I was a high school English teacher for 13 years, in four different places, before giving it up to pursue another profession. I've been away from teaching for a little over a year now, yet I still think about it a lot and talk about it a lot, and occasionally blog about it on my own blog that I can't seem to get anybody to read.
With the advent of the new Daily Kos, I figured it was time to start writing a diary here. Not about politics, since there's more than enough of that, but about education. See, I have some ideas about what's wrong with our public secondary schools and our education system that I don't seem to be reading or hearing anywhere else. Everyone's assessment of the problem is political; not enough funding, evil teacher's unions, etc., and everyone's solution is political as well; more money, vouchers, school choice, de-unionization, etc.
All of that sounds great when you're running for office. Not when you're standing in the doorway of a classroom as 34 teenagers walk in, with 34 separate personalities (and personality disorders), 34 different approaches to school and learning (and non-approaches), 34 sets of out-of-school "life issues" and 34 sets of knowledge and skills.
My ideas about education are limited to what goes on in that classroom for the next 47 minutes, and what goes on within the walls of that school between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the academic year. My experience is limited to teaching on the high school level, in the area of English Language Arts, so my ideas and anecdotes exist mainly within that framework. I can't really speak for what goes on at other levels, in other subject areas.
For the purposes of discussion, there are four "stakeholders" in school and education: teachers, parents, students, and administrators. In my view, in one way or another, all four stakeholders tend to fundamentally misunderstand what their role is, or should be, in those day-to-day and moment-to-moment situations that make up the school experience. Basically, everyone gets it wrong. The result is a system where not only do kids not learn, but they are actively prevented from learning by a system that manages to see to it that they don't learn.
Let me be clear: Kids who come to school every day wanting to learn, will learn. Some kids "get it." Some kids don't need any extra motivation; they want to learn, they want to know things, they want to excel, they want to prepare themselves for the future. Smart, capable, motivated kids have never been the problem in school. They will learn whether they're required to or not, and not because they are required to. The problem, obviously, is that as everyone knows but no one wants to admit, a lot of teenagers are not smart, capable, and motivated. High school in America, at least in my experience, is a lot more like a Larry Clark film than most people realize or would like to admit. What's happened over the last 30 to 40 years or so is, in a nutshell, high school students' abilities and performance have either stagnated or declined, yet somehow their academic grades have gone up. There are more straight-A students and valedictorians now than there ever were, yet somehow there are still tenth graders who believe, as a student of mine once wrote, that "Martin Luther King freed all the Native Americans from slavery."
In short, public secondary schools are no longer institutions of learning; they are institutions of validation. Kids don't go to school to learn, and parents don't send them to school to learn; they go and are sent to be praised and congratulated for what they already know, and already can do. If I had a dime for every time I heard another adult, whether a parent, teacher or administrator, say to me, "You can't expect kids to know _", or "You can't expect kids to be able to _", I wouldn't have had to seek another profession. But that's become the unspoken gospel in today's public schools; somehow, it is wrong for teachers to expect anything from kids, because they are, after all, "just kids." Teenagers don't know things because no one expects them to know things, there are no consequences for not knowing things, and if anything, the child is less likely to be called out for not knowing than the adult is for expecting him to know.
This is why kids don't learn; because adults not only don't expect them to learn, but actively see to it that they don't have to learn.
I'd like to repost something below that I wrote in another forum, that begins to address these issues in somewhat greater detail. Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment.
The education system in the U.S. will never be fixed by politicians. Neither will it be fixed by either political party’s boilerplate prescriptions for it. It can only be fixed if there is a fundamental shift in just about everyone’s perception of what education, learning, and teaching actually are, what they’re supposed to look like, what everyone involved is supposed to do and should be expected to do.
There are four groups of stakeholders in education: Parents, students, teachers, and administrators. All four of them, in my view, fundamentally misunderstand what their role in school and in the learning process ought to be. The result is a system that does not function as it should because the wrong people have the wrong interest in, and the wrong accountability for, the wrong things. A system in which teachers are virtually powerless against the other three stakeholders, where parents send their kids to school not to learn but to be showered with praise and adulation for what they already know, where students’ grades and grade averages are completely disconnected from their actual ability and performance, where kids are not only enabled but actively encouraged to be selfish, narcissistic and dishonest, and where smart, dedicated, conscientious educators find themselves fed up with all of the arbitrary and counter- intuitive restraints on their ability to actually teach.
One thing about studying the law: it makes the world a heck of a lot easier to sort out. It also helps provide answers to those questions kids ask, to which one might normally answer, “Because I said so.” But studying the law also makes it crystal clear that there are a lot of things that go on in schools, a lot of things that all four stakeholders believe and do, that simply don’t make any sense. They don’t make sense because they’re not reasonable, because they’re not efficient, because they don’t maximize available resources, and they don’t encourage productive behavior or good decision-making.
As I mentioned above, schools are no longer institutions of learning; they are institutions of validation. Parents and students don’t want to hear anything from teachers except how utterly magnificent they, everything they say and do, and every piece of work they submit, are. Heaven forbid you tell a student that he needs to write clearer sentences, or include more textual evidence in her discussion paragraphs. Before you know it, the parent will be on the phone with the principal, saying that the teacher told the child that she was stupid and that everything she does is wrong, and demanding that the child be placed in another teacher’s class or that the teacher be fired.
Most people who have studied child psychology know that adolescents typically do not remember things the way they actually happened. They remember them in a way that casts themselves as completely blameless, heroic, innocent victims of the arbitrary meanness of others, particularly adults. It’s not unusual for high school kids to think of their teachers as either objects of ridicule, or as nefariously evil Bond villains. But parents believe everything their kids tell them, as literal unembellished truth. And administrators tend to believe everything parents tell them, leaving teachers powerless to effect either learning or classroom discipline.
Teenagers have always been selfish, narcissistic and dishonest. Parents of teenagers have not always been enablers.
In ordinary academic disputes between students and teachers, parents and administrators always give the student the benefit of the doubt. As a result, the teacher always bears the burden of proof, which in many cases she can never satisfy. If a student fails or receives a low grade for not submitting a required assignment, all he needs to do is claim that he didn’t know about it, or that he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. The teacher then has to prove that she did everything she possibly could to make sure the child knew about the assignment and knew how to do it. When she inevitably cannot do so to the parent’s satisfaction, the parent demands that the child be given the grade that he would have received if he had done the assignment (which the parent, of course, assumes would have been an “A”); to substitute that made-up scenario for what actually happened. [Sometimes, the parent merely demands "another chance," proclaiming conclusorily that the child "deserves" one, but unable to explain why if anyone bothers to ask.] The child doesn’t have to demonstrate anything, least of all that he can actually do the work, let alone do it well. It is presumed that he could have, and would have, if the obviously-incompetent teacher had done her job.
The result? Kids learn not only that they don’t have to pay attention to assignments and deadlines; they learn to actively avoid knowing what they are. The first three words out of any student’s mouth when confronted with the fact that they failed because of a missed assignment, 99% of the time, are “I didn’t know.” Parents do the same thing. Parents insist on being notified any time a child breathes the wrong way. If a child fails, the parent will protest that she was not told that the child was failing or was in danger of failing, therefore he must be given a passing grade. Mention any specific act or forbearance on the student's part that contributed to the failure, and the parent will complain that he was not told about it when it happened, therefore it cannot count. Never mind that my calling her up on the telephone to tell her that the child had missed the exam would not have changed that fact. I actually got to the point, my last few years teaching, that I actually sent a letter home every time a child did not hand in an assignment. Reams upon reams of paper, thousands of dollars in postage. The only alternative would have been hundreds of hours per month on the phone, hours that I simply did not have, especially during the four years I was in law school.
In the end, it wasn’t the letters or the phone calls or the complaints that bothered me. All of that goes with the territory of being a teacher. It was the staggering, mind-numbing illogic of the contention that a student must be given a passing grade, which he did not earn, and thereby be declared proficient in a subject area in which he has not demonstrated such proficiency, because his parent was not aware, or notified in advance, that there was a possibility that he might fail. “If I had known,” many parents would tell me, “I would have made sure he did his work.” I suppose it never occurred to them that they ought to be doing that anyway.
Of course, none of this would matter if teachers and administrators, by and large, were inclined to do the correct thing in these situations, which is to stand their ground, hold the students’ feet to the fire and require them to actually demonstrate actual learning and ability through actual academic performance, before they are praised and rewarded for doing so, and not cave in to the unreasonable and self-serving demands of narcissistic parents who can’t handle the truth. Instead, we have a system that enables and perpetuates these awful behaviors; where students, not teachers, decide what behaviors are appropriate and what can and should be expected of them academically; where parents, not teachers, decide what grades their children deserve and ultimately receive; and where administrators can substitute their own judgment (or political cowardice) for teachers’ experience and expertise.
Two specific things we do wrong in schools that, if done correctly, would go a long way toward repairing the damage: subjective standards and entitlement grading. I’ll address each separately, and briefly.
Subjective standards refers to the idea that academic standards and expectations should be adjusted to meet the individual ability level of each student. Using the six-level New York ELA Regents rubric as an example: if a student writes an essay that meets the criteria for level 4, he would normally receive a C; a 5 would be a B, a 6 would be an A, a 3 would be a D, a 1 or a 2 would be an F. This would be an objective standard. But if the child is not very bright or capable, and can’t do any better than a 4, we’ll lower the bar for him; if he produces a level-4 essay, we’ll give him an A, because that’s the best he can do, whereas the “smarter” student sitting next to him gets a C for an essay of the same objective quality, because we deem him capable of writing at level 6.
The rationale here is that we don’t want kids who are less capable to “feel bad about themselves” and “turn off to learning.” The obvious problem is that it eliminates any incentive for the student to learn and improve. If I get an A for writing a level-4 essay, what incentive do I have to learn to write a level-5 essay? We need to get rid of this misguided and completely counter-intuitive belief that it is somehow “unfair” for a student who is intelligent and capable, and whose work is of objectively higher quality, to receive a higher grade than one who is less intelligent and less capable, to say nothing of one who consciously chooses not to do his work.
And this has led to the most ridiculous, illogical idea of all, maybe the one single idea that pervades the schools and prevents kids from learning more than any other: That a student who cannot do the required work, who is incapable of producing work product that meets grade-level standards and class requirements, should pass that class, BECAUSE she cannot do it. I’ve actually had kids and parents tell me this; that it was wrong for them to fail, because they could neither do the assigned writing nor “understand” the assigned literature (the latter being another topic for another day). My response to such claims was simple, and should always be the response in this situation: If you cannot do the work, expect to fail until you can. Otherwise, what’s the point?
How can anyone learn in an environment where one can pass one’s courses by virtue of being either ignorant or incompetent, or both?
Entitlement grading refers to the model of starting every student off in September with a 100 average, before any work has been assigned, submitted or evaluated. The idea here is that everyone is an A student by default; students therefore approach school from a defensive posture, trying to avoid losing points. I, on the other hand, always used what I call the economic grading model, wherein the student starts the school year with zero points, having yet to demonstrate learning or proficiency through work product. The student needs to focus on earning as many points as she can, rather than avoiding the loss thereof. Submitting work earns points; the higher the quality of the work, the more points it garners. Simple logic.
The problem I often had was that students had grown so accustomed to the illogical, counter- intuitive entitlement model that they failed to appreciate, or even perceive, the risk of choosing not to do their work or submit assignments, or to behave properly in class, when working under the economic model. They figured they might lose points, but not enough to fail the class. What they didn’t realize was, if their job was to earn points instead of to avoid losing them, doing and/or submitting nothing was the worst choice they could possibly make. For years I tried to convince kids that a “D” or even an “F” was better than a zero; something is always better than nothing. It was harder than you might imagine to convince them of that.
The entitlement model prevents kids from learning not only by making them think they are high achievers by default, but by turning “pass” and “fail” into transitive verbs; i.e., into laudatory or punitive action by the teacher instead of the result of the student’s ability and performance. Hence the ubiquitous question, “Why did you fail me?” instead of “Why did I fail?” Even if they don’t fail, under the entitlement model the grade is more the product of the teacher’s conscious and often subjective decision to “take points off” than the student’s actual, objectively- measurable performance; what the teacher gave him instead of what he earned. It takes both failure and achievement out of the student’s hands.
There is an obvious downside to objective standards and economic grading: A lot of students will fail. Both subjective standards and entitlement grading seem designed not to produce or even measure actual learning, but to arrive at a number, even if it’s entirely arbitrary, that will satisfy students, parents and administrators. The goal is that students pass, not that they learn. The latter is no longer a prerequisite to the former. The subjective/entitlement model gives us the former without necessarily engendering the latter; the objective/economic model does the opposite. And we’ve decided, for the most part, that the former, not the latter, is what we really care about.
In the end, students don’t learn because they know they don’t have to. What’s worse, the adults in their lives, both in and out of school, actively see to it that they don’t have to. That’s the tragedy of the American educational system.