Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Education Roundtable: Dealing with Disaffected Students

Corey: Last week, we discussed who should go to college and who shouldn’t. Part of that depends on who will benefit from more schooling and who won’t. This week, we’ll discuss a related topic: what we should do with students who simply don’t enjoy school.

While we in the education world sometimes take it for granted that everybody should spend more time in school, it’s readily apparent that quite a few students really don’t like school.  A few song lyrics can illustrate this point:

Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” includes a school chorus singing the following

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome begins:

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

And Dead Prez’s “They Schools" include the following lyrics:

They schools can't teach us s--t
. . .
They schools ain't teachin' us, what we need to know to survive
(Say what, say what)
They schools don't educate, all they teach the people is lies
. . .
F--k they schools

School is like a 12 step brainwash camp
They make you think if you drop out you ain't got a chance
To advance in life, they try to make you pull your pants up
Students fight the teachers and get took away in handcuffs

So, three different artists, complaining for three different -- but related reasons -- about schools. And the question is, what do we do about it? Do we tell the kids to zip it because we know what’s best for them? Do we divert them to alternate education programs? Do we try to make school more enjoyable? Do we let them drop out? And who makes these decisions? And when? To try to frame this discussion, let me ask these questions in a slightly different way. If your child echoed these types of complaints, what would you say to him/her? What if another student in your child’s class said these types of things? What would you hope that the teacher or principal would do?

Neil: Unemployed and uneducated people (defined as high school drop outs) are more likely to commit crime. They are more likely to partake in dangerous and socially expensive activities (i.e. smoking, teenage pregnancy). In short, uneducated people are more likely to cost society money. To reduce the costs that the uneducated impose, it makes sense to require members of the public to obtain an education. The State can and should fashion laws that dis-incentivize the population from dropping out of school. However, such laws should be carefully fashioned so that they do not impose more costs than benefits. For example, the law should not incentivize incorrigible children to stay in school to the detriment of students who are interested in learning. The law should not burden the State with enforcement costs that counteract societal savings that result from higher graduation rates.

ClassroomView: I think all children should be required to go to an elementary school that more or less treats all students the same. I think there should then be a split, where students have the option to attend schools with a focus on vocational training. Parents should have a lot of say over this, but not necessarily students. Some type of schooling should probably be required through age 17, but only if the education can be classified as “likely to be useful for each particular student.”

As a student, I didn’t think school sucked because I could do it in my sleep. Many students go to school for more than a decade and never feel that way. It’s not fair to them to make them do things they don’t want to do, and learn things they are often not able to learn, thereby completely wasting their time and our money. Instead, after a basic elementary education, they should have they opportunity to learn a useful trade in an environment that will not turn them into angry and isolated adults.

Neil: I agree that students should have the option to enter vocational school or traditional school, and that parents should make the ultimate decision regarding which school a particular student will attend. I also agree that the state should require students to attend school until they graduate (17 or 18).

I disagree that our expectations for students should depend on intelligence (except in exceptional circumstances - i.e. moderate to severe retardation). You seem to conclude that forcing less intelligent students to attend school will turn them into angry and isolated adults. I have a hard time believing that the act of being challenged in school will turn a student into an angry adult. I also don’t agree with your conclusion that school is a waste of time and money if a student does not want to attend or if the student is unable to learn certain material. Education is valuable, particularly when students struggle with material.

CEP: I agree that students should have more options than our current system’s focus on preparing all students for college allows for. One problem I see though, which ClassroomView touches on, is that school-age children may not have any idea what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Based on that, it seems that providing a high level of general education for all students will benefit them in the future when they do have a better idea what direction they want to take, or even what directions they want to take. Kids just don’t always know what’s best for them. They may think that what they’re learning will have little impact on their future, but they really don’t know the full story. Therefore there is a degree to which they just have to deal with it. I don’t want to say in any way that all standards are good and that what all teachers choose to teach is appropriate or how they teach is engaging, but there is a degree to which kids need to be educated and they just need to deal with it. I offer no critique of the system/ process through which we determine what they actually need to know

Taking this in another direction, teachers factor in to a large degree in at least 2 of these 3 lyrics, indicating that teachers have a large degree of control over students’ perceptions of school. My own experiences as a teacher in an urban public school confirm this. A teacher taking a genuine interest in a student, showing they care about more than just their academic progress, can go a long way in a kid’s engagement in school. It’s all well and good to want students to learn for the sake of learning, but if I can get a kid to learn for my sake, because they know I care about them, then wonderful, they’re learning!

In answering the question of what to do with students who don’t want to be in school, I live in this tension between thinking yes, we need to expand our school structures and pedagogy to make school more engaging for all students and thinking that the adult world functions in a specific manner and part of the role of schooling is to prepare students to function and thrive in that world. As such, many alternative ways of education may not accomplish that.

Really, historically, what have schools done to engage students? Very little: things are shifting in that direction in response to the attitudes espoused in these lyrics, but this is a relatively new trend. The things we need to change are teachers and our pedagogical methods. Teachers who care and make some attempt at connecting learning to real life would be good places to start.

Neil: The type of teaching practices you discuss cost money. Smaller class sizes cost money. Retaining experienced teachers costs money. Given that states and municipalities are in serious financial trouble, I don’t envision those changes being implemented. However, I do agree that teaching methods need to be more personalized and engaging if we are to keep kids in school. I think the answer is software. My hope is that technological innovations will allow states and municipalities to provide students with a quality education on the cheap. I think that better quality instruction might put a dent in the drop out rate.

Corey: If we think it’s important that teachers engage students and form personal bonds, then we should hold them accountable for such. If a teacher is being evaluated only on students’ test scores and academic progress, it’s tough to fault a teacher when they don’t spend a lot of time “showing they care about more than just [students’] academic progress”.

It also seems dangerous to me to expect that teachers can and will do anything and everything. If a student is genuinely unhappy with their schooling, then asking the teacher to try and fix it is fine -- but only to a certain point. At some point, structural changes need to be made as well. Either we give teachers the time and resources necessary to form these types of bonds, recruit and evaluate based on these bonds, or remove the student from the class and assign somebody else the task of trying to engage them while we let the teacher focus on the other 25 or so students.

CEP: Neil, you seem to contradict yourself. I’m curious as to how software and technological innovations will create more personalized teaching methods and what sort of innovations you mean? And, Corey, we should hold teachers accountable for engaging students academically, and even hire based on such personality characteristics- other industries certainly do. Who wants a crusty old pediatric nurse who lacks compassion? Problem is, the teacher pool may not have enough of such teachers. And there’s certainly a distribution: I know that every teacher is not going to be able to personally engage with all their students in the manner I’m describing. What is important though it to not have teachers that deride and belittle their students and make no effort to engage them. I’d like to imagine that such teachers are not in classrooms, but my experience is to the contrary.

Corey: There’s no doubt that there are some teachers that are bad in every which way imaginable. What I worry is that if the answer to “what should we do with disaffected students?” is simply “expect teachers to form personal relationships with them” that this would be taking the easy way out. Our current accountability system is based on test scores, and there’s evidence that principals in urban schools tend to hire those who can manage a class. These are both true for good reasons -- too many kids don’t have basic knowledge of academic subjects, and too many classes are overrun with discipline problems.

While I agree that a great teacher should be able to raise test scores, manage a classroom, and form relationships with their students all at once, I’m not sure what we accomplish by arguing that. Other than heaping blame on struggling teachers, motivating principals to heap blame on struggling teachers, and avoiding the implementation of any structural changes.

Wrap-up: If we agreed on anything, I think it's that there's no easy answer here. Alternative schools, tracking, warmer teachers, and other changes could all be potential solutions depending on the exact situation. The subject is too broad to address in one post, so for next week we're going to turn our attention the teacher quality argument that began in this post.


Aaron said...

Thought that this article by Dr. Heyneman who teaches International Education Policy at Vanderbilt would shed some light on this subject.http://vanderbilt.edu/peabody/heyneman/PUBLICATIONS/199902.pdf

Cut and paste the link. Heyneman bases his views on 25 years of researching schools all over the world. I'd be interested to hear your responses.

Roger Sweeny said...

I have a hard time believing that the act of being challenged in school will turn a student into an angry adult.

I don't do well in video games and I consider them a waste of time for me.

If I was put in front of a screen and told I had to get to level 20 by this time next week ("but don't worry, I'll be available to help you"), I would not be terribly pleased. Bored, frustrated, discouraged maybe.

Of course, we know that school isn't a waste of time. After all, it's what we do.