The Public School Predicament

Anticipation is tangible in the air as the girl holds the letter that will determine her future. Her face is a melange of expressions, changing from nervous to excited in seconds. She holds the letter as if it could either be a bomb, or a winning lottery ticket, and she doesn’t know which. Finally, the suspense becomes too much, and she rips open the envelope, her shaking hands sliding out the piece of paper inside. It takes a few seconds for her to register the verdict this letter has brought.

The letter contains a paragraph of text along with a few graphs and charts. Her mother looks at her expectantly. “Well?” The girl scans over the page again, as if ensuring she didn’t accidentally misread it. “I didn’t get in. An 893 out of 900 and I didn’t get in.” Oftentimes I get asked where I am going to highschool.

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Oftentimes I am faced with the grueling task of explaining the high school acceptance system in Chicago. Basically, every kid has a score out of 900 based on grades and two standardized tests. The smallest mistakes can throw you off 25 points and make you ineligible to get into the school you want. There is also the tier system. Chicago is divided socioeconomically into four tiers, with Tier 1 being where the poorer families live and Tier 4 being where the richer families live. Kids in the lower tiers don’t have to get as high of scores to get into the top schools.

The objective of this initiative was a good one: to diversify the schools socioeconomically and to help those who don’t have the advantage of excessive resources. The problem is, like most things, Chicago Public Schools did it all wrong. Lots of rich kids ended up in Tier 1 and lots of poor kids ended up in Tier 4. Last year, 14,393 kids tested for selective enrollment schools in Chicago. Only 4,340 kids were accepted into selective enrollment schools.

That means 30% of kids were accepted and 70% were turned away. One can imagine that to achieve this top 30 percent ranking, there is not much wiggle room for making mistakes. This atmosphere forces children to be constantly worried about impeccability vs imperfection. Kids are constantly getting stressed out about their grades and test scores, to the point where they will do anything to succeed. I have seen seventh graders who cheated on standardized tests.

I have seen seventh graders who have had to go to therapy because of the overwhelming amounts of stress they were feeling. I once saw a seventh grader put their head in their hands and cry out of stress and worry. I have been that kid. Kids get three points off on their standardized test and their score of 894 isn’t enough to get them into the high school they wanted. This system doesn’t work.

It fails at its weak attempt for socioeconomic diversity. It creates a mood where perfection is expected to be the norm, thus creating an environment of fierce competition between peers. Salvador Dali once said, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” I think he was on to something; there can only be excellence, never perfection. Excellence is what drives us to success, and success cannot be expected in a place where a couple of points off means the difference between making it or breaking it.