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: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.
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)
- the child's home background,
- his low IQ,
- his poor motivation,
- his emotional disturbance,
- his lack of readiness, or
- his physical disability
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.