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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible."....  ...Robert M. Hutchins.

Commentary of the Day - May 30, 2006:  What Are We Willing to Do to Improve Education?  Guest commentary by Georganne Spruce.

Education – what a mess!  Everyone is looking for someone to blame and for a quick fix to improve the system.  In my view there's only one thing to blame: change.  And there's only one solution: change that solves the problem holistically.

If you have a food processor that has a faulty power cord and you've lost the blades and broken the cover, just buying a set of blades won't fix the problem.  The same is true of education.  Requiring more standardized testing and better preparation for teachers isn't adequate repair.  Society has changed greatly in the last forty years and those changes have affected who our students have become.

I began teaching high school in 1966.  With the draft in place, grade inflation became a way of life to avoid failing a student who would be sent to Vietnam.  After the draft ended, schools continued to expect less of students instead of challenging them and raising standards.

In 1975 the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act became law.  It required schools to provide a "free, appropriate, public education to children with disabilities."  These children were given an Individualized Educational Plan, which guided teachers in implementing the child's education.  Despite this law, many children with disabilities didn't receive "appropriate" education and most were segregated from regular classes.  After the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) schools were closely monitored to assure their compliance.

Now most disabled students are mainstreamed into regular classes where many flourish and develop social and academic skills that help them to function more successfully in society.  But their inclusion creates a classroom where teachers are stretched to meet a greater diversity of student needs.   Unfortunately, many teachers aren't trained to teach these exceptional children who require methods that are different from those used to teach the average student.  In addition to these special needs students, teachers in some schools also may be working with large numbers of non-English speakers.

Today there are more students in the regular classrooms who have behavior problems and who frequently disrupt classes.  They're not, by any means, all exceptional children with behavior disorders.   In the past, these were the kids who were expelled or who dropped out because schools didn't tolerate disobedience and disrespect, and parents supported that attitude.  Too many hours of learning time are wasted while teachers deal with such disruptive students and the paperwork these incidents generate.

As our society has grown more legalistic and less willing to accept personal responsibility, school administrators have become more compliant in dealing with complaining parents.  This puts teachers in an untenable position.  If the teacher insists on disciplining a student for misbehaving, it may be seen as a challenge to the administrator's authority and an affront to the parent.  But if the student isn't disciplined, the teacher's authority is undermined, and in most cases the student continues to be a problem in class.

Once I was asked to adjust my grading so that a high school senior who had attended only half my classes and had done very few assignments could graduate.  He was the son of a prominent community leader, and the principal didn't want any "trouble."  When I refused, the principal was outraged!  It's difficult to convince students to make the effort to learn when they know someone will rescue them from their bad decisions.

Drug and alcohol abuse and early sexual experiences are significant problems among the young in every strata of society.  These behaviors seriously interfere with learning, impair judgment, and create depressive and aggressive behaviors that often disrupt the classroom.  To make matters worse, students are constantly sent messages through the media and video games that violence, overt sexual expression, and disrespectful behaviors are "cool."  To be "bad" is good, so we have more students who seek to disrupt the learning environment in order to get attention and earn the respect of their peers through misbehavior.  To make matters worse, the laws make it virtually impossible to suspend or expel disruptive “exceptional students” even when they are capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.  This creates an inequity that undermines discipline in the classroom and teaches the students that they don't have to be responsible.

The most significant influence on a child's ability to learn is the parent and the home environment.  Today many parents have less time available to spend with their children monitoring homework, teaching social skills, self-discipline and responsibility.  Many must work longer hours sometimes on multiple jobs just to make ends meet.  As the income of an increasing number of families falls below the poverty line, more children lack the nutrition they need for normal brain function and development.  Even among those who are not poor, poor eating and exercise habits take their toll on learning.

Some parents work long hours to maintain a luxurious lifestyle they really can't afford in order to provide their children with a plethora of material goods.  When children are given everything they need or want without ever having to earn it, they don't develop the basic skills they need to live life responsibly.  Because they have developed little or no self discipline, these students come to school expecting teachers to cater to their every whim.

After I repeatedly told a tenth grader to stop talking, she whipped out her cell phone, which she was forbidden to use in class, called her mother and proceeded to complain loudly about my rude behavior.  The girl's behavior wasn't as surprising to me as the mother's, who talked to her at length although she knew the girl was in class.

In order to learn, children have to believe they can learn.  Parents must take full responsibility for the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their children's well-being by being fully present in their children's lives.  On the psychological level, we retard their maturation by believing that building self-esteem can be accomplished by always telling them they've done a wonderful job, even when they haven't.  Not being shown the difference between excellent and mediocre work diminishes their ability to accurately evaluate their abilities and leads them to expect something for nothing.  They think that being respected means they'll hear only positive messages and that anyone who says their work is poor is being mean.  Without the benefit of constructive criticism, they never learn the value of improving their own work or of working hard to attain higher goals.

Too many students emulate the dysfunction around them.  For example, we've become obsessed with celebrities who think that if you have enough money you can get by with almost anything.  To them money equals entitlement.  Whatever you have to do to get money is okay.  Some students feel entitled to "A's" just for showing up.   With cell phones making it so easy, too many high school students believe that there's nothing wrong with cheating on tests.  This idea is reinforced every time a prominent leader lies or a CEO cheats his investors.  Why are we surprised that students are learning less than they used to learn?

So, how do we repair the mess we've made?  First, we start electing officials who are intelligent enough to know how to solve the world's problems without violence and are willing to protect the environment.  Maybe then kids will feel like they have a future worth living up to.

Secondly, we need to demand that our legislators stop cutting funds for important programs such as financial aid for post secondary education and childcare for working mothers on welfare because these programs provide opportunities for people to rise out of poverty.

Thirdly, we need to gradually raise the performance standards in schools so that essentially all children become fully literate and are able to cope successfully in a global economy.  Administrators and parents need to find their backbones. They need to hold disruptive students accountable and to support teachers so that they can return to teaching.

Finally, we need to stop buying, renting, and allowing children to watch movies, TV and computer games that encourage irresponsible behavior.  Let's remember – we're the market.

In the meantime, children need role models who will show them that embracing honesty, integrity and responsibility are worthwhile, that discipline and sacrifice will help them become decent human beings and that becoming a decent human being is an admirable endeavor.  What are we willing to do about it?

© 2006 Georganne Spruce.
Georganne Spruce is a freelance writer from North Carolina.   She has had more than 20 years of teaching experience in public and private high schools.  She has taught English, speech, drama and dance.

The IP responds:  The PI agrees with much of what Georganne has said.  We live in a world that presents many challenges to students and their parents, as well as many opportunities.  However, in the IP's view, the glass may not be quite as empty as Georganne sees it.  In spite of all the challenges faced by students and parents and all the shortcomings in our education systems, we still find teachers who can inspire and students who want to learn.  Many students still rise above their circumstances.  They do learn and they do succeed.  The real challenge is to reach the ones who aren't learning.


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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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