Sunday, May 06, 2007

Teachers, Students, and Grades

My readers will know that I hold my fellow teachers to very high standards. I lambast schools of education because they teach pablum and indoctrination instead of "best practices" for helping students succeed. I insist on standardized testing and support merit pay for teachers, because teaching is a field where excellence can be measured--despite what the unionists will tell you.

However, I don't let students off the hook. Students, and the communities from which they come, also have a role in achieving excellence. In other words, good teachers are necessary, but not sufficient, for student success. What else is required?

Giving a darn.

Last week I wrote about Bill Gates and Eli Broad who think that high schools need reform because they aren't doing a good enough job. This week I read about a congressional effort to put more money into hiring better math and science teachers because they think the ones we have aren't doing a good enough job. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I don't think these experts get it. They want higher test scores from American kids, and when they don't get them, they continually blame those who are teaching the kids. If the kids aren't performing, it must be the schools' and the teachers' fault. They seem to never consider that maybe it's the kids...

There is a great misunderstanding in the debate over education that takes place in America. It is a misunderstanding that you hear almost anytime education is discussed. That misunderstanding is that it is the job of schools to educate children. It is impossible for us to "educate" kids. We can only give them the opportunity for an education.

It is the job of schools to try to motivate students, so we definitely bear part of the responsibility. When we allow disruptive students to remain in our classes and our schools, we are denying other kids their full right to an education. When we make it clear that students like Christine will be allowed to remain in our classes and school even when it becomes clear that they have no chance to pass, and when we allow students like Alex to continue to attend classes after missing twenty, thirty or forty days, we are contributing to the blase' attitude that so many kids have to their education. But we aren't the only ones who share part of the blame. Our culture with it's emphasis on entertainment and stardom (Did you see how many people tried out for American Idol?), parents, and the kids themselves are also responsible.


By posting this I don't mean to relieve teachers of our responsibilities, but to remind others that there are in fact other significant players that need to be addressed.

11 comments:

Robert said...

I have for a long time been saying at my blog that most of what we think of as the problem with education these days, is not an educational problem (or budgetary or pedagogical or...) at all -- it's a cultural problem. The way that our society, families within the society, and individuals within the family attach value to things has changed. No longer is the same degree of importance placed on learning or education, or being a learned or educated person. Unless and until *that* changes, you won't see signficant change in any other part of the educational problem despite anybody's best efforts.

Law and Order Teacher said...

I read this article. It was filled with truth. I don't know, however, if we have control over who is in our class. I would like to but I don't see that happening. The solution seems to lie in changing the system. We all know how easy that is. I, too, support testing and merit pay. I don't fear being judged. I think most teachers do a great job under tough circumstances. I respect the profession of teaching even more after coming to it from another profession that is highly criticized. The wild card in the situation obviously is student motivation. We have very little control over the circumstances that students bring to class that affect motivation. We can only function within our circumstances. In other words, we can control our enthusiasm, professionalism, scholarship, and yes, our motivation. Sometimes our positive role modeling is enough, sometimes it is not. Some children want to be left behind. Some cannot overcome their circumstances so they can succeed. Some just don't care. I'm not one to think I can save the world. The majority of students leave school much better than they came to it. That's the important thing.

Polski3 said...

Here ! Here !

Pappa said...

Great post, Darren. There's plenty of culbability to go around but certainly there are cultural problems as well. Teachers can't do it all.

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

I teach in a school where a majority of the students don't give a darn. It can be depressing at times...

Denever said...

Surely motivation is closely linked to the importance the person puts on the activity. If you grow up with parents who value education and communicate that over and over to their children, you're much more likely to be motivated in school.

There's a point at which, if your motivation has always been extrinsic, you have to internalize it, or you probably won't stay motivated through the high school and college years. But again, a kid with parents and older siblings whose daily actions say "Education matters" is way ahead of kids from families who value other things more.

Darren said...

Fortunately I teach in a school at which most of my students give a darn.

Denever said...

Why do you think that is, Darren? What's the difference between most of your students and Dennis's? Or the majority of your students and the minority?

Darren said...

I teach in an upscale area, where many students are pushed by their parents to succeed.

Mike said...

Darren:

Thanks for the post. We see too little of what is the only rational perspective.

Certainly, teachers/schools must function properly and professionally. If they are doing that, they are providing the best educational opportunity possible for their students. When the kids show up, the teachers have the goods and are ready to deliver them. Being prepared, being encouraging, doing more than the minimum, going the extra mile, all of that is merely a part of that professional function. If that's not taking place, we're dealing with a different issue.

But what NCLB and most education reformers completely ignore--and I believe this is purposely done--is the enormous reponsibility of the individual student, and their parents, in ensuring that the student actually learn something, actually take affirmative steps toward becoming educated. All a student need do to utterly stop the learning process is simply fail to pay attention. They need not be disruptive, absent, abusive, or otherwise annoying, they just have to daydream. Add in any or all of the disruptive elements, and not only will that student learn little, they'll make it hard for anyone else to learn.

I have always enjoyed my studies in Asian martial arts. We study as students have studied for millenia because the learning is focused on what works and what has been proven to work for millenia. We can apply the same principles here. Human beings learn through practice, but not any practice, the correct practice and constant, correct repitition. That's where good teaching comes in. If the student, however, fails to concentrate (let's not even talk about students who don't bother to show up), does not do the practice correctly, or simply doesn't do the practice (homework or classwork), they will learn little or nothing. No new neural pathways will be formed, no new brain connections made.

Education is not something that is done to students, it is something they must actively and attentively seek, and as children are infamous for a lack of focus, their parents--ostensibly adults--are responsible for forcing them to seek that education when self motivation is insufficient. That's part of the parent job description.

Oh yes, why do the educrats and politicians fail to hold students and parents accountable? Too many of them. Much too large a constituency that crosses all demographic, racial and gender lines. Dump on teachers? Demand that everyone be above average and hold teachers solely responsible for it? Absolutely! But you don't want to tick off every parent in America. That's just not effective pandering. It's much easier to talk about excellence and to mandate the impossible for others than to actually do something to make it happen.

Tony said...

Last week, at Understanding (http://understanding.mindtangle.net/?p=223) there was a discussion about the Constitutional right to education. The author calls for an amendment to the US Constitution that guarantees the right to an education. Much debate ensued, but at no point did anyone mention that such an amendment would also have to guarantee the right NOT to be educated.

Many people want to hold schools to a business model, but that can't be done with mandatory attendance. It wasn't that long ago where students were allowed to "drop out" after grammar school. I'm not saying I think the world would be a better place if everyone did this. Far from it. I just think that in a truly free society, it is not only unjust to force someone to attend school against their will, it is also extremely impractical. If neither the student nor their parents see the value in what the school is providing, how on Earth is the teacher supposed to accomplish anything? Schools should not have to function as prisons for the unwilling. They should be safe-houses, where those who WANT to better themselves are free to do so.