “system” blindly advanced every child on and on, or teachers and schools were motivated to “teach to the test” so that the goal of No Child Left Behind was accomplished — whether or not a student had learned the previous material. If a child hadn’t learned the material required for, say, the fourth grade, what chance was there that the student would succeed in fifth grade?

So, we had a “system” that produced progressively ill-equipped students until they finally “aged-out” and were delivered to the real world unable to spell, speak grammatically, perform even the simplest of mathematical computations and were ill-prepared to be truly productive citizens. Talk about the “dumbing down” of America.

Perhaps you think this so-called system of moving students along on an educational conveyor belt is a new phenomenon. It isn’t. Let me recount an experience I had in the mid-1960s when I first taught evening classes to young adults at a Los Angeles junior college.

I taught a class in trigonometry, specifically for young people working in the machinist trades. Trigonometry deals mainly with triangles and is an invaluable skill for a machinist. Some people might consider it a fearsome subject, but once one understands the basic principles, it’s really not that difficult. (Easy for me to say.)

Anyway, I was teaching a group of semi-motivated young people, some of whom didn’t have the basic mathematical skills needed to study the somewhat advanced subject. (The school was prohibited from requiring any prerequisites for the class, but that’s another story.)

To solve a typical shop problem using trigonometry involved two steps: Find the basic triangle in the problem, and then find the needed dimension using one or the other of the “trig” functions — sine, cosine or tangent.

Knowing that my students were ill-prepared, I did everything I could think of to motivate them and to help them get through the class. I even devised an involved system of testing that asked them first to find the crucial triangle and then to apply the appropriate trig function to solve the problem. I also took several students aside after class to offer special assistance or mentoring. In spite of those efforts, a large percentage of the class couldn’t achieve my passing-grade standards, and I ended up failing about 28 percent of them. That was for Trigonometry I; Trigonometry II was to follow the next semester.

Within a few days of turning in my final results, I was summoned to the dean’s office, where I was unceremoniously dressed down for failing such a high percentage. My explanation that they had failed to meet my standards and that they didn’t have a good understanding of the subject was dismissed as irrelevant. Huh?

Then three other things happened. All of the students who had failed my Trig I class appeared in my Trig II class the following semester; all of the students failed the Trig II class (surprise, surprise), and I was never again asked to teach trigonometry.

So much for no child left behind.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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