April 11, 2006

Blaming the Student

Traditionally, the philosophy behind K-12 education was the “sorting machine.” The philosophy is based on the notion that the schools do what the schools choose to do, and if the kids fail, it’s their own fault. Historically, this philosophy was functional. It served to sort out kids so that only a small percentage went to college and beyond. These kids were the survivors, the ones who had the grit, the smarts, and sand necessary to meet the Herculean challenges the school masters presented.

The “sorting machine” philosophy was in place when the public schools came into being. Public schools are monopolies and monopolies aren’t known for efficiency or innovation. As a result, under the public schools K-12 education ossified on the sorting machine in which only a small fraction (about 1/3) of the student population were educated.

Then the progressives came along with their rosy liberal rhetoric that all children should become educated. In response to this rhetoric, a series of reforms (at various levels: district, state, and federal) were put into place in an attempt to reach these hard to educate children. The reforms have superficially changed the schools, but the sorting machine has survived and remains the central reason both for the discrepancy between practice and the rhetoric of educators and for the school’s practice of failing at least the same fraction of its population as it did under the traditional model.

An explanation was needed to account for the educational failure that persisted. Explanations are cheap.

The explanation favored by Educators is that current failures are caused by the students, their families, and/or their environment and peers. The students didn’t become educated. Therefore, they failed to do what they needed to do. This “blame the student” explanation takes various forms:

  • The student is unmotivated and disengaged
  • The parents aren’t supportive
  • The student is learning disabled or brain damaged
  • The student is not developmentally ready to learn

The problem with the “blame the student” explanation is that it gets the causation backwards. Most educational failure is caused by ineffective instruction. Research shows that less than 10% of kids can’t be properly educated either because they have a real cognitive inability (2-3%) or simply won’t behave (2-3%) under even the best classroom management techniques. This leaves us with over 50% of the student population who are capable of learning if taught effectively, but who presently aren’t receiving the necessary effective instruction.

The “blame the student” meme persists in education circles. And, I believe the reason for the persistence is due to “dead reckoning.”* The vast majority of in-service educators has never seen effective instruction and don’t know what it is or looks like. What they see and know is instruction that works with the top 1/3 and fails the rest. What they know is classroom conditions that make it impossible to educate the bottom 2/3. What they see is poor quality control for determining if students are actually learning, wildly heterogeneous grouping in which low performers are taught at their frustration level, and instruction that is targeted at where the students are supposed to be, rather than where they actually are.

These conditions make learning impossible for many children. Yet, these conditions exist in almost any classroom you walk into. This isn’t effective teaching. This is mere presentation of material and letting the sorting machine do its job.

If you want to see what you’ve taught, you have to see what the students have learned. If students aren’t learning, then you aren’t teaching. Being a professional educator means taking responsibility for student learning. And, you can’t take responsibility if you continue to blame the students for your failure to teach.

*Dead reckoning is an estimate based on little or no information.”


Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Excellent. It has long bothered me to see adults, paid professionals with some choices in what happens blame minor children for not making adult choices about their education.

Catherine Johnson said...

Just re-found this post via Google.

I was seaching the terms "sorting machine" and "education," and there you were.