There has been a lot of blame assigned to various aspects of the educational system in this country. And most have some merit to them. Do we have a large proportion of teachers who are unfit to educate youngsters? Yes. Do we have a large bureaucracy in the administration of the schools which hampers teacher effectiveness? Yes. Are schools under-funded and often overlooked in budgetary concerns? Most definitely yes.
However, there is ample reason to also point out that the kids themselves are at least partly to blame for their own poor academic performance. It has become almost a given in this society that students who go to class and do the work earn an “A” in the class. However, we forget that just doing the required work satisfactorily should not earn you an “A,” but rather a “C” – for average. Anyone who has gone to college knows that if you just do what the teacher requires of you, you will end up with a C in the class. College professors pull no punches when grading, for they could care less whether you pass or not. There is not the same level of self-responsibility enforced in earlier education, and that is where it starts to hurt us as a nation. Students are allowed to get away with mediocre work, without demanding more from them as people or even as students. If they receive low grades, they can go complaining to their parents, who in turn pressure the schools to ease up on their kids. After all, they did go to class, didn’t they? It is not always the teacher’s fault for this poor performance if they grade fairly. After all, they are there to teach the students, to inspire them. But there is some aspect of self-motivation that needs to begin within the student and the student’s home in order for that education to have an impact.
Going to class, merely being a body in a seat is not sufficient to receive good grades, nor is it enough to elucidate a good education out of the public school system. Students need to be challenged, pushed, and they need to know that it isn’t going to come easy. So often students have the ability to opt-out of classes that they decide are too difficult. Look at physical education (PE) for a moment. Can’t run a mile? Ok, then you don’t have to try to run at all, just walk it. In fact, don’t even bother changing into your gym clothes, just waltz around the track talking to your friends with your backpack still on. What an example of lowering standards to the bottom level! I’m not saying that every student should be an athlete; some are just not built for it. But as PE is a class, the students need to learn to push themselves (physically, in this case) and to accomplish what the teacher puts before them. If you can’t run a mile, that’s fine. Run what you can, walk if you get tired, and then get up and run some more. [Note: fail them in PE… imagine being withheld a diploma, or even forced to repeat a grade, due to your inattention and lack of motivation in physical education] If you allow students to rest at the bottom of your expectations, you end up with a collection of students that are fundamentally unable to compete in the world. And not just because their education is sub-par, but also because they are unwilling to take the responsibility to better themselves and their situations. Their attitude leaves the responsibility of their performance at the feet of other authority figures (teachers, principals, counselors, etc.) to ensure the students make it where they want to go.
And the counselors, teachers, etc. most definitely do want the students to achieve; that is why people get into teaching in the first place (for it certainly is not for the wealth or glamorous lifestyle teaching affords). But they are so tied up – teaching material to a vast number of students, dealing with the red tape, maintaining discipline in the class, and several other projects simultaneously – that they are not always able to motivate students. The lack of motivation arises, I think, from a variety of symptoms, the breadth of which is too expansive to illuminate here. Maybe it is the parents not spending enough time with them (a remedy for a lot of social ills of young people, I think); maybe it is not enough ability to concentrate due to a gross overindulgence in television and video games. There is definitely a pressure put on children that being smart is not “cool.” The nerds are never the trendy ones, and the stereotypes of smart people are almost overwhelmingly negative. There needs to be a way, outside of school, to start children caring about their education, their future.
How to achieve this is anybody’s guess. I could start with a variety of prescriptions, such as spending more time with your children, ensuring they spent a good amount of time doing their homework, helping them whenever possible doing projects and reports (without actually doing the work for them). Some parents I knew promised their kid financial or other physical rewards for performance in school. While the carrot method might work, there is also a deeper cultural change that needs to take place. And a lot of that culture, as mentioned above, has to do with how an education is perceived as forwarding yourself in life. For too long in American society has achieving a good education dimmed as the best way to make your way as an adult. Other, get-rich-quick schemes such as professional sports, acting, popular music have been emphasized continually. Also, the pressure to make money forces students to look no further in their education than what is mandated by law. Out of high school, time to get a job. And since those jobs traditionally are not of great quality or intellectual demand, why bother trying to do well in school, when you won’t even need it or use it? These qualities are dangerous, and have lowered the drive of students as a whole to receive, even demand, a good education.
If you have any doubt about this being a cultural aspect, look at the disparities between American children and immigrant children, even those children born of recent immigrants. There is always a big deal made about how Asian students do so well, even Asian American students. Why is that? It is not some miraculous genius gene born into their race. It is that there is an aspect in that culture that demands that children do well in school. They see education as the way to make something of yourself as an adult, to better yourself, your family, your future. It is not just Asians – immigrants from Europe, Africa, Latin America, all have children with a strong sense of drive to achieve. And they hit the marks, even exceed, far above their American counterparts. In the article sited above, the author mentions this difference: “When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered "studying hard" was twice that of American students. American students named native intelligence, and some said the home environment. But a clear majority of students put the responsibility on their teachers. A good teacher, they said, was the determining factor in how well they did in math.”
That, I think, encapsulates this whole argument. The students expect a teacher to just hand them their education. No regards to studying, working, trying. There is a need for students to be driven to work hard. And not driven in a slave-sense, but driven in a sense that they are self-motivated to get an education for themselves. Schools and parents, and society, have been conditioned to see an education as a right of being here, and a diploma as a natural result of sitting in classes for 12 years, whether you put forth the effort or not. It is time to make it apparent that an education in this country takes work. It will not be easy, yet there will always be people there to assist you if you want it. Make the students work for their education, and they will appreciate it and all that it can do for them. Let them rest at the bottom, and you will brew a whole new generation of problems for this country to solve, without a motivated populace to solve them.