Sunday, June 24, 2007

Spreading the blame

Jumping on teachers for educational shortcomings is a sport in some quarters. In a welcome corrective, Diane Ravitch looks at the role students need to play in the educational enterprise:

When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on.

So, once again, out come the usual solutions to our nation's education problems: Incentivize teaching. End tenure. Adopt schemes for merit pay, performance pay, bonus pay. Pay teachers according to the test scores of their students. If student test scores go up, their teachers get more money. If student test scores don't go up, their teachers get extra professional development, and if need be, are fired.

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

Home life has the greatest influence on a child's success or failure in school. It shapes the behavior of the child. It is where values and attitudes are communicated. Home life can be intellectually stimulating or impoverished. Attempts to remedy educational disparities also need to focus on this neglected aspect:

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.
UPDATE; Judging by most of the responses to my post, the thesis is widely misunderstood. I'm concerned with the environment parents create simply by being, i.e.having or lacking certain attributes. These attributes can be any number of things, e.g. providing a loving and nurturing environment conducive to the healthy emotional development of the child; valuing respect for others and teaching good manners; attaching value to education; providing an intellectually stimulating environment even in incidental ways. Contrast this with dysfunction and psycho- and sociopathology as is so often the case, a pathology that poses nearly insurmountable obstacles to education and perpetuates stratification. The thesis does not concern itself with minutiae like school board relations.

In this respect the thesis seems unremarkable.

17 comments:

Polski3 said...

Amen. I have recently written Congressional Education Committee leaders (both House and Senate) regarding NCLB, among other things, putting the responsibility on the schools and teachers and NONE of the responsibility on the parent(s) or students.

Anonymous said...

The other side of this coin is that when responsible parents try to become more involved with the academic expectations and curricula choices made in the public schools, they are often pushed away and their efforts thwarted.

I take my responsibility as a parent very seriously and don't believe that parents always have the opportunity they should to be more actively involved in the education of their children. Sure, I get to bake a lot of cupcakes, chaperone field trips and help out in the library, but when it comes to being involved in decisions of substance I'm on the other side of the door.

Dickey45 said...

I'm with anonymous. I had a very effective home program for my son (he has autism). Early Intervention, Special Ed, and Regular Ed had regularly fought me. At one point, they wouldn't allow me to observe with a consultant (highly qualified). They also didn't like me dropping in like other parents even though I made a point of not being disruptive. The only parents they like are ones that strictly agree with them. And sadly, they don't know much. Whole language reading without a curriculum at a Title I school is not what I would consider competent teaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm in the anonymous/dickey45 camp, obviously.

All of my efforts to work with my son, "support" my son's education, "be involved" with the schools etc. have been met with rejection, hostility, and at times open belligerence.

I don't want that to sound "martyred"; I've been an enormous thorn in the math department's side for two years now.

On the other hand, I've been nearly 100% cooperative and appreciative of our social studies, ELA, and science teachers, and we really have no cooperation or collaboration at all.

Ed called the ELA teacher this winter to tell her that C. hadn't been able to do a writing assignment, which was far too complex.

She told him assignments were "set by the department" and that was that.

She gave C. something else to do to bring his grade up, but there was zero interest in what Ed had to say (and Ed has been creating writing assignments for nearly 30 years).

The social studies department requires the kids to "create a Civil War artifact" at the end of 7th grade.

We objected politely and with an expression of appreciation for the teacher, & had to get the assistant superintendent to intervene.

Ed sent the teacher material on a fantastic historical exhibit that will be in NYC next fall; she thanked him for sharing.

After your child leaves grade 4, tere is no way for parents in my town to be involved with the school or with your child's education other than to teach him yourself or hire tutors.

Catherine Johnson said...

Interestingly, the PTSA reports that volunteerism is down - I don't know if this is related.

I spent YEARS volunteering for the school right up to the moment the superintendent shut down the Singapore Math course I was teaching for the PTSA afterschool program.

Catherine Johnson said...

This weekend's NYTIMES has an ad for Irvington teaching positions:

"We are seeing highly qualified, professional educators....the Irvington School District is committed to excellence for ALL students, welcoming parental involvement, and dedicated to ongoing professional development."

Catherine Johnson said...

I once had a SPED teacher (in BOCES, not here) threaten that if I carried on having Andrew use a little communicator he wouldn't be able to learn anything his program was teaching him!

Catherine Johnson said...

In that case I got through it fine. The woman who "threatened" (it really was a not-so-veiled threat) was extremely competent, and was reacting to the fact that Ed and I had called a meeting without warning her. (I forget the details -- as I recall it had little or nothing to do with unhappiness with her work; it was something about assistive tech, probably. I hadn't handled the etiquette properly.)

So...I was able to....kind of move her off that idea, and win her support for what we wanted to do (which turned out to be the right move).

Even so, in that case the teacher herself intervened to tell the other woman that what we were doing was good.

Catherine Johnson said...

I SHOULD ADD: K-5 was nothing like the middle school. Tons of parental involvement - real involvement - tons of cooperation between school and home.

Of course, then the school went and adopted Math Trailblazers over the objections of 300 parents....

Tracy said...

Home life has the greatest influence on a child's success or failure in school. It shapes the behavior of the child. It is where values and attitudes are communicated. Home life can be intellectually stimulating or impoverished. Attempts to remedy educational disparities also need to focus on this neglected aspect

I'm puzzled. In Project Followthrough, Direct Instruction appears to have ignored home life, and focussed all its efforts on school, and yet had really good results. Given this, why do you think that attempts to remedy education disparities *need* to focus on home life?

If you can improve educational disparities without needing to take on the monumental task of changing parents, why not go ahead and improve them?

Barry Garelick said...

I confess I don't know this issue. I only know what I've been told by veteran teachers who have survived inner city schools. One person was a substitute who managed to just escape having a student throw a chair at her in class. Because she was pregnant the other students convinced him not to do it. When she reported the incident to the principal, he said and did nothing.

So when I read essays about "don't blame the teacher" I think about the student almost throwing the chair, and not about the situations that many of us in middle class settings face: i.e., being shut out of the pseudo educational crap they're forcing on our kids. These are two separate problems.

If Zig Engelmann says "teach the kid", well, if the principal in his school doesn't support him and lets the student throw a chair at him, I doubt Dr. Engelmann would be so high and mighty, forgive me for saying. (I respect him, but I'm just saying...)

My brother taught in an inner city school in SF and quit because of this type of violence.

At Downtown College Prep, the tone is set from the principal on down. If a kid throws a chair, he's out of school. Period. I think KIPP works the same way.

Maybe I'm wrong. Let me know.

Anonymous said...

"...when it comes to being involved in decisions of substance I'm on the other side of the door. "

And that is where micro-managers should be kept. Put on your realism cap and take off your self-interest cap for a moment. If you require a "say" then all parents should have the same "right". Put 25 kids in a classroom and multiply by two. When the fifty adults come to a decision, then tell me what I am going to teach today, tomorrow, and next week. We will coloring while we wait for your collective wisdom. What next, parent created assessments?

If you are all that, then skip off to ed school and come and fix the problem. Don't forget, you'll have summers off!

Anonymous said...

If you require a "say" then all parents should have the same "right"

Yes, all parents should have a say about their own children.

If as a teacher you honestly consider this "micro-managing", I'm certain there are plenty of districts complaining of lack of parental involvement and parents who just don't care that you could choose to share your school of ed wisdom with--sounds like a perfect match.

Independent George said...

And that is where micro-managers should be kept. Put on your realism cap and take off your self-interest cap for a moment.

Absolutely. When will these micro-managing parents learn that school is about the teacher, and not the students? Except when it comes to achievement, which is all about the student, and not the teacher. Unless they succeed, in which case it's all because of great teaching.

Tracy said...

If Zig Engelmann says "teach the kid", well, if the principal in his school doesn't support him and lets the student throw a chair at him, I doubt Dr. Engelmann would be so high and mighty, forgive me for saying.

Direct Instruction focusses on the school, not the teacher. It's a school-wide reform. So the principal would need to support the teacher in this case.

If there's an educational program that only needs the teacher to change and works at least as well as Direct Instruction then I'd favour that one as it would be easier than reforming the whole school. I don't know of one.

But it strikes me that it is easier to reform the principal of a school than it is to reform all the parents of the kids at the school. Why take on the harder task if it's not necessary for good results? The principal can, in extremety, be fired.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's funny....I'm having chronic synchronicity events.

I had just ordered a copy of Ruby Payne's book, because of the TIMES article on her....and it probably relates to this discussion.

What's been confusing for me is the fact that "middle class kids" aren't brilliantly motivated to learn and succeed (and AGAIN: I don't say this to insult people's kids!! - I base this observation on watching my own kid while away countless hours of his young life lying on a sofa playing video games).

Assuming Payne's observations are correct to some degree (I can't judge that, but I gather the objections to her are more political than empirical..?) --- anyway, assuming Payne's observations are correct, what advantaged kids bring to school from home - which is what instructivist is talking about - is something more instrumental.

Middle class kids know they're supposed to do B-level work, stay out of (bad) trouble, and above all GO TO COLLEGE.

Those attitudes give teachers something to work with.

Payne claims that children living in "generational poverty" - poverty that has persisted for generations of a family - have a different sense of time, the future, causality, etc.

Apparently her work is based, in part, on Reven Feuerstein, who worked with impoverished Jewish children who'd settled in Israel after WWII.

Niki Hayes was telling me about Feuerstein this week.

Pcubed said...

Okay, here goes. I've looked at this site a couple of times, but never commented. I love it though, thanks for doing it!

As far as a comment, I guess I'd like to ask what folks around here think of Direct Instruction (by Engelmann and associates). I think that when it comes down to learning - the instruction is the key. If the teacher doesn't have a good, well-designed curriculum to implement he/she is left to re-create the wheel (or, unfortunately, make it up as she goes along).

Anyone familiar with Project Follow Through? Largest educational experiment ever and definitive evidence that it's all about instuction. I don't deny the relevance of parental factors, poverty, etc., but I think we need to begin with the factors we can control - and curricular issues are critical.