The problem with adults
I’d only been back to school for three days when one of my coffee shop buddies set a new record for the earliest anyone has ever asked me when the last day of school is. I told him I just keep going until someone tells me not to show up, which is only a slight exaggeration.
I also added my standard and entirely sincere response that I enjoy what I do for a living and that it’s typically adults, not my students, who make my work difficult.
I’ve heard many teachers express similar sentiments.
As the great grown-up minds that run education “move forward” with their grand plans, initiatives, and rosy mission statements, here are a few of my hopes and suggestions that probably don’t appear on their agendas.
While adults for me are more problematic, that doesn’t mean that students are always angelic. Even small, close-knit schools grapple with serious, chronic behavior problems that disrupt classes and degrade the education that other children receive. Disruptive, dangerous students should be held accountable for their actions. When their disruptions chronically interfere with other students’ learning, or their actions in a single instance threaten the safety of other children, they should be removed from school. Their rightful opportunity to attend school shouldn’t include the wrongful opportunity to inflict further harm on other people’s children.
The damage done by offenders is written on the faces of their apprehensive classmates. By stealing time and reducing teachers’ effectiveness and students’ ability to focus, serial misbehavior contributes significantly to lackluster student achievement and test scores, and by lowering the behavior standards that children experience every day, it’s also redefining what passes for normal behavior. Yet as damaging as these “behaviorally challenged” students’ actions can be, and as culpable as they are, their culpability is nothing compared to the guilt borne by adults who, safely cordoned off in their administrative offices, and in Congress and various legislatures, prohibit those students’ removal, who require teachers and children to endure chaos, and in the name of offenders’ rights, deny other students their right to learn.
As the adults in charge trumpet their latest initiatives, it would be nice if they acknowledged education reform’s dismal track record. From the laid back 1970s student-centered, undisciplined, “curricular smorgasbord” to the repackaged 1990s school “restructuring” and 21st century school “transformation” movements, from No Child Left Behind to the impending Common Core, experts and policymakers have repeatedly renamed and recycled the same failed ideas that got schools in trouble in the first place.
Whether it’s an instructional “method,” learning theory, grading system, or trademarked standardized assessment, people in the education business tout what they like to call “best practice.” Unfortunately, “best practice” commonly translates as whatever is momentarily in fashion, until everybody decides it’s not best practice anymore and that they actually never liked it.
Check the press releases that accompanied the unveiling of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 version of best practice. The prevailing wisdom at the time, the overwhelming consensus among politicians, education policymakers, and school officials, was that, borrowing the words of then U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, anyone who questioned or opposed No Child Left Behind signaled only that they “want to leave some [children] behind.”
Now it’s hard to find any education official who doesn’t distance himself from NCLB, who doesn’t publicly regard the law’s mechanisms and obsessive assessment regime as profoundly flawed and its 100 percent proficiency expectations as grossly “unrealistic.”
They’ve all moved on to today’s “best practice,” the Common Core, which amounts to No Child Left Behind on testosterone. It took less than 10 years for NCLB to fall from favor. It won’t take even take that long before the experts in charge are scratching their heads and wondering wide-eyed who’s to blame for the Common Core. Can we please abandon the fiction that all children will succeed? No, success and failure shouldn’t be predicated on race or ethnicity. No, poverty doesn’t and shouldn’t doom a student to poor achievement. But poverty does convey disadvantages that need to be overcome. That’s what “disadvantage” means. And it is a fact of life that much, if not most, of that overcoming depends on the disadvantaged student’s determination and ability. Yes, as a teacher, I can help. I ought to help. But regardless of his race or his family’s income, my poor powers can’t make up for a student’s low ability, or lack of effort, or disastrous family life, or sloth, or malice, or any of the myriad factors and complications that contribute to a child’s performance, success or failure, in school. Anyone who says otherwise invariably speaks from the safe isolation of an office, not the volatile real world of a classroom.
Can we also please stop justifying every irrelevant, redundant, counterproductive new initiative, however well-intentioned it may or may not be, on the grounds that it’s “good for kids.” Parents can know what’s good for kids. Teachers can know what’s good for kids. Anyone who actually works with kids has a chance to see what’s good for kids. But you can’t really know what’s good for kids if all you do is read about them in “research” or pass them in the hall when you’re touring their school. Despite the rhetoric of “empowerment,” public schools, once primarily a local enterprise, have increasingly been wrested from the hands of parents, communities, and teachers, with control vested instead in authorities and experts far removed from schools themselves. The reign of those authorities is the last 40 years of reform. The legacy of that transference of power is where we find our schools today.
We need to ask ourselves who it is we want to trust with our children’s education — officials and experts who rarely even see them and whose expertise consists of what they read and write to each other about education, or the teachers and principals who work with those children every day, whose collaborative judgment rests on both their acquired knowledge and their daily experience, and whose decisions, overseen by community school boards, are every day tested in the classrooms where learning really happens?
For me, the choice is clear.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.