The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Limited expectations yield only limited results."...  ....Susan Laurson Willig.

Commentary of the Day - March 4, 2004:  Stop Teaching My Kid.  Guest commentary by Elise Vogler.

The vast majority of Americans would be shocked to learn of one potent force that keeps the quality of public education low.  Budget problems, you ask?  No. I'm talking about parents.

Why would parents want anything but a rigorous curriculum for their children?  I honestly don't know.  In my experience, however, most parents want an easy pass (in some cases, an easy A) rather than a course in which their children acquire real knowledge and skills.

I know that I was shocked when this truth first became apparent to me.  Nothing in my teacher education courses had prepared me to deal with parents who would object that I assign homework, or who would take their objections not just to me, but to the principal, the superintendent, and the school board.  It's not just the existence of homework that raises the ire of these parents; it's anything that provides an academic challenge to their children.  It's as if the self-esteem movement has found full realization in the generation that is now parenting.  All these parents want is that which is safe and comfortable for their children.  This includes a curriculum where there are no real expectations of the students.

Granted, there are a few parents who support the school's endeavor to provide a rigorous, challenging curriculum.  Unfortunately, these parents are few and far between.  In over ten years of teaching high school in California, I have encountered two or three such parents. Most parents of high school students, however, appear to believe that their proper role is to defend their children against the school.

A case in point:  just a few weeks ago, a freshman student named "Mark" came to me requesting that he be moved to the remedial English class as my class was too "hard" for him.  I explained that the only reason he had earned a failing grade at the semester was because he had failed to do the work required in the course.  Mark hadn't read the novels; he hadn't written any of the assigned essays; he hadn't completed the research paper required to pass. Was this because, as he claimed, the content was simply too hard?  I don't believe that for an instant.  Mark reads at the 76th percentile for his age!  Students with far weaker skills are passing my class... of course, they are doing the assigned work.

Mark's father called the principal and superintendent both, demanding that his son be moved to remedial as requested.  He didn't want to hear that our remedial program is reserved for students performing in the bottom quartile or that Mark is in the top.  His point of view was exclusively that if Mark failed my class, it must be my fault; the course must be too hard.

Thankfully, my administration stood its ground, even when Mark's father began threatening to take his case to the State School Board.

What's frightening, though, is that in my experience, Mark's father is the norm, not the exception.  I have had dozens of such incidents over the years.  The sixth best reader in the sophomore class once demanded to be moved to remedial, and mom and dad were both at the conference, pressing his case, openly admitting that they "didn't know" what to do to make him do his work, and that therefore, the "easier" class was the best placement for him.

I usually teach English, but for a few years I was teaching history as well.  I was accused of demanding "college-level" work from high school students.  Parents across the board complained that I expected too much.  I'm not sure which component of my program caused this perception.  The open-book tests?  The detailed study guides students received a week before the tests, study guides which listed every possible test question?  I even let the students take notes based on the study guides and use these notes on the tests.
Don't tell me that's a college-level expectation.  Still, over 75% of the students would fail every test - and they were multiple choice tests in which all questions were simple recall items.  I was trying my best to make the program as easy as possible.  I didn't want to fail most of the students. I learned, though, that the only way to avoid marking massive numbers of F's on report cards was to expect absolutely nothing at all of the students.  I couldn't in good conscience do that.

I've had many depressing conferences on such subjects as why a particular student didn't earn a better grade and on why the course must include some content to be learned at home (i.e., doing the assigned readings).  I've even had to explain to parents that yes, copying during a test constitutes cheating, and so does plagiarism.  The common denominator in almost all of my parent contacts is this:  whatever the issue is, they blame the school and the teacher.  If a student's grade is low, it's because the content is too hard (funny, nobody has ever said that the content was reasonable but that I wasn't skilled at teaching it).  If the student can't be bothered to do any homework, I'm told that all learning and practice should happen during school hours.  If the student cheats, it's because I made it so hard that they had to.  Two parents have even claimed that I told the students to cheat, and then punished them for it (i.e., they claimed entrapment).

What disturbs me most is that the real issue, student learning, is completely ignored.  Is the student acquiring the skills needed in college?  (Yes, most of these parents intend for their children to go to college, even while they do all they can to reduce the academic preparation being provided.)  The problem that needs to be addressed is the student's choice not to study. This isn't a problem that can be solved by attacking me.  But attack is the preferred mode for parents conferring with me.  Most parent contacts I've had can be reduced to a simple request: Stop teaching my kid.  Sometimes it's a demand.  Sometimes it's screamed.  Sometimes the school board gets to hear it, too.

All parents have the opportunity to back strong academic standards, and by supporting the school, to help provide a quality education for their children.  Instead, in my experience, the majority of parents fight tooth and nail against anything rigorous or challenging.

I'm not the only high school teacher who feels this way. I've heard similar stories from teachers across the nation.

They never told me in education school that my biggest battle wouldn't be over funding or discipline, but over the simple issue of whether teachers should actually expect students to learn.

 ©2004 Elise Vogler

Elise Vogler (a pseudonym) has taught in public schools in California for over fifteen years.  She has a B.A. in literature from the University of California at San Diego and an M.A. in humanities (specialty: history) from the California State University, Dominguez Hills.

The IP comments:  The IP always views anecdotal evidence with some skepticism, so he is not sure that those parents who really would prefer that teachers lower both their expectations and their standards are in the majority.  However, there are enough of them, and they are vocal enough to explain Elise's experiences.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.