Callum Borchers' Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘mcas

Losing the freedom to be average, not the freedom to fail, is the real threat

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Rather than raise the bar of excellence, Americans seem content to lower it. (Photos from Wikimedia Commons)















The following essay is a response to Michael Goodwin’s video about the freedom to fail.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” Grant told me, which was sort of like an Olsen twin claiming to have a lot on her middle. Grant is the third of my seven younger siblings, and he has autism. On that disorder’s broad spectrum, he falls somewhere in the middle: Neither a savant nor a simpleton, Grant had long been enrolled in mainstream classes but always needed academic assistance.

Now in 11th grade, Grant worried he would not receive a high school diploma. He had failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a prerequisite for graduation, a second time. My perpetually relaxed little bro was suddenly stressed to a degree I’d never seen.

Grant’s situation divided my sensibilities. I applauded the state’s effort to combat the culture of social promotion described by Michael Goodwin in “New Threats to Freedom.” No longer could compassionate, or exasperated, teachers dress unqualified students in caps and gowns; every kid in the state had to pass a standardized test. But was Grant — who worked harder than most of his peers — really the kind of student the Department of Education meant to target when it conceived the MCAS?

Goodwin argues that “losing the freedom to fail really takes away the opportunity to succeed.” But the real threat is not losing the freedom to fail but rather losing the freedom to be average.

A brilliant senior on graduation day doesn’t resent a handicapped classmate — or even a slacker — who collects the same scroll she does.  That they did not fail does not cheapen her accomplishment.

What she does resent, what does degrade her sense of achievement, is that so many of her ordinary contemporaries somehow finished high school with extraordinary grade point averages similar to her own. The boy beside her doesn’t know the difference between affect and effect, but he, too, earned an A in English class. The girl two rows back isn’t sure which Roosevelt held office during World War II and remains convinced that water occupies a square on the periodic table, but she, also, made the honor roll.

More often than they push through students who ought to fail, our schools artificially bolster the GPAs of students who ought to carry 2.0s. If the former is social promotion, the latter is social inflation. It is the bar of excellence, not the bar of passage, we have lowered too far.

Americans don’t need to revive failure to promote success. Overcrowded prisons and high unemployment rates testify to the robust health of failure in this country.

Instead, we need to defibrillate mediocrity. Our unwillingness to identify the middling members of society subverts our ability to celebrate the truly superb.

“Without failure, we can’t know what success is,” Goodwin contends. “There’s no way to measure it.”

Without mediocrity, there’s no way to measure either.

Grant passed the MCAS on his third try. He got his diploma but didn’t go to college. He works at The Home Depot.

Seems pretty average to me.


Written by callumborchers

March 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

Roxbury Prep Chartering Its Own Course

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The Skittles wrapper is flattened between a three-ring binder’s cover and its clear, plastic sleeve, the empty candy container as neatly pressed as the blue button-down shirt and khaki pants worn by the girl who savored its contents. With its vibrant palette—Skittles’ slogan is “Taste the rainbow,” after all—the wrapper is the loudest thing in the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School hallway.

Students at this small public school pass in silence so that teachers don’t lose the first few minutes of class to carryover chatter and because, as Roxbury Prep co-director Will Austin put it, “Nothing good happens in a middle school hallway, anyway.”

Despite its location—squeezed into the third floor of the Edgar Benjamin Health Care Center  on Mission Hill—and demographics—all of its 258 students are non-white, and 71.6 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches—Roxbury Prep is earning a reputation as one of the highest-performing schools in the state. Last year, its eighth-graders tied for 12th in math and 30th in English, as determined by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which is traditionally dominated by suburban, mostly-white districts.

“Folks will often ask, ‘What do you do for tutoring programs for the MCAS? What do you do for MCAS preparation classes?’ We don’t have any of those here,” Austin said. “What we do is we teach really well, and then kids do well on the test.”

Now, Roxbury Prep, younger than most of its students, at 12 years old, is planning massive expansion. In the spring, it announced a new partnership with the national non-profit Uncommon Schools and declared its intent to grow to five schools—two middle and one high—and 2,000 students by 2020.

Austin believes charters are uniquely equipped to model methods to close the much-discussed “achievement gap.”

“I think about charter schools not as a short-term solution, but as part of a long-term process of reform,” Austin said. “We are part of a longer-term, broader solution for public education.”

Written by callumborchers

October 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm