What Did Our Students Learn This Year?

June 1, 2011

Most American students are ending another school year this week, and a fresh batch of young minds is just months away from college indoctrination…

…And I’m asking myself, “What did all those kids learn this year?”

When I started working on becoming a teacher, everyone encouraged me by saying that getting into education would be a cinch.  I’m smart, dedicated, hard-working.  Plus, I’m a guy, and schools like to hire all the men they can get.

It seemed like a lock.

But as I’ve struggled to get the jobs I want, I’ve realized that all those encouragers and well wishers were just dead wrong.  There’s one very big reason that hard-working, well educated guys like myself will never be given a chance to teach many of your kids.

And the results – what many kids learned (or didn’t learn) this year – speak for themselves…

Don’t Know Much About History

It’s no secret that American public education is pretty inept.  How inept is hard to grasp.  Yes, there are plenty of great districts, teachers, and hard working, under-appreciated educators.  I come from a family of educators, and I love the schools I have worked at.

But consider this:

In March, Newsweek reported that 38% of Americans would fail a basic citizenship test. That means these people can’t tell you what is the Constitution, or capitalism, or who Joe Biden is.  Good going, America.  Last month, it was reported that only 10% of eighth graders can tell you what the Bill of Rights is.  I think if you don’t know what the Bill of Rights is, it shouldn’t apply to you, because you are probably less of an American “citizen,” and more of an American “chimpanzee.”

For many kids, Social Studies class has been as pointless as a Wes Anderson movie.  The only branch of government they know is the one where they pick up their food stamps (15-20% of Americans are on them).  And that, my friends, has everything to do with why a guy like me will never find a job at so many of your children’s schools.

My head is big, my brain is small, I go to school to play feetball.

My passion is teaching kids, especially Social Studies.  I look at the sad state of education, and I want to do some little part to change those statistics.

What I wasn’t told about getting into education is that with a lot of schools, I’m wasting my time.  Many schools couldn’t care less about hiring knowledgeable, passionate guys…

…They just want to know if I can teach kids to throw a football.

That’s the one qualification I lack.  I’m not an amazing football coach.  And there is an institutional sexism in education that a hard-working male teacher isn’t worth hiring unless he can coach kids to throw a football.  They never put that in the job description.  They just won’t call back.  I was never called by the middle school that my sister-in-law teaches at…because the principal wanted a football coach…at a middle school.

That’s part of the reason why 90% of our kids don’t know anything.  Your public schools don’t hire teachers. They hire coaches who know how to play sports, and whose teaching abilities often amount to pressing “play.”  You can object all you want and tell me about how great your particular teacher / coaches were.  I know they’re out there.  But the results speak for themselves.  Most male educators “teach” Social Studies (if not P.E.).  Most male educators are actually coaches, and most Social Studies students don’t know jack squat.

Preparing for a Global Job Market

Our society is reaping what it sows.

We value professional athletes at millions of dollars.  That absurd emphasis on sports carries right on down to schools.  Schools will cut everything: arts, music, theater, even vocational school, before they cut athletics.  Why?  Because successful athletic teams make districts look good and bring in money.  A high school football team (made up of about 1% of a typical a student body) gives everyone something to be placated by while the community turns to crap.  Never mind my schoolmate whose family didn’t vote because, as she said, “That’s how the gov’ment finds you for jury duty.”  We need football!

Oh, but I forget sometimes.  This is the twenty-first century, the century of biotech, medicine, and information technology, and in this competitive, global job market, we have to make sure our students have all the necessary ball throwing skills they will need in their jobs as aerospace engineers…or trash collectors, whichever.

This isn’t the only cause of the problem in education, but it’s a big one.  So tell us about the school in your town.  Are they up to snuff, or would you homeschool or private school if you could?  What’s one thing you’d change about our education system?

47 responses to What Did Our Students Learn This Year?

  1. [i somewhat dislike when i write a blog post critiquing something (i often do) and some faithful reader comments with a cheery, vomiting-sunshine remark about how we ought to look on the bright side. there may be many days in which i do indeed need to “look at the other side” of things — but i rarely enjoy those comments. usually because it’s nothing i don’t already know. and my criticism should not imply that i see nothing good about the situation — but rather that i have a limited number of words i want to put on my blog that day. and i can’t go into every if, and, but, and polite i-see-both-sides-of-things, prefacing comment.

    all of that said… i’m going to be that cheerful vomiter of sunshine today. not necessarily for you, matt, but maybe for other readers. or maybe just so it’s said.]

    i didn’t intend to be this guy while reading. but then you asked me at the end of your post how schools are where i live — and whether or not i’d homeschool, etc. and, well, i live in tanzania. [that’s in east africa for football coaches and players.] the school system here is not so great. there are the fees which your average family can’t afford — and which basically no one from a village can. and even those who can afford the fees to begin school likely can’t by the time secondary school arrives. or the students, like one guy i help (“sponsor”) have to take off every other year in order to work and make money to finish school — which means many of those we’d call high school seniors are 25 years old or older.

    then there’s class size. picture those large history classes you took at the state university, the ones with 150 students and a professor. okay, now turn the 150 college students into 4th graders. and turn the professor into someone who is a product of the system we’re describing. that’s 2nd grade here. oh yeah, but put everyone in a school uniform that they can’t really afford as well. okay, now you’ve got it.

    i guess i could go on and on. but i’ve already taken up so much room on your blog. i’ll just end by reminding those of us who grew up / live in the united states that we are blessed to have even the broken and struggling systems that we do.

    i often find myself asking, “why did God arrange for me to be born as a middle-class american kid who’s never been a day without food — except for those days i chose to fast while there remained a full pantry and at least a little cash in my wallet? and why were these kids born here, and to parents with HIV, who worship their ancestors and practice witchcraft.”

    [not meant at all as a knock to you, matt. i love your blog and agree with what you’ve written today. i, too, was once a teacher (and coach) — though i managed to be hired for my teaching, with coaching being an added plus which i enjoyed (soccer and cross country coaches aren’t hired in the same way as football coaches, it seems).]
    JamesBrett recently posted..“sabbatical” and morning blend”ish”

    • Thanks so much for sharing, James. It does always help to put things in perspective. I hope God is blessing your work in Tanzania today.

    • Excellent perspective James.
      I would be one of those chimpanzees you speak of, Matt. I have a strong aversion to history, social studies, etc. I do take great pains to stay on top of politics in order to take responsibility for the world I live in. And it IS painful.
      Don’t judge me! I have gifts and talents that you probably don’t even know exsist! (Like ‘working the room’; or public speaking. I ROCK at public speaking!)
      Yeah, we have some grand flaws with our school system. We have some great things in our school system also. Like my kids! My oldest just graduated from High School. He’s brilliant! Not because of the school system, not because I rock at public speaking, but because God gave him a brain the size of a super computer from the 80’s. GOD gets the credit for this one!
      While he was offered scholarships at every university he applied to, I know if he would have played football, he would have been offered full rides. Eh, watderyagonnado?

  2. Oh Matt, how I wish I had the energy to write what I want to write. I have just spent about half an hour in tears, talking to my friend about the fight we have with behaviour at school. I can’t teach because kids call out and have no respect all day, every day. I am passionate about English and History too and love it when I get to teach it. I can’t write anymore for many reasons, just know that it crosses the oceans as well because it’s endemic in my country as well. Society is sick with screwed up priorities and as schools are a small reflection on our greater society, they are sick too. I am a career teacher who is burnt out at 41.

    • I hear you. My mom is a career teacher – elementary. She’s more than ready to retire. My Dad had a serious talk with me to ask if I really want to get into this career, and maybe the difficulties I’m having are a sign to turn back. But I know that I’m made for and called to teaching and pastoring. School is always been what I’ve been best at. So I really can’t turn back.

      I am in prayer for all the teachers out there, including you, because I know it’s a jungle, and it’s getting wilder. I just had the chance a couple of months ago to talk to a couple of young teachers in New Orleans with the “Teach for America” program. That will suck every ounce of idealism out of a young graduate.

  3. I taught school (9-12, Pre-K to 8th, 7-12) and fortunately I was valued not only for being male, but for my education. All for $16,800 a year (and free tuition for my 2 kids). I left to make $75K as a programmer. They didn’t want me for sports – geeks don’t play sports well.

    We have a huge debate over teaching kids to memorize or to think. The thinkers hate standardized tests, the memorizers want to quantify everything.

    My daughter is in a bi-lingual school and they are teaching her to think in English and in Spanish. There is some PC crap going on, but not enough to think about home-schooling. The Christian Schools here don’t have the quality; they are sort of spiritual green houses.

    To reform American education, we need a balance of thinking and testing. The 3R’s (readin’, ‘ritin, ‘rithmetic) are very good. I’d like to see 8th graders have to pass a citizenship test! And then we need to let kids learn to think, to create, and to get some exercise! And lastly, I am a big fan of vouchers.

    I am praying for you to find a job every day, Matt.
    David recently posted..Hearing God – A Short Story

    • Absolutely right. The problem is for all of the standardized tests, students don’t seem to have done the memorizing, or learned how to think critically. So off they go to college, where the first two years are remedial learning, and to have their beliefs destroyed by the most logically incoherant political science prof who uses his classroom as a captive audience for his preaching. :)

      • LOL – I had a HUGE debate with my daughter’s Environmental Ethics prof. He was a Global Warming of fail professor. She wrote a paper refuting Al Gore’s claims and flunked her. In the end he gave her a C. She also wrote paper a paper on Pro-Life for another class and the prof belittled her in front of her classmates. I made a call, and they let her have another slot to refute the badgering. Che got another C, but it was an A paper for sure. Sometimes standards are good!
        David recently posted..Hearing God – A Short Story

  4. I lasted a year and a half in teaching. And I taught kindergarten!

    I was so irritated by the “dumbing down” of curriculum and kowtowing to unreasonable parents, so I got out. And that’s sad because I think I could have been a good teacher had I not been told to just be a glorified babysitter. (I touched off a school wide firestorm when I started requiring my 5 and 6 year olds to read. The principal had a fit saying I was “pushing them too hard…they’re just babies still”. Those “babies” are college-aged now. I wonder if they can read…

    And speaking of college non-readers, that’s where I am now. Working in Higher Ed. And it is here I see the clearest results of non-teaching in our public schools. It’s just chilling Matt. Chilling. We have 20 year olds who can’t pass basic math and reading tests and don’t qualify for college level courses. We have 18 year olds who clearly have been allowed to have the attitude of “I showed up, I brought my book, what else could you possibly expect of me??” These people will run this country one day. Chilling.

    Thanks for letting me rant. I hope you stick with teaching because I know you have the ability to change student’s lives.
    Marni recently posted..Rally to Restore Unity

    • Ugh. One problem is, there’s so many differing philosophies on education. I was reading before kindergarten, but I was the exception. Some boys aren’t ready, but most girls are ready before kindergarten.

      I think one huge problem is we want to let kids be “creative” their entire time in school, but we never give them the building blocks and skills to be truly creative. It takes a breadth of knowledge and a depth of skill to really be able to express yourself effectively and creatively, no matter the media – art, music, writing.

    • Interesting perspective. My mom will retire from teaching here in a few days (she’s been teaching kindergarten for several years now). One of the main reasons she’s getting out is because they’re requiring too _much_ of the kindergarteners today. School systems are so concerned that kids can pass math and reading standardized tests that they don’t have time to learn concepts which ought to be taught at that age (mostly how to learn and how to operate in a classroom setting). She’s spent most of the last few years just doing what she could to get the kids ready for standardized test after test and never really got a chance to _teach_ them anything.

      And Matt, I was kinda disappointed/distracted when you didn’t finish out the song with your headings: “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about science books, don’t know much about the French I took….”
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      • Sorry about that. :) What was the name of that song again? “Idiots in love?” What a message for a song. “Hey babe, I completely blew off school, which should be fairly indicative of the approach I will take in the rest of my life’s pursuits. How’s about I get you pregnant in the back seat of my dad’s station wagon?”

  5. You are spot on with this. A system that is being created for robots not individuals.
    As a former teacher (1 year, I think that I count) I noticed this as well. It is probably the reason why i only lasted a year. Because I didn’t do things inside of the system. I allowed expression, individuality and creativity. I was often told to stick to the curriculum, but the curriculum sucked.
    I was let go after one year of teaching.

    The system that is being created is a waste. Kids spend 15 plus years in school only to walk away having to try and learn about life after college. You would think that you wouldn’t need college to help you grow up, but most are now using college as a place to find themselves and grow.

    Sorry to hear about your struggles Matt.
    I know it can be frustrating.

  6. We’ve been fortunate. Our two boys are in public school and so far we’re pleased. Yeah, there are some clunker teachers here & there. Our district, however, is known for its degree of parental support & involvement, which makes all the difference. Our guys were almost completely reading by the end of kindergarten, had access to gifted & talented services, and were tracking a grade or two ahead in math by 7th grade. But we started reading picture books with them by the time they were 10 months old.
    I have to agree with you on the coaching issue. One of our older son’s Phy Ed teachers was also the HS girls basketball coach and was an absolute failure as a teacher (having 7th & 8th graders “self-referee” floor hockey while he was texting on the sidelines). That resulted in a meeting w/ the principal–after we got back from having the xrays taken.

  7. My husband works for our school board doing IT…he’s so appalled by things like parents doing fundraisers for new laptops for the school and the teachers taking them and giving the students their old ones, without parents being aware. He does feel the blame falls partly on parents not getting involved, or only caring about their own child, but in our system the principle pretty much makes most of the decisions for a school so it really depend on the principle and how accountable parents are holding him.

    I think we are going blended…we have an awesome school here that does half homeschool, half “elective” classes and is funded. Just finished Dumbing us Down….it was interesting to see the parallels between churches and schools.
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  8. Hmm, I never thought of that. There did seem to be an over-abundance of male teachers who were also coaches at my high school. But there were plenty who were not.

    But I also grew up in California so you can take anything I say about public education and throw it on the GROUND!

  9. Not in our community, of course, but I just read in the paper that a neighboring community hired a new basketball coach at $68,000, and I know for a fact that the man is not licensed to teach in the classroom! But maybe that’s the best part.
    vanilla recently posted..Payoff of Persistence

    • A neighboring school district just hired a football coach for about $80,000, and he has no teaching responsibilities at all. Of course, he also coached the #1 recruit in the country last season, who is not sure he’s going to be able to qualify academically to play in college.
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  10. I was raised by a rabid unschooler. Her opinion was that the system wasn’t just broken, but was the wrong system entirely.

    My husband has a degree in History and Education, but while doing his student teaching he got fed up with the rigorous testing and now he’s a banker. We’re talking about looking into Montessori or doing co-op homeschooling when we have kids.

    I have a couple of blog posts that talk about what it was like to be unschooled: One on being an awkward teen with a superiority complex and one on being verbally assaulted by a public school teacher.
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  11. Blessing, James. I was about to complain about a rural public education in Mississippi.

    Matt, do you see parallels between a school district with a budget crisis and a church that isn’t stewarding their money well? I had some good teachers that were also coaches and I had some that were lousy teachers. Football brings in money. Basketball tournaments bring in money. However, I would bet you a steak dinner that athletics lose money for schools.

    In college, I saw a lot of Education majors that scared me to death. They’re waiting tables because there are no teaching jobs. A community college in a neighboring state has done away with athletics due to their budget problems. I am impressed. Yet, they keep building buildings when so many students are taking online classes…

    Yes, I would consider a private school or homeschooling.

    • Good point, Chad. Many school districts do resemble churches as poor stewards of their money. Keep focusing on programs that don’t achieve the mission of the church / school, because it makes everyone feel good.

  12. Unions, leftists, eco-wackos, gay activists, have taken over the schools (for a long time now).

    I’m not suprised one bit at what the kids are learning, and what they are not learning.
    Steve Martin recently posted..So many different takes

  13. I think all the social studies teachers at my high school were primarily coaches. My US history teacher stumbled into the first period classroom every morning, coffee in hand, and turned on the projector. Every day. I got an “A” in that class, but it took a trip to the northeast before I was able to sort out the differences between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. (This might have had something to do with my decision to stick to the sciences.)

    Non-coaching men are more welcome in math and science. I still remember interviewing for a job as a biology teacher, and they asked me how I’d feel about being the “token woman” in the department. (Exact words, honest.)

    I taught high school for several years, then quit to raise our two daughters. When I divided my salary by the hours I put in, I was working for far less than minimum wage, but the other rewards were tremendous. I’m still in touch with students I taught 30 years ago, and I know I planted a lot of faith-seeds that have since sprouted and produced fruit.

  14. Matt, I’m a pastor almost finished with certification training to teach here in Florida. So ouch! Can’t coach football, love social studies – double ouch! Oh and I’m ancient too.

    But I want to teach elementary school. Maybe ESE kids. And I think being in the crossroads of our community would help me connect with people and maybe God could use that to bridge gaps. Old church way isn’t working anymore. Tentmaking seems to be the road I’m to follow.

    So I’ll try for every certification I can get this summer and hope to get hired for the fall. Pray for me as I do you.
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  15. Wow, we seem to have the opposite problem in my old high school. My parents still live nearby, so they get the lowdown.

    Here in California, we have such terrible budget problems the schools are always right on the verge of cutting all sports programs in favor of “education”. And by “education” I mean math and science. See, in my neck of the woods (Silicon Valley), science and math are the only useful tools. Who needs to be able to communicate in English when math and science are universal? Why learn about, and try to understand American culture when nobody you’ll work with at Cisco or Intel are American (much less, outsourced)?

    Sports? What a waste of time. I mean, who needs to learn teamwork when…oh, darn. Well, the fact that sports are overlooked in my area only make sense because everyone is the son of a software engineer out here, and you know how physically fit they are…

    There are cultural problems with every area. In your area, sports are king. In my area, math and science are king. It’s sad that I’ve never heard of a place in America (or the world, really) that values culture, history, and creativity in its education system.

    • Hmm…interesting about not “needing” American culture, since everyone you work with isn’t American anyway! The thing that makes me passionate about history is that the more I learn about it, the more I realize that everything we are experiencing today is a repeat of history. But we remain ignorant, and so we become enslaved in fear and make the same mistakes again. We fall for the same political tricks. We can’t make informed decisions. And that is as detrimental to our progress as our lack of math and science skills.

      • I wholeheartedly agree with you. I love history, even though I work as a software engineer. I feel like my perspective sets me apart from my co-workers.

        If you think about it, the only things that make a lasting impact on the world involve culture and creativity. Even the Internet – a high-tech invention – is at its best when it helps spread culture and creative people use it in remarkable ways.

  16. i just said goodbye to my seniors for the last time. this year pushed me over the edge in so many ways – good and bad. in december, i spent an hour in the principal’s office being called “unprofessional” and “disrespectful” towards the school for not having a unit approved – something i’d never done before. the project tied in with dostoevsky’s saying “beauty will change the world” and i challenged my students to prove it right by finding a community in need & meeting that need through beauty. some kids went and decorated a nursing home for christmas. others developed a tutoring program for a local middle school. one of my groups – a collection of beatniks, jocks, extremists and musicians – created a night of spoken word at one of the local coffee houses. when my principal pulled the plug on the project, threatening to write me up if i did anything else with it, the kids looked at me and thumbed their noses. “we’re still having the spoken word night, mrs. ramirez. and we want you to come.”

    over 100 people showed.

    i say this not to counteract your post at all. goodness. so many times this year i’ve woken up and tried to scheme up ways to get out of going to work because really? another week of lesson plans? another article to read from the district? another scope and sequence? only so much can go on our plates as educators. i’m in a new position next year, a facilitator at a new tech school opening within the district, and even though i’m excited the burn out created in me from my current position makes me question whether or not i even want to go through with it. the only thing keeping me here is the seniors who just left? the ones i stood in front of and cried in december? they’ve told me i inspire them. they’ve told me i’ve taught them to push for the things they believe in and to above all, find the beauty and story in everything. i’m still in the classroom, regardless of the paperwork, because i know in the quiet corners creativity still breathes – she’s just waiting for a release.
    eloranicole recently posted..finding treasure

    • See that’s what I’m talking about. Somewhere someone has to stand up at one of these theological hubbubs and call Christians INTO the school system. Because “Beauty will change the world.”

      eloranicole – you are inspiring
      David Wilson recently posted..A Memorial Day Reminder

  17. Matt, great stuff. You’re spot on.

    I’ve got a 2 year old son now. I’ll send him to public school, but I will just send him knowing he’s not going to get an adequate education. Because, though I’d love to send him to a private school, where he’ll get a better education, I don’t have the financial resources to do so.

    So I know I’ll have to supplement his education with my own teaching, my own understanding of world social issues, economics, government, history, etc. And I’m okay with him learning that stuff from me.
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    • Sorry Ben…I said nearly the exact same thing you did. I have had this up all morning and didn’t get a chance to comment until a while ago. I didn’t read your comment until after I posted.

      You can either take it as plagiarism or just that great minds think alike. lol

  18. My daughter will be a freshman and my son will be in the 4th grade next year. Both are bright kids, but they struggle with the concept of learning.

    When either one of them has a homework question, they don’t want the process explained, they want the answer to memorize.

    I try really hard when they are helping me on the ranch to teach them how to “learn”. I try to guide them so they can figure things out on their own.

    It’s this creative learning process that’s lacking in public schools. I wish I could say that homeschooling or private school was available, but like a lot of people, it’s just not.

    When I’m rich and famous, I’m gonna hire you to teach my kids. Well, maybe my great-great-grandkids.

  19. My dad was both a social studies teacher and a coach at a public high school. He’s retired from teaching but he still coaches boy’s track and girl’s golf. My brother is also a teacher and a coach (he teaches Art). They are both gifted and talented teachers and excellent coaches. They influence kids and teach valuable life lessons inside and outside of the classroom. My kids went through (are going through) the same public school system I went through and they are being well educated. There are a few teachers that get seem to be hired for their coaching first and their teaching second. There are the standard jokes about taking so-and-so’s class during football or basketball or track season or baseball season because they are less engaged in the classroom. There may be an element of truth to that. But not all teachers who coach are coaches first. My wife is a public high school track and cross country coach. She doesn’t teach at all. As someone who has done youth ministry professionally, I’m jealous of the impact she has on kids lives. The thing coaches have going for them is the sheer amount of time they spend with their athletes. That’s fertile ground for relationship building.

    Personally, I think athletics should exist through the club system and cease to be a part of public education. Those students who excel in athletics can pay the cash to play club soccer/volleyball/whatever. Education can be about education and who is good and what sport would cease to matter in the place where kids are supposed to learn and prepare to be productive, intelligent and engaged citizens and community members.
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  20. I’m sorry your having a tough time finding a position, Matt. So am I. It seems we have been told of a “teacher shortage” only to have budget cuts which removes teachers and increases class size.
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  21. We homeschool, but I wouldn’t send our children to the public schools around here. It’s all about the drugs, the pregnancies, the drinking, and the sports in our town. No thank you.
    FaithHopeLoveAndJesus recently posted..3in30 – June Goals

  22. The worst mistake I made regarding my children was to let them go to a public school.

    I really regret it.
    Steve Martin recently posted..So many different takes

  23. Wow, Matt! You presented a reason for failing schools that I didn’t consider. Yet another reason to stay away from as many professional sporting events (and this includes college) as possible, unless, of course, they involve my kids.

    I homeschool my kids, for a variety of reasons any one of which has both negative and positive emotions and consequences involving them. While I believe homeschooling is a great option, I also acknowledge the fact that there is no perfect educational system this side of heaven. I have noticed a trend that the more the government gets involved in schools, the worse school performance becomes. Of course, another reason might be that there is no incentive to get educated or get a good job when you can apply for countless number of benefits to let you live a life free from having to work.

    I just said a prayer for you to be employed by a school who values your teaching skills.

  24. Matt, great insight!!! My wife is a former secondary ed teacher and she would lament a lot of the points you’ve raised. It’s the double edged sword that comes with a free education system – you get what you pay for but everybody can get it!

  25. Hey Matt, just discovered your blog… so fantastic! I’ve loved every post I’ve read so far.
    I relate to what some folks have said here about standardized testing. I’m an SAT/ACT tutor, and standardized testing is definitely one of the things I’d like to change about the system. It’s incredible how much better students can do on those tests if their parents have the money to hire a private tutor. Or if their parents were lucky enough to be educated themselves. But for ESL students, or struggling students, or students who learn differently, or aren’t good test takers (etc. etc.), it’s a really difficult experience to take those tests.
    So, for starters, I wish that learning opportunities were available to students of all backgrounds.
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