The specific thing I want to talk about right now is algebra. When I was a kid, the belief was that algebra was a high school specific class. Kids younger than about 15 just could not understand it or retain it, so it wasn't taught below the high school level. My friend "Parker" and I presented them with some amount of difficulty, though. Here's a rundown:
- Sometime after Christmas during the fourth grade, our teacher took the two of us aside and told us that she had nothing she could teach us; it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the class. Therefore, she gave us our math books and told us to just do whatever. We finished that math book almost immediately. She gave us the fifth grade math book. We worked through that one, turning in the assignments (all of them) as we went. We finished that one. She gave us the sixth grade math book, and we did the same to it. She dug up some alternate sixth grade text book, and we started to work on that one, but, alas, school ended. We did all of that within a few months.
- We were moved to a different school for fifth grade, one with a brand new special program for kids like us from all over the Parish (this was in Louisiana, not a Catholic thing). However, they still didn't know what to do with the two of us in regards to math because we were so much more advanced than any of the other kids. So they, um, just stuck us in the sixth grade math class, which didn't win us any friends, because we had to be singled out of the class, a couple of fifth graders, and given special work that none of the other kids could do. Mostly, though, we were just left to ourselves, because, again, the teacher didn't have time to spend on just two kids with special needs (it sounds bad when I say it like that, doesn't it?).
- For sixth grade, they brought in a special teacher for us and grouped us with the other sixth graders in the special program we were in. They, also, were too advanced for the regular sixth grade math class. We worked through a couple of seventh grade math books but, still, no algebra.
- Things changed, again, for seventh grade. There was a restructuring of the entire education system in Caddo Parish (maybe all of Louisiana, but I don't know about that). Sixth grade was moved from elementary school to middle school (in fact, it was that year that they switched from calling them "junior highs" to "middle schools") and a new middle school was opened, a Magnet school (following a couple of years behind the opening of the Magnet high school (the first one in the state and one of the first in the country)). The program we were in was going to be located at the Magnet school, and they were going to try us (all of us in the Gateway program) in pre-algebra.
- Eighth grade. They were going to try for the very first time (at least, in Louisiana; I don't know about anywhere else) teaching algebra to middle schoolers. One special class of eighth grade algebra students in the whole of Louisiana. And this is where it gets interesting and is the point of all of this.
The test took place on a Saturday after school had ended for the year. Yes, we had to go take a test during summer break. [But, then, my creative writing class was horrified recently to learn that I had assigned summer reading, too, so taking a test during the summer wasn't that big a deal, I guess.] A couple or few weeks later, I got the results in the mail. I had passed. But, not only had I passed, I had aced the test. Not a single incorrect answer. "Parker" was the same.
Then we got the call. I know about the call, because I was the one that answered the phone, and my parents weren't home, so they just talked to me about it. In retrospect, I'm not sure how wise it was for them to talk to a 14-year-old about all of this, but it is what they did. As it turned out, not only were "Parker" and I the only two students to get 100% on the test, we were the only two students that passed the test. Which is not what they called to tell me, not exactly, anyway. No, what they called to tell me, so that I would not be upset about it, is that they had decided that they were going to throw out the test and just go off of the class grades to determine who would get algebra credit and go on to geometry. They were worried that I would find out that other people had not passed the test and, yet, were in geometry with me, and they didn't want me (or "Parker") making an issue of it. They didn't want us to talk about it.
Fortunately for them, at the time, I didn't much care and just shrugged it off with a "sure, I won't talk about it or tell anyone my test scores" (except for "Parker," because he and I had already communicated about it, so, when they told me I was one of only two kids to pass the test, I knew the other one was "Parker" without them having to tell me anything else). Since then, though, I've developed quite a bit of ambivalence over the whole situation.
On the one hand, I understand the "everyone failed; our standards must have been too high" mentality. We just dealt with a similar kind of thing with my oldest son in his history class. There was an essay assignment with a fairly specific instruction set. If any particular student did not follow the instructions, s/he received a 0 on the assignment. That's pretty hardcore, but I understand that. So my son's classmates started getting their papers back, and everyone was getting a 0. Everyone. That went on until everyone had gotten their papers back... everyone except my son. All 0s. My son was kind of freaking out, especially since it took nearly two months for him to get his paper back. I can only assume it was because the teacher actually had to read and grade my son's essay, because he was the only one in the classroom to follow the instructions. He got a 95. Not just the only "A" in the class, but the only grade that wasn't a 0. So, on the one hand, I have to think the teacher wasn't quite doing his job if more than 95% of the class failed at the task. On the other hand, if my son can follow the instructions, a boy who can't remember from week to week where to put the trash cans when he moves them down to the curb for pick up, any of those students should have been able to follow the instructions. So, you know, I get the board (or whoever it was making the decision about the algebra class) deciding to do away with the test and just going with the class grades.
But, on the other hand, I have an issue with lowering the bar to meet the standards of failure. It was made clear to us going in that we had to both pass the class and pass the test to get credit, so it seems wrong on some fundamental level to shrug and say, "oh, well" and allow in everyone that only passed the class. Which is not to say that I know what they should have done instead. Maybe, the test was too hard; I don't know.
All of this does remind me of the current state of independent publishing, though. Which is not to say that I think we should go back to the artificial gatekeepers of traditional publishing; I certainly don't. I do think that we've adopted an attitude of accepting failure as normal, though. As a community of independently published authors, I think that is totally what we've done. Part of it is because we've, basically, decided that no one should fail because, if people were to fail, nearly everyone would fail. We've lowered the bar to meet the standards of failure. We've lowered it so far that in many cases it not even okay to say, "Hey, this doesn't measure up. You need to learn to spell and punctuate or you need to hire a (good) editor."
Here's the thing: While it's true that some of those kids that were passed up into geometry did just fine and went on successfully through their math classes, many of those kids also failed the geometry course and, because of that, failed out of the school completely (about half of the freshman class each year failed to maintain the requisite GPA to stay in the school). If those kids had been required to re-take the algebra class, not only may they have been successful in geometry when they got to it, but they may have also been able to keep a GPA that would have allowed them to continue on at the Magnet school.
In the same way, if we would have the strength or courage or whatever it is we are generally lacking in the self publishing world to say to some of these authors who are throwing their... efforts... out into the world via the Kindle (and I say Kindle, because that's where most of them go, but, you know, whatever platform), "Hey, this piece of work fails the grammar test; you need to go back to work on it," or "Your story structure in this piece is really rather flat; maybe, you should spend some time study the way a plot works," or, just in general, pointing out where work needs to be done, well, maybe, more of these people would start putting out stories that "pass the test."
Really, this world of independent publishing is not like the algebra class thing in that, if you failed the class, it only affected you. However, pumping the indie world with works that don't pass reflect badly on all indie authors. In that, we should stand up and say, "Hey, we want people to respect indie publishing, so take this back until it's ready."
And, sure, I hear a lot of you getting ready to tell me how subjective it all is, but, when it comes to grammar and punctuation, it's not subjective, and, as a writer, if you can't learn to actually do the math, so to speak, you need to go back and take that algebra class again. Or get someone that can do it to help you out. That's all there is to it, really, because it doesn't matter how good your story is if people can't find it due to the piss poor writing.
So... I know it seems somehow kinder when we just cheer everyone on and tell each other what an amazing job we're all doing, but that kind of thing just brings us all down in the end. It lowers the bar until failure is success, at least to us. All those other people looking in from the outside just see a pile of steaming crap. Raising that bar up above the fumes helps us all. It lets other people know that there is something valuable in indie publishing. There is good to be found there. And helps those beneath the bar to become stronger writers as they strive to "pass the test."
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