Sunday, May 23, 2010

Teachers - America's Whipping Boy

The Whipping Boy is the story of a boy who is selected to be punished for the misbehaviors of a spoiled Prince.  Since it is forbidden for anyone to lay a hand on the Prince, it is assumed that punishing another child for the Prince's misbehaviors will somehow translate to better behavior on the part of the Prince.


I teach 6th grade at a Title One inner-city school.  As I sat listening to my students' end of the year orchestra performance, I was struck by the contrast with a similar performance I had heard the previous week.  My daughter is also a 6th grade student and, although she is homeschooled, she attends orchestra classes at the the local public school each week.

What struck me was the sharp difference between the proficiency of my students when compared with my daughter's class.  For the most part, the skill level of my students was significantly less.  In fact, a number of my students sat there randomly fingering their instruments, trying to blend in with the scenery.

As I sat there pondering the differences in the two recitals, my mind was drawn back to a conversation I had earlier in the week with one of our district ESL (English as a Second Language) coordinators.  She was asking me what I believed teachers could do to close the gap between our East and West side schools.  Our East side schools are primarily affluent and educated, while our West side schools are mostly poor with minimal education.

I have been in these meetings many times since coming to work for a Title One school. The common theme is that they are looking for some teaching method, some curriculum, some approach the school can take to make this gap disappear. The questioners get frustrated with me because I am always the downer in the conversation.

I tell them the truth.

What they are wanting is a gimmick, some quick fix that we can offer that will make the gap fade away.  However, I always compare it to weight loss.  There are two ways, and only two ways, to truly lose weight - you have to burn off more calories or eat less of them.  Any solution that does not use one of those approaches will end in failure.

As I sat there watching my students play, it was apparent to me where the difference resided and what accounted for the gap in skill level.  Simply stated, it is practice.  I know my daughter practices her violin almost every day.  I know many of my daughter's friends, and they also regularly practice their instruments.  However, the vast majority of my students never pick up their instruments, except during music class. The instruments remain stashed in lockers or in the back of classrooms. Theoretically, it should be apparent to anyone reading this why one group of students is proficient and the other is not.

Still, this obvious reason eludes many people in the public, legislatures, and school district personnel.  They remain convinced that if the music teacher taught differently, or more, or better; that the skill level gap would just fade away.  In my meeting earlier in the week, every time I started to articulate what the students and parents would need to do for the student to be successful, the coordinator would cut me off. I finally said, "What you are looking for is a teaching approach that will work - without requiring that the student actually DO anything!"

That is what it ultimately comes down to.  All of the solutions talked about in the public right now require nothing of the student and family and therefore, like diet gimmicks, will produce no real change.  Let's take a look at them:

  • Getting rid of teacher's unions
  • Firing bad teachers
  • Lengthening the school day/year
  • Changing the curriculum/teaching approach

I submit that the largest reason for the gap between the skill level of my daughter's class and mine is student/family commitment.  Which one of the reasons above would affect that?  Would strangling the Union get the kids to practice more?  Would more lesson time, or a different approach, or a different teacher change that lack of practice outside of class?

Solutions that do not require anything from the student/family WILL end in failure.

Now I am aware that my daughter has a million and one advantages that my students do not tend to have.  However, that does not change the core reason for the difference in performance.  President Obama, our state legislators, or the public in general applying more and more pressure on teachers is not solving anything.  I have only been at my Title One school for 6 years and nearly the entire staff has turned over in that time.  I don't believe teachers shy away from a challenge or high expectations; but being held accountable for things outside your power is draining.  It isn't long before our Title One teachers move to safer schools or out of the profession altogether.... and I KNOW that is not benefiting my students.

I think there are a lot of challenges that need to be addressed in the American public school system. However, making teachers the national whipping boy is keeping us from looking for honest solutions.


Don said...

As with all of our your education posts, I agree 100%!

Bob said...

Well said. It starts at home doesn't it. And thanks to dedicated teachers as yourself, some of these young folks get some chances they might not have. Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

Chesterton wrote, "The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school." When you make education compulsory, you take authority out of the hands of the parents. Now teachers find that they can't teach as well without the authority of the parent. The genie has been let out of the bottle, and no one can figure out how to get it back in.

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