Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why Johnny Doesn't Do His Schoolwork

What’s wrong with American education?

This morning Tom Friedman quotes a salient point recently offered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. American children do not have a work ethic; they do not want to do their schoolwork; their parents are “down” with their attitude.

Friedman thinks that President Obama should make this the theme of his State of the Union Address. Initially, the idea looks like yet another piece of Friedmanesque silliness,  but when you come to think of it, President Obama could do a lot worse than exhort America’s schoolchildren to work harder at school. In fact, he will probably do a lot worse, so we will take Friedman’s point under advisement.

One might think that Duncan and Friedman are shifting the onus from the teachers’ unions to parents, but I believe that they are correct. Surely, the unions are not helping matters, but if parents really cared about the kind of education that their children were receiving they would not allow teachers unions to wield the power that they do.

Even if teachers unions bear some responsibility, there is no harm in calling out parents for their own dereliction.

Friedman writes:

Citing Amanda Ripley’s new book — “The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way” — Duncan said, “Amanda points a finger at you and me, as parents — not because we aren’t involved in school, but because too often, we are involved in the wrong way. Parents, she says, are happy to show up at sports events, video camera in hand, and they’ll come to school to protest a bad grade. But she writes, and I quote: ‘Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers.’ ... To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

This ought to be familiar, and not just to readers of this blog. Didn't the Tiger Mom say as much. Remember when America’s parents rose up en masse to denounce Tiger Mom Amy Chua for being an abusive parent because she forced her children to work hard at school and at their music lessons and refused to allow them to go on play dates.

I recall otherwise savvy television talk show hosts agonizing over the fact that the Tiger Mom's daughters would not have mastered the art of having fun.

Friedman is right, but he should have mentioned that when the Tiger Mom tried to show the way, America excoriated her for it.

Over the past two decades things have clearly deteriorated. Who knows how much influence political leaders have on American culture, but one cannot but notice that it was a little over twenty years ago that America elected Bill Clinton president. Didn't he bring fun back into the White House? 

Friedman writes:

I got an almost identical letter last month from a high school teacher in Oregon: “Until about 1992, I would have at least one kid in every class who simply wouldn’t do anything. A bad class might have two. Today I have 10 to 15. I recently looked back at my old exams from the ’80s. These were tough, comprehensive ones without the benefit of notes. Few would pass them today. We are dumbing down our classes. It is an inexorable downward progression in which one day all a kid will need to pass is to have a blood pressure. The kids today are not different in ‘nature.’ ... The difference is that back then, although they didn’t want to, they would do the work. Today, they won’t.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Yes, Arne Duncan is correct. Finally, someone in the Obama Administration is stating the obvious. This is a hopeful sign.

I expect Obama will say say something about this in his State of the Union speech. There are four excellent reasons this is likely to occur: (1) the omniscient New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said it was a good idea; (2) he gets to proclaim "It was MY Secretary of Education who said this"; (3) it allows him to do his favorite thing: blame and admonish normal, middle class, arugula-averse, "clinger" Americans for their moral failings; and (4) it will make his teachers union masters very happy.

We are also forgetting another important person, in addition to Amy Chua, and that's Lenore Skenazy, the author of "Free Range Kids." Skenazy is an enormous threat to self-righteous, panicked, know-it-all helicopter parents everywhere. If you want to amuse yourself, read the comments on any story featuring Skenazy and her work, along with the Amazon reviews of her book. This also gives a powerful indication of everything that is awry with today's over-protective, over-involved parents and their over-programmed, coddled progeny. The feminist mantra the past 40 years has been that men are irresponsible parents who "don't get it" (never complete without the condescending head shake). Well, what happens when protective mothers take over, informed by chilling evening newscasts about the latest danger to their kid(s)? That's how you get the last 20 years.

I must tell you that the correspondence Friedman received from the Oregon high school teacher mirrors my own experience as an adjunct instructor in the college classroom. Today's students do not want to work, they don't want to read, they have no attention span, they are addicted to the glowing box, they expect to be entertained, and they are scared. They are anxious and fearful, and it is most disconcerting to watch. I challenge my students. I ask them open-ended questions, requiring them to think. Nothing is more painful. The first four weeks of the 15-week term are living Hell. Most of them are terrified at the beginning, but thankful by the end. After doing this for a number of years, I am convinced that my students are anxious about LIFE, mostly because they are inexperienced at any non-scheduled, un-programmed, non-organizational activities. This is because they are coddled by their parents. I also believe they are over-tested... they believe there is a right and wrong answer to everything. They've never been confronted with big questions. Nay, they just look at you blankly in the face of Socratic teaching. I often get discouraged, and check my assumptions, questioning whether I've become a grumpy old man. Well, I'm only 20 years older than my students... it's not that long ago, but I assure you it is THAT different.

The solution to this conundrum is high standards, and character (virtue) foundation. We have to stop defining standards by the average. We must challenge our kids, and support them in living a good LIFE that reflects their unique spirit (rather than their narrow interests). This begins with responsibility and making choices to gain an experiential education. Making money requires work, but there's more to life than money. Character matters. These are spiritual problems.


Sam L. said...

44Apparently, most children want to go thru life fat, dumb, and happy. No chance of that happening to those who want to coast thru life, unless their parents are really rich.

Anonymous said...

Johnny doesn't do his schoolwork because he's bored. Why would that be? -DG