Monday, May 14, 2007

Academics in America: A very low priority

There has been a great deal of hand wringing over the past several years over how poorly American students do on international tests compared to students of other nations. This is usually blamed on the schools, and especially, the teachers who are teaching those subjects. The fact of the matter is that a major reason for our kids' poor performance is that our society is not serious about academics.

Let me share with you the story of Ben. Ben is in my seventh hour American History class, and he was there on Wednesday, April 26th. Ben plays baseball, and on Thursday the 27th, they had an away game, so he missed class that day. The next day--Friday, the local police put on a staged automobile accident program during the last two hours of school for all the kids going to prom to discourage them from drinking and driving, so he missed that day, too. Then on Monday, he had another away baseball game. Then on Tuesday, he had another away baseball game, but on Wednesday, he was in class. On Thursday, he had baseball at home, and the players usually don't miss any school for home games. But this was a double-header and they had to start early, so Ben missed again. Then on Friday, they had another away baseball game. Ben is also in the band, and on Monday, May 7th, the band director had requested a practice session during seventh hour for the concert that night, so chalk up another missed class. Then, on Tuesday, (Surprise, surprise!) another away baseball game. So between Wednesday, April 26th and Wednesday May 9th--a two-week period, Ben was in his seventh hour class a grand total of one day.

Fortunately, Ben is an unusually responsible kid, so he was regularly coming in before school hours to check in, pick up assignments, and take quizzes and tests. He is also very bright and a great reader, so he did amazingly well on the tests. His grade dropped a little during that two week period, but not very much. There are other spring extr-curricular participants, however, whose grades have dropped significantly.

You see, it isn't just baseball players who miss a lot of school. In fact, although seventh hour gets hit hard by that sport, overall they don't miss any more than the other spring sports. The boys and girls track teams take off early about twice a week, and they often miss at least half the day. Boys and girls golfers--varsity and junior varsity--generally miss two days a week, and when they miss, they miss the entire day. And it's not just sports. Knowledge bowl season just ended, and they missed an entire day once a week for seven or eight weeks in a row. And if you think the kids involved in knowledge bowl are all A and B students, dream on. One of my Basic American History students missed regularly because he was the Knowledge Bowl student manager.

If you are appalled by the amount of school some of our kids miss, I can't blame you. But if you want to blame the people running our activities, I'd disagree with you. The baseball coach is one of my best friends on our staff, and he is charged with running that activity. He is trying to do the best job he can, and I think he is succeeding fantastically. If you want to blame our principal for allowing this, I'd disagree with you. If he tried to restrict those activities, parents of kids in those activities would be upset; they'd go to board members, and board members would go to him, and believe me, it wouldn't be to tell him to keep supporting those academics. And if you want to look down on our school district for allowing this, you'd better think again. This goes on throughout northern Minnesota, and I'll remind you that Minnesota has one of the best reputations for K-12 education in our nation.

The only people who really care about all those kids missing all those classes are the teachers of the classes they are missing. And if when they complain to our principal or superintendent, they get about as much sympathy as gnats buzzing around our heads on a muggy day. Like I said, they have other pressures they have to deal with. After all, we are a public school, and I have never heard of a phone call being made to anyone by any parents complaining about how often their kids are missing English or history or math. Kids can miss so many classes for so many activities in our school and others because our society doesn't see them as being very important.

Missed classes for extra-curricular activities is not the only evidence of this. As I've said before, in athletics, if a player is disruptive, lazy, or doesn't show up for practices, he or she will be kicked off the team. We won't put up with it. And I'll guarantee you that there would be calls of complaint to the athletic director from parents of other players on the team if any coach ever tolerated that. But in our academic classes, we accept that as standard practice.

Two years ago, the Minnesota State Legislature passed and our governor signed a bill prohibiting public schools from starting before Labor Day. They did this under pressure from resort owners around the state. Fall sports are allowed to begin in early August, however. Can you imagine the public outcry if high school football was delayed? Our legislators wouldn't dare do such a thing. Nope, it is only our academics that they feel free to jockey around.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post defending high school athletics, and I'm not backing away from that. I've heard many non-coaching teachers complain that sports are too important, but that is not the problem. The problem is that in our society, academics are so unimportant. When it comes to the things the American public is interested in, academics are so far on the back burner that they barely register.

I hate to speak heresy, but I can actually understand why the public feels this way. We've treated academics as a low priority for as long as I can remember, and our economy keeps rolling along. We had full employment through most of the nineties, we have full employment now, most people coming out of our schools end up with about the type of jobs they had hoped for, and they have decent lives. I wish all of the kids I had over the years had cared more about American history, but I guess I can see why they think it's not that big a deal. I honestly don't know many parents who dream about their kids getting an academic scholarship, and I don't know any who dream of their kids becoming a history professors. On the other hand, I know plenty who dream about their kids getting athletic scholarships and pro contracts. And if their kids have any musical talent they probably dream of one day seeing them on American Idol.

It's not that the American public doesn't care about academics at all. They want enough academics to allow their kids to get whatever it is the parents want for them. Granted, there are parents like those who participate in edublogs who view academics as very important, but they are the exceptions. Generally speaking, parents are getting what they want, and as long as that is the case, they aren't going to want to see the priorities of American schools change.

The American public doesn't put a very high priority on academics, but the elites of our nation do. They want change. But in order to bring about that change, they don't dare tell the public that their priorities are wrong. That would not be good politics. So instead of that, they tell them that there is a crisis. They tell them that the schools are the bad guys, they tell them the schools are the failures, and they tell them schools are not giving the public what it wants. An actor says we are doing a terrible job teaching civics, rich entrepreneurs say we need to break up the teachers unions and use merit pay so we can find better teachers, blue ribbon commissions are formed so they can shake their heads in disgust at the total job we are doing, and politicians tell people that those bad old schools are leaving children behind.

Maybe we do need change. Maybe we should put much more emphasis on academics in this country than we do. But it would be nice if some of those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians had the guts to come straight out and try to convince the public that academics are more important than they think they are. I suppose it's possible that those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians don't understand how low a priority the American public puts on academics, but I really don't believe that's the case. I suspect they won't talk straight to the American public because they think they're just too dumb to understand.


Anonymous Mr. C. said...

Except for the references to Minnesota, you could be my next-classroom neighbor! You articulated all of the things that are frustrating, both about spring sports (which I support) and education in general. Excellent post! I guess I'll just have to join in your heresy!

5/14/2007 8:45 PM  
Anonymous pedantic peasant said...

Excellent post!

As Ms C says, except for the local references you could be from down the hall.

The whole thing is a complex issue, and certainly there are some problems in the current system, but it is so true that the attitude given in society at large (and often at home) is that academics don't matter, or at least don't matter as much as fun and convenience.

5/15/2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Mr. C and PP. This post was motivated by the frustration from all those missed classes, and I really didn't know where it was going to go. But by the time I was done with it I felt pretty good about it. Thanks again!

5/15/2007 3:00 PM  
Anonymous redkudu said...

>>Fortunately, Ben is an unusually responsible kid, so he was regularly coming in before school hours to check in, pick up assignments, and take quizzes and tests.<<

Unfortunately, it's been my experience that many students with outside activities aren't this attentive and responsible, which leads to them coming to me a day before grades are due and wanting extra credit work (when they haven't even completed the assigned work). When I hand over to them the carefully prepared, individualized absentee reports I create for them, with all their missed work and instructions, they take it, disappear, and rarely bring the missed work back in.

I agree with you about the lack of...respect? reverence? acknowledgement of the basic need for?...academics. Very thoughtful words.

5/15/2007 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Lee Dixon said...

How about publishing your post in your local newspaper to see what reaction you might get?

You have coaching credentials and academic credentials. That's a good position to lead from on this issue.

One of my regrets from a career in administration is that I was not able to change scheduling of athletic events. In my experience, there is room to schedule events later in the afternoon or early evening to reduce the impacts you are talking about. Do your baseball fields have lights? I suspect they do. Ours do. Yet JV football, soccer games, basketball and baseball/softball all started too early even for some parents to see the beginning of the contests.

At least you might get support for a comprehensive task force review of the problem. You would obviously need a much wider consensus given the pressures you acknowledged.

My kids were heavily involved in athletics and I was Assistant Super for their entire school careers. They also were great academic students. But I know teachers had to back off on expectations because the best and brightest were also the most involved in athletics and other intensive activities.

The impact is hard to measure, but in the long term, I suspect we underestimate that impact on our national productivity.

5/15/2007 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Denever said...

Unless I'm misunderstanding, Dennis, you seem to be saying, "Don't blame the schools for the lack of emphasis on academics - blame the larger society." But you also seem to be admitting that public schools are the way they are because they simply accept and reflect society's anti-academic values instead of trying to change them.

If public schools won't do anything but go with the flow, well, okay, but that's exactly why I prefer to support academically oriented private schools. It just seems a little ironic that one of the best posts I've seen to explain my own lack of support for public schools comes from such a strong defender of them.

5/15/2007 5:39 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Redkudu, as I said in the post, like you, I have a lot of extra-curricular participants who aren't nearly as responsible as Ben, and your stories sound very familiar. It's kids like that who help me to understand why so many non-coaching teachers hate sports.

Lee, I really do appreciate your suggestion, and I thought about it for a while after I read your comment. I just don't think the local paper in my small community would be a good forum for this. I don't want to get into a long explanation for that, but in large part, it's because this isn't just a local problem. If I worked in a metro area, it might be a different story. Thank you, though.

Denever, public schools in a democracy have to go with the flow. That's part of our job, whether we like it or not. We are working for them; they certainly are not taking orders from us. And we do reflect society's values. There are good things about that, but there are also some bad things. If you want to send your kids to private schools, there are things they will gain, but there are also things they will lose.

I have tried to defend public schools, but I hope that you would admit that I haven't tried to whitewash anything. I have tried to be honest, and that includes telling what I think our problems are--and some of those problems are downright ugly. I do want to point out, however, that despite my frustrations about what I see as a low priority for academics, the kids who come from families to whom academics are important do amazingly well--at least they do in our community. We have had kids go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and nearly every prestigious university you can think of. A few years ago, one of our kids got a perfect score on both portions of the SAT. It might seem amazing that that can happen, but it does. And that is because we've had some incredible kids with incredible parents and some classroom teachers who work their backsides off.

5/15/2007 7:10 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"there are parents like those who participate in edublogs "

I smiled at that.

The post has something of a ring of truth to it. A lot of kids do miss class often (I hadn't realized quite how often), parents likely would complain about restrictions on activities, and of course it's not hard to believe that the legislature was influenced by a large lobbyist group (the teachers union surely opposed that legislation?). Mostly, I think it's a good post representing a particular point of view -- so the rest of my comment is going to represent a slightly different point of view ;).

Education, however, is quite high among concerns in all polls of the public. Additionally, there has been tremendous growth in commercial learning centers, private and charter schools, test preparation companies, and educational toys. Fees for private schools have skyrocketed, and many are now more costly than college. One study comparing American, Japanese, and Korean education found that Americans reported studying at home an hour longer per day average than Japanese (yes, I find that hard to believe too, but haven't seen a clear fault in their methodology yet).

I'm not sure your examples show the school administration reflecting the will of society so much as the will of a few complainers. I suspect your estimation of the board's pliability is too high. I know of situations when they've been quite resistant to large numbers of parents, and one can read about frustrations parents have had with school board policies almost daily.

I'd suggest that the parents of the athletes may not be fully aware of how much school their children are missing, either because they don't know at all or because it's difficult to keep track. Maybe you can correct me on this, because I'm really not at all sure. Whether they complained about activities being restricted, though, probably would depend on how. You're really telling me that if the scheduling of the games (in this case) was changed so the kids didn't miss school, you'd get parental complaints?

Our economy likely does well because of the structure of the economy, the business-friendliness of our laws, and the influx of immigrants. Mass education can be seen at best as an enabling our economy, not driving it.

As a side note, I think if the educational system were functioning optimally, between 2 and 5% of kids would get a perfect score on the SAT (yes, I know -- we would need to make quite a few changes to reach this level). It's not actually as hard as most people think.

5/16/2007 11:40 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Note that I don't mean to diminish the achievements of those who DO get a perfect score -- while it's not as impossible as people believe, under our current system it is outstanding.

5/16/2007 11:42 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, regarding those polls listing education as a major concern, that isn't exactly the same as saying academics are a major concern. I also suspect that people think that it sounds good to list education as a priority, so I'm not sure how seriously to take those polls. All of those other things you say about commercial learning centers, etc. may be true, but I would still argue that people who put a great emphasis on academics are a rather small minority.

You and I live in different areas, so maybe the school boards and administrations in your area react to pressure a lot differently than mine. But I would argue that the way mine act is completely normal. School board members are politicians, and if there is one thing politicians have in common everywhere, it's that most of them want to get re-elected. And the way to get re-elected is to keep as many of your constituents happy as possible. Brushing off your constituents when they approach you with their concerns is not a good way to do that.

5/16/2007 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...


Very interesting point.

There's an even more basic question. Why should public schools, schools that kids have to attend until they reach 16, be acacemically rigorous? It certainly isn't what most kids want.

The answer that is usually given is that academic rigor creates success later in life (usually defined as a higher income). But I think that is simply untrue.

There is no question that, generally, kids who do well in school make more money than kids that don't. But the direction of causation doesn't run from school to success.

Kids don't "do well" in life because they did well in school. The kids who will do well in life are the same kids who will do well in school. They are goal-oriented, hard working, etc. They make their schools look good.

No doubt schools can help develop some habits of hard work, etc.--but as Dennis pointed out a while ago, it is often athletics that does this more than academics.

Lots of things can develop qualities that will make a person more successful in life. Academic rigor can do this for some people. However, for most people it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

5/16/2007 5:49 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

As usual Dennis you've made some good points. I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised if I mention that the very things you describe begin at the elementary level. Reward parties for attendance, accelerated reader, behavior, participating in fundraisers, and club activities take class time. Snack shacks down the hall during specific times interrupt instruction in order to raise money for the United Way or whatever pet charity the school system has chosen. Older elementary students have choir activities and activities similar to college bowl. Add to that all the daily check-ins, check-outs, absences for tummy aches as well as family vacations scheduled during the school year and it is easily to see how our 180 days of instruction dwindle. Don't even get me started on discipline issues that interrupt classtime.

I would agree that the American public demands a great product with education, but not everyone is willing to do their share to protect instructional time.

True...academic rigor is not necessary for everyone to make someone successful in life, but during a time when teachers are being scrutinized so closely regarding their product instructional time remains one of our best tools at producing the best product possible.

5/16/2007 6:27 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Believe me when I say this problem isn't limited to America. I know we're just the annoying younger brother up North here, but everything you've mentioned is equally applicable on our side of the 49th.

I think that school's response has been somewhat lacking as well. I coach the Sr. Boys' Soccer team for my school, and when we go to out-of-town tournaments, I have no trouble at all getting approval for a substitute. I also teach in the French Immersion department, and the other teacher took the Grade 12 class to the next city over for a workshop day in French. He was told to find internal coverage for the classes that he would be absent from. Somehow there, we've strayed terribly. I'm pretty sure we're sending the wrong message to the students with this policy, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

5/16/2007 11:14 PM  
Blogger Exo said...

I see the problem that the school is simply not viewed as a "step" toward further education, time that you will never catch up again, the only time to get all the foundations for further career choice. Instead, the major idea is "life-long learning" with the meaning of plenty of time ahead to learn your multiplication tables or select the major in college, and "second chance" spiraling.
Students can't select what they want (majority wants just to enjoy the time), and parents are hoping for a second chance.

5/17/2007 3:15 AM  
Blogger Polski3 said...

And then there are those students who are absent for other reasons and cannot or will not make up the work they missed.....or even ask "what did I miss?"

Perhaps there is a belief, a fundamental concept, that education is an entitlement? It does not matter if it is wanted or appreciated, but it is there because "they" are entitled to it?

Here in California, we have a powerful, politically correct lobby pushing for the return of bilingual education for the hoards of non-English speaking students that are enrolled in California public schools. I have had converstations with many supporters of bilingual education, and none of them have ever, ever been able to explain to me why so many "bilingual education" students, born here in the USA, go through high school and never become proficient in the English Langugae. Bottom line? Entitlement. And more tax money for those who feed at the public trough.

Good Post. When I was in h.s., being in a sport was considered your PE class and we were free to wander or go to the library to do homework.....yep.

5/17/2007 8:50 PM  
Blogger Dennis_Fermoyle said...

Wow! Some great points! Roger Sweeny's comment really struck me because it really goes against the grain. I think a lot of academic teachers might want to dismiss it, but I think it deserves a lot of consideration.

EHT makes a good point about classroom teachers being under so much scrutiny, yet we end up being forced to battle with the equivalent of one hand tied behind our backs. I think there is tremendous hypocrisy in the rush to blame schools and teachers for low scores by the elites of our society--especially by the politicians who have done so much to make our jobs so difficult. And that all goes along with what Polski3 has to say about education being viewed as an entitlement. I could not agree more with that!

Exo, along with your point, I've heard a lot of criticism of public schools because so many kids need to be remediated when they go to college. Yet, I wonder what would happen if colleges would drop those remediation programs, and simply not accept those kids. If young people knew that they couldn't get into college unless they learned those skills by the time they graduated from high school, I'll bet a lot of kids would try a lot harder to learn those skills.

And Ian H., I guess it's not that surprising that the annoying younger brother would be so much like the annoying older brother.

5/18/2007 5:18 AM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

Yet, I wonder what would happen if colleges would drop those remediation programs, and simply not accept those kids. If young people knew that they couldn't get into college unless they learned those skills by the time they graduated from high school, I'll bet a lot of kids would try a lot harder to learn those skills.

That's also why I think tough high stakes tests are our (high school teachers) best friend. They say, "No matter how nice your teachers are and how much they want you to graduate, no matter how much the principal wants you to graduate, no matter how much the school committee wants you to graduate, you will not graduate unless you can perform to a high level for people who have never met you and don't care one way or another. So you better be able to do that. Your people have no influence whether you pass or fail on that task. ... But they can help you learn the skills and knowledge you will need."

Of course, that requires that the tests actually be tough--and that the test-makers don't dumb them down when students who haven't taken the threat seriously fail, make the statistics look bad, and make a lot of people unhappy.

5/18/2007 1:59 PM  
Blogger Exo said...

If young people knew that they couldn't get into college unless they learned those skills by the time they graduated from high school, I'll bet a lot of kids would try a lot harder to learn those skills.

I saw that in action - when I was entering the veterinary school back in Ukraine, I was right out of grade school, and I was 16.
There is no remedial courses in colleges there. And you take an entrance exams in your majoring subjects to get admitted. It's true for any major - from engineering to phylology. So a) you have to know WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO MAJOR IN before you select and apply to a college; b) you have to pass with the certain score 3 (rarely 4) entrance exams -usually: math, language/literature and you profiling subject c)your high school grades add on to your score d)all entrance exams are in July-August e)if you didn't get into your college - you loose a year and try again next July f)you cannot apply to more than 1 institution at a time g) it's almost impossible to switch a major - you have to drop out and start all over again h)you cannot get into college if you are older than 35 as a full-time day student i) there are no half-time students, all students have to be in classes 5 days a week from 8 to 2 depending on the given schedule
j)males are drafted at 18 if they are not college students.
Works wonders.

5/18/2007 3:58 PM  
Blogger Mrs. N said...

I have a fairly unique perspective from which to view how American culture views education as opposed to India (one of the nations we seem to be most scared of).

My husband's parents grew up in India and moved here shortly after they were married. I have often talked to my father in law in particular about education there.

Bluntly the reason it's so different is that culturally, if you fail a class it is a reflection on you, your family and your/your families' honor. Exam results are published, so EVERYONE knows how you/your child did on them. Thus, people care, deeply, about school.

There is no blaming of teachers, no excuses for students who don't behave, none of that. There is failing and there is excelling.

In the US, how a child does is considered a reflection of them (if htey do well) or their teacher (if they don't do well). That isn't going to change.

If the price of my child doing sports was losing academic time on a regular basis, my child wouldn't do school sports. Period. If the Academic Olympiad team needs all day for 7 weeks straight to prepare, then they're not ready enough and my child doesn't need to be on that team either. My husband was captian of the Math Team, the Science Team and the Academic Decathalon team and they never missed a day of school except when they had to go to regional or national competitions, which was a total of 2 or 3 days out of the year.

Parents and students just don't care.

It makes me happy that our child will be taught what we consider the true faith----Education.

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