May 8, 2006

Looking for a Scapegoat

(This is my (hopefully final) response to J.D.'s latest response on the subject of who is responsible for academic failure in schools. My previous response, along with his first response, and my initial post might also be worth reading.)

There are four basic perspectives toward improving student achievement: the pessimist viewpoint, the generalist viewpoint, the constructivist viewpoint, and the direct-instruction viewpoint.

J.D.'s viewpoint (and that of the Wonks and many others) seems to be a subset of the pessimist orientation in that he believes that instruction can be more effective but academic failure can at least be partially excused when parents don't take an active and/or effective role in their children's education or are otherwise "bad" parents. What J.D. is doing is latching onto the most egregious external factors that affect student performance, the one's where the parents are culpable due to their bad behavior, and excusing (at least partially) the subsequent academic failure of the children who are affected by this bad parenting.

In my view this is a distinction without merit. There are many external factors that can be blamed for academic failure, not just ones where the parent is culpable. Once schools start looking to external factors to excuse academic failure, the result is inevitably the same--educators stop examining what occurs in the schools to explain why children have not been successful. This is why J.D.'s pessimistic viewpoint is so toxic.

More than three decades ago, Becker (1973) pointed out the problem with the pessimistic viewpoint, an orientation tacitly minimizing the importance of teaching:
As long as the educational climate was such that teaching failures could be blamed on the children, there was no pressure on the teacher to learn more effective means of dealing with children. Over the years, psychologists, mental health workers, and some educators have trained teachers to shift their failures to someone else or at least to blame:
  1. the child's home background,
  2. his low IQ,
  3. his poor motivation,
  4. his emotional disturbance,
  5. his lack of readiness, or
  6. his physical disability
for the teaching failure. With the recent advent of the label learning disability (for children with normal IQ who fail to learn) there is no teaching failure which cannot be blamed on the child. (p. 78)
J.D. is focusing on external factors 1, 3, and 5-- the ones in which parents are at least partially culpable due to their bad behavior. But, what about those external factors 2, 4, and 6-- in which the parents' only potential malfeasance was to pass on bad genes to their offspring? Surely we can also blame the parents of these defective children when they're dropped of at the schoolhouse door? While we're at it, we might as well blame the grandparents too for bearing the low-IQ parents in the first place. It is this low parental IQ that correlates so highly with all the bad parenting behaviors that J.D. is singling out after all.

And, now we're well onto the slippery slope of blame which permits schools to excuse student failure which is upwards of 70% in 2006. You only need to take a quick tour of the edusphere to see how prevalent the notion of "blame the student and his parents" has become and how infrequently educators question the effectiveness of their own teaching. Educators have found a scapegoat for their failures; there's no need to look any further.

I've already acknowledged that these external problems, such as poverty, a disruptive home life, and physiological impairments, often make teaching more difficult. However, we must reject the assumption underlying J.D.'s pessimistic viewpoint that failures in student performance are excusable unless there are changes in the children's economic and social environment.

We now have over forty years of substantial and coercive research that supports the proposition that if students are taught fundamental skills directly, strategically, and thoughtfully (much like J.D.'s own new math curriculum will likely do), almost all children will succeed academically despite whatever external problems they may have.

This is why I cited the City Springs school in my last post. It is a benchmark for what a well run school that teaches fundamental skills directly, strategically, and thoughtfully can accomplish with inner-city children who are afflicted with all too many of the external problems commonly blamed on academic failure. Almost every one of those fifth graders are performing at grade level (according to the CTBS/TerraNova standard) despite the 25% mobility rate in the school, which means that many of the students have not been at the school their entire academic career.

Talk is cheap, but I tend to agree with the viewpoint of the guy who developed the successful curriculum used at the City Springs School:
The philosophy behind the program is basically simple. We say in effect, "“Kid, it doesn'’t matter how miserably your environment has failed to teach you the basic concepts that the average five-year-old has long since mastered. We'’re not going to fail you. We'’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We'’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can'’t do. We'’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we'’ll teach you. And the extent to which we fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, "He can'’t learn."” Rather, we will say, "“I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way."
Perhaps if educators spent more time improving their instruction instead of looking for scapegoats to blame (or partially blame, as J.D. believes), schools might start performing better.
I do not understand why card-carrying liberal educators, like J.D., are so willing to accept anything less.

18 comments:

Brad Hoge said...

Great quote. Bravo! It is easy to find blame on external causes, since not to do so implies casting blame on one's self, but this is not necessary. You are only to blame if you give up and give less than your best. This is difficult, obviously, but it is what makes teaching a "profession". Great post. Thanks.

Laura said...

Speaking of straw men, KD...

While we're at it, we might as well blame the grandparents too for bearing the low-IQ parents in the first place. It is this low parental IQ that correlates so highly with all the bad parenting behaviors that J.D. is singling out after all.

Though I will grant that most pessimistic excuses are not beneficial, I am still bamboozled by #3. What on EARTH can I do when the students won't do the MINIMUM of what I ask? When they play, and sit like lumps rather than do anything simple OR stimulating? Is this not a CLEAR example of lack of student motivation? You believe that I bend over backwards to try creative new things and to offer choice and success, don't you? It's not all games, but they're there, along with discussion, group work, partnered work, one-on-one work...

This has been bothering me.

You have said before that they just have to be caught and nurtured before high school. My kids are already there. What am I supposed to do with THEM to help them succeed?

You have mentioned getting rid of homework--does this mean I shouldn't even expect them to read outside of class, when I get them started in class? We would only be able to read 2 novels in 5 months' time, if that, and the research to which I've been exposed indicates students need to spend more time out of class reading to develop their skills. And yet mine won't, and they reap the zeroes they earn.

I don't want to be pessimistic, but I think you would be surprised to look at my students' grades. I'm told I might not be the one who sees the results of my efforts...but does that mean I'm not teaching them, since results aren't showing while they're in my care?

This has been bothering me. Please, what else can I do?

KDeRosa said...

Laura, what you need to do is go berate your elementary and middle school administrators because there's not much you can do at the high school level if they keep sending you unmotivated, disengaged students who are not performing at grade level. IF you don't catch them by fifth grade it's hard to get them back on track later.

KDeRosa said...

I'm told I might not be the one who sees the results of my efforts...but does that mean I'm not teaching them, since results aren't showing while they're in my care?

If your students are, say, at a sixth grade level, and you are trying to teach them tenth grade material, how can they possibly be expected to be learning and anything other than unmotivated and disengaged. Whoever told you this is wrong. If they were learning, you'd see the progress.

SteveH said...

"What on EARTH can I do when the students won't do the MINIMUM of what I ask?"

This is high school? You flunk them. What's the problem?

SteveH said...

"What on EARTH can I do when the students won't do the MINIMUM of what I ask?"

You try to break through the philosophy and curriculum wall between K-8 and high school. The problem with education is not defined by YOUR problems as a teacher. This is not about you. This is about basic educational philosophy, curricula, and competence.

TMAO said...

steveh wrote: "You flunk them. What's the problem?"

The problem is you will then read a report detailing those kids' failures to correctly answer certain questions on certain exams and post chest-thumps in the manner of what-were-those-teachers-doing and can-they-do-the-job-or-can't-they.

Sorry, steveh, but you can't have it both ways. Either you leverage the ethical indignation over substandard student performance that is more or less yours to claim (as you have been, at great length) or you make glib statements like this that strongly connotes the belief that a teacher's responsibility ends where a student's predeveloped sense of engagement, commitment, and responsibility begin.

One, or the other, but not both.

Laura said...

Thank you tmao, that was my concern. And KD, I can berate the K-8 teachers all I want, but how will that help the ones in front of me until June this year? When I say I won't see results, I mean 2 things that might not have come through: 1) If they're at a 6th grade level and they improve to say even a 9th level, the scores I get back on their writing tests will still be below passing ("Acceptable" or "average" is not passing by our state's standards--they must be "good" to "excellent." Does that not seem odd, or is it just me?) So I will not see results in that they will not be passing. 2) I mean that I might not see the motivation or the love of learning kick in while they are in my classroom. They might come back years later and realize what their crazy teacher was trying to get them to understand about this book or that idea or the other writing technique. But while they're being--forgive my saying it, but I was one once too--typical teens, they may not show that anything is sinking in.

Laura said...

Steve H, this certainly is not about me, but if I am not going to take the pessimistic tack, then I need to find a way to combat the mentality at the very least in my own classroom.

KDeRosa said...

but how will that help the ones in front of me until June this year?

I'm not so sure you even can at this point. K-12 education is s thirteen year process. If these kids have been failed for the first ten, there's not much you can do at this point but mop up what's left.

Does that not seem odd, or is it just me?

This is an artifact of how we do testing. It doesn't matter that you've reaised them three grades if they were four behind.

But while they're being--forgive my saying it, but I was one once too--typical teens, they may not show that anything is sinking in.

It's not just that they are typical teens. They are in also in a typical school system which has failed them academically and has killed their motivation to learn.

Things might be different for you today, if things were different for them the last ten years.

SteveH said...

tmao and laura,

You still don't get it. This is not about your problems as a teacher. When I say you flunk them, I assume that you have done everything in your power to help each child, given the circumstances. But, what you have to do as a teacher does not define the problems with education.

When you say that you do not want to "berate" the K-8 teachers, this means that you (as a teacher) have little control over these things. I can believe that. Perhaps you feel that the public blames individual teachers for the problems in education - that only if individual teachers were better, then everything would be OK. This is not what I am saying.

If you read my comments carefully, you will see that I am talking about the very large systemic problems of educational philosophy, curricula, expectations, and competence - not individual teachers. I'm not sure why, but individual teachers get very defensive and feel personally attacked. You would think they would appreciate those of us who try to make sure that the students coming into their classes are prepared in at least a minimal way.

I taught college math and computer science full time for many years and I know what kind of students walked into my class. (like ill-prepared nursing students that have to pass algebra) It was my job to do everyting I could to help the kids, and I did that. I still flunked kids. I surely couldn't go back to their high schools and lower schools and tell them how to fix things.

The problems of education are not the problems of individual teachers. Solving your problems won't necessarily solve the problems of education, but solving the problems of education will solve your problems.

I'll give you an example. The head of the math department at our high school was selected as teacher of the year for her work developing remedial algebra courses in high school. These courses help many students. When I asked her why she doesn't go to the lower schools and try to prevent the need for remediation, she said that she does consult with them, but they can do what they want - namely, continue to use very poor math curricula and set low expectations. There is a curriculum and philosophy wall.

From her standpoint, she is solving her problem (that she has control over), but she isn't solving the problem with the lower schools. However, if one could force the lower schools to have a clue about what is needed to prepare kids for high school, then her problem (the need for remediation) will go away. Our lower schools only offer Algebra Lite in 8th grade (on purpose) and they think it's OK even though one can clearly show that it does not cover needed material. Our students feed right into the remedial classes in high school. This is incompetence. Our lower schools think this is OK because our students "hold their own" (are equally as bad as students from other towns).

Catherine Johnson said...

educators stop examining what occurs in the schools to explain why children have not been successful

I might frame this slightly different.

I certainly agree that when a teacher or administrator spends his time developing an extrinsic "theory" of student failure, that energy is misspent.

The principal of our middle school is a sterling example of this approach. I don't believe I've ever heard him talk about what he can do - and this is in an affluent district with college and grad-school educated parents & $18,000 per-pupil spending a year.

If you ask him about TIMSS he'll tell you, ad nauseaum that American schools and foreign schools are "apples and oranges."

If you tell him Irvington students aren't disadvantaged inner city students, he'll still come back with "apples and oranges."

If you ask him why nobody introduced the students in the Book Slam by name, he'll say, "I thought the teacher was going to do it."

If you say, "Well, once she didn't do it, why didn't you do it?" he'll say, "I can't be expected to learn 500 names."

This guy has always got a reason Why not. Not surprisingly, the middle school is a mess.

However, I think it's probably valuable to know why things are happening the way they're happening if possible.

I also think it's often not possible to understand a complex social situation - especially a complex social situation you're living in.

Where blaming-the-parents goes off track is in assuming that once you've discovered that students who won't do homework and parents who won't force students to do homework are the problem, there's nothing you can do.

I have yet to encounter a situation in which there was nothing I could do, and I've spent the past 20 years of my life raising autistic kids and dealing with the school system.

Steve says "you flunk them." That's certainly what I would do if I knew the kids in the class could do the work.

If I were in the situation algebra teachers in Los Angeles are in, trying to teach algebra to kids who've already flunked the subject 3 times & who clearly don't have the prerequisites to study algebra,
I'd close the door and start teaching arithmetic.

There are a lot of impossible jobs out there, and a lot of impossible lives.

My job, facing my own impossible life, isn't to dwell on what's I can't do, but to figure out what I can.

Myrtle said...

Is it okay to say a true proposition is false simply we fear the social consequences? Is that how truth is assigned? Social consequences?

I'm agreeing with JD on this one.
The assertion that it's sometimes the parents' fault is true irregardless of how that fact may or may not be abused and twisted by other people looking to excuse their own shortcomings as teachers and institutions.

It also may be difficult to tell in any given particular case what the failure is due to. Difficulty to determine the truth of the matter also doesn't mean that a proposition is false.

SteveH said...

"The assertion that it's sometimes the parents' fault is true irregardless ..."

Many things are always "sometimes" true. It's a very easy premise to show that something happens at least once. The question is why does the parental issue come up at all and exactly what percent is "sometimes".

When the parental angle arises, the question is: What is your point?" Life would be better with more parental involvement, but I have never seen any kind of definition of what this involves.

I dislike vague discussions of generalities - education is filled with them. If one raises the parental involvement issue, he/she has to make sure they define exactly what it is and how it is designed to tie in with the educational philosphy and curriculum of the school. I have never seen this. The issue is usually raised in an "if only" kind of way - as an excuse.


"It also may be difficult to tell in any given particular case what the failure is due to."

This is not about particular cases. As a parent, I look at the horrible results on very simple standardized tests and come to the conclusion that learning this material does not take any sort of parental involvement. It is a non-issue except for a very vew cases.

Isn't public education all about equality and opportunity for all? It can't be just for those whose parents are involved. It's kind of a paradox. The liberal expectation of the caring, involved parent is not the liberal, caring approach to helping those whose parents don't care one bit.

All schools should strive for (meaningful) parental involvement, but they shouldn't expect it.

TMAO said...

KDR wrote: "This is an artifact of how we do testing. It doesn't matter that you've reaised them three grades if they were four behind."

I assume you mean it does not matter according to the tests. Surely you're not saying it does not matter at all?

KDeRosa said...

TMAO, right. That's what I meant.

TMAO said...

Okay, cool.

I should mention that California's Academic Performance Index (API) is entirely a growth-based model, offering bonuses (as it were) when individual students move out of the Far Below Basic rank as well as when they move into the Proficient rank. It is only the NCLB-sponsored AYP index that does not reflect growth, nor does it "follow" student progress, looking instead at snap-shot moments in time and evaluating from there.

Laura said...

I think a growth-based model would be an IMMENSE improvement of both North Carolina's state-level testing and NCLB. However, I suspect it is cost--in time, effort, and money--that prevents this model from taking root here.

And TMAO, do not worry: your point is taken. BUT, now that we have that perspective, what are we supposed to do about it? Perhaps we should not be asking as teachers but as citizens. Would that be better? You cannot expect teachers, however, to sit back and accept that deep changes are necessary without offering suggestions for how to fix it.

I can't shake the feeling that what you, kderosa, are saying is that my students who were not motivated by the 10th grade are now academic waste to be swept aside.