Public Schools Need a Wake Up Call!

“Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer.”

President Obama’s speech to students, September 9, 2009

Those lines imply support for a progressive, child-centered view of schooling: educate through the strengths a child possesses.

President Obama gives education speechBut the President went on, “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

And when and if a child discovers those interests and abilities, what happens? Are classrooms set up to work with individual kids and nurture their talents, or do other pressures force teachers into cookie-cutter behavior?

Kids want to believe. Visit any elementary school on a morning of the first few weeks of school, and you will see joyful youngsters cavorting, laughing and shouting with glee. Their giddy anticipation is palpable and infectious, because they are actually happy to be back in school. “This year will be different,” their behavior screams. “This year I will be a great student, I will learn everything, and teachers will help me whenever I need help.”

However, this celebration, a child’s version of the triumph of hope over experience, is generally short-lived, and for most children school soon becomes humdrum, or worse.

What goes wrong, and what can be done about it?

Dr. John Trotter, the founding president of a teachers union in Georgia, thinks he has identified the problem. “(N)o one wants to blame anything on the students or on their parents. This would not be very political, but it would be the truth,” he wrote on the MACE (Metro Association of Classroom Educators) website on August 25, 2009. Two days later he added, “The children in these failing schools are essentially the problem. They are unmotivated and lazy.”

Others blame teachers, not kids, but I think the problem is largely the result of our obsession with test scores.

Just think about the testing game. The best teachers are both ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘guide on the side,’ but in schools filled with poor children many teachers are neither. Instead they are ringmasters, training the ‘animals’ with whips and rewards.

Under great pressure to close ‘the achievement gap,’ these teachers drill students in test taking. That may include instruction in filling in bubbles or writing short responses (“In your first sentence, use key words from the paragraph you have just read.”).

Sad to say, that approach works. Most children in elementary schools can be whipped and cajoled into performing. Evidence can be found in test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the Nation’s Report Card. American 3rd and 4th graders outperform their counterparts in most industrialized countries.

However, those gains begin to disappear in 7th and 8th grades. Before long, our children lag far behind, probably because those early scores do not reflect genuine learning but are largely illusory, the results of the ringmaster’s efforts.

When students become older and wise to the ways of the ringmaster, things change. This spring a middle school principal in Washington resorted to every trick in the book to get his test scores up. Brian Betts of Shaw Middle School offered $100 to every student who, as the tests drew near, came to school every day on time and answered every test question, right or wrong. What’s more, Betts promised that, if scores went up, he would get a tattoo.Ringmaster

Ringmaster Betts’ approach failed dramatically. Although his office reports that it distributed $16,556 to students during that testing period, reading scores declined 9%, to 29% proficiency, and math scores fell 4% to 29%. No tattoo for the principal!

A classic cartoon from Gary Larsen’s “Far Side” shows a lion tamer snapping his whip and shooting his pistol, seemingly in complete control. However, one lion, seated docilely on a chair, is whispering to another, “Pass it on, he’s using blanks.”

Older students generally don’t turn on their ringmasters, of course. Instead more than seven thousand students become dropouts every school day. Annually, that adds up to almost 1.3 million students who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The Alliance estimates this will cost the nation $3 trillion over the next decade.

Other students put in the seat time necessary to earn a diploma, but whether most emerge ready to be responsible participants in a democracy is arguable. The persistent decline in voting would suggest not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Parents send their children to school for intellectual, social, civic, aesthetic and even ethical reasons–because they know that education is a lot more than test scores, cash rewards for coming to school, and tattoos. And they also know that something’s amiss. Evidence of that can be found in polls showing that families prefer private and charter schools over regular public schools by wide margins. The 2009 Gallup Poll show that, nationally, 67% now favor charter schools, up from 51% last year. A poll of Washington, DC, parents released in August revealed that only 23% of parents would willingly choose a regular public school for their children.

Educators need to tear down the artificial wall between schools and parents—built up over the years by educators. A child’s parents—even if they could care less about education—are his first and most important educators. So, for genuine learning, schools ought to involve families at the most basic levels in the early grades. And not with high-falutin’ pedagogical concepts or ‘parent involvement committees’–but with classroom work.Educators

Here are a few simple examples: Have kindergarteners and first graders work with their parents to find triangles, circles and rectangles in everyday things around their home and neighborhood, such as window panes, floor patterns and street signs. 2nd grade teachers could assign the kids to report on their Mom’s favorite foods, flowers and animals. The next week’s assignment: Interview a grandparent about her favorites. Find out why. What are your own favorite colors? Why? And so on, every week.

Make it a bit more complex in 3rd grade by assigning homework that requires the child to write about his/her parents or grandparents—the first movie they remember seeing, their secret dream growing up, and so on.

Math must be part of this. Assign 4th and 5th graders to go shopping with an adult and compare the prices of several products in different stores. Do the math to figure out unit costs. For another assignment, ask a family member how much a movie cost back when she was a kid. What’s the difference between that price and the cost of a ticket today? Compare other items. Do the math, and then report to the class.

You can bet that parents and grandparents would want to see the homework before it’s turned in–and certainly afterwards to read what the teacher wrote about it.

Thus encouraged, many parents would be open for conversations about what it is we want our schools to achieve, and how that might be measured. That in turn might well lead to a re-examination of our over-reliance on machine-scored multiple-choice tests. Of course scores matter, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of education. Glorious and exciting curriculum (such as The Writing Project; The Jason Project; and Our History, Our Selves) that are proven to engage the brains and hearts of students gets pushed aside simply because school leaders fear that these stimulating materials won’t produce higher test scores.

Neither of these changes— close connections with families and deeper, more thoughtful education that relies less on bubble tests—will be easy to pull off, but the clock is ticking for public education. The President is right to encourage children and youth to persevere, but educators need a good talking-to as well.

6 thoughts on “Public Schools Need a Wake Up Call!

  1. Although I think you make several good points, I afraid I have to find fault with your plan to involve parents in homework. I have worked in public schools where many students were from families who really struggled financially, and for an expensive private school. In both I have found that parents, instead of embracing participating in homework assignments with their children, complain about and sometime refuse to complete them. For those a the poverty line, there is little time to give their kids after working two jobs, or their own experience of school was so negative that they put little value on it. The privileged parents are often too busy with their careers, and leave most of the child-rearing to hired help (many of whom don’t speak English so they cannot even fill in “in loco parentis” in completing the assignments. Yes, there are a significant number of parents who are interested and involved, but this becomes an issue of equity — should some kids be penalized because their parents don’t have time for them?


  2. John,
    I appreciate your recognition that there is a reason the recent gains made in the early grades begin to fade in middle school and seem to be lost in high school. As a parent of two teenage sons, I know that the brain changes, the attitude changes, and young people become skeptical about the mandates adults have to offer.

    This skepticism often turns into full-blown alienation when students look around and do not see the opportunities that have been used to motivate them materializing in their communities. In the California, real unemployment rates are about 40% in many communities, and college is beyond reach for many. The sub-prime crisis has robbed many communities of their wealth, and African American and Latino neighborhoods have been especially hard-hit.

    I think connecting with parents is a good start. We need our schools to be places where parents and community members feel welcome, and we want our students to feel we are their allies as they face an often hostile society. In middle and high school, we need to work with our students to actively engage with their community — approaches such as Problem-Based Learning can allow us to structure investigations into community issues, and lead students to get involved in offering solutions. You are absolutely right that this is the opposite of a cookie-cutter approach. In order to break through this alienation, students must see themselves as having some agency in their learning — and in their own lives.


  3. public education plight.after going through the content,I feel things are not different by globe.In pakistan,where,80% school going population is dependent on public sector,but public sector could accomodate hardly 30% within school walls.Here,private sector is very aggressive is coming up by enrolment and with achievement results.My humble comment is to support public and private sector both for better enrolment,more over awareness campain be also launched for parents for getting their school age childrens in school walls.WHAT COULD BE THE STRATEGY TO INVOLVE PARENTS…PLEASE GUIDE US…Sincerely,Dr shahid…geocities.comshahiddr


  4. Not only should the President talk with the teachers and administrators, the teachers and administrators should have schedules revised / expanded such that they have and are required to spend time talking with each other about how things are going and what can and should be done to help them go better.

    I am reminded of two recently discovered studies that relate to your piece, John. The first I discovered in the best seller, “Outliers.” A Johns Hopkins study showed that the progress in learing during the school year was comparable in urban schools as in suburban schools; it was the out-of-school where the urban students had no increase in learning [at best] while the suburban students showed gains in learning beyond those of the school year. Lesson: If parents cannot provide stimulating experiences for their offspring, they should be helped to learn how to do it and if they don’t have the time or resources, help should be found. Informal education is crucial!

    The second study is being led by Deci and others, dealing with intrinsic motivation. They have documented that reward/punishment motivation leads to poor long term retention and conceptual understanding [factual memorization “for the test”] while intrinsic motivation [wanting to learn because one can] leads to much better conceptual understanding and long term retention. Also, reward/punishment motivation works only as long as it’s continued AND it reduces any intrinsic motivation. Lesson: We need to find better ways to promote intrinsic motivation and stop hoping that reward/punishment motivation will work.


  5. I agree with your assessment that schools should do more to engage parents in their students’ classroom work–though Lynn’s and Anthony’s cautions do resonate with me. In general, there are many causes of student disaffection, both within and beyond schools. Anthony’s point hits home: Sometimes, students don’t see many outside opportunities to motivate them. Often, stresses they face outside of school can exacerbate negative feelings about school. Finally, students who feel unsafe in their communities and schools often disengage from their studies. Drill-and-kill methods of instruction don’t stand a chance under these conditions.

    So greater parent engagement is critical. But so are healthier school climates, clearer paths to economic opportunity, better curricula, and stronger out-of-school supports for student well being.


  6. Thank you Lynn for pointing out that parents do not always have time to devote to homework. My kids are in a public school in an economically advantaged area where assignments seem to be given with the assumption that parents are around to help. I do spend time with my kids, but prefer to decide how I will spend this time and not have their grades depend on my participation. The school work has become so administrative that if I’m not involved, they can’t make the grade despite great standardized tests scores that demonstrate they have mastered the concepts. I am very concerned about equity and especially outraged by assignments that require parents to travel or pay for something. Grades should not require that you pay for something, no matter how small the payment. Do you know of any policy that forbids requiring students to pay for supplies to complete an assignment?


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