Thursday, December 21, 2006

Public Education: Giving America What It Wants

One of the things that irritated me the most about the recent Nation at Risk II report from that blue ribbon commission on education was the message it sent that our nation's educational problems lie solely inside the schools. The commission made it pretty clear that they believed American schools are not nearly demanding enough. On the CBS news story that I saw on the report, I was most annoyed by some fine upstanding looking American high school students they showed who laughed when they were asked if they were being adequately prepared for the new globalized world. This news spot gave the very strong impression that American high school students are eager for more challenging classes. When I saw that, I could not help but think, "Yah, right!" I am open to the idea that American schools aren't challenging enough, but if we aren’t, it isn't because schools and teachers aren't willing to be. The major reason that American schools aren't more challenging is because the American public doesn't really want that.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I know there are some parents who do want schools to be more demanding. I have no doubt that people like KDerosa, Crypticlife, and Rory want their kids to be challenged, especially in math. But I have seen no evidence that they are even close to being in the majority. In fact, during my 32 years of teaching, I have seen overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

American parents want their kids to be educated, but they also want a lot of other things. I have been a coach, so I love sports, but I am also very aware of the overemphasis that many people put on athletics. There are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of parents out there who are dreaming of college scholarships and professional contracts for their children. For some of those families, those hopes are realistic, but for the great majority of them, they are not. Whether they are or not, many of these parents are willing to sacrifice many things for their dreams, and in many cases, one of those things is academics. Sports and school don’t always have to conflict, but if it comes between putting time in to be a good student or a good athlete, parents often encourage their kids to put the time into their sports. But they know that their kids can't afford to do too poorly in school, so they expect the school to be very "reasonable" in their academic expectations. And it isn't just sports. A few years ago, we had a girl who missed school every Wednesday because she had to travel 150 miles and back to take piano lessons from the right instructor. Believe me, very few of these kids or their parents want the classes in our schools to be more challenging.

Our school is a working class community, and a huge percentage of our kids work during the school year. In most cases, they are encouraged to do this by their parents. I don't know how many times I've heard kids in my classes say that they didn't have an assignment done because they had to work. Once again, I can assure you that none of these kids or their parents want the classes in our school to be more challenging.

Another thing that amazes me is the number of students who miss school at the drop of a hat. You expect a certain amount of "illness" excuses in a school, and some kids are going to milk any "illness" for every day that it's worth, but those are not the only excuses we see. Every day we see excuses that have been signed by parents for "needed at home", "parent request", or "out of town". I will guarantee you that these kids and their parents don't want school to be any more demanding than it is.

And it isn't just working class families. Every year we also have kids whose parents take them on family vacations for up to two weeks, and sometimes even more than that. These, of course, are usually families with pretty good incomes, and some of them have real clout in our school district. In fact, an absence policy our school had adopted a few years ago seemed to be making a difference until it fell apart after an influential parent made a gigantic stink to our administration because the Caribbean cruise he planned to take his daughters on in the middle of the school year would have put them over our limit. I think it's safe to say that that parent wouldn't have wanted us to make our classes more challenging for his daughters.

If a poll was taken in America, I have no doubt that most parents would say that they think American schools should be more challenging, but I don't buy it. Once you get down to actually doing things that make school more demanding, the response from parents is a lot different. I can't think of any teachers who have gotten into trouble for giving too many A's and B's, but I can definitely think of teachers who have gotten fired because they gave too many F's. I think the school district in which I work is a good one, and I also like our community. But when I first came here, I had a terrible time, and a major reason was that my standards were too high. Parents were calling board members, and one board member even went into the principal's office and pounded on his desk because he was so upset with me. I ended up lowering my standards. After I got established in the school I was able to gradually raise them again, but I'm convinced that if I hadn't adjusted to what the community wanted during that first year, I'd have been gone. Believe me, this is not meant as a slam on my community. And if anyone thinks that this is the only community in which a teacher could get into trouble for being too demanding for that community's standards, they are dreaming.

There are parents in America who want their kids to be able to go to college, and there are others who don't think that's important. Regardless of whether or not they see college in their children’s future, the great majority of American parents also want their kids to do other things outside of school. Some want their kids to excel in sports, some want their kids to work, some want their kids to be able to stay home for nearly every reason under the sun, and some want to be able to take their kids on family vacations. Most parents also want their kids to be able to date and to have active social lives. The great majority of these parents are getting what they want. One thing the typical American parent couldn't care less about is whether or not their kids beat somebody from India or China on an international test. Maybe they should care about that, but they don't.

Although I am offended when people say that American public schools are doing a lousy job and that we are putting our nation at risk, I am not arguing that we shouldn't begin to challenge our kids more than we are. But if that is going to happen, people like those on that "blue ribbon" commission can't simply try to change things inside our schools. The American public is going to have to be made to understand just what "being more challenging" will actually mean for their kids and their families, and they will have to be convinced that it is really necessary. Believe it or not, a lot of us inside the schools are willing to do our part.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Ian H. said...

Fantastic post! I agree wholeheartedly, so it's not just in the US. Recently, I gave an exam in 5th period (last class of the day). Two students came to my room at the beginning of 4th period to tell me that they wouldn't be writing the exam because they were involved in a pep rally during 5th. I called down to the administration to confirm that school policy was that academics should be prioritized over extra-curricular activities, and was told that because the pep rally was planned at the last minute, the students should write the exam (the implication being that if I had enough notice, I should have planned my exam around the pep rally). One student came back in 5th to write the exam, dashed it off in 10 minutes and left for the pep rally. The other student came the next day and requested a noon hour exam. Normally I would be disinclined to allow this, but I know her parents would complain vociferously to the admin if their daughter wasn't allowed to write the exam, despite the fact that I'd told her she should write it during the class and she skipped the period to be at the pep rally.

12/22/2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Yes, you have a certain point that there are parents who resist creating more challenging classes.

On the other hand, I remember growing up, and the ones who were really standout musicians were typically better than average students. Maybe it's different for sports, but I suspect not irredeemably so. Plus, it's not like other nations don't have similar issues. Many in China, and Japan (and I'm sure India, though I can't give specific evidence of that) want to be athletes, musicians, and actors as well.

Incidentally, I'm not really hyper-focused on math. It's just that it's a) not really that difficult to teach, and b) can be evaluated across nations. This makes it a good example. I suspect English teaching may have similar issues, but comparing American students to French students on an English test hopefully would not be fair. There simply is no international comparison in most of these other fields.

I think it's worth the effort to try to change our culture, Dennis, but we do really need to do both. Most of those seriously complaining about the schools do have some rather specific suggestions for change. And I believe that many inside the schools ARE quite willing to change. I view teachers as having the least authority, and the most power, within the schools. They have the most power because they're the ones actually doing the teaching: teachers could completely ignore (or, more likely, give lip service to) whatever policy was handed down. And yet, they typically have little power setting official policy, from what I understand.

I think the US educational system should be the envy of every country in the world. No student, from any country, should be able to look at American students and quietly scoff behind closed doors. I do think the tests exaggerate the deficiencies of American students -- even still, we're too far behind.

12/22/2006 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

t's not like other nations don't have similar issues. Many in China, and Japan (and I'm sure India, though I can't give specific evidence of that) want to be athletes, musicians, and actors as well.

True, but none of those countries has sports in high school in the same way we do. Look at what's celebrated here and what makes the papers: sports. Academics rarely makes the papers, and there are no pep rallies for stellar grades. What's the lesson being taught?

12/23/2006 7:43 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, you make a good point. From my experience, you're right--good athletes in high school are often good students, too. In fact, on our state championship hockey team two years ago, five out of our six starters were on our A honor roll. They were able to find the right balance between athletics and academics, but for many families that balance gets out of whack.

I said in the post that American parents want their kids to get an education, but they also want all those other things, too. There is an implied criticism in that, but maybe they've got the right idea, and everyone else has it wrong. Maybe that's why for so long our high school students, who have been outperformed by kids around the world on international tests, have been able to perform so well as adults in the real world. Just a thought.

12/23/2006 7:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian, thanks for your comment. Academic purists might criticize your school for allowing a last minute pep rally, and they might criticize you for allowing that student to take that test. I think you both acted reasonably. You adjusted to the pressures of the public, and as public schools, that is something we are expected to do.

Michael, thank you for your comment, and your point is valid. Most nations don't have HIGH SCHOOL athletics, and I doubt that anyone emphasizes it like we do.

12/23/2006 8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny that Klein and Bloomberg, so visible in the panel, now advocate things like credit for "seat time" and that all teachers pass a minimum of 70% in each class, regardless of any circumstances that indicate otherwise.

Also, they share with co-member Rod Paige a fondness for improving statistics by pretending dropouts don't exist.

It's beyond me how these folks become educational icons. Also remarkable is how many people (including teachers) don't notice that higher salary plus eliminated pension does not actually amount to increased compensation.

12/24/2006 6:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

NYC, you always bring an important perspective to these issues that is a lot different than mine. I'm not arguing against increased salaries for teachers, but I think the "educational icons" are over-rating the importance of it. I think young people to whom money is a priority go into other things. I think most people who go into teaching just want to make a decent living. Those who become interested in making more money end up going into administration. Are they the cream of our crop? I'm just not sure teaching will improve significantly by trying to attract more people who want to make a lot of money.

12/24/2006 7:20 AM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

Dennis, I just dropped by to wish you a joyous Christmas!

12/24/2006 10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember "pep rallies." They were events during which scantily clad cheerleaders and pom-pom girls jumped up and down, and boys screamed out obscene remarks to them. All in the name of "school spirit." And they always took place during the school day. I'm not sure why school administrators thought they were a good idea, unless they also enjoyed watching the scantily clad teenage girls jump up and down.

12/30/2006 5:41 PM  

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