Debate Magazine

Wait, That’s It?

By Stevemiranda

I spent several summers teaching test prep classes for high school students who had not yet passed the WASL, the high-stakes exam required for graduation.

Despite the dreadful teaching materials and the horrifying nature of the exam questions, it was great fun. The kids in the classes were usually really smart. The reasons they hadn’t passed up to that point were all related to, as far as I could tell, poverty.

I remember sitting next to one young man and, with his first draft essay in front of us, I explained how to write a five-paragraph essay. It took me about two minutes. He looked at me and—I’ll never forget this—he said, “Wait, that’s it?”

I said, “Yup, that’s it.”

The curriculum required that he write five or six essays over the course of the summer. All of his essays were fine. He ended up passing the WASL with ease.

* * *

What was different about this time that allowed him to write an effective five-paragraph essay? Here’s what I’ve concluded:

  1. He was in the program by choice; no one forced him to skip the beach and come to summer school.
  2. He was pursuing a goal that he had chosen; he was motivated to earn a high school diploma and knew this program could help him do it.
  3. The program consisted of about 50-60 students; it was a safe, quiet, friendly environment in which everybody knew everybody.

* * *

The education reform debates rage on year after year, seemingly getting nowhere, because they revolve around all the wrong questions. Pundits talk about education as if the academic material in question is difficult. It’s not. In 15 years working with teenagers, it’s hard for me to recall very many kids who were illiterate or innumerate about things that mattered to them.

The thing that was really hard for them was . . . school.

School is hard for kids because they’re being asked to spend the majority of their day doing things that have no relevance to their lives. This causes us to rely on coercive methods in order to force kids to learn. When those inevitably fail, we respond with more coercion (“Let’s increase the required number of credits in math!”), then edutainment (“learn Algebra by singing rap songs about polynomials!”), and, finally, threats (“If you don’t pass this test, you’ll never graduate from high school!”)

The answer, however, is really simple: Wait until a student is ready to learn something, then sit down next to them for a few minutes and coach them through it.

The hard part for adults is waiting for students to be ready. And this is why PSCS is so important: it’s building a body of data that shows that, when immersed in a safe supportive environment, students will, over time, pursue all the things we want for them.

* * *

I have this dream that someday I’ll be chatting with the superintendant of public instruction, and I’ll explain this simple premise. And he or she will say, “Wait, that’s it?”

(Join the discussion at Get updates at

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog