It is somehow human nature that we are far more aware of the negatives in our lives, and miss a lot of the positives. In an odd way, that is probably a good thing – one essential to early human survival, and one that any soldier, police officer, or a person walking down a dark street would certainly appreciate. But, like all powerful things in our lives, there often are offsets to the positives. And this natural focus on the negatives is rarely shown more clearly than in some widespread negative views of education.
No, this time I am not referring to the larger systemic problems I covered in the book Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education. This is not about my biggest obstacle in getting people to help fix the real problems so hurting our children — people diverted from those issues by hearing about one reprehensible teacher in some state, or PAC-focused teacher union in another state, and therefore seeing only those as the only core problems with today’s schools. In the process they never see, very carefully hidden behind the school entryway by inept school administrators and unqualified career DoE bureaucrats, the much larger systemic issues that hurt our children every day. Those systemic issues leave even our best teachers with hands tied when they try to fix the situation caused by piles of conflicting bureaucratic mandates, cronyistic and inept administrations, and the horrible unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation.
But this time my focus is on one of the most subtle and deadly perceptions of a negative that has hurt our children more than anything else in education – the widespread view that children don’t want to work and learn in school anymore.
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing children no longer care, or just do the minimum in school to get by. After all, there is a large minority of children in every urban high school that clearly demonstrates those exact symptoms. Note that I carefully use the word “symptom” rather than “cause” – because there is a huge difference between the two that is the crux of this attitude.
So first – the bad news. The minority is real. Based upon the three years of research, 700-plus surveys of students and teachers, and hundreds of interviews that went into writing Lifting the Curtain, and based upon ten years in an urban high school teaching math to inclusion classes, standard level classes, and classes that averaged well over half on SPED IEPs, the facts are compelling. Just consider these findings:
- The average amount of homework for urban high school students in a week is less than their parents did in a night – 1.5 hours, total. Only 14% study for a test the next day.
- 27% of students (the large minority I keep referencing) do not care what grade they get as long as they pass and graduate
- Urban high school students believe that 37% of their parents do not care what grades they get as long as they pass and graduate
The real question is “why” – is the attitude because children no longer have the drive and interest in learning? Or is it due to something else hidden behind the curtain of the school entryway? Well, surprise! It’s not the children!
The overwhelming finding was that almost all children, even including the most stereotypical disadvantaged students, still want to learn, and jump on the opportunity to feel genuine pride in mastering a topic.
I know – been there, done that, and have the t-shirt (one that teases me as a “Grandma Magnet” given to me by my students!) I have had the joy of watching classes full of kids who started out that way, yet ended up excited about as dry a topic as high school math. I’ve been in the back of the room watching an English class come alive when discussing The Things They Carried, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve smiled seeing a physics class competition pit homemade catapults against each other.
And I’ve watched child after child become reengaged in learning, turn “just passing” into B’s and A’s, leave that “minority,” and change their whole attitude about school. Why? To paraphrase a famous Washington saxophone player – it’s the pride stupid!
You see, the children change when they have the chance to feel pride in what they do! To them, it is not about learning. A rare few have a planning horizon much farther than the upcoming weekend – the long-term value of solving an equation or dissecting a frog is not even on their radar. They know they have to learn it (or so they have been told) but they, as yet, have little clue as to why other than the bromide “…you need it to get into college.” There is no teacher on the planet that has never heard the student question “when will I ever use this?” a thousand times. But there is something that nearly every child understands – the great feeling of pride when you earn a difficult accomplishment.
At the end of the student surveys that went into Lifting the Curtain’s research, there were open-ended questions about what is best, worst, and needs changing in school. The results amazed me because of all the comments asking for more challenge. Here are just a few examples of my favorites:
- Worst thing about school: “The lack of work that is given. Personally I rather (sic) be challenged than given a free pass.” (Fatima)
- “I used to think all teachers were the same just passing kids along.” (Nick)
- “One of my teachers actually expect (sic) something out of his students and the way he teaches made math my best subject when last year it was my worst.” (Mark#1)
- “The work they give us is stupid is (sic) like they don’t want to challenge us to do something bigger.” (Cat)
- “We don’t learn. We just sit there playing with our thumbs waiting for teachers to give a crap. Some people actually want an education.” (Kayla)
The real problems here (the topic for other blogs, and other times – the reasons took 192 pages to define in Lifting the Curtain!) are the systemic failures in today’s education system that destroy motivation, and crush expectations. Our education system has been so dumbed-down, and so focused on pushing any student through high school, that the children have learned they do not have to work to pass – the school will make sure they will regardless of effort.
While there are, of course, many students who work to excel despite the system, it is up to all of us who teach to somehow excite and motivate children that our education system is actively demotivating. It is the single most difficult challenge for all the great teachers who have to counter the system failures in urban high school education every day, and every class.
But what happens when that great English teacher, or that curmudgeonly Physics teacher really invests the time to reverse the attitude and generate pride? Amazing success. Last year I had the joy of teaching a very special CP math class for seniors that is a perfect example of what our children really want. As juniors, every one of the students had been in standard level math classes for three years. 90% were on SPED IEPs. Most had never done well in math. In any high school, if you have been in the standard track for three years, there is zero chance you can move to a CP class for your senior year. You simply are too far behind the curriculum for the CP track. Well, this class was different! By midyear they had blown through the standard curriculum. It was yet another case of great children somehow deciding they wanted more. Courtney, the feisty “trouble maker” started enjoying the challenges and helping others learn the material. Dago, the paper airplane master (“incoming!”), and Ray, the class comic, would tease each other continuously, yet compete with each other to solve problems. Candice, the hall walker, would put down her cell phone and wrestle with tough problems. Nick, “I don’t need math, I play basketball”, became engaged and challenged because of the support of his coach and the help of a superb co-teacher in the class. The whole class decided they wanted CP work for the rest of the year – so with the co-teacher playing a critical role, we dove into Algebra I CP material, and went back over most of the Geometry CP material they had never seen. It was amazing and joyful to watch. They loved it.
You see, they had discovered pride in themselves – earned pride for mastering something they knew was a real challenge. Most of these students had started out in that “large minority” who appeared to only want to do the minimum to pass and graduate. But when they had the chance to feel pride in an earned accomplishment (there was nothing given to any of them on a silver platter – no do-overs, no extra credit assignments, no easy multiple choice exams…) they left the “minority” in a heartbeat!
So senior year, those 20 students accomplished something new to my school, and we believe new to the entire state of Massachusetts. For the first time we can find in any state, a special senior CP “Transition to Algebra II” course was set up for students who had been in standard three years. Far more students than we could fit asked to be enrolled in that senior class. It turned out to be one of the most joyful classes I have ever had the honor to watch.
One final example of an individual student shows how powerful newfound pride can be in a child’s life.
“I did good (sic) in math this year because you pushed me and told me I could do it. I went from a 57 to a 96 in a matter of three months. Thank you for everything and showing me I am smart and can do math and do it correctly.” (Kayla)
This is a Special Ed student who had always failed math and was absolutely convinced she was “stupid.” It turned out she just had some gaps from 7th grade math that surfaced in all her high school work and generated wrong answers. We fixed that, and she earned B’s and A’s for the second half of junior year, and all her senior year. I still remember the day she got her first A on a test. She started crying right in front of the entire class, and asked me if she could call her mom (cell phones were not permitted to be used in school). I let her call, and watched the joy on her face as she smiled through all the tears to say “…Mom, I just got an ‘A’ in math.” That was a Friday afternoon. I went home and was on cloud nine for the whole weekend. One Kayla in a teacher’s life cancels out a whole lot of tough times. I framed that letter on my wall at home – it encourages me every time I glance at it. It was the day Kayla learned something every child should know, “…showing me I am smart.”
So yes, there is a minority of students who start out “…just wanting to pass and graduate” and appear not to care. But any battle-scarred teacher can tell you that they only start this way. We can change them. And, they want to change, but just don’t know it yet. When a teacher sees that light of pride finally go on, it is absolutely the best feeling you will ever know. The only “dumb” children are the ones we dumb-down by a bad system, because even a great teacher cannot always overcome all the obstacles to teaching because of inept bureaucracies, conflicting mandates, and the unintended consequence of well-meaning legislation.
(Details, Reviews, Survey results: http://liftingthecurtain.com/)