Monday, March 31, 1997

School Daze

What's the scoop Baboop? Well the test results are in and although the rabbit may not be dead, that sucker is barely breathing. On the recently administered test of Minnesota 8th grade students in which the minimum standards for graduation were tested, only 41% passed in math and a mere 35% passed in reading. Along with the predictable concern with the results of the latest scores came much talk of the need to reform our schools. Vouchers and later starting school days aside perhaps it is time to take a step back and rethink the way we approach this education thing.

In his book Beyond the Classroom, Laurence Steinberg a professor of psychology at Temple University, suggests the focus of the problem may be the actual problem. Steinberg argues that all of our past attempts at school reform have merely produced lower and lower test scores thus it may be time to look at other areas for the reason our students are doing so badly in school. He suggests that because parents and peers have more influence on how a student will do in school than do teachers, perhaps the focus of change should be in that area. This type of change would require a radical shift in our educational philosophy.

The most interesting notion put forward in Beyond the Classroom is the clear connection between our failing education system and the trend in society for refocusing the blame for what we do wrong. No matter what area you look, it seems like fewer and fewer are willing to take the responsibility for their own faults, instead it is becoming more and more commonplace to look for reasons for our failings. We are all victims and thus we can't help it if we are so screwed up.

Steinberg writes that the students who are succeeding in the very same schools that are mass producing poor educational skills for the majority, are the students who are willing to concede that it is their work ethic and the amount of time they are willing to put into improving themselves academically instead of blaming their failures on something out of their control. The students who blame the system, or to bad luck or some type of genetic or environmental inferiority are the ones giving themselves the excuse for failure. And because the consequences of failing don't seem to be all that great to these students, the mechanism for producing the essentials of a well educated, well prepared work force is constantly deteriorating.

Indeed it has been a learning experience to witness how the current debate shaped up after the latest round of alarming test scores was announced. All the focus was on how we can improve the school systems- whether or not private schools are better than public schools; whether or not we should go to some type of voucher system to make the public schools more on par with private schools. On one side you have those arguing what needs to be done are more progressive reforms. On the other you have those saying that what is needed is a hard return to the basics. In his book, Steinberg argues that until we change the attitude many of our students and their peers and parents have toward their education, no amount of school reform can possibly succeed.

Steinberg writes that because students are much more influenced in their study habits, their work ethic, and their attitudes by their peers and by their parents, unless they are given the message that education is indeed the key to their future, they simply lack the necessary motivation to try to do well in school. Without that motivation they cannot do well in school. Thus our focus should change to reforming our attitudes much more than it should focus on reshaping the educational systems.

Somehow our schools have shifted from a place of learning to a place one merely has to endure. The joy of an education has evaporated as schools more and more become part social hang out, part symptom or symbol of a greater societal problem. It is easier to be able to blame it all on the system in place rather than the attitudes and efforts put forward to try to change the direction, try to reform what is actually broken. It is an all too common approach in how we deal with our obstacles these days. As long as we don't take responsibility for allowing the problems to exist, as long as we have something or somebody else to blame, the solution will never be met. That may be a self comforting approach to adopt but in the long haul we just end up worse than where we began.

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