March 24 focuses on the strange, unspoken assumption underlying all U.S. efforts at educational reform, that education is a kind of industrial or scientific process, or rather a quick fix, in which the pupils are merely passive, raw material, and the outcome has nothing to do with the pupils’ own effort, participation, ability, and desire to learn. (The article as posted below has been edited and abridged by me.)
The Futility of American Educational Reform
by Robert Weissberg
As anticipated, President Obama recently unveiled his proposed solution to America’s educational tribulations, consisting of greater early childhood intervention, merit pay for teachers, more charter schools, and national standards. Though this smorgasbord differs in detail from his predecessor’s No Child Left Behind Act, it is actually a quite similar restaurant-like order from the identical menu. And just as eateries typically have a common theme, e.g., Italian, so does this education carte du jour: Regardless of what is selected, learning is never the student’s responsibility.
To use a different metaphor, today’s pupil is like a patient undergoing brain surgery, lying passively on a table while experts labor to insert knowledge into his head. The experts only disagree on the best way to insert the knowledge. Some say it is to be done by hiring superior teachers. Others recommend holding school administrators accountable. Others urge the invention of exciting new ways to stimulate the pupils’ appetite for learning. Other says that social service professionals must help youngsters overcome their personal and home-life crises that impede learning.
Regardless of ideology, every putative solution today has this “Somebody else will do it” element. While such an approach is predictable for liberals, with their “don’t blame the victim” mentality, the sad fact is that so-called conservatives differ not one iota from the liberals. “Personal responsibility,” the supposed touchstone of conservative thinking, is nowhere to be found in the conservatives’ various proposals for vouchers, charter schools, and accountability. Someone—anyone—other than the pupil is to be responsible for the pupil’s actually learning something.
For example, a charter school will be shut down if it fails to boost achievement, but the pupils themselves, regardless of their responsibility in their poor performance, will simply enroll in another school, which will, it is hoped, do a better job of pushing knowledge into their brains.
Recall how New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg was cheered when he said the he would take personal responsibility for New York public school performance, and how President Bush was castigated when his much heralded Reading First program showed lackluster results. Education parents now give way to Education Mayors and Education Presidents.
Why do we refuse to hold students responsible if they fail tests? Why has no one stood up and said, “Test scores will improve when students become diligent, pay attention to teachers, and put as much effort into learning as they put into sports and socializing?” What politician will propose requiring tough high-school exit tests with no second chances as the first step to make today’s lazy student work harder?
Multiple explanations exist for the failure of today’s educationists and politicians to expect the pupils themselves to accomplish anything. Three stand out.
First, contemporary American pedagogues are clueless about the virtues of toughness, and even those graybeards who remember yesterday’s sure-fire recipe of humiliation, ridicule, dunce caps and other self-esteem undermining tactics, recognize that such devices are totally impermissible in today’s help-students-feel-good-about-themselves environment. Cracking the whip on Mr. Lazybones (in the classroom though not in sports) invites trouble from parents, even litigation.
Placing higher demands on pupils is also cut short by the progressivist education belief that punishing sloth destroys the inner passion to learn.
In short, today’s expert-certified motivation approach can best be described as “Spare the Rod, Help the Child.”
Second, little is to be gained politically by pointing to the obvious truth that pupil accomplishment depends on the pupils’ own work and abilities. To state this commonsensical idea may elicit cheers and congratulatory e-mails, but it lacks a political constituency. Emphasizing pupils’ responsibility will almost certainly energize grievance groups whose leaders profit from alleged insults to group members.
Lastly, a re-invigorated focus on personal responsibility would entail a painful look in the mirror. A parent who refuses to prod junior or even discipline him for disrupting classes enjoys a professionally supplied carte d’excuses that surpasses even the most extensive Greek diner menu: the school is rotten, teachers don’t care, textbooks are dull, school boards are skinflints, more schooling options are needed, principals impose too little discipline, principals impose too much discipline, the curriculum is irrelevant, there is no Internet, and on and on.
When educational reformers cater to parents’ and children’s irresponsibility, assuring them that someone else will fix junior’s refusal to buckle down, dependency on expertise becomes an addiction, and deus ex machina solutions become the definition of reform. Policy-making lurches from repackaged failed nostrums (e.g., merit pay, Head Start) to more creative panaceas (e.g., close bad schools, as if schools themselves fail tests).
If there is a glimmer of hope in all this, it is in the burgeoning popularity of homeschooling.