The Real Problem with American Schools

The Next Family

By: Joe Newman

I recently saw a 20/20 program entitled Stupid in America with the tag line – “Kids failed to make the grade because their schools failed them” in which they looked critically at grade schools in America as compared to schools in other countries.  The program showed how schools in America were producing much less capable children and implied this was because of the incompetence and lack of effort put forth by American teachers.  They did this without offering any explanation as to why our teachers had apparently lost their efficacy and ability to care.

As I watched how European students far outpaced their American counterparts of the same age, I thought, “Of course Europeans are outperforming us!  Their teachers don’t spend half their time trying to overcome the culture of entitlement.  American teachers spend an inordinate amount of time on classroom management and attempting to deal with children who believe their opinions are just as important as the teacher’s.  Hours of classroom learning are lost each day and by the time our children are graduating high school their European counterparts have had many more years of real education.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the reporters at 20/20 used the same kind of thinking to examine the problem as was used to create it – “Our parenting, our culture, and our children are perfect; blame the teachers.”

The unspoken assumption I see in most children at school is that they are perfect and correct until proven otherwise and that it is the responsibility of the teacher to prove himself or herself knowledgeable, entertaining, and engaging.  Every teacher must constantly battle this assumption in order to get to moments of real teaching and learning.

While not all children come to school with this assumption, this is the current classroom zeitgeist and it pervades our classrooms.

Deference and appreciation is a rare commodity in most of the children I see in schools today.  And these attributes are fundamental to creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.

Here are a few of the myths that are instilled in our children at home that create this culture of entitlement and undermine our children’s capacity to learn.

Education is something they’re entitled to, not something they are fortunate to get. Children feeling a sense of appreciation toward their teacher and their school is the first step toward a child coming to school with a seeking mind and willingness to work hard.

The child’s opinion is just as important as the opinion of the teacher. Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.

Children should be treated with the same deference that teachers are.    Wrong!  Teachers, and for that matter most adults, are entitled to more deference than children because they have more experience, know more, and have gone through difficulties the child has not yet faced.  And more to the point – if children come into school with this belief, the implication is they should have as much of a say in running the classroom as their teacher does.  The teacher who has a classroom full of these kinds of children will spend an inordinate amount of class time dealing with behaviors and negotiating boundaries.

The following are some concrete steps you can take to prepare your children to learn at school.

  • Give children choices about some things and not others.
  • There should be times when “no discussion” is the rule.
  • Teach your children that having choices is a privilege that can be taken away if they don’t respect the rules that govern them.
  • Tell them the rule once, or not at all.  Repeating rules over and over is condescending and tells them it’s the adult’s responsibility to remember the rules and not the child’s responsibility to proactively consider others.
  • Choose what deserves praise. When everything a child does is praised, your praise becomes meaningless.
  • Be authentic. Don’t be afraid of telling a child you think they could do better when it’s clear they haven’t given their best effort.

Transforming the state of education in this country will start with transforming the culture of parenting.

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