It’s the students, stupid

“The main problem with our education system today is not what is taught, where it is taught, by whom it is taught or how it is taught,” writes Teresa Talbot in the Deseret News. After 24 years teaching in Utah public schools, she believes, “The main problem with education today is students who refuse to work,”

It is the students in a science class where the teacher finally stopped giving students work to complete at home because very few of them bothered to do it. Instead, she began giving students time in class to complete all assignments. Over a third of her students failed because they refused to work in class.

. . . It is the students in my math classes who, when I showed them how to work a multiple step problem, called out, “I’m not doing that; it’s too much work.” It is the students who “complete” and turn in every assignment and still score less than 30 percent on the test covering that material because they are not the ones who actually did the work they turned in.

No matter how good the teacher, the technology or the curriculum, passive, lazy students won’t learn, Talbot writes. She blames ” a society that no longer values the individual work ethic” or holds students responsible for their learning.

What’s alarming is that she teaches in Utah, the traditional values state.

On Teaching Now, Anthony Rebora asks if “schools and educators bear part of the blame for failing to reach and support disengaged students?”

About Joanne


  1. That is definitely a big part of the problem, but it isn’t the only problem. I *DO* think another large part is the curriculum and how it is taught. Plenty of American students who have good attendance and homework completion records still don’t learn very much because of mediocre curriculum & teaching.

  2. why should kids do “work” if they know they will pass on to the next grade if they do it or not? I believe that NCLB had good intentions, but the implementation by schools to “meet the numbers” is a total failure.

    They need to get back to letting kids fail early so it’s not a surprise when they graduate and FAIL to get a real world job.


    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Why should we expect them to do the work when they’re FORCED to be there?

      Education should be an option – a choice available to all who want it. Imprisoning teens in an institutional setting that is for many divorced from any real world context is idiotic. We pretend to teach them “science” and “math” while pushing them for years through a system that leaves them only marginally educated and mostly unprepared for a career. This system primarily benefits adults via employment and the 40% of students who are academically inclined and likely to pursue a career that requires such an education.

      Many, many kids will graduate from high school with all kinds of “credits” – credits for math, science, and foreign languages they never mastered or even marginally learned. They’ll earn credits for useless electives like P.E. They’ll earn credits for books they never read and paper they didn’t write.

      Public education in the US is about 50% sham and the kids know it. If we want them to respect education and take it seriously then we need to treat it like it has meaning and stop wasting their time.

      • I think that K-8 should be mandatory in this country. For high school – Grades 9-12 – students can either opt out of it (while being told that later in life they’ll have to substitute a GED for it) and enter a government work program for young people, go into it like usual, or opt out of it for a vocational school to get certifications/etc. (like police academy, firefighting school, cosmetology school, pre-military, electrician, etc.). Of course, full explanations of all three options (the good, the bad, and the ugly) will be given to all students, both on paper and in speeches at school assemblies, etc. And students entering high school will need to pass an entrance exam in the four big subjects (Math, Science, Social Studies, English Language Arts) of some kind…

        • This could work, if an 8th grade education meant what it did a century ago (roughly what a high-school diploma means at a decent public HS today).

        • I’ve been saying this for years; serious k-8 work (which means cleaning out the Augean stables, particularly in ES), followed by a a HS-entry exam. Depending on the score, kids would have the choice of general, serious vo-tech or real college prep. Kids not wanting to continue to HS, or who fail the test, should be required to work or enter a suitable job-training/intern progam.

          • One thing to keep in mind is that back when high school to age 16 became compulsory, most students who left school to work ended up in very dangerous factories, mines, construction sites, etc. I can definitely understand why reformers wanted to keep 13-15 y.o.’s out of those kind of environments. But today only a small percentage of Americans work in those kind of risky jobs. And with modern occupational safety regulations, I can’t imagine that factory/mine/etc. supervisors would WANT to hire younger teens if it were permitted.

        • And I think that “mandatory” anything requires a better justification then “I think” although I won’t get much agreement for the simple reason that a lot of people harbor a secret, or just as often overt, wish to impose their views on others. So there’s a recoiling in horror at a blanket proscription on coercion since a blanket proscription would preclude coercion for the favored issue.

          But I suppose the proof that the founding fathers understood the flawed nature of the material which they were forced to use to build a new nation is institutionalized in the impediments to coercion in the institution built on coercion, government.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            I don’t think folks are recognizing (or possibly capable of recognizing) that the industrial age factory model institutional structure is failing, failing in a rather spectacular fashion throughout the West effecting not just education. That’s why we’re seeing the last grasp at socialism. It’s desperation and nostalgia. I don’t think they’ve quite caught on that the rest of us aren’t going to be who they want us to be – that we’re not going to acquiesce so that they can continue on benefiting from the systems as they exist while the rest of us stand on the outside and pay for them.

            Our future will be less hierarchical, less centrally controlled, power will be more diffused. We can build more flexible institutions that accommodate that and prepare for the future, or we can try to prop up failed institution to the benefit of the minority. Those impediments to coercion are as necessary as ever. They are the best tools we have and we need to use them.

          • That industrial age factory model is really nothing but the Socratic model replicated a few bazillion times and really about the only model possible without fairly advanced technology. But once it became a government mandated monopoly technological advancement became impossible.

            Khan Academy’s hardly the first stab at using technology to improve the productivity/effectiveness of education. The one technological advancement that did have a profound effect on education was movable type. Since then it’s been pretty much stagnation since any technology that might upset the status quo was discarded.

            Being discarded is what happened to computers in education until the technology became so pervasive, so inexpensive and so convenient that the technology simply bypassed the educational status quo which now exists in a time warp dependent on political inertia for protection from that technology. But the armor’s wearing thin and it won’t be long before the technology upsets that status quo.

            I agree, for what it’s worth, with your fortune-telling and I’d add, more responsive and accommodating to the individual.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          No. A solution would be a basic skills test (at about the 8th grade level) taken anytime between roughly ages 10-18. Once passed the kid would have access to a multi-tiered high school education offering different diplomas (high academic, general academic, specialized technical and career skills). This education should include work experience in the last two years.

          We’d need to do away with our concept of grades for age grouping purposes after about 4th or 5th grade and allow students in the middle years to take classes ala carte much like a college. This would require that we treat students as actual individuals instead of cogs, though. It would also require some responsibility on the part of parents and students for choosing tracks/classes at a younger age.

          • Yes, that’s the way schooling should be approached. We need to get rid of the idea that the pace or depth should be the same for all. Some kids, and in some schools they may be the majority, are easily capable of mastering the k-8 curriculum by the end of 6th grade – and should be allowed to do so. Other kids, and in some schools they may be the majority, will need 9-10 years. Still other kids will never be able to achieve mastery, because they lack the inherent ability. Some, because of some disability, may be successful (maybe highly successful) at parts of it – I am thinking of kids on the ASD spectrum, here, who may do well on math but not on ELA. Some will not succeed because they lack the will to work, and if they don’t have it before they finish the MS curriculum, they’re unlikely to develop it. Those kids should never be allowed to compromise academic opportunities for the willing; let them leave the system. Of course, with significant, negative consequences from K onwards, we might have fewer of them.

            As I’ve said before, the one-size-fits-all model of the gov’t schools does not fit many kids.

    • CW, there’s also the historical issue that the unions promoted mandatory schooling because it kept younger workers, who might be willing to work for less, out of the workplace. The early union movement also wanted to exclude blacks, for the same reason.

      It should also be noted that there are currently job openings in fields not requiring a college degree, but they are in skilled-trade fields and many of the unemployed/underemployed do not have the skill set to do the job – even with training.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    I blame … Sid, the Science Kid!

    For those who don’t know, Sid, the Science Kid is an “educational” show that runs on PBS. It is supposed to teach science to very young people and get them interested in it. Since I teach science, I watched a few episodes when it began.

    I was appalled. In Sid’s world, science in school is full of singing and dancing. It’s fun! It’s entertaining!! Real science in real school is going to be a big let-down.

    I’m sure the people responsible for the show think they have to do this to “hook” kids. In the short run, it probably does. In the long run, I fear it does more harm than good.

    (To be fair, I don’t mean to single out Sid. Sid, the Science Kid is a metaphor for most educational tv. And educational tv is hardly the only reason K-12 students don’t want to do a lot of their school work.)

    • To be fair, I think Sid is going to preschool, which normally does include singing and dancing. The idea of circle time doesn’t normally continue beyond K. I do agree, though, that there is a transition between the fun and the work parts of school that many people don’t make. My homeschooled kid is, this year (1st grade), having to adjust to spending more than 5 minutes doing subjects that he doesn’t like or finds difficult. There is still plenty of fun in his day and we try to enjoy the subjects, but it’s still work, and it’s hard to get used to for kids. I teach/have taught high school/college students, so I know it has to be done.

    • I do think that the idea of getting every kid “interested” in every subject is greatly to blame for the state of education. You can’t get every physicist interested in EVERY physics talk/topic/lecture/paper so how can you get every artist/fashionmodel/writer that ends up in your physics class interested in every “activity” that you do in class (speaking from personal experience here).

      On many education forums, with the exception of this one (and a few others), you’ll read comments like “why does science have to be so BORING”. Science isn’t boring to those who like science, it’s boring to those who will never like science no matter how you dress it up. We can say the same thing about any subject. Perhaps a lower percentage of people find math/science exciting, but that doesn’t justify turning it into a circus so that Ken and Barbie find it exciting.

  4. Well,

    If a kid doesn’t want to do the work in school, there’s no force in the world that will make them do it…When Johnny or Jane gets a dose of reality in the real world, perhaps they’ll understand that there are consequences for not doing well in school.


    • But by then, we’ll have lost the opportunity to have them be truly productive, progressive citizens. They’ll just be another one of the masses barely making ends meet who has no idea what’s going on in the world, or how the world works, that the polticians can lie to and promise God-only-knows-what to… Lose enough people this way, and a 1st World country can be converted into a 3rd World country in just a few generations… (the US is halfway there now)

    • If kids don’t learn the habits and behaviors that enable success (and they need to be explicitly taught, as they used to be) early in ES, they’re unlikely to learn them later. From kindergarten entry, appropriate behavior and work ethic must be demanded. Definitely, some Tiger Mothers go too far, but far too many don’t go far enough. Kids are KIDS; they don’t know what they need to know and few inherently persevere when things are no longer easy. Why is the need for practice and hard work so accepted in sports and the arts and so disdained in academics? That needs to change. How many hours, days, weeks and months do kids think it took for 10-year-old Chris to be able to juggle a soccer ball over 100 times before it hits the ground? Academic knowledge and skills are no different.

    • Kids WILL do the work if there’s is a genuine possibility that they will flunk. This works except for the absolute worst cases. The problem is that flunking is an idle threat, for the most part, and the kids know it.

      I once had a class get about a 60% average on a test. Actually, not too bad, but I suddenly had everyone’s attention. Didn’t last long. I got called to the office by the “boss” claiming that 60% meant I wasn’t teaching and that I’d better shape up.

      Education “experts”, of course, claim that threats don’t work. One time, during an “inservice”, we watched this video of some idiot claiming just such a thing. The teacher sitting next to me, an earth science teacher, proceeded to tell me the story of how the SOL results shot up miraculously when the teachers got the go-ahead to factor in SOL scores into the final grade. In VA kids need to pass two science SOLs. By the time that they get to earth science (or whatever they call this in VA) they’ve generally passed at least two, so they blow it off. They can, however, flunk the course. Now, the kids had to make an effort on the SOL to pass the course.

  5. Cranberry says:

    It is the students taught by the kindergarten teacher sitting next to me at my caucus meeting this spring who said that having 26 students in her classes would work if the students would simply do the class work she gave them instead of complaining, “This is too hard.”

    What sort of class work should one expect of kindergarten students? Most of them won’t be ready to read. Maybe the kindergarten students are telling the truth.

    Past a certain age, though — 4th or 5th grade? Perhaps one should give students the grades they’ve earned. I would add the condition that the work is not beyond the students’ ability to do.

    Of course, truth in grading and promotion could lead to distinctions between the students with a good work ethic and everyone else.

    • Give students the grades they earn? When school boards, district administrators and building principals set “maximum failure rates” above which teachers will face sanctions up to and including non-renewal? That is a ticket to the unemployment line.

      • Cranberry says:

        School boards, etc., and politicians’ love of “markers of success” are part of the problem.

  6. Ponderosa says:

    There’s a simple solution: attach negative consequences to failure. In Europe and Asia, failure means summer school, retention, relegation to a lower-track, no college,. Kids in these places know that failure has tangible consequences. Most of our lazy kids would start working if real, scary and palpable consequences loomed on their horizons, but this would be “anti-kid” so we don’t do it. As Amy Chua says in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, “”What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist” We need to be tougher on the kids.

    • You are 100% correct! And if our society doesn’t realize this, and soon, then our future as a country is going to be a grim one. When crime skyrockets, the infrastructure falls apart, the grocery stores run out of food, and everything else in general falls apart, and no one knows (or cares) to do anything about it… You end up having a 3rd World country like Liberia (to give one example of many). Count on it!

    • I remember reading about a survey of American and Chinese kids which found that American kids explained lower-than-desired grades as being “not good at math”, while Chinese kids explained them as a consequence of their not having worked hard enough. Far more Americans identified themselves as “good at math” as did the Chinese, despite the grade difference. Self-control and perseverence are golden tools for success.

    • My idiot boss kept telling me if I gave a kid a bad grade the kid would “shut down”. I never saw any evidence of this. Of course what I saw meant nothing to the boss even though her teaching experience was in middle school, in English, and short.

  7. Cranberry,

    A student entering Kindergarten should know basic reading, IMO…We’ve had programs here in my home state (NV) which tries to get all students reading by 8 (which is the 2nd grade for most kids)…

    It’s not hard to get a kid to read if the parental units will put some effort into it.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “A student entering Kindergarten should know basic reading, IMO”

      Some Kindergarteners have not yet turned five.

      To ensure no misunderstanding: are you seriously proposing that all/most kids should know how to read before they turn five?

      Or should these kids be held back a year (or two)?

      And maybe I should ask what you consider “basic reading”?

      • It’s probably not unreasonable for kids to have certain background prior to school entry – unless you feel that school equals babysitting. Of course, in some communities, there’s also the issue of whether delaying entry would lead to increased readiness. If the kid isn’t likely to increase that background significantly, over the next year, then he’s probably better off in school. For kids from advantaged backgrounds, a delay is probably better.

        When we lived in FL, Orange County would test kids of kindergarten age, both academically and socially, prior to entry, and make a (non-binding) recommendation for starting kindergarten or delaying for a year. Our neighbors did that with their kids – one went a bit early (birthday just past deadline) and the other was delayed. Any deadline is, by definition, arbitrary.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        Different kids are developmentally ready to learn to read at different ages. Some are ready at 4, while others aren’t ready until 6 or 7. Both my mom and husband learned to read on the later side (7) but quickly took off and by 4th grade were in the top reading group.

        My oldest DD learned to read almost exactly a year younger than my DS, but within two years, he caught up to where she was at the same age (e.g. it has taken him only 2 years to make the same progress as it took her 3 years to achieve).

  8. Cranberry says:


    I’ve been trying to find a definitive answer on when a child should be able to read. The best answers seem to be somewhere between first and second grade, which dits with the motto, “up to 2nd grade, learn to read, after 2nd grade, read to learn.”

    Some kids seem to start reading spontaneously, but most kids need instruction. Very young children may be too far-sighted to focus on the page. Many parents won’t know their children need glasses until they complain of difficulty focusing on letters–or fall behind peers in learning to read.

    Thus, it’s likely that work which expects kindergartners to read and write independently is inappropriate. Such practices could teach children that they can’t do schoolwork from a young age.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    If we accept that a main problem is students’ refusal to work, does that absolve teachers from responsibility for students refusing to work? Does every teacher just throw up her hands in response to the problem, or do some teachers get their students to work, even though other teachers with the same kind of students are unsuccessful at getting their students to work?

    • Without standardization it’s impossible to determine whether some teachers get kids to work. One teacher may have kids do math problems with pencil and paper and meet with resistance. Another may use “manipulatives” or other fun stuff and get kids to “work”.

      By making it the teacher’s problem you create yet another incentive to add more fluff to the curriculum and dumb things down.

      • Cardinal Fang says:

        I don’t see a particular value in standardization of method; we should care, rather, about standardization of expectations. If the kids end up being able to tell me what two thirds of seven eighths is, I don’t care whether they used manipulatives or worksheets to learn that skill.

        The teachers job is to teach the students in her classroom. If a teaching method doesn’t work for the students presently before the teacher in the classroom, the teacher should use another method that does work.

        • I was talking about standardization of results.

          The ed-world is generally opposed to standardization of results (witness the irrational opposition to ST because children aren’t “standardized”) and even more so to standardization of method — just look at what passes for teacher training.

  10. The problem is that reaching the students who don’t want to work often entails doing exactly the opposite of what most teachers think of as “teaching”. For example, it means relaxing behavior requirements. It means often cajoling a kid to do the work after deadlines have blown by. It means ignoring your own standards to get the kid to do anything. It means accepting all responsibility for the kid’s learning, and accepting responsibility for the lack of interest.

    So it’s an entirely different thing. And many teachers find it repellent, making a mockery of what teaching should be.

    I’m very good at motivating low ability/low incentive kids, and my pass rate is very high, while my test scores for the kids are the same or better than teachers with lower pass rates of the same population. And I do it all the things I say above, because I think it’s tremendously unfair to force kids to take courses they can’t understand and don’t want to take–and give them no alternatives. So I do it not because I think it’s “teaching”, but because I believe that holding kids to standards they didn’t sign up for is unfair. Many teachers disagree.

    But make no mistake: the teachers who do well with this population do so by lowering standards for behavior and performance and convincing the kids to play along not by selling the value of the course, but by selling the value of passing. Anyone who says otherwise, particularly in high school, is working at a charter school or just lying.

    • Cardinal Fang says:

      Thanks for that answer, Cal.

      What about teachers of younger kids? Let’s hypothesize that some students have negligent parents who should have taught their children the value of hard work, but didn’t– or at least let’s hypothesize that some young children have arrived in school, being unwilling to work, for whatever reason. You’re a first grade teacher of these students. What ought you to do?

      We’ve disagreed in the past, but this is not a gotcha question. We have a genuine problem of students not working hard. Are there strategies teachers ought to be using to combat it? Are there other social strategies outside of the classroom that we ought to be using?

      • Cardinal Fang says:

        To clarify– I didn’t mean to imply that Cal is presently a first grade teacher. I meant, if Cal (or any other commenter who wants to take this on) were a first grade teacher, what ought he or she to do with kids who were unwilling to do their schoolwork?

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Yeah, this is about right. It takes a TON of loving up on them, cajoling, bending rules, etc. to get this population to put in enough work to make any progress. I’m a hardass with my AP kiddos, though.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Lightly, I hope the progress your kids make is sufficient to overcome the lesson that they need not try unless cajoled into agreement, and that rules can be bent if it fits the whim of the moment.
        The world has hard edges. Eventually, we all encounter them. We are prepared or not.

        • lightly seasoned says:

          Richard, many of these kids know about the world’s hard edges — and could teach us both a lesson or two about them; they come to me from a state group home. My job is to teach them how to read and write so that they have the tools to better negotiate the world. I am not a “Superman” teacher by any stretch, but I do bring many up to proficiency or much closer to it, and that’s a big deal for this group. You can armchair quarterback all you like, but I’m getting the job done.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            The problem is a lack of concrete payoffs. It’s terrific that you can bring some disadvantaged kids up to standard in an English class. No doubt that those skills are needed. But, it’s also a bit unconnected from helping them determine a reasonable path to a pragmatic future.

            We should be providing them with goals that are more meaningful and specific. Graduating high school is for some enough of a goal, but others see quite clearly how generic and useless this can be.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            “proficiency” varies by definition. So let’s assume your kids are proficient by a useful definition.
            Still, you have taught them that they need not produce unless the powers-that-be cajole them, and if they screw up, well, allowances will be made.
            Coming from a group home is coming from–in some cases–a hard place. But that’s not the same as knowing that some things you’re required to do by such and such a time you’re required to do by such and such a time or…you get fired, docked pay, not hired, and nobody’s interested in a whine “it’s not FAIR!”

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        LS- This ties in directly with the discussion a few posts up about how kids work more when they have a chance to fail.

        Yes, you will get better results with disengaged kids if you put in all the effort and tactics that you and Cal are talking about. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that whatsoever.

        But if that’s the situation that you present, you’re going to have more kids who will act in such a way to get themselves that more relaxed sort of atmosphere.

        Because you’re subsidizing a certain type of behavior, you’ll get more of it.

        So that’s our choice, if I can simplify in the extreme:

        Higher hard-edged standards with a small group of younger people on the academic bottom that suffers helplessly and grievously, or the bend-cajole-by-any-means sorts of standards with a larger group of students on the academic bottom who do somewhat (maybe even considerably) better.

        I don’t think this can be solved by just looking at average academic performance, either. It’s a question of whether you buy Rawlsian maximin arguments or not, a question of fundamental morals.

        Which makes it a political question, not a scientific one amenable to statistical analysis.

        • lightly seasoned says:

          Not my experience, Michael. Kids aren’t looking to get into the remedial class. You can talk politics until your tongue falls out, but, again, I’m getting the job done. Are you?

        • Cranberry says:

          Michael E. Lopez, there’s an error in your assumptions. You assume the students could do the work, if they so chose. You’re measuring the effort expended by the time spent filling out the worksheets–the external signs of effort.

          If the student knows he can’t do the work, though, it may be safer for him to not demonstrate his incapacity. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” (Abraham Lincoln, according to Google–hmm, a noted auto-didact, known for his lack of formal education.)

          If you know you don’t know the state capitols, trying to fill out a worksheet on the state capitols will expose you to ridicule. Better to be thought someone who doesn’t like school than to be thought stupid.

          I have noticed the parents who struggled themselves in school are the most sensitive to differences in student performance.

  11. Mark,

    In most school systems, there are age cutoffs for entering Kindergarten, and the usual age is 5 and for admission to first grade, a child must be at least 6 years of age by a cutoff date (usually by August 31st) or has completed Kindergarten (in the public school system).

    In private schools, I don’t know if there is an age limit in which one starts the first grade. Here in NV, the Challenger Schools will accept kids who have reached the age of 2 years and 9 months for enrollment in pre-K activities.


    • Mark Roulo says:

      In California, kids need to be five by November 1st to attend Kindergarten. The old cut date was in December. This year, my local school district starts classes on August 20th, so some kindergarteners will still be four.

      I’m not trying to pick a fight, just to make sure I understand your point.

      You believe these not-quite-five year olds should be reading?

  12. Not saying that at all, but in reality, by the time a student leaves Kindergarten, they should have some basic reading concepts down, and some simple spelling (or am I expecting too much), regardless if they are 4 or 5 when they start Kindergarten.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I *think* that this is the goal for reading in my local public schools.

      I don’t know about spelling … they may still be working on penmanship. I think they hope that all kids can write their own name by the end of K. They may try for more, too.

    • But Bill, you said *entering* K. Now you seem to be saying *leaving* K. I certainly don’t disagree about kids leaving K with some basic reading skills, but requiring them just for entry seems excessive.

  13. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Finally, a discussion of de facto truth, not the boilerplate platitudes that pose as cogent analysis. As a veteran public school teacher (started in ’87), I have witnessed the ebb and flow of continual “reforms” in public education and public policy. Accountability isn’t only for teachers–every partner in education must be accountable. Unfortunately, as long as students and their families are not held accountable for laziness, disrespect and disruption, there will be no progress and a continued “achievement gap” (which is a gap of VALUES). Class size is an issue for teachers solely because of those three pathologies–give me 50 or 100 industrious, respectful and enthusiastic students, rather than 30, of which the majority are sent to class strictly for taxpayer-funded day care/babysitting. Of course, teachers should be interesting, engaging, strong in content knowledge and methodology–that is professionalism. But do not engage in blame the teacher first, when these social pathologies are not addressed by the school administration or the school district. Teachers are continually undermined, and we possess little to no authority to do anything other than try to reach the third or so students who care about education and are willing to try. That is the elephant in the room that the Left (who poisoned public education many years ago) and the Right (who want to dismantle and privatize education) won’t really discuss.
    ‘Nuff said.

    • When my DH was in ES, there were 100 kids in his class, with one nun and one yardstick. Discipline was absolute, everyone achieved basic literacy and numeracy by the end of 8th grade and the parents backed up the conduct standards. Ah, those were the days.
      The “broader, bolder” group, which seems to be mostly on the left side, blames poverty for all school failures and pushes to remediate the “root causes” with ever-more money and social programs but does not mention the really big elephant in the room; the destruction of the family. The social pathologies you mention tend to flow disproportionately from this. I don’t pretend to know how to return to the days when unmarried parenthood was explicitly discouraged, but the pattern of young, unmarried mothers and their sperm donors (most don’t function as fathers) has proven to be toxic, for their kids and their communities. (Even kids from financially stable single-parent households do less well than their counterparts from married-parent households.) Given the institutional and political resistance to enforcement of suitable school discipline, many parents just want to remove their kids from the insanity, don’t see much liklihood of it happening within the system and want their share of public funding to follow their kids to a school that fits their needs. The right is willing to confront and discuss it; the left, not so much. Many of that group are still locked into the PC delusion of equal outcomes, if we just spend more money.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nails. I think the right is perfectly willing to discuss it. That’s why they’re so often accused of racism.

    • nailsagainsttheboard says:

      As a right-wing conservative independent, I have yet to see the mainstream Republican Party political hacks embrace education reform outside of the NCLB testing mania, which has resulted in little more than a narrowing of the curriculum, a demoralizing of the teaching profession (I’m not talking about rightfully taking on teachers unions, which are mostly composed of aging 60s/70s Lefties and faux minority “civil rights activists”) and the hiring of administrative bureaucratic automatons to do their bean-counting. We must absolutely remove the Leftist union stranglehold on public schools, part of the poison I mentioned earlier. However, due to the ridiculous and expensive NCLB, the pendulum has swung from teacher-can-do-no wrong to teacher–as-scapegoat for all educational ills. Both are absurd. W Bush and Obama have both embraced this, in the feel-good name of “accountability”. The bottom line is that learning is a long, arduous process that demands excellent teaching to students who are willing to show consistent effort, perseverance and respect for the teacher (as well as the classroom), who in turn is being raised in a caring, supportive, respectful family. Those are optimal conditions that produce positive results. Excellent teachers have marginal effects on lousy students who come from families that do not espouse the timeless values that make students successful in anything, let alone school. The only solution is to enable public schools to do what private schools do–expel students/families who do not cooperate and impede others’ teaching and learning. Bring back reform schools, which may have to ditch the naive “college for all” curriculum and focus on basic interpersonal and vocational skills. The public schools can then be empowered, not disabled at their task of educating those who merit it. This would empower public schools, not dismantle and disable them, as is the current direction.

  15. Cardinal,

    I suspect that the resulting conversation alerted you to exactly the teacher debate I was talking about.

    As for your specific question, any first grader who flatly refuses to do work is pretty dysfunctional and not the norm. Regardless of poverty level, kids are pretty engaged through elementary school if they have a teacher with a decent level of classroom management. So if I understand your premise, you’re wondering if the kids who grow up uninterested can be fixed earlier. But in my experience, the bulk of them don’t start uninterested. It kicks in when the work gets too hard, which starts somewhere in middle school.

    The real problem, in my view, is not the kids per se, but the fact that we are taking kids who don’t understand the work and don’t buy in to the goals, so they don’t even try. (There are plenty of Asian populations with low test scores but high effort, showing that it’s not effort, but ability, that dominates).

    • Cardinal Fang says:

      So eager bright-eyed kindergarteners turn in to sullen uncooperative 11-year-olds because they end up being unable to understand, let’s say, fractions? In your view, this is primarily due to innate (in)ability? Do peers make a difference?

      Assuming you are right, can we make a difference on the margins? That is, for the purposes of this discussion ignore the super-bright kid who understood adding fractions when she entered kindergarten, and the stupid child who will never grasp addition. Consider the kids just on the margin, who could understand the math if they put in significant effort. Coaxing and cajoling, or some way of moving them from not-working to working if such a thing is possible, would have big payoffs. Are peer effects significant in this group? Is it possible to coax over just enough of the group to get the rest of the group to follow because it’s the fashion?

  16. Well, let’s accept that the teachers in this article are being just a tad “down” on the kids. Not all kids are sullen and uncooperative. Many of them are just happy and yappy about anything but the subject. Others just sit there and do something else. But yes, for a number of reasons, the kids start to tune out at some point. Middle school is 12-13 year olds, though, not 11 year olds. I’d guess it starts to happen when the quality and accuracy matters more than just getting it done.

    Assuming you are right, can we make a difference on the margins?

    Of course. That’s why I do what I do, because it does make a difference. Before I went into teaching, I was (and still am) a test prep instructor and that’s where I learned how motivation and a clear sense of an immediate goal (e.g., better ACT score means no remediation) could take unmotivated kids and help them do better.

    Sure, there are things they can understand, or at least stretch their brain to get more practice at working with advanced concepts–and the stretching is helpful, since that’s all most of us are doing when we learn advanced math or analytical writing.

    But as you can see from the discussion, the methods that *actually* work (in my opinion) with kids who have choices–that is, unlike charter kids–are exactly what is *not* desirable by the “high standards” crowd, be they reformers, progressives, or teachers.

    Michael Lopez is partly right and partly wrong. He’s wrong that “subsidizing” this behavior gets more of it, because school doesn’t work that way. He is mostly correct, however, in the second half of that post, here:

    Higher hard-edged standards with a small group of younger people on the academic bottom that suffers helplessly and grievously, or the bend-cajole-by-any-means sorts of standards with a larger group of students on the academic bottom who do somewhat (maybe even considerably) better.

    However, he’s wrong about it being a “smaller” group. If we held everyone to one standard and flunked everyone who didn’t meet it, the group would be huge.

    I’ve said this many times: just how many people with an IQ under 100 can learn algebra in the 8th grade? That’s a non-trivial question, and I’m not an IQ purist. It’s just a good benchmark. If anyone thinks that hard work is all that’s needed, they haven’t been paying attention–because the charters would have cracked this nut by now if that were all that was needed.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “But yes, for a number of reasons, the kids start to tune out at some point. Middle school is 12-13 year olds, though, not 11 year olds.”

      Not really related to your point, but maybe relevant in the future …

      my local middle school’s are grades 6-8. I have an 11 year old who is starting 6th grade in a week. He wasn’t redshirted, but is old for his grade (he missed the cut date by about 6 weeks). Some of his age mates were in 6th grade *last* year…

    • Cardinal Fang says:

      How many of the lower half in cognitive ability could learn algebra by the end of 12th grade?

      • Don’t know. For all I know, we can teach algebra to low cognitive ability kids. There’s never been any research done on it because it’s a very touchy subject.

        I do believe, however, that more kids with lower cognitive ability would learn algebra if they were given timeto focus on math concepts and applications and slowly acquire it over high school, rather than moving on to more advanced math.

  17. Roger Sweeny says:

    Gee, 11-13 year olds are very different at school than “eager bright-eyed kindergarteners.” Whatever could be happening to them at that age? Something that would change their interests and their attitudes.

    I have a hypothesis, and if someone will give me a research grant, I’ll be happy to write a report.

  18. Assuming you’re talking about puberty, yes, that’s part of it. But if we made elementary school significantly more challenging (as middle school is to elementary), there’d be more rebellion there, even if it wouldn’t be as surly.

    • LacklusterSub says:

      How about if rather than each school level (ES, MS, HS) having distinctly different missions and therefore causing significant shock as students move between them, we just evenly distribute an academic focus through all thirteen years?
      Everything is so disjointed these days. Elementary schools used to work on the basic skills necessary for success (reading, math processes, vocabulary building, homework, studying) but now seem to focus on socialization and cooperative work. Middle schools used to hammer grammar, writing, and organization of thought but now focus on suicide prevention, safe sex, and bullying. That leaves high school teachers to delve deeper in the various subjects… but instead they are now teaching reading, math processes, vocabulary, homework, studying, grammar, writing, and organization. Is it any wonder that students drop out or even graduate without being able to read?