Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It's Society, Stupid

A conviction has begun to grow in me over the last few years.

It has grown as I have become more confident of my abilities. I know my subject-matter. I know it well. Moreover I know how to teach. Many of my students leave my class with a deep knowledge of elementary geometry. This is rare today. The quality of geometry instruction in the U.S. is quite low. I am an exception. (Think that I am overly confident? That I praise myself too much? Engage me about elementary geometry. You'll find that I know it and know how to teach it. I have made that my sole study for four years.)

I do love geometry. I do love to teach it. But still, every semester, many of my students leave my class with little or nothing to show, and the fault isn't mine. Many students are superb, but more are quite poor. I fault the society around them.

Let me quote here a commentator on a recent New York Times article on teacher evaluation. She makes the point well.

My husband used to teach in a low-performing public school in Maryland. It nearly killed him - waking up at 5am, coming home at 6pm, working at home until almost midnight, and then grading papers and writing lab and lesson plans all weekend and during most of winter and summer breaks. He was a highly rated teacher (and deservedly so) but the fact is that much of his time, when not under observation, was devoted to keeping fights from breaking out in his classroom, taking phones and ipods away from kids who texted or listened to music during class, and disciplining students, since the school administration had informed teachers that sending kids to the principal for discipline was a failure of teaching and was unacceptable.

The same kids who routinely slept and fought in class would aggressively petition him at grading time, urging him to "drop a D on that b****" in lieu of a failing grade. And the administration implemented byzantine procedures for failing a student, including a requirement that the teacher successfully make contact with the parent several times to discuss the student's problems. In some cases, the student provided a false telephone number for the parent at registration time, so there was no reaching parent. In most other cases, the parent either was unreachable or did not respond. Nonetheless, the same students who would have failed if not for these procedures eagerly anticipated attending college, which they predicted would be easier than high school.

In his second year, after surviving a round of teacher firings, my husband quit mid-year and went back to practicing law, where he makes several times the salary for less than half the effort. All the evaluations in the world aren't going to fix this problem.
I attended a highly ranked public high school in an affluent part of the midwest. As good as my teachers were, I have no doubt that each of them would fail if reassigned to my husband's school.

This is exactly right. We have a bit of a problem with bad teachers. But it's dwarfed by the problem with bad students. Lazy students. Disrespectful students. Lackadaisical students. Students who care little (or none at all) about their education.

(Don't think that I mean all students. Of course I do not. I have many superb students. But I have more that exemplify these traits. Recall that I have said that we have one country but two cultures. One values education. One desires to learn. The other places not value on it, or in some cases is openly hostile to it.)

How did this come to be? Its cause is the wider society in which the school is embedded. Students bring the culture outside the classroom into the classroom, and that culture often thinks education worthless.

Student quality is a reflection of culture quality, and that has been in decline for decades now. But few will say this, because it requires that we look at ourselves and what we have let our culture become. We would rather blame our problems on others.

As I have said before, the problems of the classroom don't have their origin in the classroom and thus cannot be solved there. Culture must be restored. We must all begin to value education, and we must show that we do so everywhere - in our homes, in our media, in our places of business, in our churches, and everywhere that we congregate. Let us begin now.

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