The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

Posted by on April 21, 2011

Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.

Indeed, according to the World Values Survey, about 19 per cent of Americans were convinced (10, on a 1 to 10 point scale) that hard work ensures a better life, versus 11 per cent of Spaniards, and 13 per cent of Finns. Likewise, more than 21 per cent of Americans thought competition is good; only about 9 per cent of Spaniards thought the same. And, perhaps most revealingly, when asked why some people are “in need” 61 per cent of Americans attributed it to laziness and lack of will power; only 19 per cent of Spaniards agreed.  Taken together, these responses tend to support that Americans (certainly more so than Spaniards) are big believers in the American credo of effort, competition, and hard work bringing their own rewards.

To me, this is baffling. How can most Americans think that poor people are poor primarily because they are lazy, yet think that the children of the poor do poorly in school primarily because they have bad teachers? Something doesn’t quite click. In both cases, of course, a key explanation is missing: the structural component. That is, both downplay the importance of context, circumstances, institutions, etc. in explaining why bad outcomes occur and, thus, how they might be ameliorated. Poor people only have themselves to blame; kids have only their teachers—both are gross oversimplifications, but the latter also seems un-American in the sense that it indirectly portrays students as devoid of individual agency.

According to Diane Ravitch, “there was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers.” This is not that time.

Many, often competing, education reforms are on the table—i.e., developing new teacher evaluations and holding them more accountable, ending tenure, lowering class size, raising teacher salaries, adopting higher academic standards, and developing rich core curricula, to name a few. But the important issue of student effort seems now to be a missing ingredient in this debate. After all, isn’t it the student who must ultimately do the work of learning? Given the American credo, it is a puzzling omission. Parents, teachers, and peers influence student effort and motivation; but don’t kids deserve at least some of the credit when they do well and some of the blame when they do poorly? And, indeed, isn’t learning to be responsible one of the most important lessons of schooling?

According to some professors, the failure to learn this important life lesson causes problems all the way through college. This encounter with a student, described by Professor Brian P. Hall is but one example:

In the middle of a semester, one of my students in my developmental English course came to my office to tell me that he had to withdraw and that it was my fault. He couldn’t continue because my teaching style didn’t meet his needs. Foolishly, I asked for an explanation, and he spent the next five minutes outlining every instance in which I had interfered with his learning style, including by assigning homework, giving tests, taking attendance, and requiring that all essays be typed, printed out, and handed in at the very beginning of class. When I began to tell him that I do all of those things because I’m trying to teach academic responsibility, he interrupted and said, “You’re not letting me be me.”

At least in the early grades, a focusing on parents and teachers as the primary agents of schooling seems reasonable. But at what age do we start expecting students to assume some of the responsibility for their own learning?  And, by focusing so narrowly on teachers, are we saying that students, parents, and the society at large have no real say in the matter? I am not contending that there are any real right or wrong answers to these questions. But shouldn’t we at least be asking them?


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