Don’t blame teachers

Don’t blame teachers for failing to educate students who don’t pay attention, do homework or care about learning, writes Diane Ravitch in the New York Sun. Teachers “talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.”

It’s time to stop beating up on teachers and ask why so many of our children arrive in school with poor attitudes toward learning. If the students aren’t willing to work hard, if they aren’t hungry to succeed, then even the best teachers in the world — laden with merit pay, bonuses, and other perks — are not going to make them learn.

Does the popular culture ridicule education? I think education is often treated as the great cure-all for all problems. But the culture undervalues the necessity for hard work, often treating education like a magical process that will just happen.

I think most children are excited about learning when they start school. But if they don’t learn to read competently, schoolwork becomes frustrating. Eventually, unless they have Japanese-style “education parents,” they stop trying.

About Joanne


  1. ucladavid says:

    It gets worse in middle school because the grades don’t really count and the students know that. Therefore, they move on to the next grade without knowing anything. Then the English or Math teacher tries to teach them, but the students don’t have the basic skills like how to write a paragraph or their multiplication tables. Thus, the students flunk those classes and then the students drop out because grades finally do count in high school and those students would have been held back.

  2. For Diane Ravitch to say this, wow.

  3. Ragnarok says:

    This is true, but it’s only half the picture.

    The other half is that loads of teachers do a bad job.

  4. Provide equity of education to all students who come to your room, regardless of race, creed, or background.

    Differentiate instruction to accomodate different levels of readiness, learning styles, and interests.

    Reach for rigor, relevance, and the building of relationships.

    Instill in students a restless and burning curiosity about the world and the human condition.


    Do it all for groups of 30 or more.

    That are heterogeneously grouped, because tracking is evil.

    And do it in instructional periods of about 42 minutes per day.

    Which will be interrupted by PA announcements at least once every ten minutes.

    And do it in cinderblock cells with barred windows, filthy floors, archaic technology, and erratic temperature control.

    And if students come late, walk out early, call you vile names, refuse to do their work, or talk to their friends, don’t call an administrator, for god’s sake, because you are the teacher and this is your responsibility.

    Yeah, it’s a GREAT job.

  5. BadaBing says:

    Our school has found the cure-all for what ails educmacation: Small Learning Communities (SLC’s). I’d like to see Ravitch on that topic. Some lifelong bureaucrat in the D.O. wrote the grant just before he retired. We just lost almost the entire math department as teachers have been bailing to escape it. So we will have the same students for four years, suffer endless “house” meetings and events, lose our prep periods, and endure changing rooms every year. Those that voice skepticism are called into the principal’s office. So far I love it.

  6. It gets worse in middle school because the grades don’t really count and the students know that.

    Sounds like an administrative or school board problem. Fail them and make them repeat the grade. Takes gonads, but I think it can probably be done. Someone let us know when they spot a school district who has the guts to try it.

    …but the students don’t have the basic skills like how to write a paragraph or their multiplication tables.

    That’s because writing is supposed to be about student interest and not following rules of grammar and mechanics. Math is supposed to be about understanding the way numbers work, not memorizing tables and algorithms. Haven’t you heard of the new elementary approach? Most kids get “mini-lessons” on ending sentences with punctuation instead of real instruction on editing. The school district here in town hasn’t taught multiplication tables or basic math algorithms in ages.

    Our school has found the cure-all for what ails educmacation: Small Learning Communities (SLC’s).

    This actually sounds interesting, but it also sounds like your district’s implementation is a nightmare. I would be interested in seeing some research on intensive, high-quality academic “looping” (for lack of a better term) in the upper grades.

  7. Sounds like an administrative or school board problem. Fail them and make them repeat the grade. Takes gonads, but I think it can probably be done.

    A certain segment of the parental population is simply basing their actions on the assumption that attendance is more important then education. One is taken very seriously and carefully monitored, the other is not.

    So as long as junior shows up, what’s the problem?

    Oh, and if an everyday situation requires exceptional courage it’s the situation that merits change, not the people. Does it take gonads to put gas in your car, shop for groceries or get to your job in the morning? No and it shouldn’t.

    Neither should it take courage to insist that an acceptable degree of learning take place and take the actions necessary to ensure that that happens.

  8. You’re right, of course: it shouldn’t take courage.

    The problem is we have a politicized system where pretty much everyone even remotely associated with it — admin, teachers, students, parents, unions, politicians, local community members — believes they should be holding the trump card. (Another of my pet peeves: rarely do I see community members asserting they know more about medicine than the local surgeon, but I digress.)

    The simple reality is that it does take gonads, because when anyone wants to make a necessary change — for example, failing the middle school students who don’t learn content — about a thousand people who think they know better than you will do everything within their power to stop you. They will go over your head and attempt to get you fired without ever engaging in the actual dialogue. They will smear you publicly. They will investigate your private life. Even politicians don’t undergo the kinds of scrutiny a rural school teacher endures. Gassing your car and shopping for groceries aren’t in nearly the same league.

    So, it does take courage. Of course the situation needs to be changed, but it won’t happen until educated and courageous people start beating down (metaphorically, of course, though lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps we should attempt the literal) all the complainers and ram the changes through. How do we put an end to this nonsense? Damn, I sometimes wonder if high-quality public schools as the standard will ever be possible.

  9. Intervention Teacher says:

    I teach in an urban public school. It is not an alternative facility.

    I just finished a year dedicated to working with 20 low-income students who were reading five years below grade level. They were not immigrants. These students were born in America, and they attended elementary school classes. All of them had cumulative files indicating severe behavior issues that began in kindergarten. None of the students qualified for special education services, so I had them for hours straight with no aide. By definition, it was a homogeneous group receiving direct instruction with activity changes every ten minutes on average. The program was scripted. It took several hours to prep the lesson for each day. Grades were given daily on multiple activities. That required at least 20 minutes for each assessment. The time commitment was huge.

    The kids improved their reading levels by 2-3 grade levels with one exception. The program was effective, and the kids literally ran to get to my room when the bell rang. They enjoyed my classes, and they frequently commented that time passed quickly for them. They were engaged, which meant that I was interacting continually with no down time. I also had to manage a wide range of behavior from physical to verbal attacks. The kids were extremely physically aggressive with one another. They were rude, they stole things from each other, they threw things, they heckled each other, they verbally threatened each other, they punched each other, and they made every day absolutely miserable for me. The parents were non-responsive to SST’s, and had been through the process many times. Referrals had no impact. Detention and Saturday school were ineffective. Suspension was ineffective.

    Generally speaking, the kids had no limits of any kind at home, and the idea of adults having authority was absurd to them. Many sought opportunities for suspension because they would then be free to go to the mall or play videogames. They discussed this openly, and several parents verified that they did not monitor their suspended offspring. It was not unusual for the parents to say that the school did not have the “right” to discipline the child by correcting behavior through things like flipping the lights, clapping hands, or using other standard methods. If the parents showed up for meetings, they brought other children with them who ran around the room. The parents made no effort to engage in the meetings. It was not a collaboration. It was a “the school is being mean to my son and I know my rights” meeting. It was like watching a Jerry Springer show.

    The experts say that the teacher needs to develop a relationship with those types of students. I had one. They attached to me like superglue. They seemed to thrive. I didn’t.

    I burned out. Four of the other teachers teaching the program at my site burned out, as did many teachers in the district. We cannot be parents to that many students with dysfunctional homes. Relationships are bidirectional, and the kids did not give back. If they did, it would ruin their “street cred”. All but one of the kids was involved in a gang situation. Several were part of families that had been gang members for years. Many of the students were in counseling. The school district did not have any support systems in place for those of us assigned to work with those kids.

    Some districts have moved to a house formula, wherein the teacher would be required to change grade levels with the kids. The thought of being in a house configuration with that type of class for multiple years is horrific.

    I understand why people have trouble accepting the idea that the situation is that ugly. Before this past year, I had trouble understanding it myself.

  10. ucladavid says:

    One solution I have is that if the students fail the class, the student must repeat the class at the parent’s not taxpayer’s expense. Why should me, John Q. Taxpayer, have to pay because your kid did not learn the material the first time around and because of your bad parenting? True, this negatively affects poor people, but so what? If your parenting is good the first time around, then you won’t need to pay.

    Will more parents complain about bad teachers? Sure, but isn’t that a good thing; that means they would be more involved. To make sure parents don’t weasel out of it and complain the 18th week of the semester about the failing grade or how the teacher can’t teach, the parent must sign a contract at the beginning of the year that if there is a problem, they would notify the teacher/school immediately and to keep up-to-date of the student’s grade. There are progress report cards so if a student failed at the 5, 10, and/or 15 week report card, the parent has no right to complain. If there is a problem that the teacher can’t teach, then the parent must sit in the classroom and document how the teacher is not teaching correctly.

    Of course there are kinks to work out, but I really like this idea because it makes school not a babysitter service and gets parents off their butt to fix the problem.

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What ever happened to team teaching? in the 60s Team Teaching was the magic carpet to ed success. I helped build lots of Team Teaching classrooms. My son was in one, and the teacher said she never opened the divider between her room and her “teammate”.

  12. BadaBing says:

    Generally speaking, the kids had no limits of any kind at home, and the idea of adults having authority was absurd to them.

    The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people. –African (Ashanti)

    And so does most everything else, I’m afraid.

  13. David, the students already do repeat at the parents expense, it’s called summer school.

  14. ucladavid says:

    Myrtle, not in my district (LAUSD). The taxpayers pay for summer school not the parents. In middle school, it is only strongly recommended and not mandatory.

  15. David, Interesting. I wonder if there is going to be an expansion of this.

  16. I think that taxpayer paid remediation/credit make up/ summer school is going to expand.

    One of the effects of holding schools accountable for graduation rates is that schools and schools systems now have an incentive to make making up credits as easy on the kid as the system can. Every student needs to pass all the required classes in four years, and if he or she doesn’t, the school and district look bad. The kid can keep taking the classes over and over again at no cost to him until he or she is 21 in many states.

    I’m in a fairly affluent district, and even we’ve created a free evening school remediation program for students who fail a couple of core classes. The kids are held to a slightly more rigorous standard of classroom behavior and can be kicked out of the program pretty easily compared to regular school. Academically, however, the standards are much lower. For example, while our district has defined standards for required reading, writing, and research papers in English classes, the grade in the make up program is based only on the very easy, multiple choice final exam. Many students would have passed the regular class if the grade has been based solely on the such an final exam, but they failed to complete the required work in an acceptable manner. So with the evening program, we give them a free second chance and we lower the standards! My tax dollars at work! (Working for the district intensifies my outrage in this and many other cases.)

    I think retaining students who haven’t mastered the academic content is basic. Unfortunately, actually having a district implementing this as its basic philosophy would be revolutionary. Currently, in most schools and systems, all the pressure is on the teacher to give out passing grades. It’s much harder to retain a student who hasn’t learned the content than it is to pass such a student along. If the system is gamed in such a manner, what outcome do you expect? Sure, you can lay it all on the teachers for being spineless, but if you can’t rely on any support from above if the grade is contested by the parents, how would you maintain your standards? Despite what many believe about tenure, you can still get fired for insubordination and some states don’t have protections for teachers who refuse to change a grade. (My state gave teachers the right to refuse to change grades, but it affirmed the administrative authority to changed the grades without the teachers’ agreement. I suppose I can take comfort should a situation like this ever occur with me personally that at least I personally didn’t certify the kid as competent.)

    Intervention Teacher,

    Thank you for your work. One year is more that most people would have given. I hope you don’t leave teaching all together.

    I have one question about what you posted: I had assumed that scripted teaching would require little to no prep time. (You’d still have grading of course, but I would have thought little advance preparation.) When you said it took hours, what was so time consuming?

  17. J. wrote:

    The problem is we have a politicized system…

    It isn’t politicized, it’s political. The system is born of the political process and never escapes its roots. Participants know reflexively that the power to set the terms of the compromises that are part of any political process are a function of political clout. The more power you’ve got the more you get what you want and the more the system serves your interests at the expense of the other participants.

    The reason it takes exceptional courage to insist that kids learn is because from the point of view of other players, some parents, some administrators, that’s an unreasonable attitude. Kids go to school because they have to and to the extent there’s a purpose to attendance it is the acquisition of a diploma. If that’s what’s important then exerting any excess effort to acquire the diploma is foolish and anyone who insists that excess effort be expended is being unreasonable.

    How do we put an end to this nonsense? That’s easy. If you want to take the politics out of education then take the education out of politics. If the problems arise from the political nature of public education then you won’t solve those problems by looking to the political system. That’s the source of the problems and the solution will require great, big brass ones.

  18. Allen,

    Are you suggesting that we have no public funding of education at all?

  19. David, the students already do repeat at the parents expense, it’s called summer school.

    Summer school is free in my state (district’s offer summer classes at their option) for both remediation and enrichment.

  20. It isn’t politicized, it’s political. The system is born of the political process and never escapes its roots


    I agree with everything you say except that education is born of politics. It was not always so. Public schooling has mucked the entire works.

  21. There are the two sides: I think that most people expects ALL knowledge to come from the teachers(Teachers are guides), expecting too much from them.

    On the other hand, teachers are players and part of the problem.

  22. Intervention Teacher,

    I am moved by your stark and honest account of your year teaching “intervention.”

    I wonder what you think might have made your experience less horrible.

    You mentioned a lack of administrative support. What might they have done for you?

    Obviously more parental support could have made a world of difference but assuming that remains out of our control, what can we do?

  23. Intervention teacher: Improving reading levels by 2-3 grade levels in a situation like that? Wow. I hope that after some time to detox you might be able to think about teaching again. Whether you stay or leave, I hope that you will write and tell more.

    Can some smart people please write about what research exists about avoiding burnout without going indifferent?

  24. Getting back to the middle school discussion– for years, we were sold a bill of goods about the sacred “middle school philosophy” that basically boiled down to this, along with cynical interpretation:

    “Affective development is more important to young adolescents at this stage of development.” Meaning: the administration believes that middle schoolers are too screwed up emotionally to actually be expected to learn anything, so teachers may not hold students to any standards.

    “Self- esteem is vitally important, and must be the focus of the educational program.” Meaning: give every kid a reward for breathing, or tying their shoes, and they will then feel good about themselves and then miraculously be interested in doing the hard work of crafting an education.

    “Teachers must differentiate instruction for every one of their 27 children in their heterogeneous classroom in a 44 minute period.” Meaning: plunk kids down in front of meaningless exercises and role playing as one scurries around the room trying to spend at most 1.5 minutes with each student, to very little effect. Multiply this by six classes a day, and the teacher must have an individual plan for over 180 students per day. IQ ranges could span 70 points in a single classroom, and yet there was still only that 1.5 minutes IF the teacher did no instruction. And if some students were disrupting the education of the majority of the room, their right to be there TRUMPED the right of those who wanted to learn, and their parents KNEW THEIR RIGHTS to have the school provide free babysitting for eight hours a day, and by G-d, they would get a LAWYER or an IEP– hey that’s cheaper!– if that school kept messing with their right to have that day care by suspending their kids.

    “Retention increases the chances that a student will drop out exponentially. Therefore, no students will be retained, no matter how abysmal their grades.” Meaning: Kids can do absolutely nothing but be given meaningless self-esteem awards for three long years. And about that so-called “study”–Really? So does being advanced to 9th grade with a fourth grade reading level because the student has done absolutely nothing in the way of learning in three years. I wonder what would happen if we did a study of how successful students were who had been socially promoted to high school? They may not drop out as early, but just because one’s body occupies a space in a classroom (or, more likely, a school hallway while ditching class) does not mean that you are being any more educationally productive than if you had dropped out. The assumption that if someone hasn’t dropped out, they are learning is obviously untrue from the fact that this discussion started by mandating that kids who are already here but failing can’t be held accountable for their lack of educational achievement.

    Teachers were also made aware that they alone were responsible for whether their students learned, and that excused especially the students themselves from the equation.

    Middle school is three years of waste. Get rid of all of them. They are the rotting core of the educational system.