In addition to my lovely offspring whom I home-educate, I also have two stepsons. One is grown-and-gone, and the younger is currently a senior at the local public high school. This kid is scary-smart and has a strong work ethic. Last year he balanced a full load of academic classes (many AP, and two math courses), a job, a girlfriend, and a band (not just jammin'-in-a-basement, but legit public gigs), and excelled at everything. I hold him in pretty high regard, and trust that he is someone who carefully considers his education.
When the current term began, he came home flustered by Calculus. Unsurprising. Calculus is hard stuff. Not beyond his ability, but enough to be at least a bit of a struggle. He wanted to drop the class.
His father--my husband--counseled him to stick it out. There were good reasons for this. I could possibly argue with the "don't be a quitter" angle (it took me a long time to let go of the perfectionist inner voice that advised me to ignore my limits to the point of over-committing and struggling) but his other arguments were sound. The kid is intellectually capable of the work. Help is certainly available (hubby was a math major before switching to Computer Science; his father was a math teacher and his sister still is a math teacher). And the skills will benefit him, both in the esoteric sense and the practical.
The kid's counterargument hit home, though, and made me both sad and discouraged. Since the class would be a struggle, he is concerned about a bad grade dropping his GPA, and fearful that a lower number will hurt his chances at college admission.
And he has a point. Despite the *knowledge* and *skills* that could help him with his education, the truth is that he may have a better chance getting his foot in the collegiate door with a lack of that experience than with it.
These are the choices that students make every day. Instead of pursuing what will enlighten them, or inspire them, or make them more skilled, they often weigh the options and choose instead based on what will look best on a transcript or a resume. What's better: straight A's easily handed out in low-demand classes, or hard-earned straight B's in challenging courses? If you're only looking at the bottom line, you're missing a big part of the picture.
And if you're looking at your education based on the bottom line, it's a sad commentary on what our educational system is.
I'm not naive enough to think that there's a workable solution for quick-referencing a student's potential, knowledge, or motivation. I get that there needs to be a standard shorthand, and quantitative assessments, while flawed, seem to be a reasonable way to meet this need. But we lose so much when we do it that way. I can speak from experience about knowing how to test very well without ever having a firm (or at all lasting) grasp of the content. Students who plan to get from point A to point B in their academic journey learn how to take shortcuts, use loopholes, and play to the system's expectations. They learn how to carefully manage things to look good on the final report card, regardless of what sacrifices they make along the way.
The upshot is that my stepson ultimately decided to keep the class on his schedule. I think it was a good decision. But given the overall picture, I'm relatively certain that I could have supported the opposite decision. I think it comes down to a question of goals vs. risks. Maybe he will make it through the class with high marks and the gamble will pay off. He'll have the knowledge AND the grades. I wish that we didn't have a system where sometimes kids have to choose between the two. Because either option comes with a loss.