What Is and What Could Be

Schools are our best hope for the future. You won’t hear a politician question this, nor will any educator propose otherwise. And to all of us who have survived long enough to look back at high school or college, and who recognize what education has done for us, intellectually, economically, and socially, schools and a bright future seem to be axiomatically linked.

And therein lies a problem that has gripped America for several decades. If the education of young people in schools remains our, and their, best hope, then why do we seem to have hit a pothole or driven off course along this highway to progress? Why are American kids, once thought to be among the scholastic leaders of the world, now judged to belong in the middle-of-the-pack? Why do so many high school graduates need remediation when they go to our colleges, stretching degree programs from four to six years or longer? And why are so many of our very best American college and university classrooms populated by students from other countries in numbers well out of proportion to our native sons and daughters?

What has the world come to? Perhaps the question is better put this way: what kind of a world have we been preparing our kids to enter as adults: the world that is, or the world that we, and they, might prefer it to be? You see, the world that is, the one our kids will soon face whether they go to college, enter a trade, go in the military or pursue an athletic or artistic career—is competitive, often-times cut-throat, and rarely fair or forgiving. It does not value just showing up nor does it have much patience for potential when performance is what is needed.

Teachers have long seen this coming. Yet they have lived through a sea change in educational theory that lays at their feet the ultimate mission impossible: make your students “real world ready”, but don’t expect too much of them or hold them accountable for what they know or what they can do. No wonder so many good teachers are leaving the profession or have burnt out trying to pull off this miracle.

Teachers, you see, are professionals who would like us to trust them to know what they are doing. They have a pretty good idea what it takes to prepare students for real life, where moms and dads can’t rescue and make excuses and where employers rarely offer extra-credit or sympathy when a job isn’t done right. Teachers want kids to learn that the world will not bail them out or give them a high five when they fail. But how can teachers get this message across when they are asked to make self-esteem and fun higher goals than self-discipline and hard-work, when they are directed to get kids through school rather than get kids ready for life after school.

For the past seven years I’ve been privileged to help direct a program of study at Ascension Academy with one reason for being: to prepare kids to graduate from college. I’m frequently told that we are kind of a throwback school, with our rules, homework, and reinforced expectations for how students dress, speak and act. I admit all of this, without apology, as I believe we are exposing kids to what will be expected of them in the hard and competitive world that really is. We set high standards for them so they will be ready to succeed, and thrive, in jobs and professions that will require no less of them.

It is with great hope that I acknowledge how well Ascension kids do on the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) tests—all recognized measures of success in college, and well above national, state and local performance levels. And the growing number of our graduates who are earning university degrees on time confirms for me that we may be onto something here. Successes like these give me, our teachers, and our families a degree of optimism that the American school can still prepare kids to do well in the world that is, and perhaps even empower them to take a leading role in changing it for the better.