Heisenberg and Me

I dressed up as Walter White/Heisenberg from the show “Breaking Bad” for Halloween. Although I have nothing to do with the meth trade, I do have a number of factors in common with him. And while our common situations make only anecdotal commentary on education in the USA today, they nevertheless make an informed commentary.

I remember distinctly that I’d once dressed up like Walt in a CLEP Exam Prep class. Dockers, button-up shirt from a cheap store, and, above all, comfortable footwear. Teachers are on their feet a great deal, so they need as much comfort and support in that area as is possible. You want to make a teacher’s day? Give that teacher a gift card for a shoe store. The clothing is superficial, though. Let us get deeper into things.

In the first episode, Walt is slinging knowledge to a disinterested mass of faces. I’ve had that classroom, too. He’s obviously got a passion for his subject and a belief in its intrinsic value and that of knowledge itself, but the kids in that room don’t share that vision. While there’s a lot to be said for a broad education that offers a wide range of subjects to everyone in school, there’s also the counter: what is the point in learning all that stuff? Really?

If it’s worth knowing, it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, right? And if it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, it’s easy enough for people at or above one standard deviation below average intelligence to pass. While those students right around that one standard deviation below average are struggling with the content, those that are average or better are left adrift. They get asked to tutor those that aren’t as bright, do review after review, and then chastised when, out of boredom, they do something disruptive. Thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be quieter these days. Also thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be more widespread these days. But those are the options for our hapless average-and-better students in a mainstream classroom.

The next step up is a doozy: the AP track. College Board makes no secret of its pass rates. It posts them for all to see, and quite a few tests hover around the 50% mark. Even so, school boards and administrators think that hard work and gumption are the perfect tonic for getting kids to ace those tests. College Board differs, and has the data to back up its position from the outset. It offers a tool for recruiting potential AP students called “AP Potential.” I love straightforward names like that. AP Potential will look at PSAT scores to determine a child’s potential for passing a particular AP exam. Recruiters can select a pass rate for their classes. If one desires a 100% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the names of students that scored very highly on the PSAT. If one desires a 50% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the same high-fliers and then, working its way down the list of scores, will offer up an equal number of students that didn’t score as highly on the PSAT. Those guys are the ones College Board is essentially saying are going to fail to pass the AP exam. It’s not a matter of hard work and gumption: they simply don’t have the aptitude at that time.

No matter! Schools are ranked by the number of kids that take the AP test, regardless of outcome, so into those classes they must go! Although I haven’t yet seen an AP Chemistry section in Breaking Bad, I’ve taught enough AP sections to know right from wrong in setting up those courses. Too often, the AP class has the opposite of the regular class, with the students at or above two standard deviations above average intelligence doing fairly well and everyone else left in the dust. AP courses used to be offered as enrichment to students already familiar with the basic material. Now they are frequently the introduction to that material, which means that the less-apt students in those courses lack the fundamentals needed to flourish in that course. They go on to take the same course in college and typically do very well in the course, but it’s only after getting raked over the coals in an AP course and being part of the 50% of American kids that don’t pass the exam.

So there’s a huge chunk of kids in between the range from special education on up to above-average intelligence that aren’t really being served by the school system. I saw Walt trying to reach them, and I tried to reach them. It’s not really working all that well. I remember, once upon a time when I was in high school, that there were five different tracks for students, allowing for a spectrum of class offerings where students in the class were homogeneous with each other. Now, instead of showing the students that they’re individually important, we tell them they’re as unique as snowflakes and then warehouse them like commodities.

It’s torture for the kids and it’s a beat-down for the teachers. Teachers teach because they want to reach out to kids and show them a bigger world. They want to guide and inform. They don’t share the vision of the state that mandates their primary duty is to provide custodial supervision of minors during campus hours. They are insulted by a system that tells them to either offer up a minimum of information and then drill it until everyone has memorized it or to turn on a firehose of facts and analysis without regard of a student’s ability to receive that much information that quickly. Increasingly, school districts are reaching for canned information so that teachers have less and less discretion in the classroom. Why? It’s so that the district can absolve itself of responsibility in the event a student fails to pass a test. If the teacher didn’t present all the canned material on time, then, obviously, it’s the teacher’s fault for the student’s failure: certainly not the district’s.

And, yes, I see that in Walt’s face. Maybe the actor just copied other teachers he saw without knowing everything that went into the outward appearance but, like the clothes, it’s a dead-on portrayal.

It’s also one of the reasons I left teaching.

I suppose I should write more about that subject, now that I’m able to look back on my decision with some time intervening. I had a number of reasons for leaving the profession, and many of them stem from administrative and legislative decisions that have an adverse impact on the entire educational system.

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