Friday, September 21, 2012

How Parents Can Improve Teaching

            Thomas Friedman wrote in his August 7, 2012 opinion piece, Average Is Over, Part II that, “There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it, hold it or advance in it.” He then laments that American K-12 schools are failing to keep up with other industrialized countries, as shown in the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, which currently measure student achievement in reading, math, and science skills in 70 countries.
            I agree with Mr. Friedman that informing parents about how schools are performing can be a valuable tool in making them better partners with their schools, though it’s not the most important contribution parents can make. 
            The current conventional wisdom advises that to improve schools, hold school personnel accountable for student achievement. This seems logical, and came about because research on test data overwhelmingly shows that teachers and principals make the biggest difference in test achievement. Keep in mind that the research is showing a correlation between teacher practices and achievement, not a cause and effect relationship. And of course the research assumes that the assessments are measuring important skills and learnings, which shouldn’t be taken for granted. 
            Principals and teachers become the primary recipients of attention in poor-performing schools, which makes some sense as they are the ones who are working directly with the students. Problematically, laying all of the culpability for poor achievement on the school staff tends to relieve the student from being accountable for their own learning. 
            The verb, “teach” is key to why this over-reliance on holding staff solely responsible for improvement can’t bring the best results. Learning is the result of a partnership between the learner and the teacher. Anyone tried to teach someone something knows you can’t “teach” anyone anything they don’t want to learn, and more importantly, aren’t willing to work to learn. 
            The deep satisfaction which results from the effort of learning is a fundamental human experience. This so because learning requires self-discipline, often hard work, which in turn requires that one sacrifice an immediate gratification, like watching TV or playing games on the computer, to practice in the near term in order that one may achieve a future, greater good, such as being able to play a difficult piece on the piano. That success, by the way, that bone-deep sense of accomplishment, is the true source of self-respect.
            While good teachers can often work wonders at motivating students to sacrifice leisure and work hard to learn and achieve, it is a constant challenge. However, the best, and first, teachers of self-discipline are parents. 
            The most important way, then that parents can improve the schools their children attend is to instill a strong work ethic in their kids. School staff are important, and should be held accountable for the learning that goes on in their classrooms. But the most important teacher that any child has is the one at home. 
            For parents, this is a hard job. We live in a society that has been telling us that our job is to make our kids happy. Unfortunately, when you are teaching your kids to be self-disciplined, you are going to make them unhappy some times. Sadly, responsibility and accountability are virtues with less social approval than happiness and feeling good about oneself. My wife, who teaches second grade, had a parent conference about a boy whose acting out and manipulative behavior were causing significant problems in her class. After hearing all of the issues, the mother’s plaintive response was, “Can’t we all just love him?” The answer, of course, is that the teacher’s job is not primarily to love his or her students, it’s to teach them. Love often can come into it, but it’s not first. Of course it’s easier for a teacher to have the emotional distance that allows for creating a disciplined environment where learning can occur. But sometimes a parent has to realize that love is best expressed in “no” not “yes.”
            Many education critics are nostalgic for the “old days,” and call for a return to the curriculum and methods of those times. Unfortunately, the old days weren’t better in every respect. Current teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable about learning and curriculum. What’s missing from those “old days” is the sense of order that was a result of a stronger social sense of responsibility and accountability. 
            But even in the “old days,” there were disaffected, disengaged students. Stricter social conventions likely inhibited their impulse to act out, and many of those students opted to drop out when given the first opportunity. But it was easier to teach in those days because students overall were more likely to do what they were told and to work hard.
            So how can we truly make schools better? We each have our part to play. Though they have plenty of room to improve, realistically we can’t expect teachers to be miracle workers. They have a limited amount of time to cover what needs to be learned. At the same time, we as parents need to do our job and send students who are self-disciplined and ready to learn. 
            There are lots of students succeeding in American schools today. I can tell you from experience, that they are, by and large, the ones who’s parents sent them to school with self-discipline and a desire to learn. If we can figure out ways to help more parents achieve that, then the work educators are doing to improve teaching practices will be greatly leveraged in preparing students with the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive in a complicated and competitive world.

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