Guest Column

In Search of an Average Student

by Gary A. Burton

Does anyone know where I can find an "average" student?

Here’s why I’m curious. I think average students are becoming a schoolhouse rarity, and I'd like to talk to one before they all disappear. I suspect I could learn much from an average student's discussion of his or her school experiences.

Once upon a time being average was common. It was OK to be that way. Being average wasn't considered a personal shortcoming nor did it reflect badly on your family. All across the country normal people lived ordinary lives. Parents worked hard and sent their children to neighborhood schools. Backyards were full of kids who played games like kick-the-can, and nearly every household had a dog named Spot. On average, life was pretty good.

Today, things are different. For reasons I don't fully understand, nobody wants to be described as average--for fear of admitting personal inferiority. What a shame! But why?

In part, it's because life in the '90s has become more demanding. Everybody has to work harder and pay closer attention. Just ask any parent, working adult, teen-ager, or nursery school student and they'll tell you being average doesn't cut it anymore.

Also, as a nation of consumers when considering everything from toothpastes to colleges to personal relationships, we repeatedly are bombarded by superlatives, such as excellent, superior, and unequaled. Admittedly, most of us recognize that almost any product or service that’s advertised and marketed sounds better than it probably is. Still, in comparison, average sounds pretty dull.

Who would want to buy an ordinary car or a standard television set when exquisite automobiles and super-sized, surround-sound home entertainment units are just waiting to be purchased? Would you send your child to a school that promised only average results? The parents I talk to certainly don't admit to having average offspring nor do most teachers describe their charges as average. Indeed, there are no average children anymore.

Unfortunate Labels

Don’t get me wrong. As a public school leader, I'm not advocating that we strive to be average in our jobs, schoolwork, or anything else. My message is this: Average really doesn't cut it anymore. In recognition of today's demands on us, as individuals and community leaders, we must struggle to do our jobs better than they need to be done, to learn more than is required of us, and to wrestle with differing points of view until we honestly understand them.

None of these tasks can be accomplished with only an average effort. Life generally demands more of us, so we should all strive to live it above the median.

In our school district we have established high academic and behavioral expectations for our students. Our teachers genuinely believe their students are capable, when motivated and properly taught, of achieving superior academic results. Our primary goal is to assist children in all aspects of formal academic learning.

At the same time, we expect our students to demonstrate respect for themselves and others. As institutions of learning, we have set high academic and behavioral standards and we expect our students to live up to them. Seldom are we disappointed.

Still, I'm bothered that too many people have internalized all the perceived disadvantages of being labeled average and really do think it's a personal shortcoming. That's unfortunate because it really isn't.

In truth, most of our students, in one sense or another, are average, and this should not upset us. Youngsters arrive at school each day in all shapes and sizes and most are ready and willing to learn. Likewise, as their instructors, it is our collective belief that every child entrusted to our care possesses special skills, talents, and an above average potential yet unrealized.

Gary Burton is superintendent, Wayland Public Schools, Wayland, Mass.