Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Mirror of our Schools

Tom Friedman (not a favorite) quotes Robert Samuelson (mostly loathsome) today re education reform and why it isn't working all that well:

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

Now, one can quarrel with Friedman's assertion that we're spending a great deal of money on education. But my buddies DWD and Uncle Blodge, and most decent teachers of my acquaintance, tell me that student behavior and interest in other than a small group of academically driven kids has declined measurably and dramatically in their professional lifetimes, that parents' roles have moved from exhorting their kids to criticizing teachers and their unions, that long-term poverty, unemployment, racism, incarceration, right wing abandonment of common humanity and demands for personal responsibility excluding their own, the obscenely ineffective war on drugs, the predominance of athletics and celebrity, and a ubiquitous trash-talking lowest-common-denominator marketing-driven pop culture have more than a little to do with schools' ineffectiveness.

There's an obvious middle ground between the Asian stereotype--waking up to play a Rachmaninoff piano sonata and solve three partial differential equations before breakfast--and what too many kids, parents and citizens in this country think education is. That's where we should be. The former stereotype has little to offer us and is, in any case, close to unattainable here. The latter would require major shifts in the culture. They won't arise out of short-term profit-seeking devoid of any thought that society might need to be more than economic. And this isn't even good for business in the end. If Friedman and his clients see this as a problem, maybe they might talk it up in terms other than ain't- it-awful. Maybe the word would get around that schools mirror a society, and if we don't like the reflection we see in the mirror, it isn't the mirror's fault.

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