The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

March 10, 2006

The Late-Night Miniskirt Defense…

USA Today – For once, blame the student

Last month, as I averaged the second-quarter grades for my senior English classes at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the same familiar pattern leapt out at me.

Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries – such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana – often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C’s and D’s.

As one would expect, the middle-class American kids usually had higher SAT verbal scores than did their immigrant classmates, many of whom had only been speaking English for a few years.

What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids.

No arguments here. A student who wants to learn will learn. We hear the success stories all the time, about the poor child from the inner city who manages— against all odds— to rise above and become a successful entrepreneur, or to go to college and become a doctor. In fact, the very heart of the American Dream is that anyone, with the grit to work hard and apply oneself, can be a success.

But one phrase is key: “against all odds”. While parents are not doing nearly enough to push their kids and ensure that the educational system provides results, that doesn’t leave teachers completely off the hook.

And, of course, busy parents guilt-ridden over the little time they spend with their kids are big subscribers to this theory.

Maybe every generation of kids has wanted to take it easy, but until the past few decades students were not allowed to get away with it. “Nowadays, it’s the kids who have the power. When they don’t do the work and get lower grades, they scream and yell. Parents side with the kids who pressure teachers to lower standards,” says Joel Kaplan, another chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams.

Every year, I have had parents come in to argue about the grades I have given in my AP English classes. To me, my grades are far too generous; to middle-class parents, they are often an affront to their sense of entitlement. If their kids do a modicum of work, many parents expect them to get at least a B. When I have given C’s or D’s to bright middle-class kids who have done poor or mediocre work, some parents have accused me of destroying their children’s futures.

In reality, this teacher has more than parents to blame. He is teaching AP English, which are presumably the kids who have been able to coast through school all their lives. They’ve been able to coast not only because they’re smart, but also that the curriculum has been dumbed down to the point where they’ve never faced real opposition. I talked a week ago
about one of my favorite teachers, who told a group of AP US History students on the first day of class that he was going to give us more work than we could possibly handle. For once, someone threw down the gauntlet and told us that we couldn’t cruise through. He asked for our best, so we gave him our best.

The teacher writing this story has the rest of the system that has failed these students before they ever reached his classroom. President Bush has talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Is that any different than what is happening here? Kids have been told for years that doing the bare minimum will be enough. The few hard classes they have are graded on a curve, which means you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the guy next to you. Is it any wonder that we’ve hit this point?

Neither the high-stakes state exams, such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning, nor the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have succeeded in changing that message; both have turned into minimum-competency requirements aimed at the lowest in our school.

Colleges keep complaining that students are coming to them unprepared. Instead of raising admissions standards, however, they keep accepting mediocre students lest cuts have to be made in faculty and administration.

As a teacher, I don’t object to the heightened standards required of educators in the No Child Left Behind law. Who among us would say we couldn’t do a little better? Nonetheless, teachers have no control over student motivation and ambition, which have to come from the home – and from within each student.

I give this teacher some credit. He understands that the system is a wider issue, and that there need to be some changes. He even points out (elsewhere in the article) some of the issues that he sees with the system, which is teachers, guidance counselors, and even colleges (as above) bending to the will of students and parents. In fact, it sounds like he’s doing exactly what he should be doing: giving mediocre grades to students that offer him mediocre performances. If his fellow teachers would stand firm and do the same, perhaps kids would up their game to match. Instead, parents of mediocre students think that little Johnny on the honor roll is a future doctor, when his B+ average only shows that he’s got a pulse. Parents frequently don’t know that little Johnny is a lazy bum, and if you send him home with some C’s and D’s, they might start whipping him into shape. If it’s senior year in high school before someone stands up and does that, it’s too little, too late.

A high school diploma used to mean something. It used to mean you had a basic understanding of simple english, basic mathematics, and maybe a little history and social sciences. Now, a high school diploma doesn’t mean anything, and just as lazy students and self-righteous parents have their share of blame, the folks letting them get away with it are just as much at fault.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 4:39 pm || Permalink || Comments (3) || Trackback URL || Categories: Education, Ponderings


  1. Two comments:

    1) You noted; If his fellow teachers would stand firm and do the same, perhaps kids would up their game to match… Parents frequently don’t know that little Johnny is a lazy bum, and if you send him home with some C’s and D’s, they might start whipping him into shape.

    This is true, of course. But many teachers feel they are not empowered to do this. This is because many administrators do not know how to tell parents that when Johnny has C’s and D’s, it is not the teacher’s fault. In those schools, the teacher knows that every D or F is potentially extra work for the teacher, instead of extra work for the student. And of course, student performance can be a part of a teacher’s evaluation – unofficially, at a minimum.

    Most teachers who really feel empowered to bring the hammer down are high school teachers, especially those who teach math or science (like me). Those are teachers who are hard to replace, and who know they can get paid more in a non-teaching position. It’s hard to leverage me to raise a grade for the sake of Johnny’s parents. But in that, I am a minority.

    2) Have you looked into exit exams? I believe California has recently enacted one that requires a minimum competency in algebra and composition for anyone getting a diploma – a small step toward restoring some meaning to the diploma.

    Comment by Wulf — March 10, 2006 @ 9:14 pm
  2. Good points… I completely agree.

    Although I hear that they’re trying to do away with the California exit exam. Apparently too many people might fail it, and create a black eye for the CA public school system. The politicians & teachers unions can’t have that!

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — March 10, 2006 @ 9:41 pm
  3. Our exit exam here in Texas is a joke! Almost anyone can pass the test. I’m glad that my children have all graduated and are doing there own “thing” right now. I worry about my grand children’s education and hope that my children can afford private schools for them. As far as I can see, the public schools are going down hill and I don’t know what can be done to help them. I was very involved with my children’s teachers. We spoke on the phone and thru emails when needed. I never had to worry about Bonnie, she was a dream in school. Jennifer worked hard for every A and B that she got. William is the one I earned all my grey hairs with. I was in contact with his teachers the most. He was smart but lazy in doing his work. Thank God he finally graduated. It was a real struggle.

    Comment by Lucy Stern — March 11, 2006 @ 2:09 am

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