One size fits all?
It doesn't work for dogs -- or students
Here is another Brady instant classic.
Driving the country roads of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I've sometimes been lucky enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.
I say "lucky" because it allows me to watch an impressive performance by a dog -- usually a border collie.
What a show! -- a single, midsized dog herding 200 or 300 sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.
Why a border collie? Why not an Akita or Xoloitzcuintli or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?
Because, among the people for whom herding is serious business, there's general agreement that border collies are better at doing what needs to be done than any other dog. They have "the knack." That knack is so important those who care most about border collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. That, they say, would lead to the border collie being bred to look good, and looking good isn't the point. Brains, innate ability, performance -- that's the point.
Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you're lost in a snowstorm in the Alps you don't need a border collie. You need a big, strong dog with a really good nose, lots of fur, wide feet that don't sink too deeply into snow, and an unerring sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.
If varmints are sneaking into your hen house, killing your chickens and escaping down holes in a nearby field, you don't need a border collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a Fox Terrier.
It isn't that many different breeds can't be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It's just that teaching all dogs to do things that one particular breed can do better than any other doesn't make much sense.
We accept the reasonableness of that argument for dogs. We reject it for kids.
In a column in the Sentinel headlined "Arrogant U.S. falls behind," Thomas Friedman said American students are rapidly losing the lead in science and math. In a high-tech world, he reminded us, the consequences of that for our economic well-being could be catastrophic.
Friedman noted that, in a competition this spring that the United States used to win in a walk -- the annual Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest -- the United States got its lowest ranking ever. The University of China came in first, followed by Moscow State University, then the St. Petersburg (Russia) Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.
The University of Illinois tied for 17th place.
So, what is this rich, advantaged country of ours doing to try to get back in the game?
Mainly, we've put in place the No Child Left Behind program. If that fact makes you optimistic about the future of education in America, think again about dogs.
There are all kinds of things they can do besides herd, rescue and engage foxes. They can sniff luggage for bombs. Chase felons. Stand guard duty. Retrieve downed game birds. Guide the blind. Detect certain diseases. Locate earthquake survivors. Entertain audiences. Play nice with little kids. Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well. And much else.
So, let's set performance standards for all canine capabilities and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind.
Two-hundred-pound Mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-hole standard, and most Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, no excuses! Standards are standards!
Think there's something wrong with a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy? Think a math whiz shouldn't be held back if he can't write a good five-paragraph essay? Think a gifted writer shouldn't be refused a diploma because she can't pass algebra? Think a promising musician shouldn't be kicked out of the school orchestra because he can't do both?
If you think there's something fundamentally, dangerously wrong with an educational reform that's actually designed to ignore superior talent and natural ability, make photocopies of this column. In the margin at the top of each copy, write, in longhand, "Please explain to me why NCLB's denial of human variability doesn't result in a catastrophic waste of student potential." Send the copies to your state and federal legislators, along with self-addressed, stamped envelopes.
Maybe, if they won't answer me, they'll answer us.
Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.
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