Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Evolution of School Reform – Part 1: Students

One of the critical flaws in most school reform plans is the abject failure to address anything beyond the role of teachers. Teachers are an important part of the education experience and significantly influence the end educational result. However, to believe that all of the problems and solutions lie in the realm of the teacher is silly and frankly rather stupid and irresponsible. Sadly even those that should know better still place almost all of the focus on the teacher in the name of reform or improving school performance. Such emphasis can be seen in the following example, the opening paragraph of “Constructing 21st-Century Teacher Education” by Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University.1

“The previous articles have articulated a spectacular array of things that teachers should know and be able to do in their work. These include understanding many things about how people learn and how to teach effectively, including aspects of pedagogical content knowledge that incorporate language, culture, and community contexts for learning. Teachers also need to understand the person, the spirit, of every child and find a way to nurture that spirit. And they need the skills to construct and manage classroom activities efficiently, communicate well, use technology, and reflect on their practice to learn from and improve it continually.”

Unfortunately the above paragraph basically sums up the general view of teaching in the United States. Teachers need to know this, teachers need to know that, teachers need to respect this, teachers need to appreciate that… not once does the above paragraph or any part of the remaining article suggest that the other actors involved in the process of learning (the students, the administrators, the parents) have to compromise anything with respect to classroom performance. So the teacher has to be the hard working chameleon while everyone else should feel no responsibility to adjust or evolve his/her mindset to accommodate the teacher’s personal style. This attitude is a large reason why education in the United States has taken such a negative turn, no responsibility on the students, parents or the administration for their role in the process.

For example when an 8th grader can only read at a 4th grade level, reformers are quick to blame teachers for allowing the student to slip through the cracks. Of course such blame is easy and convenient for reformers because it does not require actually thinking about the issue. If people are willing to assign blame where is the blame for the administrators of the school who allowed that student to continue to advance in grade even when that student did not possess the adequate tools for advancement? Where is the blame for the parents of the student who elected to take so little genuine interest in their student’s education that they were unaware of his/her reading deficiencies? Most of all, where is the blame for the student? Why not chastise the student for going home and surfing the Internet or playing video games instead of cracking open a book and working on improving?

One of the continuing hot buttons of school reform is the periodic standardized test evidence that frequently demonstrates a trend of poor performance of 8th grade and 12th grade students from the United States versus those from other developed foreign countries. Although a lot has been made of the difference between foreign and domestic scores, a more pressing issue should be the change in ranking between 4th grade and these upper grade levels (8th and 12th). For instance when international comparisons are first made in 4th grade the United States is near the top in math, science and language. However, as the students age the rank of the United States wanes versus other nations, so the real question is where and why does this drop-off occur?

Clearly one cannot go running to the problems/gaps in technological integration because the standardized tests used to compile the information for these comparisons do not focus on creating a PowerPoint presentation or writing a program in C++. Thus, something must change either in the students, the instructors or both as these individuals move up the educational ladder. The important first question on this issue is: is it more a matter of the foreign students improving at a faster rate than U.S. students or do U.S. students on a relative level to their younger selves actually regress? Basically think of two cars in a race, does Car A maintain a relatively constant speed while Car B increases its speed or does Car A lose speed while Car B maintains a relatively constant speed?

The reason this question is important is if the answer is the former option school reform only requires some tweeks here and there to close this achievement gap. If the answer is the latter option, then school reform is more troublesome because clearly either the students, the teachers or both are creating an environment that is hurting student achievement relative to if that student attempted to learn alone. At this point in time there is little reason to believe that the latter option is the correct one.

Instead the former is the better bet due to the general static nature of most teaching as students progress in grade versus the dynamic nature of the students receiving that teaching. In 4th grade students have a lot less going on in their lives and the material is easier, so high-quality performance is more straightforward. In 8th and 12th grade other factors enter into the equation, most notably more difficult subject matter, increasingly complicated social interaction with peers (dating, etc.), expansion of extra-curricular activities (higher pressure sports teams, employment, etc.), which increases the difficulty of education. Thus if this reality does turn out to be the case, schools need to address the critical question of student motivation before anticipating any significant improvement in reform.

With the question of motivation in mind the simple fact is that despite the publicity and hype surrounding the role of teaching in school reform, the primary actors responsible for education are the students themselves. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the job of the instructor to motivate the student to learn. It is the job of the instructor to provide an environment where the potential to learn is enhanced, but the core motivational effort is the responsibility of the student. So why is it that teachers receive the blame for this lack of motivation and later the lack of results or learning pursuant to this lack of motivation? The most probable answer is that it is always easier for the students to blame the teacher over themselves for their educational failures and parents of course side with their children over the teacher in most to all instances. Proper placement of responsibility on this issue is a necessary step to enhancing student motivation. As long as society continues to create a scapegoat in teachers and pass the buck with regards to student motivation, the probability of properly motivating students will not significantly increase.

Another important step to closing this gap is students simply growing up. Like teachers students need to realize that education is not a passive activity, involving only simply sitting at a desk listening to the instructor lecture. Students need to actively participate in classroom discussions and activities, with the understanding that learning is not always easy and/or fun. For example when the instructor asks a question to the class every student in the room should raise a hand in anticipation of answering the question, not only one or two.

Of course the school as well as the teacher must aid the student. Returning to the statement of the 8th grader that can only read at a 4th grade level, how was this individual allowed to proceed to the 8th grade in the first place? Either the school did not realize that he/she could only read at a 4th grade level or the school did not care and merely passed the student up along the food chain hoping he/she would ‘get it’ at the next level. If the school does not have a rigorous literature program through composition or language classes then it is quite possible that an individual can move through the system with a low reading level because those skills are never thoroughly tested making them unnecessary, even in the eyes of the student. Unfortunately not knowing a problem exists is not an excuse for ignoring the problem. Therefore, schools need to institute a more rigorous assessment scale for subjects either within the curriculum or as a separate examination.

One could argue that the latter option is already covered by state standardized testing, thus including an additional school specific test could easily become a waste of time for teachers and students. Such an argument would have merit if the results of the standardized testing were handled in a more appropriate feedback manner. For example suppose student A and student B take standardized test D. Student A performs well measuring in the upper 10%, but student B performs poorly, especially in all reading comprehension and vocabulary sections. What is the general school based reaction to these results?

The reaction is the same in both instances, nothing. Schools tend not to address the results in any meaningful way. Most schools do not backtrack student B’s performance in language classes to determine whether or not he/she just had a bad test day or there is a legitimate problem. Student B’s parents typically do not ask the school to assign extra work or extra study focus so student B can work through the problem. Finally student B is rarely concerned about poor results. Such a reaction is either driven through the ‘it is just one test and I don’t need this stuff in real life’ philosophy (a philosophy that is rarely true, especially for language and communication skills) or the student does not want to admit to a problem because it could result in a lower level of self-worth and more homework in order to catch up with other students.

It is a significant problem if parents, the school and even the student realize there is a problem due to poor scores in class and/or standardized testing and nothing done about to address it. The rational behind this lack of action is a culture of equality or advancement. The stigma attached to holding a student back a grade due to poor performance is a powerful one. Such students are frequently the target of ridicule from peers and excessive worry from parents. However, the global picture is better served through the generation of a more prepared and more intelligent individual instead of one that graduates with peers of the same general age, but who still has holes in general skill sets. The issue of ‘he/she is just a late bloomer’ is rather passé and is irrelevant in a vast majority of situations where an individual would be held back a grade.

Therefore, both administrators and parents need to consider the fact that the advancement structure of an educational institution should be focused on making sure that the necessary skills and knowledge are imparted to the students and not be solely concerned with the emotional ramifications and stigma of being held back a year. In addition one must recall that the door swings both ways, it is also necessary to ensure those of greater intelligence are skipped ahead to an appropriate learning environment even if it is with those of greater age. There are few things more frustrating than learning in an environment that is too difficult or too easy for one’s own ability and talents.

An alternative to holding a student back a grade is the use of summer school; however, a large number of summer school programs are not nearly as rigorous as the normal school program and act more as a cover for both the parents and the school in convincing themselves that they are doing something to handle the problem. If summer school could become a viable alternative through overhaul and more specified focus of its coursework then it would provide a valuable alternative to holding a student back to ensure proper knowledge acquisition.

Returning to the point of motivation, increasing the probability of summer school or being held back a grade for inadequate performance may motivate students to work harder, but it should not be the only element to enhance motivation. A key part of motivation is the element of focus. When one is focused on a particular goal accomplishing elements essential to that goal are typically easier than accomplishing elements that are not viewed as important to that goal. Therefore, if one wishes to enhance motivation to learn, be it reading at a certain level or some other task, one possibility would be to incorporate its accomplishment into a meaningful goal structure for the student in question. At first such a statement may sound similar to some form of financial reward program for good grades. Not a chance as such programs do an incredible disservice to society by implying that if one wants to do anything one should expect to be paid to do it. These programs also instill a detrimental precedence of immediate or instant gratification typically sacrificing long-term meaningful gain for small very short-term gain.

Instead the goal motivation should be derived from career aspirations. For being such an important part of an individual’s life, schools do very little to promote career information or education. This is not to say that it is the responsibility of the school in any way, shape or form to fill this role, but it would prove advantageous to both the student and the school if these aspirations were explored in the proper capacity. The current basis for exploration of career issues within the primary education of a student largely involves the generic ‘what are your interests’ aptitude test which loosely attempts to categorize career possibilities based on these interests. There are also visits with the guidance counselor, but these trips are typically either due to poor behavior or at the behest of the student. Due to the reality that most students, especially at a young age, do not think far enough into the future to consider what they will do for a future career, these voluntary visits are unlikely.

What could schools do to improve career information availability? One of the best methods could be to take 2 hours each day for 4th or 5th graders and use that time to significantly explore career paths over the course of the school year with each discussion taking place over the course of 1-2 weeks. For example suppose the teacher wanted to discuss the legal profession, most notably a lawyer. The first day would involve a general background of the profession, what other professions it commonly interacts with, what type of skill set is required to succeed in the profession, what type of skill set generates an advantage in the profession, what type of education is required, etc. The second day and if necessary third day would involve the general terminology and analysis of examples of the profession in action. Depending on the complexity of the profession the next 1-3 days would explore the general principles of the profession using a role-playing exercise. The lawyer example could involve splitting the class into small groups of 4 students each giving them an example case and having them draft arguments to both the prosecution and defense sides of the issue later presenting them to the class in an oral presentation. A discussion regarding how other individuals felt about the arguments could occur after everyone was finished.

The idea behind these profession introductions would be to stimulate interest in a given profession(s) while also demonstrating the tools required to succeed in that profession. With the knowledge of what is required to undertake a future in a profession that they are interested in, students will hopefully be more motivated to study and work harder in class to acquire those tools. Establishing the goal system in this context creates a system that keeps the student interested without requiring additional funds from an already cash-strapped environment as well as not requiring a continually escalating reward structure due to attained tolerance levels.

For those that believe such a methodology would take too much time away from the instruction of other subjects, the incorporation of this methodology seems compatible enough with general knowledge in that any given profession requires language, communication, math, analysis and comprehension skills that would be appropriate to teach a 4th or 5th grader. Thus little time should be wasted in their adoption. It is true that incorporating such a system would be difficult in the interim largely because of lack of experience and familiarity from the teacher’s perspective, but these initial hurdles can be overcome through training programs. Overall the above suggestion is just one possibility designed to spur the motivational fire in students. However, despite the fact that school can lend a helping hand in motivation, it is important that society understand that the responsibility for educational motivation must be removed from the teachers and placed where it belongs, on the students otherwise positive large-scale school reform will be much more difficult. In the end the responsibility of whether or not a student learns something falls on the student.


1. Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Construction 21st Century teacher Education.” Journal of Teacher Education. DOI: 10.1177/0022487105285962

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