19 October 2010

I know what happened with Snooki, with Abe Lincoln, not so much.

And now, friends of the BlazeBlog, we're going to enter into a realm of educational "problem" outside the realm of the school.

That's right. I'm going to blame something outside of schools for problems in schools. It's not even parents (they're going to get their own post). I'm going to blame society. I realize that this is dangerous, because old codgers like myself can often slip into the habit of decrying everything new as bad, and glorifying the "good old days". Hell, the Republicans have made that their message for 40 years. I'm going to attempt to make the point that fundamental changes in society have undermined education.

Now, I've already documented my beliefs on Americans getting dumber, and being glad ( don't remember? Check it out!), so I'm not going to revisit that particular rant. Instead, I'd like to look at 5 (other than the aforementioned getting dumber and being happy about it) things which have changed relatively recently, and which I feel are murdering public education like being on Happy Days murdered Anson Williams' career (he was Potsy) Too arcane? Ok, fine, insert your own pop culture joke while I move on to the 5 things which have changed in society that are killing public education:

1.The celebrity / constant contact culture
The internet's invention radically changed world culture. I don't think I'm overstating it to compare the revolution in how we find and consume information to the Industrial Revolution. Whenever there is change on this scale, average people (consumers, if you will) play a large part in determining how that change plays out. To meet their demands, the agents of change will change to profit most, and provide goods that the people want.

In the early industrial era, this led to a massive increase in home goods and "processed" foods. In general, prior to the rise of the Progressives, these goods and foods were not of the highest quality. I think we're living in that era for information.

There's lots of it, and it's tailored to a generation of people who want to know about "famous" people. To exacerbate the situation, people now are "famous" not for any accomplishment or skill, but for being caught in the constant circle of celebrity. Far too many students see this, and believe that they are entitled to a life of luxury, which they have not earned. This attitude of entitlement, often shared by parents, causes more angst in parent-student-teacher meetings than anything else. Students increasingly feel that simply "doing the work" means they should pass. I beg to differ. Doing the work well means you should pass. Turning in crap should result in failure. You're welcome (they'll thank me later, I tell myself)

The second part of this information revolution is that parents and students have constant access to grades. On the surface, this seems like a godsend. Now, parents can keep track of their child's grades, and punish them accordingly. Many parents do this, and it can be a powerful tool. But, especially for high school kids, it's a disservice. Prior to this system, students were responsible for their grades, and for keeping track. When the grade card came home (once every 6 or 9 weeks), it was a time of reckoning. And if the student screwed up, the world might end. Now, parents can keep constantly on their children. This takes away an element of independence that children should be developing (in a safe environment) in high school, and replaces it with a short term system of little rewards and punishments (turn in your missing work, and get your phone back).

It also makes life harder for teachers. Grading, like it or not, is time consuming. But, with constant access, parents want things graded RIGHT FREAKING NOW. As a bonus, they can also email you, to ask why it wasn't graded RIGHT FREAKING NOW. And since it's written communication, a teacher has to be very diplomatic in explaining that it takes time to read essays, and it'll get graded when I get it graded, dammit. Because if you're not diplomatic, you'd better believe every principal in your building is getting that email forwarded to them. Have I mentioned that I have an entire post coming on parents? Because I do, and friends, it's a dandy. 

2. Changes in taking responsibility
Well, this explains itself, but I think I'll spell it out anyway, because I teach, and explaining things that appear self-explanatory is a big part of my job.

In American society, for a long time, high school students were treated as "young adults". If they didn't do their work, they failed, and that was on them. But we teach in a brave new world, and that world ( of accountability!), and that world demands that schools teach all students. You know, No Child Left Behind. Oh, see, that second word is part of the problem. We now teach young people (many states won't let you drop out until you're 17 or 18) as though they are children. Schools share some of this blame. In order to get more of them to pass, and to boost precious graduation rates, we've simply lowered the bar. Didn't do the work? Ok, I'll take it late. If I won't, just get your parents to bitch loudly enough, far enough up the food chain, and I'll get told I have to take it.

This is a true story: I was in a department chair meeting several years ago, and we were arguing about letting students turn in late work for full credit. I was in the "no late work, no late credit" camp, and fighting against an assistant principal in the "as long as they do it, full credit" camp. At one point she said "they're only 16." I retorted with "that means they can drive, when would you like us to start treating them like adults?"

Needless to say, a directive came down that we were to take late work for some credit.

3. Litigation
This ties in nicely with the disappearance of taking responsibility.

Lets say a kid doesn't turn in work, and so I don't give points, and so the kid fails. Mom/Dad/Guardian is upset. Perhaps it turns out that the kid was Special Ed, and had an IEP that promised extra time on tests. Now, just as an example, lets say that during tests, this kid routinely fell asleep on his test, and when the test time was over, I took the test from him.

Well, Mom/Dad/Guardian decides that I was out of compliance, because I didn't give their precious angel the "extra time" he was entitled to. Now, do they come in and chat with me, and have an honest discussion about the shortcomings of their child? No, they send an email to the counselor, the principal, and probably the poor Sped teacher.

If they really want results, they threaten to sue. That'll get some grades changed. You know why? There are two reasons. The first is that administrators often work on single year contracts, without the protection of a union, and so, are concerned about being sued, because the district could easily decide to simply mollify the angry parents by dismissing the administrator. The other reason is that lawsuits are expensive, people in education aren't made of money, and so we take the easy out. "We're not letting him into Harvard" is a common phrase when a grade gets changed.

Now, I think that we cheapened the high school diploma, and changing grades for kids whose parents complain the loudest will just result in graduates who can't read, which is what got this whole accountability nightmare started in the first place, but what do I know, I'm just a history teacher.

4. The self-esteem movement
Everybody gets a ribbon. That's the crux of this problem. You see, society doesn't like conflict or tears. So, to avoid that, we tell every young person that they are special. And they are. But not more special than anybody else. So, when they get to my room, and I tell them the truth ("you're average", "you're a weak writer"), it causes major crises.

When children fail, parents want their child to feel better. I understand, I really do, but at some point you have to let your child fail. We're a nation of birds stuck in nests. Wait, what?

Think about this marginal analogy: We've progressed to a point where we don't want our children to fail, or even to feel like an average part of society. This is as though birds never left the nest. Do you think a tiny chick just one day jumps out of the nest, and flies, because they just knew it was time to go? NO. The mother bird gives them a shove. And then, it's fly or fail. Birds learn from failure. Why can't we?

(I happen to think this is also the reason for 85% of college students telling Pew that they're moving back home after graduation, and for the so-called Quarter Life Crisis. They've never had a chance to fail, since Mom/Dad/Guardian have always been there to back them up. So, once it comes time to set out, they fail, and move back home)

An added bonus of this is that every parent thinks that their kid deserves individual attention. If you want that, hire a tutor. Your kid is in school, and part of school is learning to ask for help when you need it, and learning to work in groups. Educators are constantly hearing from business that business wants graduates to be able to critically think, and to work collaboratively, but when you try to teach those things, parents complain that their kid isn't getting enough attention.

5. Lack of respect for educators
I'm sure that the older educators who read this blog will counter my assertions in this point, and say that they've never been respected. To some degree I understand this point. Society has always played great lip-service to "respecting and honoring" educators, but has never shown that respect by fixing working conditions or funding buildings or higher pay.

However, I think that parents and students have, in many cases become more brazen in their disdain for teachers. Though I'll write at greater length about specific times that I have been questioned by parents at a later time; suffice it to say that, perhaps due to the increased access to both teachers and information, parents feel comfortable questioning everything from content to how that content is delivered. And they're willing to do it in pretty confrontational ways.

They'll call it advocating (if they're smart enough to know that term), but it's questioning. Do they question the doctor when he diagnoses them, the lawyer in front of the judge, the dental hygienist? I doubt it. But since they've all been students, they think that qualifies them to question how I teach (or what I teach, or how I discipline, or what the seating chart looks like) .

How about this? You go to school, you learn about education theory, you get at least 3 years in the high school classroom, and then I'll accept your complaints as valid. I'm willing to take suggestions, but you have to trust me to do my job. You trust so many other important people in your life to do their jobs, trust us.

(this isnt' to say that every teacher is great every day. We aren't. But, I've written about that too I'm linking all over this post!)

Thanks for sticking it out to the end. I hope that this made sense. Please, feel free to share this if you like it, and if you don't, feel free to comment and counter-point what I've said. 

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree more...I'll add an anecdote about the administrator who went in and changed a failing grade to passing (from a 42% to a 60%) after grades had been submitted & everyone had left for the summer...naturally this was a result of a parent complaining