The Kids Are (Not) Alright

In “We’re Number 1(1)” (NY Times, 9/12/10), Thomas Friedman chides us for contributing to our own “national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”  I was especially struck by his unvarnished assessment of one of the major reasons for our educational woes: The kids are lazy!

Maybe this observation hit me so hard because no one ever says it.  Regardless of which side of the aisle, politicians don’t want to touch this one.  In any case, Friedman hits the bull’s-eye in observing, “bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers.”

While bad teachers, bad principals, and greedy teacher’s unions are enemies worth fighting, Friedman quotes economist Paul Samuelson to make his point: “The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation.  Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.”

But, Samuelson counters, “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21% judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29% cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

Reading this essay, I was reminded of the trip I took last winter to China where much of my “understanding” of education was turned on its head.  Educators I met scoffed at our American preoccupation with class size and student-teacher ratio.  While all of the schools I visited would fail the most minimal American standards in both regards – e.g., classes of 40+ students were standard – those kids would kick our “you-know-whats” in every category but truancy percentage.

In class after class, I saw kids who wanted to learn and teachers focused on transmitting knowledge to them.  It soon became obvious that one of the main reasons why they covered so much ground is because the teachers are not distracted by the student discipline problems that plague our classrooms.  The teachers actually place their primary emphasis on the subject they’re teaching…..What a concept!

Friedman concludes that China and India are streaking by as we plod in place because of their “willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.”

So before I’m banished to the doghouse for blaming the victim, I offer some simple advice for the American student: Cover your bets: Proceed with the assumption that we adults are not going to get our act together.  In the end, no matter what happens, it’s on you.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld