Disappointed in Teaching (VI) – What is to be Done?

In the past series of five posts, I described what caused me to be disillusioned with teaching. I mentioned what I perceived to be weaknesses in teachers, administrators and students. Now, a decent respect for those who have read these posts requires that I outline what – in my opinion – would make the system better.

I use the word system deliberately, because I think the problem with education in the United States is a systemic one, and is not limited to just one specific area or group.

I believe that the main problem with education in the US is that we infantilize our students. We have created an educational system that decouples performance and outcome – at least for the first eight years in the students’ career. We allow students to stay children in the sense of not inculcating into them that academics represent an intellectual challenge that demands rigor and sustained performance.

We do not convey the message that lack of performance has consequences – staying a year behind, not going to college, etc. We tend to emphasize, publicize and discuss ad nauseam the social circumstances that hurt performance – poverty, family problems, language barriers, race, etc. This over-emphasis transforms these circumstances into excuses for poor performance, to the point that we tend to ignore and then destroy self-reliance, hard work and persistence. We thus create a system where the students, just like in a video game, always get an “extra life” – there is always “extra credit” or “bonus points”. This is a children’s world, not real life.

When we no longer put our efforts into challenging our students in academics and behavior, we get – at best – a middling educational system. When you get the extra points needed for a passing grade by making a “colored book” where you write the formulas needed in the chapter instead of getting those points by solving 20 extra problems, then you create a world of lowered academic expectations.

The effects of treating our students as children are pervasive and they have ramifications for teachers as well. If teachers do not challenge students, teachers themselves are not intellectually challenged. If teachers are not challenged, then teaching as a profession acquires a reputation of not being intellectually demanding. If the profession has a reputation of not being intellectually demanding, then why should its practitioners be highly paid and/or respected?

Furthermore, a profession whose reputation is that of not intellectually demanding becomes a profession that is “easy”. A profession that is “easy” will not attract the best and the brightest, those that want challenge in their professional lives.

What can we do? We can create a system that sends strong signals that performance has very clear rewards.

For example, high stakes exams at the end of 5th and 8th grades can become gatekeepers in separating those serious about studying from those who are not. Those who do well in these exams will be on the “college path”, those who do not on a “vocational path”. I have heard the arguments that this system is elitist and those wealthy – those who can afford exam prep – will benefit most from such a system. I would suggest that if schools were to take a few bucks from their athletics programs and put them into a strong, free tutoring program, the elitist argument would lose its power.

Furthermore, the merit of such exams is that the message is clear and the consequences direct. This is in contrast to the current situation. For example, in California getting a far below basic score (the lowest category) on the California Standard Tests has no effect on the students’ grades – this is a high stakes test for the schools, not for the individual students who, after all, are the test-takers.

Another signal is the material that we teach. As an example, here is one of the more challenging problems in my Algebra 2 textbook, in the section on exponential functions:

10 x – 1 = 100 2x – 3 (Solve for x)

Here is a problem in the same area from an American textbook of 1960 (Smith and Fagan):

2 x + y= 16 and 2 xy = 4 (solve for x and y).

Finally, here is a problem in the same area for 10th graders from a 2005 European textbook:


(Solve for x).

Why are the last two problems more challenging than what is in our current textbooks? I think the reason is simple – the authors of our textbooks are aware that the preparation of our students is inferior and that our students could not solve the harder problems and many would not even try.

We have not challenged our students in elementary and middle schools and we now reap the results – students whose algebra fundamentals are shaky and therefore they are not ready for a solid algebra program in high school.

We need to get students used to challenging exercises early in their academic careers and in math we need to challenge them with both procedural and critical thinking problems. We also need to instill into these students the idea that a “hard” problem is a challenge to be overcome not something to serve as an excuse for giving up. In other words, our expectations need to be higher and – I can not overemphasize this – we must start with these expectations from elementary school and continue them all the way through high school.

Finally, we need alternatives to rigorous, demanding academic programs. We can not expect every student to succeed in such programs , we are not in Lake Woebegon. For these students, we need to create curriculums that– say starting in 10th grade – prepare the students for vocational careers. Right now I see in my classes students who wear sweat shirts with names like Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC. You ask them and they tell you this is where they want to go. These are the same students who have difficulties with fractions, simple equations, percentages or graphing a line. I don’t believe that we are “clipping the wings” of such students that their chances of getting into top level schools are of the order of ½%. Eventually, most of these students end at junior colleges where something like one in three need remedial work.

Why can’t we guide these students early into a vocational curriculum? A good vocational curriculum would be a blend of academics and practical experience and the academic part would be tailored to the specific needs of the respective profession. We don’t have that – we are not offering the kids a choice.

There you have it: high stakes exams that function as selection means for university bound students, a rigorous and challenging K-12 curriculum that puts a prize on persistence and hard work and a well thought out vocational track that produces well educated and trained professionals.

I am not holding the breath that this would happen. What I have proposed is not politically correct, goes against traditions and cultural norms and also needs resources to implement. Tough.


One response to “Disappointed in Teaching (VI) – What is to be Done?

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