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Don't Blame Teachers For Family Failings


September 19, 2010

The latest flavor of the month in educational reform ties teacher evaluations to student performance on annual standardized tests. This, like most of the educational reforms over the past three decades, is just another political red herring distracting us from a more fundamental and more effective reform we'd rather ignore: family reform.

During 30 years as a Connecticut high school teacher, I participated in a number of school reforms, all of them based on "the latest numbers" and "the latest literature"; all of them developed by research experts, most of whom no longer teach students.

I learned the wisdom of teaching reading with phonics and without phonics; of guided discovery, Socratic method and team teaching; of student-centered classrooms and student learning styles; of "rooms without walls" and group learning; of homogenous tracking and heterogeneous tracking; of career outreach and community service; of teaching the gifted and No Child Left Behind. Though all of these ideas were well-intentioned and marginally effective in helping students learn, it's clear that not only are some contradictory to others, but none changed the 30-year flat-line in student learning.

Now, some are advocating using business model incentives in the schools; namely, holding teachers accountable for student performance. Just as business managers are held accountable for employee productivity, teachers will be responsible for student learning. If the manager/teacher fails to produce measurable results, he can be demoted, reprogrammed or terminated.

But this neat analogy fails to mention that managers can fire unproductive employees. Students, on the other hand, cannot be fired. Further, although employees understand the huge stake they have in their performance; students know their scores on most standardized tests affects neither their grade nor their promotion.

Finally, while the business model aims to maximize productivity and motivate adult employees who have freely chosen a career, public schools mandate that relatively immature children and adolescents learn material in which they may or may not have an interest. Holding teachers accountable for student performance not only misplaces responsibility but won't significantly improve student learning. Teachers may lead students to educational waters, but they cannot make them drink.

Perhaps one benefit of school reforms is that more stringent requirements, preparation, monitoring and mentoring have made today's teachers better prepared to teach than any time in history. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the children teachers face in the classroom. Although the overwhelming majority of teachers already deliver sound lessons to their students, far too many students are unready or unwilling to learn.

On the other hand, teachers universally agree that students who do their assignments learn. Students with a strong work ethic learn. Motivated students learn. The decline in education may say more about the character of our children than the quality of our teachers. What we need is not another school reform but a family reform.

What has been the most significant change in American culture in the last 30 years? The family. As it became more extended, more decentralized and less insulated; many parents, perhaps overcompensating for their strict upbringing, adopted more laissez-faire and lenient parenting styles. Whether or not a child likes his teacher has become more important to some parents than the responsibilities and self-discipline of the child. All too often, self-esteem trumps real character.

When a child isn't taught by his parents to make school his top priority, it isn't. When parents don't monitor their children's homework, it often isn't done; when grades and progress reports aren't discussed in the home, they aren't effective in the school. And, when children aren't held accountable for their academic performance by their parents, there is only so much a teacher can do.

Educational reform may have improved teachers over the decades, but if we want significant improvement in student performance, parents need to show the necessary resolve for instilling in their children the work ethic, responsibility and motivation essential to a lifetime of learning. Real educational reform starts in the home.

Thomas Cangelosi of Avon is a retired English teacher. He taught at the Gilbert School in Winsted.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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