Edupundit Myopia

by Robert Pondiscio
October 18th, 2010

“The consensus among Edupundits is that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement,” writes Will Fitzhugh, the founder of the Concord Review.  “Meanwhile, practically all of them fail to give any attention to the basic purpose of schools, which is to have students do academic work. Almost none of them seems inclined to look past the teacher to see if the students are, for instance, reading any nonfiction books or writing any term papers,” he observes.

Fitzhugh has long been a champion of non-fiction reading and writing, and high academic standards that too often students make it to college where ”they encounter nonfiction books and term paper requirements which they hadn’t been asked to manage in high school.”

One of the sad and damaging consequences of this myopia among Edupundits is that everyone but students is imagined to be responsible for student academic work. As Paul Zoch has so regularly pointed out, the message that sends down the line to students is that their job is to get through high school with a minimum of work, while it is someone else’s responsibility to educate them. The result is that, whatever gets decided about dropouts, vouchers, union contracts, budgets, textbooks, teacher selection and training, school governance, curricula in all subjects, school management issues, and the like, our students are not working hard enough on their own education.

“Far too many of our high school students are waiting for someone else to set demanding academic standards, Fitzhugh concludes.  “But after they slide through high school and emerge, they are mightily sorry they were not asked to do more and held to a higher standard for their own academic work.”

“Many students, especially those whose parents aren’t college-educated, have no idea what skills, knowledge and work habits are required to pass college classes,” adds Joanne Jacobs, commenting on Fithugh’s post.  “They pass classes labeled ’college prep’ with B’s and C’s. They think they’re doing well enough.  If they knew they were in remedial prep they might work a lot harder.”

10 Comments »

  1. “Almost none of them seems inclined to look past the teacher to see if the students are, for instance, reading any nonfiction or writing any term papers”

    But isn’t the teacher responsible for the curriculum?

    Comment by AB — October 18, 2010 @ 10:08 am

  2. 20 kids don’t do any assigned work (whether meaningful or not) for Teacher X.

    Next period, those 20 kids walk across the hall and do a lot of meaningful assigned work for Teacher Y.

    Often that is teacher “quality” at work.

    Comment by MG — October 18, 2010 @ 10:20 am

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    Pingback by Edupundit Myopia « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — October 18, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  4. Too facile, MG.

    Teacher X assigns the following: What does Herman Melville believe about the role of fate in the affairs of men based on the novel Moby Dick. Support your argument with 4-6 examples from the novel.

    Teacher Y: Think of a grudge you have borne in your lifetime. Why do you carry it? What effects has that grudge had on your life? What advice would you give to Captain Ahab about the grudge he carries in Moby Dick?

    Teacher quality at work?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 18, 2010 @ 10:33 am

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  6. Perhaps the Gates Foundation could start spreading around money to get everyone on board with a new set of “common” standards that would address these concerns and the feds could hand out $350 million or so to write new tests that require more nonfiction reading, writing and research skills.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — October 18, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  7. “The consensus among Edupundits is that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement … Meanwhile, practically all of them fail to give any attention to the basic purpose of schools, which is to have students do academic work.”

    I too have a problem with the notion that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement, but I think Fitzhugh is a bit hasty in claiming that the basic purpose of schools is to have student do academic work. And I think one may be hard-pressed to find many politicians, or others in positions of power, willing to claim that.

    What about preparing students for participation in our democracy? Reading a nonfiction book may help a student do that, but so would other tasks. What about preparing students for life in the 21st-century workplace, which may not require academic skills for everyone? Maybe if we had a broader consensus of the purpose of schools, we could have better discussions about reforming them.

    Comment by Anne — October 18, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Robert,

    I think you know what I meant. But maybe not.

    Teacher X assigns Melville. Kids generally do it.

    Teacher Y assigns Melville. Similar kids don’t it.

    Teacher Z assigns dumb thing. Maybe kids do it, who cares.

    I think that Teacher X’s kids would do best on any sort of reasonable evaluation system.

    Comment by MG — October 18, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  9. @MG. I wasn’t being a smart-aleck, MG. I really didn’t get your point. I do think there’s an issue of teachers sacrificing rigor on the altar of student engagement. And very often they get a pass for doing so. I think you’re right that under your scenario, Teacher X would outperform Teacher Y and Z, but it’s entirely likely (don’t you think?) that all of teachers might be rated competent based on student performance on dumbed-down tests. Will Fitzhugh’s point–and I think it’s a good one–is that the kind of work done K-12 has too little in common with the kind of work expected in college.

    FWIW, my example of students being asked to write personal responses as opposed to textual analysis is not a “dumb” example, but a reflection of a standard practice. (http://educationnext.org/not-just-which-books-teachers-teach-but-how-they-teach-them/)
    As Sandra Stotsky’s piece on this blog revealed last week, personal response is not just a common teaching approach, butthee dominant one.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 18, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

  10. I think we were agreeing. Your example wasn’t dumb as an example. The all-too-common practice is dumb if it’s assigned routinely instead of occasionally.

    Comment by MG — October 20, 2010 @ 9:16 am

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