Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Dirty Little Secret

Here's a dirty little secret for you, one that many know but few have the courage to speak.

Many students do little or no work.

No, I don't mean all of them or even most. Some work. But of those who fail, the great majority don't; and their lack of work is the cause of their failure.

Now, I don't mean to blame my students. For most, the fault is the result of forces outside their control. The culture around them - parent, school, media and all the rest - has failed them. But though most students are victims here, still we must acknowledge the problem with them.

Some no doubt will say that the blame is really mine, that I do my job poorly and then shift the blame. In my defense, I say that I know my imperfections well and that this is not one of them. How do I know the fault isn't mine? (I suspect that my answer here is the typical teacher answer.) I am quite clear about my assignments. (They're spoken, written on the board, and published online.) Moreover, students know that I always give an assignment. Thus students have no excuse not to know what they were to do.

But with a consistency that is near perfect, a significant portion of students simply do not do the day's assignment; and of those who do attempt it, an even larger portion do only part and do that part poorly.

On most assignments, the total percentage of half-doers and non-doers is 50 or above.

Perhaps you will suspect that I am a bore in front of a class and have little ability to inspire. You'd be wrong. I put great thought into what I teach, and I work hard in front of my classes. When the final bell rings, I'm worn out. Moreover, I know that I inspire students, for in the past I have inspired many. I'm not the one at fault. My students' failure is not my failure. It is theirs. I do love what I teach. Students occasionally poke fun at me about my passion. They find it deeply strange that anyone would care so much about geometry. But they do see that I love it, and they know that I can teach it.

Let me say too that I'm not in any way special. All of my colleagues work at what they do. Of course some work more, some less. But of this I am convinced: if the average student were to work as hard as the average teacher, average student performance would increase dramatically.

So we come to this conclusion: a poor work ethic is among the primary causes of student failure, and this failure should be blamed upon the culture in which students have been brought up.

Don't expect a politician to ever say this. It would be political suicide. You can't blame those who would elect you for the failures of their children. Instead you must scapegoat. You must find a minority on whom to pin the sins of the majority. Teachers are the obvious choice. Thus teacher's are continually subjected to the censure of politicians and are continually buffeted by attempts to remake education. (The Obama administration is typical. Culture isn't blamed for their children's' failure. Teachers alone are blamed.)

But I beg you to consider another possibility. Please recognize the corrosive influence of society for what it is and do all that you can to fight it.

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