Saturday, February 3, 2007

A Burning Issue

Every year when the "Back to School" signs plaster the windows of local stores and the school buses roll out of the bus barns, administrators across America take up their collective chant: "Failing is not an option! Failing is not an option!"

Sounds good, doesn't it? Makes you picture the teachers, parents, and students pulling together, using every tool available in their communities and school districts to help each student achieve. Makes you proud to see the American spirit of can do thriving in the halls of academia!

So, what are teachers doing to make this mission statement a reality? Everything! They attend seminars, workshops, and conferences year round (often at their own expense). They sit in endless professional development meetings listening to professional gurus espouse the latest educational trend, such as the one a neighboring school district is committed to for this school year: "Failure is Not an Option." They strategize, plan, collaborate, and create, always seeking to make the curriculum, lessons, and activities relevant to their students. They post homework, test dates, and other pertinent information at their websites, in e-mails, or on homework hotlines. They contact the failing student's counselor, parents, administrator, and the advisory teacher. They fill out weekly grade reports requested by parents and return parents' phone calls or e-mails. The list goes on and on and on! There is no end to what most teachers do in the effort to motivate the failing student.

And what do the failing students do to improve their poor grades? From this teacher's vantage point: Nothing. They don't do their homework; they don't study for tests; they don't listen in class or bring the textbook/supplies. Frequently, they don't even come to school. They do nothing! Oh, wait! They do one thing: make the teacher responsible for their F. Recently a colleague from this same district mentioned above shared this anecdote: ". . . A program called "In the Margin" requires we put a mark in the margin of all students' agendas when they do not turn in an assignment. Then, they have five days to turn it in and still receive credit. . . We cannot require the student to do the work if we did not put the mark in their agenda. Apparently, a sixth grade teacher gave a student a zero on an assignment that was never turned in. The parents called and complained and our principal told the teacher that because she didn't put her mark in the agenda, the student could not be held responsible for the assignment."

She goes on to ask: "So- when exactly is this about the student's learning? At what point is it NOT our job to be sure the students do what they need to do whether we put a mark in their agenda or not?"

I add to her question: When exactly will the parents understand that it is NOT the teacher's job to supervise the students' study habits and personal schedules outside of the classroom? There is a place where the teacher ends and the student begins, and that place needs to intersect with parental supervision and high standards.

Of course, there are exceptions to this scenario. Things happen – sometimes terrible things – that prevent a student from learning or being successful in a class. There are some teachers whose job performance is insufficient. But when those situations are removed from the equation, what remains? Administrators with good, but misguided intentions, irresponsible students, and enabling parents. And while the students need to bear the responsibility for their choices, the greater burden falls on the parents. Kids will be kids, testing the limits and getting away with what they can; it's the parents that set the appropriate boundaries of accountability and responsibility.

No Child Left Behind and state-mandated tests have created high-stakes education. District funding is partially determined by these tests scores and NCLB ratings. Thousands of dollars of grant money are poured into school districts across America, so our students won't fail. Teachers know it. Would someone please tell the parents?

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