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Eric Christiansen - Achieve, motivate or feel good? An educational crisis

Posted: January 22, 2010 5:22 p.m.
Updated: January 25, 2010 6:10 p.m.
"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."
Sir Winston Churchill

My three children attend Tesoro Del Valle Elementary School, where the teachers and staff are dedicated and responsive to our children's academic needs.

Additionally, I believed Tesoro Del Valle had an emphasis on academic excellence. My 11-year-old son Peter, in sixth grade, has repeatedly made the high honor roll since he was eligible in the fourth grade.

His brother Will, 8, in fourth grade, was excited it would be his first year with letter grades. It was Will's goal to stand on the same stage at the honor roll assembly with his brother.

My eight-year-old daughter Kathryn, still a year away from "letter grades," already has her sights on following in her brothers' footsteps. Her report cards reflect this motivation.

With great anticipation, the first report card of the year came home. Will was ecstatic. His goal of standing on the same stage as his brother to receive high honor roll was coming true. Much to our dismay, within one day his aspirations were crushed.

When Peter broke the news to me, I honestly thought it was another of his silly jokes. He then handed me the letter from Principal Mary Post. I was enraged as I read it.

The honor roll assembly had been canceled in favor of a single assembly at the end of the school year, purportedly to allow more children to participate. The letter went on to cite "undue stress" on some students and "discouragement" in others.

To make matters worse, the fourth-graders would not be allowed to participate in honor roll at all. Will was crushed as the goal he worked so hard to achieve was snatched from him at the last minute.

On the surface this act seems an innocuous, if not noble effort to protect our children. However, underneath this simple act lies an erroneous belief that opens the door to a bigger picture of interconnected falsehoods perpetuating a painful fallacy about life, that life is always fair.

Whether this desire to promote good feelings and self-esteem stems from a romantic view of childhood, adult guilt or perhaps a desire to spare children pain, these intentions often result in unattended consequences, namely stepping away from academic accountability and excellence.

It is evident America is in a crisis situation regarding academic excellence. According to the National Research Council, average students in other industrialized nations are as proficient in mathematics as our top students.

Nationally, corporations are losing billions of dollars in training and time spent on students who are not properly prepared with even the basics. In 1983, an education commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan's first Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell announced: "(America's) educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them."

In its report "A Nation at Risk," the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared the "intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people" were in danger. American schools, once the envy of the world, had been overtaken by competitors abroad.

The letter sent to parents informing us of the decision stated teachers were concerned that recognizing only a select number of students puts undue stress on all students to perform at a level of expertise that may or may not be obtainable.

The example of excellence set by a few has always been the "bar" to measure performance and to motivate individuals to achieve their personal best. Taking that example away and replacing it with a "feel-good" atmosphere that replaces feelings for performance artificially evens the playing field, resulting in setting the bar firmly on mediocrity.

We have always looked up to heroes: heroes of the sports industry and intellectual pursuits.

Do I look up to Albert Einstein? Yes. Will I ever be like him? Perhaps not, but the bar has been set.

I know for myself I will never know what I can achieve until I identify a goal and try to obtain it. There are times I may not be able to achieve that goal. Instead of success, I get something more valuable: I stretch myself and discover my personal best.

The letter goes on to state that teachers found during the year students would earn honor roll one time and then often become discouraged when a grade slipped during third trimester and did not meet their grade point average.

It has been my belief that a child's school years serve to prepare him or her for life as a productive and effective adult. Basic precepts about life are built during these formative years and many lessons are learned, sometimes the hard way.

Noted psychologist, author, columnist and parenting specialist Dr. Sylvia Rimm, believes the notion parents can (or should) create an environment in which children always succeed is a fallacy.

"Children who learn to lose without being devastated and use failure experiences to grow will achieve in the classroom and in society," she writes. "Learning to compete is central to achievement in schools."

It is this very "disappointment" that often transforms into drive; a new resolve to be better and to achieve. One might even go as far as saying America has been built on this type of resolve.

The letter further stated that with the new system, teachers and parents believe more students will have the opportunity to earn honors.

The preoccupation with inclusiveness and celebrating every achievement produces apathy towards awards. If everybody is "the best," then what really is "the best?"

The watermark of excellence has been washed away in a sea of mediocrity and feel-good desires. This paradigm produces an equity that trivializes its very purpose of recognizing "achievement."

It is a futile attempt to eradicate failure and the acknowledgment of its consequences, in the process redefining excellence to mean whatever suits the individual and rendering "success" meaningless.

Furthermore, this type of system becomes increasingly directed at "self" and the needs of self, producing an air of entitlement, based not on achievements, but on a system where the "norm" is reward.

Peter Sacks, in his book "Generation X Goes to College," says of this generation of students: "(T)hey expect to be entertained.

They harbor a sense of entitlement and expectation of success beyond reason. After all, they were reared in the K-12 myth that everyone is entitled to succeed."

As an involved father, I understand the heartache of failure and the need for a parent to see his or her children succeed.

But I also understand character-building and it is not always pleasant, especially when your child is going through trying times. More importantly, I am gravely concerned primarily for my children's future happiness and success in life.

The "honor roll" issue, seemingly inconsequential to some, is a crucial link in the chain that leads to a successful future - a future built on fairness, understanding, humility, hard work and respect.

As a father, have I not accepted a responsibility above all else to prepare my children for the world?


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