Blaming the little kids
Updated: 11:48 am, Tue Feb 28, 2012
by Jesse Jones

For my final paper in an English seminar last semester, I dove headlong into the daunting and enormously politicized issue of education reform. Since the 2001 passage of Bush’s widely disparaged No Child Left Behind Act over a decade ago, the battle lines have been coalescing over the war to rescue America’s schools from their downward spiral.

Over the past decade, countless articles have been written, and documentary films (“Waiting for Superman,” “Two Million Minutes”) have explored the differences between public and charter schools and between American and foreign education models.

In my observation of the education debate, I have noticed an entrenched dynamic. Teachers blame parents, parents blame teachers, the government refuses to pay teachers adequate salaries and teachers’ unions blame everyone but themselves.

I’m not writing today to take sides in any of these conflicts but instead to suggest one possibility that I have not read elsewhere. What if America’s educational failures are the little kids’ fault?

I’m not joking.

“But it simply can’t be the little kids’ fault!” I can already hear you protesting. That’s generally the reaction I get from my friends whenever I float this theory. However, I believe that if we are going to be serious about addressing education problems in this country, then we need to look at all possible explanations for declining test scores.

In support of my controversial thesis, I draw from my own experience of teaching chess to elementary school children in after-school programs around Nashville. Last year I started teaching at Pennington Elementary School, a relatively average suburban school in eastern Nashville. That year’s batch of chess club kids was attentive and respectful, and the class made significant progress over the year. This year, however, the chess club coach and I have noticed a significant decline in the quality of the students. I have been teaching this chess club every week since October, and still only roughly a third of the children have an adequate grasp of how the chess pieces move, let alone basic tactical concepts. I am told that this drop in the children’s performance at chess club is accompanied by a drop in their TCAP scores (Tennessee’s annual statewide achievement test).

As an illustrative example, consider the case of one of my chess club kids, Orlando (not his real name). Of all the chess parents, Orlando’s mom has been the most active in approaching me after chess club to ask about opportunities to improve Orlando’s game. She has even taken the extra step of signing Orlando up for membership at the Nashville Chess Center, the local organization that coordinates the after-school chess teaching programs. It is possible that Orlando’s mom enrolled her son in chess club against his wishes, in which case Orlando’s failure to learn would be understandable. Nonetheless, Orlando’s poor performance at chess club is directly at odds with his mother’s active involvement.

The feel-good philosophy of No Child Left Behind — that with the right teaching, all schoolchildren can attain a baseline minimum of academic performance — puts teachers in a tough spot. Inevitably, teachers are expected to cater to the needs of the lowest-performing students, which starves academically gifted students of the attention they need to flourish. Additionally, the incentives for teachers to cheat are powerful: under No Child Left Behind, teachers and administrators can lose their jobs if their students fail to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Recently, teachers in school systems across the country have been caught cheating on standardized tests at an alarming rate. Although nothing excuses this behavior, keep in mind that these teachers are not cheating to get ahead, as a Washington lobbyist or Wall Street executive might, but simply to save their jobs.

However well-intentioned, No Child Left Behind places no equivalent pressure upon parents or students to step up to the plate and take charge of their own education. If students’ failure to achieve “adequate yearly progress” is not the teachers’ fault, but actually the fault of larger and more complicated societal forces — perhaps higher rates of ADHD or rising divorce rates or falling attention spans in a digital age — then No Child Left Behind throws teachers under the proverbial bus for no reason.

My father likes to say, “Your education is your own responsibility.” I am sure my mother would disagree to some extent, since she taught me how to read at a young age with nightly bedtime stories. Although my parents undoubtedly fostered my growth in many ways, at some point I had to take responsibility for my own academic success. So I believe we need an education reform movement that recognizes the collective responsibility of all parties — the student, the family, the community, and the teacher — to foster a child’s education, and does not simply assign all the responsibility and blame to the teacher.


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