A Lesson From My Students

I’ve been teaching adult ESL classes this fall, and one of my recent class discussions with my students from other nations—Korea, Japan, China, Spain, and Taiwan—revolved around the history of American public schools and their current travails, both fiscal and academic.  It was a peculiar and occasionally painful class discussion as I tried to answer their questions regarding what they have heard about our schools and what their own children are—and are not—learning in our classrooms.

First off, they find our crazy quilt system of funding through local property taxes appalling.  Coming from societies where schools from both the richest and poorest communities receive exactly the same funding through their national governments, they cannot understand why American students should be punished academically for growing up in a town with lower property values and less money to spend on their educations.  Especially for a society that claims to put such high premiums on equality and opportunity for all, it seemed to them a contradiction that spoke to a deep-seated hypocrisy about those values we Americans claim to honor.

Moreover, as far as my adult ESL students were concerned, all students in American schools should also be allowed to go to whatever area school they choose to attend without restriction, although those who chose to attend schools out of their local area should be fully responsible for their own transportation costs.  To their minds, this would foster some healthy competition between school systems for students and the funding attached to them while allowing parents to make choices regarding their children’s educations—a particular concern for those parents who felt their child’s school was not providing a high quality education.  School choice was hardly an issue in their own countries—public schools are generally of a uniformly high quality—but they keenly felt the need for some competition in our troubled American educational system.

Homework?  What homework?  When we discussed recent proposals for lengthening the school day and/or school year, they almost all had the same comment: “Why don’t they just give homework?  It adds up to the same thing.”  It’s a good question.  After one of my recent guest commentaries, I had some email correspondence with a local school board member who seemed to believe that homework was a fairly pointless—if not actively damaging—endeavor for students.  When I tried to explain the reasoning behind the emails from this particular school board member, my students just shook their heads in dismay.  Coming from cultures where the highly competitive educational environment demands sustained effort beyond the regular school day, they found the idea that daily hours of homework were not necessary for academic success to be just a bit odd.

As for standardized testing, they all come from cultures where regular, rigorous testing of students is an established fact of life, and failure to measure up is a grave problem because it cut off students from full-ride scholarships and admission to the most competitive universities in their countries.  As a result, students and their families typically work very, very hard on a daily basis to ensure that difficult material is mastered and goals for achievement are met.  Although they almost all agreed the system of competitive national exams was dreadfully stressful, they also pointed out that life itself is usually a stressful affair—and the sooner a child realized this, they more likely they were to buckle down and achieve to their maximum potential.

Please understand that my foreign students, although some parents and educators may not agree with their views, are for the most part incredibly dedicated parents who want only the best for their children’s futures.  They all see a demanding and comprehensive education as key to their children’s successes; some, in fact, have moved to the United States just so that their children can better master English, which is now the language of choice in international commerce and academia.  These are not cruel or unfeeling parents who want to drive their children to despair with academic pressures; they simply understand the intensely competitive global market we all now inhabit, and they want their children to succeed in the daily contest that divides our planet into winners and losers.

I would love to have been able to trumpet the supremacy of the American model that many times places self-esteem over self-reliance, but I was loathe to try because we continue to see our country’s students’ achievement decline in relation to their peers in other nations.  The fact of the matter is, for all the excuses made for our students—the tests fail to measure all the amazing knowledge in their minds, the tests are misaligned with learning standards, our children tend to blossom academically at a later age than those from other nations—we are at a educational crossroads here in America.

We can continue down the same path and achieve the same sad results that speak to our failing schools—increasing rates of graduation too often oddly coupled with declining high school test scores—or we can turn the ship around.  To do so we must embrace a model that celebrates the highest standards across the curriculum and realizes that the most secure and lasting self-esteem springs from actual achievement—not pencil-whipping students on to graduation ceremonies that too often recognize little but seat time attendance in busywork “Recovery” and “Recapture” classes that exist solely to provide a diploma to those students who are least prepared for a competitive world of work and higher education.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record—I’ve said precisely the same thing before—we are well past the time for more half-measures reforms and gimmicky instructional fads.  The time is now if we do not want to simply wave goodbye to our nation’s leadership in the world economy because we can not find it within ourselves to make the desperately needed improvements in our public schools.

Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) November 28, 2010