Saturday, September 11, 2010

In the end, THEY must want it

In an age where everyone seems to have an opinion about why school’s aren’t churning out the best possible academics, Robert Samuelson of Newsweek came out this week and brought to the table the most legitimate reason for the lack of student achievement.
The students.
While the Los Angeles Times advocates “value-added”, while Joanne Jacobs advocates charter schools, while unions advocate for money, and while the government advocates accountability to no one in particular, Samuelson states that it is a moot point to address any of these things when students refuse to advocate for themselves.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, which helps explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Motivation has weakened because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard, and don’t do well.
I think that Robert Samuelson’s mention of the strengthening of the “adolescent culture” is critical to figuring out why teenagers are not as engaged as they once were.  Since the days of Beverly Hills 90210, education has taken a back seat to the need for the teen to gain more of a social life than ever before.  While the concept of “getting down” as a teenager isn’t new, parents are not doing their job reinforcing the idea that education is actually more important than playing beer pong.  And society continues to churn out more extreme examples that show that simply having fun will get you social acceptance and financial freedom.  90210 has begat Gossip Girl.  The Real World went from diverse engagement to anticipating 3-ways in a hot tub at the Palms.  And society has embraced Jersey Shore as “oh, it’s just fun”.  The only problem is that parents aren’t telling them that it’s just fun, they are letting it ride and kids are taking rebellion not with a 1960’s political slant, but a 2000’s “if I don’t give a fuck long enough, someone will bail me out…or I’ll get on a reality show” attitude.  Look, Kim Kardashian is rich and popular simply for making a sex tape.  While students might not go to that extreme, the attitude of no-skills-will-get-me-somewhere is reinforced by popularized stereotypes.
Yes, teachers need to be more accountable.  Yes education laws need serious reform.  And yes, more money should be going to education.  But until you fix societies identity crisis, all that is useless.  Until people start reinforcing that stupidity is a flaw, hard work breeds success, and that society needs intelligent and talented people, then we are all running in place.         
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