The Law of Unintended Consequences

Are you familiar with the Law of Unintended Consequences?

A number of years ago we were told that students had actually progressed through 12 years of school and had received a high school diploma without ever having learned to read.  It was also revealed about this time that American students fared very poorly when compared with their counterparts in developed nations such as those found in Europe and Asia.  The American students were particularly deficient in science and mathematics.  While elementary students compared very well with their foreign counterparts, they began to lag in middle school and the deficit became pronounced when high school students were compared.

A number of fixes and tweaks were suggested.

Districts which had been “socially promoting” lagging students now had to subject their student body to end-of-year testing.  In time there was No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Social promotions were given to students who had failed two or more years, and the justification was to keep such students from being left too far behind their peers.  It was thought to damage their “self esteem”, and avoiding such damage resulted in a better student and better educational outcomes.  Such repeated failures, with low self-esteem, tended to drop out and never receive a diploma.  It was further believed that this problem of self-esteem carried on into life and tended to make people less able to function in society.

The solution to the lack of qualification of American students in math and science was to extend the requirements for graduation and to require an additional year (sometimes two) of science and math.  The Texas Legislature passed this when George W. Bush was Governor and the legislation was duly passed and signed into law.  Similar policies have become part of Federal education. Prior to this the high school student might take General Math and one or two years of Algebra.  They might take Physical Science and Biology.  These were beginning level classes and most students could pass them without too much effort.

With the new legislation, they now had to add more math and science to their graduation plan.  The only classes available were Plane Geometry and perhaps Trigonometry or pre-calculus, and after that there was only Statistics or Analytic Geometry or Calculus.  The additional sciences available were likely to be Physics or Chemistry or possibly Anatomy and Physiology.

The advanced math and science courses were no longer simple.  They had been designed and normally taken by students who were going on to college and planning on majoring in math or science or engineering.  These demanding courses were taken by students who planned to take classes in medical science and similarly demanding curricula.

It was not really possible to lower the level of these courses without harming the students who needed them in order to do well in college.  Some dumbing down has occurred.  “Regular” classes are now paralleled by similar classes labeled AP, for advanced placement, and IB, for International Baccalaureate.  AP and IB classes are taught at university level, and students who pass such, and who also pass an end-of-course test conducted by a university, can gain university credit, thus getting double credit.  At one time they gain credit for high school graduation and also university credits giving them a head start on a college education.  So you have regular Anatomy and Physiology and also A&P (AP) for future physicians and nurses.

Even so, A&P requires a lot of work.  The student who has been cruising along without doing much studying or much homework will have difficulty in passing such  classes.

The legislatures, however, have mandated that students take these extra classes.

It is left to the schools and, ultimately, to the teacher to enforce these mandates.

No amount of legislative mandate can make such classes easy or interesting unless that student can see an immediate use for the knowledge he gains.   It is often pointed out that, after school, most students will never have any use for Algebra again.   The same is true for Physics and Chemistry.

So the student who has struggled with, say, Biology, is now facing Anatomy & Physiology.  The student who has never mastered quadratic equations must now take Analytic Geometry.  And if he doesn’t pass these subjects he is not going to receive a diploma.

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences.  The student drops out.

The only real solution is a restructuring of the public school system.  Instead of most classes being college track, for students planning on going on to college, most students should have an opportunity for career education so that they can get a job after school.

Few high school graduates are ready for a job (note that the newest “standards” presented to the National Governors Conference do not even suggest that the student should possess  job skills; these standards expect the student to be able to attend college or job training)  Graduates end up working in construction or possibly in fast food because those places have menial, labor intensive jobs available.  The high school graduate is not qualified to be a machinist, or a mechanic, or a technician at any level.  So the high school student who wants to work as an airframe mechanic, as an example, must take a vocational course, at a Junior College or possibly through a correspondence course.  Neither of these is free.

European schools separate their students into tracks based on aptitude.  Those whose scores indicate that they aren’t best suited for University are placed into an apprenticeship or similar track.  These students attend school half a day and are taught the specialized practical physics or mathematics or mechanics for the program they’re enrolled in and then spend the other half-day actually working as apprentices in their future career.  They typically continue such a course until they are 20 years old, and then they go to work for a company (possibly for the one they apprenticed with) or they get low-interest loans that enable them to start their own business.  The companies providing the apprenticeship training receive subsidies from the government to offset the expenses incurred in training the student.  The student may also receive some small pay for the work he does.  Such a program would work well in America and would increase the number of graduates who are prepared to go to work when they graduate while reducing the dropout rate, and simultaneously remove nonperforming students from college prep classes so that teachers can concentrate on those who would be most likely to benefit from teacher help.

There would be more room at high schools.  Students in career tracks might have classroom work in the morning, apprenticeship work in the afternoon, and for half of them, this would be reversed.

I would also recommend that students be held responsible for their own results.  Students who demonstrate by misbehavior or repeated failure that they are no longer benefiting from a public education should be dismissed.  There may first be attempts at intervention to see if remediation is possible; but when a student demonstrates he is no longer gaining an education through attendance at a public school, he should be dismissed.  It is counterproductive to keep such a student in a regular school.  It harms other students by preventing them from acquiring a quality education and does little or nothing to educate the non-performer.

So…reform public education.  I’m realistic enough to expect that such reform would be at least as divisive as health care reform has been.  Still, we’re going to be forced into major changes by competition with other nations.  We shall need to direct those required changes in the way that’s best for us.

In this way we may, indeed, repeal the Law of Unintended Consequences…at least as it applies to public education.


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