Last week Robert Samuelson in Newsweek took on the topic of The Failure of School Reform, and came to the conclusion that it is because students don’t like school (OK), and that this is the fault of our students (!).
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. 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 [otherwise]. 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.
Seriously. This is infuriating, demeaning, disrespectful, and ultimately, deeply detrimental to the cause of improving American education. What’s worse is that Thomas Friedman, whom I generally admire greatly, picked up on this too, reinforcing the message Sunday: “There is a lot to Samuelson’s point.”
Now I appreciate where Friedman then went with his discussion: we certainly do need to reassess our national values, and put much more emphasis on production over consumption.
We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.
But let’s not confuse the Wall Street abuses and the get-rich-quick values for the problems of our undermotivated high school students, and let’s not blame our kids for the fact that school is boring them. Our schools are boring them because too many of our schools have fallen prey to a teach-the-textbook approach that sees its only accountability to a multiple choice regimen in which kids are evaluated by how well the select the right answer, over and over again, on subjects that have no relevance to their life. We ask kids to sit in desks in rows 20 or 30 or 40 in a room while a teacher talks about a topic that interests him or or her, and then do homework about something nobody has even tried to connect to their life and their future, and we then blame the kids for not loving it.
Truth is, few of us as adults would willing endure these “learning environments” even if we were paid well. We seek out environments where we have purpose, where we enjoy autonomy and respect, where we can grow in mastery over skills that we care deeply about, to borrow from Pink– and most high schools provide none of these things. Some adults work in these envirionments, but let’s admit only: only because they are paid to do so, and paid more than any other alternative available to them.
What those of us who are paying closer attention than Samuelson know (and those of us who are thoughtful and intentional educators recognize) is that there are plenty of schools where students are motivated, where they do work hard, where they do like school, and where they do succeed and prepare for successful careers and college educations. Schools like High Tech High, New Tech Network schools, CART, and others are serious about providing learning which is meaningful to students, where they find purpose in their learning because they see its connection to the world they live in and the jobs they are aspiring to.
These are also schools which recognize, like Google, the value of greater autonomy in our professional lives, that we all deserve to have more choice and more voice and do our work, our learning, in ways that are meaningful and rewarding and which we choose. They are also places where we use the technological tools that empower us to be creative and collaborative communicators and producers.
These are also schools where students and learning are assessed in ways other than multiple choice bubble tests. They are schools which are serious about student engagement, measure it, and use the data to improve their students’ motivation for learning.
So yes, I do agree with Samuelson about the problem: educational reform is failing because kids aren’t motivated. I agree also with Samuelson that Arne Duncan’s solution to put a great teacher in every room isn’t going to work (nor will testing kids in boring, soul-crushing ways, until the cows come home.)
But he could not be more wrong to blame the kids for their boredom. Instead, let’s fix schools so that kids find joy and relevance and purpose and reward and autonomy and mastery and creativity and productivity and collaboration in their classrooms every day.