Pushing and Pulling

Over the past 6 months or so, the idea of pushing and pulling in education has been on my mind. What I mean by this is whether we should focus on pushing kids who are achieving in a particular subject as much as we can — advanced study in mathematics and reading, honors classes, extracurricular options — or focus on pulling kids up who have struggled in some subjects. I have been intrigued by this dichotomy in the education system precisely because I have seen both sides of it, and it makes me feel conflicted.

When I started my degree, I worked at a local charter high school with a student populace that consists largely of teenagers with broken families, who are working almost full-time, or may have kids of their own. As a result, many of these students have missed time in regular public schools, and need one-on-one attention in many subjects to help. This was very much a situation of pulling students to meet the standards that society  has created for them.  There is much that was either not taught to them well, or it has been such a long time since they were consistently in school that a lot of knowledge has just escaped. It was a very powerful experience for me, forcing me to recognize the privilege I had growing up in my school district. It also put me face-to-face with many of the injustices present in our education system, and why many students become incredibly bored of school. These students had so much going on in their lives, they had to be adults at such a young age, that learning how to factor polynomials was not high on their list at the time. Yet, without certain knowledge and abilities, society deems them incapable of contributing at a certain level. The public school system couldn’t help them in their situations, so they came to this charter high school

Over the past couple of years, and especially this summer, I saw the opposite side of this divide. Kids who were pushed, kids who were excellent at math — many much better than I currently am in a certain way — and were looking for more than even the public school system had to offer. I work for an advanced math program for middle school students, allowing them to take advanced versions of high school mathematics classes. This summer, I worked for the Art of Problem Solving, a math contest juggernaut that also excels in teaching kids excellent mathematics at a level higher than would ever be taught in a public school. These kids were constantly pushing the ceiling on their abilities, and were relentless in attacking problems. So, we continue to throw more at them. But they outran the opportunities at their school, and in order to not stagnate in their education had to seek outside instruction.

These two situations are incredibly different: in one case, we have disadvantaged students who don’t even have the time in the day to attend a regular public school; in the other, we have young, precocious students destined to attend incredibly selective universities and do some very cool things. And yet, the public school system has failed both of these groups. I would bet that the number of students in each group is roughly the same. This is what worries me, and causes conflict in my head. Where should the public schools focus? It seems that their business is in a Harrison Bergeron-esque future, where the world is easier if we all regress (or progress) to the mean. In fact, it seems that high schools (in particular) were built for the express purpose of teaching to a small “average” part of the population while simultaneously attempting to support students who have fallen behind and lack a foundation in their education, and providing opportunities to those who are ahead of the standard curriculum. As a result, a very small percentage of students are in the correct spot at their school. Everybody else is frustrated: the classes are not engaging, or are too difficult, or any other number of complaints that have very strong merit in today’s schools.

I don’t know of a good solution, but this seems to be the fundamental problem in education today: we don’t know what to do to help our students. We try and treat them as a homogeneous group, and balk when a student needs something special. We need to take a serious look at why we have students in schools, and precisely what they need to get out of it. As of right now, nobody seems to be able to say, and the people who are suffering most are the students.

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