Mostly Educational: Pull-ups and equal opportunity in public school

by Tom Deighan

This is the seventh in a series of ten summertime articles mapping the common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite regarding one of the most divisive topics in America: public education.

When I was in elementary school, we took The Presidential Physical Fitness Award test each year, but I could not do a pull-up to save my life. My friend Stefan, however, could do about twenty of them. As much as I wanted the award, I wanted the pull-up more. That pull-up bar provided us all with equal opportunity, but it certainly did not guarantee equal outcomes, for few of us could do a pull-up. I certainly hated that bar, but not near as much as I wanted to cut down the stupid climbing rope!

That test no longer exists, but it certainly highlights another area of common ground for parents and educators: equal opportunity for all students. Virtually everything in a public school has some sort of measurement – from the arts to attendance to math tests – providing students opportunities to shine. They also provide students with a chance to fail, which is just as important a life lesson. In elementary school, I also learned that I was a terrible clarinetist, and I am thankful that I did not waste any more of my life splitting reeds. 

Parents and educators want their children to succeed more than anything else, but they also understand that no child shines in every area. They may succeed or fail, but no one can be guaranteed an outcome. We cannot fix everything outside the school, but once inside the school, every child must be afforded equal opportunity. I believe that parents and educators agree on most issues, and I believe that equal opportunity is one of them.  It is a bedrock principle that binds parents and educators together. 

Unfortunately, our national discourse seems to be driven by extreme views on this issue. Some seem to insist on secret or hidden pull-up bars, as if they are afraid some people might succeed. Others seem to demand entirely adjustable pull-up bars to ensure everyone can do a pull-up. Neither extreme is compatible with the ideal of equal opportunity. Denying equal opportunity for all children is wrong, and demanding equal outcomes is just as unfair. 

The funny thing about pull-ups is that no matter how high the bar, a pull-up is still a pull-up. Lower that bar enough, and the pull-up becomes the stand-up. Lower it even further, and it becomes a limbo bar or a tripping hazard. The only way to guarantee equal outcome is not by lowering expectations but by eliminating them altogether. We cannot ensure success for everyone, but we can certainly restrict children’s chances to excel. This is true for pull-ups and for clarinetists who sound like cats caught under rocking chairs (my signature style). We all want our children to succeed in everything, but they cannot. Childhood is the opportunity to take risks within the safety nets of loving families, protective schools, and supporting communities. Abundant chances to both succeed and fail, that is how we raise adult-ready graduates.

I am confident that parents and educators almost universally agree about equal opportunity, for they make it work every day in most schools. As a humble product of common-sense public schools, I appreciate so many opportunities to fail and to succeed. Most of all, God Bless you parents and educators who continue to find common ground every day on this and other issues so critical to our state and nation. 

Tom Deighan is the current superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com.



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