Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opposing Forces -- commentary

Teachers who truly want to teach, especially core academic subjects, must overcome often two opposing forces, one from educational elitists who affect educational policy and the other from students who resist the work necessary for genuine learning.

Professor George Cunningham says in his article "Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach:" "… the great problem is that most of the American public holds to one view of the role of schools, while most of the education elite ... hold a very different view. The public overwhelming believes that the function of schools should be mainly academic ... If you accept that view, then schools succeed only if their students graduate with a high degree of literacy, with proficiency in mathematics, with a good working knowledge of science, history, our social institutions, and so forth.”

"On the other hand, the dominant view among those who run and teach in our education schools is that the key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives. In their opinion, it's more important for teachers to properly adjust students' outlook on life and society than to instruct them in 'mere' knowledge and facts."

These elitists see the public schools as places of cultural adjustment, places for shifting from the failed cultures of the home to one envisioned by them. As a result, schools now provide food services to ensure acceptable nutrition, health screenings of all types, values clarification, driver's education, instruction in how to raise a family, sex education, career guidance, sensitivity training, self esteem development, anger management, and on, and on. The public schools have become the providers of many social services.

An ex-teacher called into a talk show recently and expressed how this elitist thinking effected his life as a New York City public school English teacher. He said he was reprimanded for correcting students’ grammar on the grounds that doing so leads to lower self esteem.

The elitists who influence educational policy have an agenda different than that of the general public. How else do you explain the following comment in an article discussing experiments being done with smaller schools using military style discipline. Though the academic grades were showing marked improvement, a professor was quoted as saying, "It is setting education back thirty years."

So, how are you going to evaluate the success of teachers? Say I'm an English teacher and my students are well adjusted, can work co-operatively, and have great self esteem but can't write a decent paragraph. Am I a failure or a success? What if my students are maladjusted but write great prose? Am I a success or a failure?

Not only is the teacher who truly wants to teach core academics up against the opposing influence of the elitists, he faces students who come with a very different outlook. In a different article, another professor points out that there is a drastic difference between the way the teacher and the average student look at education. The teacher actually wants to teach students something and help them achieve mastery of the subject. The student, on the other hand, sees education as a game. Their main interest is one of scoring a grade. I was in Duluth, Minnesota, visiting old friends from Alaska. A college professor friend of theirs joined us. In the conversation, he related how a student who had not made it to a single class the entire semester, showed up in his office a couple of weeks before the end of the semester and explained to him how she just had to have an A in the class because she needed a four point average to get into the graduate school she wanted to attend.

Okay, so this example is a bit extreme, it does illustrate the point. Another extreme example happened a few years back when a group of Asian students went on strike for the right to cheat. While our students haven’t yet gone on strike for that right, all too many of them feel cheating is justified if it helps you score the desired grades. There is a commercial out by the Mormon Church where a girl’s mother catches her copying another student’s paper. The girl explains that it is sharing, not cheating. Though most students don’t cheat, at least not regularly, most of them see the end goal as scoring grades, not learning.

So, if a student has learned how to score an A in my class, but has only mastered the facts long enough to pass the test, can I really feel good about my work as a teacher?

When I look at these kinds of problems in education, I can’t imagine anything politicians might do that will help, mostly because so few of them really understand the problems. The solutions are found in the attitudes and expectations of those involved in the process, not in politics.

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