Saturday, November 7, 2009

Conversations on the Lowest Common Denominator

On Thursday and Friday, I found myself in the midst of several conversations that all resonated the same theme: Catering to the lowest common denominator. I find the more I think about that topic, the more confused I become. Here's the background:

Thursday during lunch, a colleague and I were talking about how difficult one of her standard classes was because she had to constantly repeat instructions and couldn't depend on them to complete homework assignments - either reading or writing. Because of this, she was having to read all of a major novel in class. Time she believes would be better served in direct instruction. (As an aside, I tend to agree. I have done that for some standard classes with Scarlet Letter because I felt it was just too heavy for them to tackle alone.) Her comments revolved around something her father was fond of saying - the lowest common denominator.

During that same conversation, another colleague said something to the effect of: If you cater to the lowest common denominator, the denominator keeps getting lower.

Friday, the principal and I spoke briefly about a new program instituted by our county office. Without going into too much detail, around $200,000 has been spent on a dropout prevention program that allows students to use a credit recovery system to get credit for a class they fail. Now, I like the credit recovery plan. I do agree that it has helped keep some students in school. My concern is this: When do we spend money on the students that want to excel? It seems that in our efforts to pull up the bottom, we are simply letting the top slide down too.

During youth group about 25 years ago, I remember our youth leader saying that it was easier to pull someone down than to pull someone up. She illustrated this point by having someone stand in a chair and another sit on the floor. The person in the chair was pulled down. Her point was for us to make good Christian friends. Now, I'm seeing that scenario in public education. The people on the bottom are pulling down those on top.

So, now I sound like an elitist and that most certainly isn't my stance. I just find myself irritated that the lowest common denominator (the immature, the apathetic) get to set the standards for everyone else.

Which leads me to the final conversation of this topic. Another colleague in another setting commented that she was done dealing with the kids that disrupted her class and her students. She's just sending them out. She wants to focus on the ones that want to be there - and she wants to teach such that they all want to be there. Is that the balance, then?


  1. This is called the dumbing down of public school education. I saw it first hand when I went back to teaching after retiring the first time. If your school is worried about No Child Left Behind, then that is why they have to pull up the bottom quarter of kids who are struggling. They need to show progress. But in doing that the gifted and average students, who try, get short changed. It is a big problem - that is why so many of us homeschool. Our kids (in my case, my granddaughters) get no shortage of help and support every day, all day and work at their own pace. What to do?

  2. That's just it - our school was the only high school in our county to score "high growth" by NC standards. We (the teachers at our school) do an excellent job; the county office seems to by the source of the dumbing down.

    And my husband and I have discussed home schooling as an option for our 2 year old. I just hate to think of her bored for 7 hours every day when she could be learning and growing. Of course, we still have a few years before any decisions like that need to be made.