It’s the students, stupid

We’re obsessing about teacher quality and ignoring what really matters, writes Will Fitzhugh on School Information System. It’s the students, stupid. If they do the work, they’ll  learn. If they wait for teachers to pour knowledge (or skills) in their heads, they won’t.

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be — namely the students.

Of course, it’s hard to fire lazy, unproductive students, Fitzhugh concedes.

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Comments

  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    In some circumstances isn’t it an issue of discipline? If teachers were able to grade and discipline based upon whether assigned work was completed, wouldn’t both parents and students feel pressure to get ‘er done?

  2. Catherine says:

    Children need some sort of negative consequences, preferably the loss of a privilege, when they behave lazily in school. That’s hard to institutionalize because children care about different things. Some children would find it appalling to lose computer time, others recess, others sitting near their friends, others participating in school extracurriculars, and yet others the withholding of praise for their work (since they haven’t merited it anyway). Grade retention, while superficially a very appealing way to deal with students who haven’t learned the material for a grade level, seems so unpopular that it would be unrealistic to push for it at this time.
    In the same vein, they need a positive consequence for work well done, one that means something to them. If they love math and have learned all the 4th grade math material, put them in a group with children doing 5th grade math. Or if they love sports, give them extra PE time. Everyone, even adults, needs meaningful recognition of their achievements; gold stars and certificates have been so overused in an attempt to manipulate the nonperforming students into becoming performers that they have very little meaning now to the recipients, so let’s practice “differentiated rewards-and-consequences” rather than keep exhausting teachers with unrealistic “differentiated instruction” expectations from above.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Fitzhugh is right. Robert Samuelson, the Washington Post’s economics columnist, said pretty much the same thing last September.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/05/AR2010090502817.html

    However, this focus on teachers is inevitable given the way we’ve marketed schools. “Give us money,” say the school systems and teacher’s unions and ed schools. “We are experts–professionals!–with specialized knowledge and skills regarding learning We can teach anyone anything.”

    In that case, when kids don’t learn, the fault has to be the teachers’.

    We could have said, “Look, we can give kids an opportunity for an education, but they have to use that opportunity. Most of them won’t use anywhere near all of it.” Then, hardly anyone would be blaming us teachers. But we wouldn’t be paid nearly as well either.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    Just adding to Roger’s comment:

    “Look, we can give kids an opportunity for an education, but they have to use that opportunity. Most of them won’t use anywhere near all of it.”

    ..”And if they are disruptive or uncooperative in our classes, we’ll demand that they leave and let others who want to be there get on with it…”

  5. Kids, in my experience, respond very positively to failing grades. The possibility of an F gets their attention (most of them, at least) and most of them will immediately start to work on undone homeworks and other assignments. The problem is that administrators and the edu-idiots in ed schools won’t let this go on.

  6. There is no panacea to the educational turmoil in which we find ourselves. It’s all part of a larger cosmos – a new civilization is being birthed. We are experiencing the death of an old one.

    Most students have never really wanted to learn; they had to be “forced.” At least during the industrial economy there was a “pot of gold” at the end of the high school rainbow in the form of jobs that they aimed for and could achieve. Because the old middle class is dying and there are few role models for a new middle class, students lack the incentive to strive. Certainly this generation knows little of deferred gratification. Am I dating myself?

  7. Saying “we can’t fix the schools until we fix the kids & families” is equivalent to saying “we can’t fix the schools at all”….because making massive cultural change in millions and millions of people to cause them to magically be more interested in education is what is sometimes called a “boil the ocean” problem.

    In even the most non-education-oriented neighborhood, there are probably 20% who would really like to learn given the opportunity and another 30% who are convertible to that attitude given excellent teaching and school leadership. The problem is how to keep the disruptive and hostile students from poisoning the well for all others. Educators should be demanding the right to throw these students out of class rather than making impossible demands on the entire society which merely serve as excuse-making for their own institutions.

  8. Paradoxically, coddling lazy students is a form of child abuse. Because many lazy kids end up passing through k-12 without receiving any education at all. Then they enroll in community college endeavoring to learn twelve years’ worth of knowledge in one year, an impossibility. Here they face some truly profound negative consequences: ignorance, unemployment, poverty. We doom kids by withholding consequences until young adulthood.

  9. Ben,

    Good point. It’s too bad that the ed establishment stops keeping track of people the moment they graduate from HS. That way they can pretend that the kids they graduate are perpetually successful.

  10. Sean Mays says:

    Who will point out that the Emperor has no clothes? School districts across the nation have implemented various “no fail” policies …

    http://www.joannejacobs.com/2008/08/dallas-rules/
    http://www.joannejacobs.com/2011/01/the-cant-fail-school/
    http://www.joannejacobs.com/2009/06/teachers-complain-of-pressure-to-promote/

    Teachers are pressured to promote students. Fail too many and you find your self having to write a professional development plan as to WHY you’re failing too many students. I believe it was Dallas ISD that considered putting teachers who failed more than 20% on improvement plans. My students asked me what I’d do if I taught there (about 30% were failing). I said well, either I’d bite the bullet and write my plan, or I’d curve the grade so only 19.9% of you fail. They figured I’d go for the 2nd option – it amounted to a high stakes game of chicken for them.

    Whatever else you may think, can we believe that busting unions will allow teachers greater freedom to tell it like it is? How many teachers would have the moral fiber to buck management and fail large numbers of students and serve the wake up call?

    I’ve had parents tell me that Johnnie or Janey needs an A in math to get a scholarship in college. My counter argument that even IF I did that, they’d wind up in remedial math and LOSE said scholarship and likely not graduate fell on deaf ears.

    Over a third of college bound kids in my state wind up in remedial ed – at enormous cost to themselves and society. A great majority will never graduate, but nobody wanted to bear the consequences before college.

  11. f teachers were able to grade and discipline based upon whether assigned work was completed, wouldn’t both parents and students feel pressure to get ‘er done?

    Uh, no.

    Kids, in my experience, respond very positively to failing grades

    Then your experience is limited.

    Many teachers grade based on whether assigned homework is completed, and many students fail. The stigma of an F is non-existent in many schools.

  12. “Then your experience is limited.”

    Perhaps. But so is yours. Unless you’re like the magical Professor “Staff” who teaches nearly every course in every school in the country.

    The threat of an F gets at least some kids off their butts, which is preferable to none.

    Kids in my school got automatic F’s for attendance problems. Amazingly, almost every kid managed to stay just under the maximum skips allowed for the quarter. Some got attendance F’s, but a tiny minority. This tells me that the GENUINE threat of an F is actually taken seriously.

    The problem is that there is no genuine district-wide threat. Teachers who use it individually do so at their own peril. THAT’s the problem.

  13. “The problem is how to keep the disruptive and hostile students from poisoning the well for all others. ”

    Might one suggest school choice and vouchers?

    “This tells me that the GENUINE threat of an F is actually taken seriously.”

    Only by students who buy into the idea that education is important to them. The problem is, that is becoming increasingly rare.

  14. Allison says:

    So if it’s the students, stupid, why do the schools, admins, and districts need so much money?

  15. “So if it’s the students, stupid, why do the schools, admins, and districts need so much money?”

    To fulfill the mandates and fill out the paperwork from the federal government.

  16. Lou Gots says:

    Well now, why wouldn’t we expect the teachers who derive their livelihood from the system, and the politicians who buy their support and their mainstream media toadies to push the idea (research-driven, of course) that more money for public education will turn straw, or something, into gold?

    On another thought, is not transmittal of language, literacy and love opf learning things we give our children, an imperishable heritage no one can take away from them? When we level the rewards of familial preparation, we cheapen the coinage of the academic legacy we receive from out parents and transmit to our children.

  17. It’s a basic sense of entitlement, which is fed by the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy tells people that “We are the experts, we will do all the educating”. As a result, those who expect other people to take care of them come to expect no less. DNA-doners who look upon parenting as a burden, and have raised their children by giving in to every whim simply to avoid having to deal with complaints, expect others to do the work for them. They send children to us often not knowing what a letter or number IS.

    These children are then passed on from one grade to the next regardless of how little work they’ve actually done. After all, it’s much easier to track grades than learning. The further along they get, the more they think everyone else should be doing the work for them. Why shouldn’t they? It’s the one thing they’ve been taught from day one.

    The saddest part is that these children are not dumb. Their minds are like a 500-hp engine with a faulty gearbox. If they really knew what success was – if they had some real role models – if they knew how far behind they really were – if there were real consequences for failure – if they valued learning above grades…

    - if wishes were horses…

    Pretending that education expenditures and results are related does nothing but waste time that these kids don’t have.

  18. Some of the underperformance is because of lazy & unmotivated students. But even kids who are willing to work are often not educated up to their potential because of poor curricula and the unwillingness to group by where the students are in the sequence rather than by age. Schools can do a LOT better job than they are even without changing anything about the students.

  19. “But even kids who are willing to work are often not educated up to their potential because of poor curricula and the unwillingness to group by where the students are in the sequence rather than by age.”

    This is true, but we all know why this is…because if we grouped any other way than by age, there would be demographic imbalances that the political class is not prepared to defend.

  20. if we grouped any other way than by age, there would be demographic imbalances that the political class is not prepared to defend.

    Probably, but heterogeneous age-segregated classes are the norm even in schools serving an overwhelmingly white and Asian upper-middle-class population. Nobody complains when swimming lessons or dance classes group children by level rather than by age. But Heaven forbid 6 year old Mackenzie and 8 year old Maddison should be in the same 2nd grade level math class…

  21. Stacy in NJ says:

    “if we grouped any other way than by age, there would be demographic imbalances that the political class is not prepared to defend.”

    That’s because our education system and our political class is heavily invested in lying to us, but they lie because it’s what we want to hear. It flatters us. The affluent mostly figured out the lies along time ago (they’re smart that way), and adapted accordingly – segregating themselves in either private schools or communites where they control the public schools.

  22. Crimson Wife— But…. Swimming Lessons are different! I mean, swimming is a skill that no kid is born with, that takes practice, that is taught in a systematic way and can be assessed through objective tests!!!

    There’s no way we could POSSIBLY compare something like that to Math and Reading instruction! ;)

  23. This blog touched hearts and minds. It’s about time that we focus on the three parts of education: teacher, student, parent. Thank you.