Last week I wrote about Bill Gates and Eli Broad who think that high schools need reform because they aren't doing a good enough job. This week I read about a congressional effort to put more money into hiring better math and science teachers because they think the ones we have aren't doing a good enough job. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I don't think these experts get it. They want higher test scores from American kids, and when they don't get them, they continually blame those who are teaching the kids. If the kids aren't performing, it must be the schools' and the teachers' fault. They seem to never consider that maybe it's the kids.
I want to tell a tale of four students. The names are changed, but the students really do exist in Warroad, and I'll bet teachers around the nation will think that I'm writing about some of their students.
Christine is a girl in one of my American History classes. Although she didn't begin the year looking like she would be one of the top students in the sophomore class, there were no indications that she'd have any trouble in my class. When she took the quizzes for my reading assignments, it was clear that she had reasonably good comprehension, but she was a little inconsistent. At about the mid-point of the first quarter, she began to do the assignments less and less, and by the end of the quarter, she wasn't doing any of them at all. I also give some very simple current event assignments, and she consistently took zeroes on those. Christine failed the first quarter, and although it might seem impossible to do so, she went downhill after that. She failed both the second and third quarters by twenty or more percentage points. Early in the fourth quarter, however, there were signs of hope. Christine read the first couple of assignments, and was even getting points on current events. I called her up after class and encouraged her to keep it up. I told her she was now doing exactly what she needed to do, and if she kept it up, she would have no problem passing the second semester. But once again, Christine sputtered. She missed one reading assignment, then two, then three. Then she was absent for a day, then she missed another assignment, and then she was absent again. When I checked her current events, once again, she didn't have any. Christine will almost certainly fail this semester, too, leaving her entire year of American History to be made up.
Then there is Alex. Alex is a bright young man, and he also began the year doing reasonably well in my class. But one day in October, Alex was absent. Then he was absent again. Then again...and again...and again...and again. Alex has now been absent 45 days from my class. We have a computerized system for recording absences in our school with seventeen excuses--ill, needed at home, doctor, dentist, parent request, etc. I think Alex has nailed every one of the seventeen at some time during the year. He's had some skips but most of his absences have been vouched for by his mother.
Then there is Jessica. Social studies isn't easy for Jessica, and like Christine, she failed the first quarter. Unlike Christine, her parents were all over her as a result. Jessica does not have great reading comprehension, but I have a note-taking system that the kids can use to guarantee themselves decent scores on the reading quizzes. Jessica began to do those regularly, earned a C the second quarter, and in doing so managed to pass the first semester. With that accomplished Jessica proceded to start her third quarter much like the first, and she dug herself a very nice hole. This time, however, she recovered in time and worked very hard to climb out. She began once again to regularly do the reading assignments, she got good scores on her current events, and she even studied for tests. She pulled out a passing grade for the quarter, and kept the momentum going right into the fourth. Two weeks into the quarter, and after our first test, Jessica was pulling a B. I should have known what would happen as soon as I posted the grades. It was as if Jessica couldn't stand to actually have a good grade, so she once again began to skip the reading assignments, and she has been falling ever since. She will probably continue to do so until she is close to failing, and hopefully, she'll catch it in time and pass once again.
There are lots of students like Jessica. Her comfort zone is in the C and D range, and she refuses to get a B. There are others whose comfort zone is the B and C range who refuse to get an A. I don't know how many times I've seen that during my teaching career. Some kids just can't stand too much success.
But then there is Kevin. Kevin is a senior in my AP American Government class. He's a good student, but there are definitely a number of kids in his class with more natural intelligence than him. You'd never know it by looking at their GPAs though. That is because Kevin works his backside off. Kevin reads every assignment, and in this class, many of them are long. I give the students a review day before each test, and Kevin is relentless in his questioning on those days. When a paper is due, he makes sure he knows exactly what is expected, and his work is excellent.
Kevin is in class every day. He was a captain on our school's hockey team this year, and in January he got to the point where he could barely skate because he was suffering from a painful bulging disc. His coaches and his parents finally forced him to take a two weeks off from the sport, because he would never have done it himself. He did miss one day of school to see a doctor, but he was back in class the next day. It was too painful for him to sit, so he would come into class early, go to my cabinets, dig out about 15 books from my first semester Economics class, stack them on top of a desk, put his notebook on them, and take notes in a standing position. Kevin did that in all of his classes for about a month-and-a-half.
In March, the hockey team played in the state hockey tournament, which is a very big deal in Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to make it to the state tournament eight times during my coaching career, and I know that there is a huge emotional letdown after it is over. Whether you are a coach or player, it takes a real effort to get yourself to do anything when you get back. Three of Kevin's teammates and the two hockey student managers are also in my AP American Government class, and I could really see the effect on them. We had a test in the class a week after they got back and their performance was dismal. But not Kevin. Kevin came back and fought through those post-state tournament blahs, just like he fought through everything else. He took his test standing up, and earned the third highest score in the class.
Last year, our present day seniors bombed the state math test that was given, so we failed to meet our AYP in that subject. So I guess that makes us a failing school, and it would seem to say that our math teachers are doing a lousy job. But last month, Kevin was accepted at Michigan Tech University, and he will enter their engineering program next year. I want to repeat that their are a number of students in our school with more natural ability than Kevin, and some of them are even getting Cs. They just don't care like Kevin does.
There is a great misunderstanding in the debate over education that takes place in America. It is a misunderstanding that you hear almost anytime education is discussed. That misunderstanding is that it is the job of schools to educate children. It is impossible for us to "educate" kids. We can only give them the opportunity for an education.
Kevin has latched on to that opportunity with a stanglehold, and he will not be denied. Kevin's efforts go above and beyond the call of duty, and we shouldn't expect every student to be like him, but a lot of students could come a lot closer to that than they do. The fact of the matter is that Kevin goes to the same school and has the same teachers as Christine, Alex, and Jessica. Kevin is learning and performing the way we hope a student would. Christine and Alex are learning very little because one won't try and one won't show up. Jessica, although she doesn't have a great deal of ability, is not learning nearly as much as she could because she is so satisfied with mediocrity. If the elites of America are dissatisfied with the performance of American students, they need to understand that our "student problem" is much worse than our "school problem."
It is the job of schools to try to motivate students, so we definitely bear part of the responsibility. When we allow disruptive students to remain in our classes and our schools, we are denying other kids their full right to an education. When we make it clear that students like Christine will be allowed to remain in our classes and school even when it becomes clear that they have no chance to pass, and when we allow students like Alex to continue to attend classes after missing twenty, thirty or forty days, we are contributing to the blase' attitude that so many kids have to their education. But we aren't the only ones who share part of the blame. Our culture with it's emphasis on entertainment and stardom (Did you see how many people tried out for American Idol?), parents, and the kids themselves are also responsible.
My point here, however, is not to examine the causes of this problem. But would-be "reformers" need to understand that getting better math teachers might make a small difference in the motivation of students, but not nearly as much as the proponents of that idea think, and increasing length of the school day and school year, and changing the curriculum won't make any difference at all. If education in America is ever going to significantly improve, the first thing we need to do is to get more students to care more about their education.