Op-ed: Our public education system is a no-win scenario
Raising standards, expectations and graduation requirements for Washington state students without increasing funding is a Kobayashi Maru, a no-win situation, writes guest columnist Jacob Elstein.
Special to The Times
Video of Kobayashi Maru scene from 2009 film "Star Trek"
Video of Kobayashi Maru scene from 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
THOSE familiar with the "Star Trek" universe know that the Kobayashi Maru is the name of a training simulation that is unwinnable.
Why did Starfleet Academy create a no-win scenario? To test the character of its cadets and to see how they would react as captain in the face of certain failure and death. Capt. James T. Kirk is the only person who has ever beaten the Kobayashi Maru.
How did he win a no-win simulation? He hacked into the training computer and reprogrammed it to be winnable.
As a math teacher at an urban public high school in Western Washington, I have come to believe that our current public-education system is a Kobayashi Maru. Standards, expectations and graduation requirements for students continue to be raised, while funding has stayed constant or in most cases been reduced. This is an unwinnable situation.
For example, my school district requires that all ninth-graders must take algebra or a higher-level math, yet test scores indicate that on average they are not actually ready for algebra.
With extra attention and differentiated instruction, these students could still be successful. But in classes with 30-plus students, I have found myself utterly incapable of giving every student the time and resources they need to bridge their knowledge gap. The result has been that just over half of my algebra students fail each year, on par with my high school's overall failure rate for ninth-grade algebra.
Were there also successes interspersed with all those failures? Yes. Just under 50 percent of my students did pass. I have also gained an invaluable education.
I came to my teaching career as a perfectionist but quickly had to let that go. There are seemingly infinite tasks that need to be done in a school day, but not all of them can be done at as high a quality as I would like. Many will not get done at all.
I have had to develop my humility in being able to apologize to my students. And overall, I have simply had to learn acceptance. I have had to accept that I cannot control my students. I have had to accept the education system as it is and just to try to do my small part within it.
These experiences would make me a much higher quality employee now if I chose to enter the private sector. Indeed, I believe this is expressly the reason that programs like Teach for America have become so popular.
Our current public-education system has unintentionally become a Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario to test the character of those who work within it.
While I'm grateful for the personal development my teaching experience has afforded me, I don't believe our country can afford to keep things the way they are.
I've hinted that it's a lack of resources that prevents teachers from being successful in reaching all students. For the most part this is true.
Realistically though, funding for smaller class sizes of 15 students or fewer and the other resources our students need to be successful in our current system are not going to materialize anytime soon.
Instead we need to take a page out of Capt. Kirk's book. He states, "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." Neither do I. We must therefore reprogram our education system.
My biggest hope is that we will be able to leverage technology in a monumental way to make up for the current deficit of resources. Though technology will certainly not be the silver bullet to cure all our education system's ills, I believe it has the power to completely re-imagine the way we teach and the way students learn, and just maybe it can make that no-win scenario just a little more winnable.
Jacob Elstein was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Va. He now lives in Tacoma and is in his third year of teaching high-school math and physics.