And I Thought Teaching to the Test Was Bad

AP World History teachers at a high school in Fairfax County, VA are getting a little international notoriety thanks to a piece in the Washington Post that was picked up by Boing Boing.  It seems the teachers don't want their students using any outside materials/influences for their studies.

"You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.''

That was not all. Students could not use anything they found on the Internet. They were not permitted even to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

What about complete strangers? The teachers had thought of that. "You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions." The words were playful, but the teachers were serious. Any violations, they said, would mean a zero on the assignment and an honor code referral.

The rules are bad enough – as the Post writer notes the teachers are banning curiosity – but what bothers me even more is the teachers' apparent rationale for their rules as related by their principal:

Westfield Principal Tim Thomas told me he will decide soon whether these rules are okay. He couldn't say much on the record, but gave me the impression that the teachers, who did not respond to my request for comment, were only trying to be fair. Some students have more help and resources than others. They should not be allowed to use materials classmates cannot get. The teachers wanted them to come up with their own ideas, not borrow them from Wikipedia.


I'm all for trying to give every kid what they need to succeed, but to try and mandate that every kid use exactly the same tools in the name of fairness is just plain ludicrous.  Let's face it, some kids are smarter than others, some kids have a better work ethic than others and some kids will take initiative to learn as much as possible while others will do the bare minimum to get by.  Limiting one child's resources in order to level the playing field for another child is not only unfair to the former, it sends a terrible message to the latter. Just imagine this kind of thinking being applied when the kids get out in the working world:

Former Student: "Hey boss, I don't think it's fair that Ralph over there is getting promoted and I'm not."

Boss: "Well, he's really been doing a great job.  In fact he seems to consistently get his work done 50% faster than anyone else in the department and the quality of his work is excellent.  He always seems to find a supplier that none of the rest of you know about and they always seem to do superior work at a significant discount."

Former Student: "Well, that's because he works from home at night on his computer. His mom used to be in the business years ago and she gives him lots of advice on how to do his job. I don't have a computer at home and neither of my parents worked in this industry so I'm at a disadvantage.  It's just not fair."

Boss: "I fail to see how this is my problem.  If you want a promotion then I suggest you figure out a way to make sure you can improve your production.  If you can't do that then you might want to look for another job."

The lesson is this: fair does not mean that we all are exactly alike, have exactly the same resources at home, have exactly the same IQ, etc.  In the school's case fair is that each kid is provided with the same support from the school (textbook, chair, classroom materials, etc.); it is not hamstringing one kid to benefit another.

Basically, when we parents tell our kids "Life ain't always fair" this is what we mean.  You aren't always going to have the best tools or the most resources, but it's up to you to do your very best with what you have.  That's what you can control.

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