Don't shoot the teacher…

Hey, everyone. Max Lindenman here. While the lovely and talented Elizabeth prepares for her pilgrimage to Rome, I’ll be guest-blogging for her, or as I like to think of it, acting as her vicar.

I found a fascinating opinion piece in today’s New York Times. Joe Nocera argues that even the best, most dedicated teachers can’t make students learn if their parents are standing in the way:

Instead, González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Read the rest here:

I confess, I’ve never taught in the inner cities. My only experience teaching was in Mainland China, at a specialty foreign-languages school. My students came from elite families — either the old party nomenklatura, or the new capitalists. (They seemed to get along just dandy.) Slow and tragic they were not; bored and entitled they most certainly were. Their attitude, to sum it up, went: “Our parents brought you all the way over here to help build the new China. Sing the latest from Mr. Big, or we’ll have your legs broken!”

Just goes to show we all have problems.

  • Dan Tracy

    “The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles ”

    I knew a teacher who taught in an inner city school and she said there was a real need for dormitories for the students to stay at night. In her experience, the teacher was likely the most stable adult influence in some student’s daily life.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    My husband used to work as a teacher.

    Yes, the parents have problems, but the teachers are, quite frankly, no prizes either; too much in thrall to their unions, and too eager to snatch at any, and all, education fads passing by. I remember that “new math” was a Very Big Thing, in one school my husband taught at; he was forced to teach old fashhioned math—you know, the kind that actually comes up with answers—because he knew these kids, coming from poor backgrounds, who’se parents couldn’t afford tutors, weren’t likely to learn it anywhere else, if he didn’t teach it.

    The rest of the teachers went along to get along, either beause they didn’t want to lose their jobs, or because they really thought it was a good idea.

    This was the same school that showed kids hip-hop and rap videos, and movies about life in the inner city, because it was their “culture”. A lot of these kids were black. They lived out in the country, however, in a mostly rural area, and had no experience (thank Heaven!) of inner city life.

    And no, shoving kids into school dormitories, institutionalizing them and taking them away from their families is not a good idea.

  • Dan Tracy

    “And no, shoving kids into school dormitories, institutionalizing them and taking them away from their families is not a good idea.”

    What if their families provide no support for their studies?
    Perhaps mom and dad are not around? An older brother or sister is left in charge of the “household”? Relatives and others at home doing drugs, not providing meals…

    This is a reality in the inner city, so an idea of dormitories should not be brushed aside. The dorms can be run by churches or non-profits (perhaps like Boys town), and staffed with tutors.

    I see teachers working with students who get zero support from the parents or guardians at home. This is unfortunate as these youngsters future is pretty much determined and set by the time they enter kindergarten. No super-man or woman of a teacher could fix this.

  • AGGIE Mom

    I graduated from a rough public school and have spent nearly 20 years in education in mostly low income public schools and I am seeing this even in my children’s suburban public schools.

    We had a drunk coach for a math teacher in HS, but my some of my classmates are successful engineers. They didn’t let a “bad “teacher become an excuse for their lack of learning. While we teachers are being crucified in the media, we are working twice as hard keeping up with the latest fad “Strategies ” as we did 5-10 years ago. Now the kids have more unstable homes that teach the blame game instead of personal responsibility. So we are blamed for little Johnny not learning, when he’s too busy disrupting class to even try to learn. We have free breakfast for all students because they weren’t getting it at home, now we have “character” lessons because they weren’t get that at home either. But even with the best practices of the latest teaching strategies, we teachers can’t erase what is modeled at home.

  • K Winterer

    I wonder how the parents became so disillusioned with education? It seems to me that it’s about one generation away from the removal of any God in the classroom. It wasn’t soon after that that money replaced Him as the greatest good. Tragic and probably beyond solving. Does one find any different experience with children in parochial schools? I suspect just that fact that the parents of parochial school children are more interested.

  • Ellen

    I’ve taught high school and am teaching college now. Believe me – some students just don’t want to learn. The reasons are many and varied. Sadly, in the state where I live there are way too many people who don’t think education is important. They are suspicious of it and accuse students who want to learn as “getting above yourself. Do you think you’re better than your Daddy?”

    Others just don’t see any advantage. “Why do I have to learn this, it’s old” – said of history classes. Or they look on using correct grammar and pronunciation as acting white.

    Some of these students do eventually get it and realize the value of education. My best students are the non-traditional older men and women who have come back to college to get their degrees.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Sorry, Dan, institutionalizing kids isn’t the answer, no, not even if they’re “inner city” kids, who, of course, all live in terrible families, every last one of them, in order to “support their studies”—i.e., whatever’s being taught in the public schools this week.

    /Sarc. off.

    Shoving the kids into dormitories is, essentially, imprisoning them—when they have committed no crime. The atmosphere will be like that of a jail, or juvenile hall, not a school.

    Such dorms will NOT be run by churches. If anyone attempts such a thing, there will be cries of “Separation of church and state!” and accusations that “Christianistas” are trying to estaqblish a theocracys. And the teachers unions will not allow such dormitories to remain non-profit, or volunteer—even if you could get volunteers to hang in there.

    No, the dorms
    will be run by the same people who run our wretched foster care system, the same teachers who haven’t been able to teach the kids so far and well meaning (or not so well meaning) but mostly clueless social workers. (“Can you tell me what dreams you have for your future? Check off the boxes here, on this list!”)

    Also, just as the schools have been signing up kids for free lunch and breakfast programs, whether they really need them or not, the temptation will be to, eventually, push all kids into dormitories, in order to make a profit on them, even if their home life is perfectly fine. After all, won’t they study so much better in a dorm, if they aren’t allowed to go home, where their flawed and imperfect parents might allow them to watch T.V., or eat sugery foods or teach them heresy—such as global warming is bunk, or the school’s take on the history of the Middle-East is wrong? No, no, no, social workers, teachers and union members know so much better how to raise kids!

    Always looking to government to provide some kind of solution, and demanding that government teach us everything, as well as providing charity and taking over all familia responsibilities is one reason we got into this mess in the first place.

  • Dan

    “Always looking to government to provide some kind of solution, and demanding that government teach us everything…”

    It doesn’t have to be the government. So do kids need to remain imprisoned in unloving and violent families? Christians need to call and provide more than the status quo.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Dan, government isn’t the solution to unloving, and violent families. It’s a bad idea to try and turn the government into “Mom and Dad”, even when the real mom and dad are less than perfect—as witness the foster care system. With a bad family, a kid can, at least, always hope to get out some day, and go off on their own; being trapped in some government program (the same one that may have corrupted this kid’s bad family in the first place) can be harder to escape.

    Our society has worked very hard at eroding the family: encouraging single parenthood, denigrating the authority of fathers, allowing gangs to grow and spread, demanding both mothers and fathers work, so there’s no one parent at home to care for the kids, condoning drug abuse and so on. Whenever someone tried to point this out, or criticized the way society was heading, we were told we were cruel, “judgmental” hated women and were “puritanical”. Churches pushed “social justice” rather than the Gospel. Criticism of certain groups, such as welfare recipients, was considered off-limits, no matter how self-destructive their behavior.

    In short, we are in a hole at the moment, and there are no good solutions, short of a general, spiritual regeneration of society.

    It would be a wonderful thing if churches would get their act together, and start helping such kids, and broken families; it will require a great deal of spiritual renewal, however, and hard work; and they should be well armed with lawyers, because if they are successful, the teachers unions and the like will be coming after them, and the ACLU will want to take them down.

  • Dan Tracy

    “Dan, government isn’t the solution to unloving, and violent families”

    I agree wholeheartedly and pointed out as much above.

    “In short, we are in a hole at the moment, and there are no good solutions, short of a general, spiritual regeneration of society.”

    Amen, so we need to get moving on this!

  • Lisa

    @Rhinestone Suderman #7


    American culture has lost what I call the “dignity of expectation.” As some one who grew up inner city poor nothing riles me more than when people treat the poor like idiot cattle needing government salvation. The poor need what we all need: repent and turn to God….without that foundation there are no solutions.

  • dymphna

    About those dormitories, the Australians tried that with half Aboriginal children who were caught in terrible familes and the scourge of generational alcoholism. They are now apologizing for this effort and today the kids just go into foster care.

    Besides, if you think that the government is better than a poor mom you won’t stop with inner city kids. I don’t like the way my neighbor raises his kids. Maybe they should be sent to the dorm. My neighbor might not like the way I’m raising mine (if I had any) a good way to get back at me might be to report me and have mine taken away. Once you get on that slope it’s a quick ride to the bottom.