Stop Your Whining

“The college graduates we hire can’t even write a clear paragraph.”

“Kids today don’t read.”

“The freshmen coming onto campus today don’t know how to express themselves. They’re inarticulate.”

I hear at least one of those complaints — and sometimes all three — at every public appearance I make. These adults are saying that young people today can’t write, can’t speak, and don’t read. A few of the complainers blame technology, but eventually most point fingers at teachers and the schools.

I used to just listen — but no more. From now on my response is going to be, “Stop your whining. You need to find out what’s really going on. Then, if you really care, do something about it.”

I will tell them this: if they want college graduates who can write well, they have to get involved in public education. Go to their public schools — starting in elementary schools — and find out how much (or how little) writing, reading and speaking kids are doing — and why.

If you want to be good at something, you need two things: instruction and practice. The only way for kids to learn to write well is by writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. They become better readers only if they read. They can learn to speak well by speaking often, with some direction, some coaching. It’s no different from how children learn to play a musical instrument well or make jump shots consistently: Practice, Practice, Practice.

Ask teachers about reading. How often do kids get to read for pleasure? (They should, you know.)

Ask them about public speaking. Are children encouraged to speak in public to their classes? Are they taught how to address a group: eye contact, and so forth? (They should be, you know.)

Here’s what you are going to find out when you dig a bit into what goes on in schools today. You will discover that teachers don’t have time to develop speaking skills in their students, don’t have time to let kids ‘read for pleasure,’ and don’t have time for rewriting papers.

Public education has been quantified and diminished, and the numbers that count are, of course, test scores. Therefore, teachers are expected to teach their students how to take and pass tests. (And they know they might lose their jobs if their kids don’t bubble well.)

There’s no time, teachers and principals will tell you, for writing and rewriting, for reading, or for public speaking.

If you want visual proof, watch our piece about the school in the Bronx where the first graders were reading competently and confidently but the fourth graders couldn’t pass the state reading tests. The joy had been squeezed and scared out of them, by the incessant test pressure and test prep:

Aristotle told us a long time ago that “We are what we repeatedly do.” Take that to heart and insist on lots of writing, reading and argumentation in our schools.

The rest of the quote is noteworthy and relevant: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

And so, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen, stop complaining. Stop attacking public education and criticizing teachers. Teachers are doing what they are told to do, not what they know is right.

If you want young people who can write fluently and speak clearly and who are inclined to read for pleasure and elucidation, you must look to the people who tell teachers what to do. Want change? You have to look to the School Board, and you have to look to politicians, and to your neighbors.

And you have to look in the mirror.

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8 thoughts on “Stop Your Whining

  1. John, your main point rings true enough. But remember how entrenched are the status-quo educratic forces who oppose all that we know will help kids.

    First, the inherent nature of our 3 million strong teacher corps is that they are talkers. They get into this job because they love to talk. For years, the job was built to make use of this predilection. But the training and schools weren’t built to make sure this transferred into student success.

    For example, the system is rarely built to assure that student essays get READ and reviewed in a frequent, rigorous, uplifting, and instructive manner. Does the teacher even know how to evaluate composition? Discuss strategies of rhetoric? Mostly not.

    Second, the structure of our schools reinforces this fundamental weakness. One teacher, one class. Little support, few aides, etc.

    This status quo is demanded by the highly powerful central Association offices. We’re not talking your rural district collective bargaining units, where a group of teachers argue in their own interest. We’re talking the NEAs. AFT’s, and state education associations whose sole motivation is to stay in power, collect large salaries, collect even larger political slush funds, and enjoy all the perks of playing with the worst of the lobbyists and political cronies. These people have no interest in giving real on-the-ground teachers the power and support they need.

    Third, the nature of the teacher-training pipeline is that it is inherently supportive of the previous two shortcomings. It does not ground teachers in rigorous subject-matter learning (history, writing, math, physics, chemistry, biology). All teachers should be getting all of these subjects in great breadth, if not to the depth of subject-matter majors. Teachers can learn teaching theory later, in PD. They should be coming out broadly educated, with a specialty in coaching reading and writing.

    John, you say there’s no time “for writing and rewriting, for reading, or for public speaking.” What do the tests have to do with this? I was in school long before the tests and the situation was the same then. Great teachers then and now found a way. Average teachers then and now didn’t.

    Long before the tests, I went through school, challenged in HS math, but otherwise unchallenged and under-educated. No one suggested the type of reading that would stretch my brain, fill me with the background knowledge a learned person has. In study periods I wandered the halls, pretending some business of import. The great books that a student should see were completely unknown to me. Geography was the domain of one stubborn teacher who made us memorize all the countries, bucking the “critical thinking” winds.

    The vast historical periods prior to 1776 were to us (as they remain for kids) an empty mix of fiction, faith, rumor, and scarce fact. The biographies of great people remained for us mostly at zero.

    John, you say that “Teachers are doing what they are told to do, not what they know is right.” The problem is, they don’t know what is right. If they did, the tests would never have come along.

    Yes, there are many thousands of great teachers. And a few are being thwarted by stupid administrative responses to the state tests. In general, however, the problems pre-dated the tests and remain still. We need to look beyond the tests to something new, something more empowering for students. Going back, however, would be the worst of sins.


    • This is very thoughtful, and I agree with much of it. I am sure that many of those now teaching would struggle with a curriculum that required them to develop writers, and you are correct that the structure of isolation works against what I believe needs to be done. But nothing will change unless we apply to learning what we already do with jump shots and the violin. And all the time on tests is a huge obstacle that must first be removed.


      • “nothing will change unless we apply to learning what we already do with jump shots and the violin.” Amen. (Just as Jane Hartley drilled us in the countries of the world. But with digital effects.)

        BTW, the volume of writing published has skyrocketed over 20 years, and I must say, the quality seems higher than it was then. Especially from technologists (my professional background). Today’s published writing actually surprises me with quality.

        It’s those 50% of Black males who drop out with which we must be focused like a laser. They can’t raise their communities’ social capital when they become civil engineers at 1/4 the rate they should.


  2. I’m not so sure that teachers are told to teach to and prepare students for the test. If they are, blame the administrators! As noted in the first comment, it’s sad to say but I think the pressure associated with the uses of the standardized tests are spooking teachers and administrations way too much. If I were a superintendent or principal with decision-making authority, I’d charge teachers to make sound “effective learning” decisions. I’d also engage with what I’ve been calling a local Education Community to identify, plan, implement, and assess better alternatives in support of those effective learning efforts. And then I’d question the time spent administering the standardized tests (correctly believing it won’t change) but otherwise relax confident that those standardized test scores will improve BECAUSE OF THE EFFECTIVE LEARNING FACILITATED!


  3. Again, one commenter blames teachers as being undereducated as the reason for the lack of the ability to produce writers. Firstly, middle school and high school teachers have intensive studies in their subject matter, hence, that is why they are certified to teach history, science, math, etc. If you are talking about elementary teachers, we, too, have methods classes in EVERY subject and primarily in language arts, math, and reading because that is where our focus lies. Secondly, as a graduate of the University of Florida, I had to meet high standards to be admitted to the university in the first place along with every other college major. Thirdly, yes, teachers are being told what to teach, when to teach, and how to teach it here in Floriduh. Teachers are told to focus on what will be taught and discard the rest because our school funding depends on those scores, our pay is now tied to it, and students are placed based on it. What do you expect would happen? When sales people are told to sell product x because their bonus is based on it and not selling product w, guess what gets sold. In fact, our observations are based on how much we adhere to the stupid rubrics that have nothing to do with good teaching and learning. Many of us shut and lock our doors hoping to get in what we know is best for kids but given most teachers are MOMs trying to suport a family, what do you expect them to do? We have no control over the tests being heaped on us because they are not developed by educators and are voted in by politicians hell bent on destroying public schools while diverting money to private schools via vouchers, for profit charters, and the testing companies…Jeb Bush has perfected it here in Floriduh. And as a graduate of an amazing public school here in Florida in the 80s, my education in high school included Calculus, existential literature, foreign language, theater, history, and science with teachers who were passionate and inspiring. Teachers’ hands have been tied and the only people who are going to turn this ship around are parents, because when your job depends on adhering to the new VAM measures and Common Core crap, there is nothing one can do.And the majority of administrators have been drinking the kool aid and look at you as if you have two heads if you question any of this. WE have a Broadie as a superintendent…are goose is cooked.


    • Practicing jump shots without coaching is useless. And I practiced endless hours. Sports just isn’t my thing. Hand eye coordination. Desire to beat somebody else.

      My ninth grade english teacher(back in 1961) was a really weird guy. He once got a yardstick he was using as a back scratcher stuck in his jacket (yes, teachers once dressed differently) with both arms spread out like a scare crow. He was a little bored while reading words for a spelling test. But he could teach. He took the time to meet with each student on every writing assignment.

      Before a writing assignment got a passing grade you had to meet with him, one on one, to go over his comments. Each assignment got two grades, probably one for grammar one for content.

      I wasn’t much of a writer then, although later in life I made a living writing. But he taught me the nuances of language. While some words seemed to mean the same, they conveyed different feelings. I dreaded those meetings, but he used them to teach. I still remember some of the things he said.

      When students are interested, they will learn. Create a connection, create a sense of community and a safe environment and learning and the desire to learn becomes infectious. I don’t know what goes on in every teaching program in the country, but I have heard from many teachers that they haven’t learned how to “manage” a class.

      Those teachers who don’t come to their craft naturally, need to be provided a full set of tools. Provide a good foundation for teachers and students and learning will come more naturally. Not everybody teaches the same way, not all students learn the same way. Some need time to create, others need more leading. The system argues totally against what works and it takes a strong teacher to buck the system and implement what they learned in school as youngsters and again in preparation for their careers.

      Testing works against success. Tests are more designed to get a bell curve as a result. How is that good for everyone?

      Finally, parents are not in a position to “demand” good things for their children when they are literally being held hostage by those most in need of change.

      The bureaucracy required to run a functionally running school seems to result in the things some of us don’t like in schools. Those schools applying what we know about education and succeeding can be models for others to aspire to be.

      Right on John, we are not going to take it anymore. I don’t think there is one answer for all schools, but we can certainly demand to find out why and ask for change.


  4. Sounds like teachers are overpaid. I do what I am told to do also, but I have to be effective. If I am told what procedures to follow to repair your air conditioner, does not mean your air conditioner will work @ end of procedures. But the basic principle is covered to get me to the problem area. If I discover a procedure that is useless or doesn’t work, it is part of my job to point that out to the engineers or even minor problems such as misprints. Maybe the teachers unions have spoiled the “sheep” & the school board has to be too careful! Stop looking @ little pay for teachers or get another job! Accountability should matter. Part of that is SPEAKING to the board, unless teachers can’t “speak” also.


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