By writing an article entitled “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher” recently, I unwittingly unleashed a torrent of competing emotions. With 81,000 Facebook “likes” and scores of supportive comments from teachers and their loved ones, the text and tenor of the piece found a receptive audience. At the same time, several of the comments—from both teachers and non-teachers—expressed dismay that I had the audacity to declare that adults, and not just teachers, are to blame for the condition of today’s American youth.
I was taken to task for playing “the blame game” and “blaming parents” because my essay made some unvarnished observations. To be sure, I didn’t merely vilify bad parents; I also condemned ministers who molest children, CEOs who avoid paying their taxes, and celebrities who peddle rotten values messages. Anyone who hurts children, really.
Read Part I, “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher” here.
Are there parents who hurt their children? As a person who has made that phone call to Child Protective Services, let me assure you that they are out there. In fact, the article in question was written the day after an episode at my school that I can’t really get into. If I could, you’d understand the fire in the essay.
I must confess my confusion: as a public school educator who pays attention to the commentaries of Michelle Rhee, reads reviews of movies like Waiting for ‘Superman’ and Won’t Back Down, and reads articles like this one, I became convinced some time ago that we are indeed playing a high-stakes version of the blame game.
And teachers are losing.
Bad teachers are America’s plague. But don’t ask me, ask the United States government. Our leaders will tell you that the future survival of the nation is in question because of them. A Nation at Risk noted in 1983 that “…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people…” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations gave that sentiment another push on the public consciousness merry-go-round by declaring that “Educational failure puts the United States’…physical safety at risk.”
We’re all going to die. Thanks a lot, teachers.
We in the US are blaming teachers pathologically at this point, and not just for too many kids taking remedial courses in college. We are actually blaming them for the eventual downfall of the United States of America. That’s heavy stuff.
Meanwhile, not a peep is heard about parents’ or communities’ roles in forming kids. It’s not even okay to think the things I wrote. We are a nation of sheep when it comes to demanding a holistically sound, safe, and supportive environment for kids.
We are only child-centered at school, and that’s not good enough.
“No excuses” apparently stops at the school house exit and “all excuses” reigns outside. But this is true only among the pundits, in actuality. As a parent and the friend of other parents, I can report that the ones who take the job of parenting seriously are cognizant of and, in their private conversations at least, often critical of ineffective parents.
As a society, we need to do a better job of celebrating and encouraging our “no excuses” parents. We don’t do that by pretending—out of courtesy—that all parents are doing a hunky-dory job.
People believe that perceived flaws in the condition of the American youth are “the teachers’ fault” principally because teachers rarely challenge that narrative. Such an acquiescence to blame leads to a public misconception about the power of teachers to easily overcome terrible home situations; it also encourages a willingness among some parents to punt on parenting and leave character education, education about hygiene, efforts against obesity and drug use and date rape and any number of other traditional parental responsibilities entirely in the laps of people who only see the children for 180 days a year, typically in large groups, and who never sit down for a meal with them.
In my little piece about exhaustion, I merely slipped the painful shoe of accountability on the other foot. And some folks really, really didn’t like it.
Okay, I said. If we’re going to blame one another, let’s blame one another.
Are there bad teachers? Of course. Now, are there bad parents?
Do bad teachers negatively impact the educational outcomes of their students? Certainly.
Do bad parents?
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, has written about the non-cognitive aspects of a child’s success. He has written about the failure of wealthy parents to let their children develop “grit” by being allowed to fail, and he has written about poor children failing to develop a sense of optimism by having opportunities to succeed. Essentially, he is putting into the language of scholarship some age-old and common sense advice: don’t spoil your children, and don’t exasperate them either.
He speaks of children who pass through a “wildly inefficient” and costly system of support programs meant to help the very poor, including “social-service and child welfare offices and hospital emergency rooms,” “special education, remedial classes, and alternative schools,” “GED programs and computer-assisted credit-recovery courses,” and “foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and probation officers.” Tough goes against the flow of conventional wisdom and notes that “reformers prefer to locate the main obstacles to success within the school system, and they take it as an article of faith that the solutions to those obstacles can be found in the classroom as well” because blaming the home can be uncomfortable.
He’s right; this kind of talk touches a nerve among people who don’t wish to offend. If you don’t believe me, go read the comments following the article.
As a person who has heard “teachers are the problem” ad nauseum, I will not now say “parents are the problem.” Many, many parents are wonderful; but not all. I can’t endorse the implied notion that “parents are never the problem” because I’ve seen too much. And if parents are sometimes the problem, then we as a society should do something about that. Shouldn’t we?
Can we at least talk about it?
As I said in the exhaustion piece, the problem with the American child is the American adult. That doesn’t mean it’s always the parent, but it does mean that it can’t always be the teacher.
For every really thoroughly neglected child I have known in school, I have known dozens whose parents did an outstanding job of loving on them and raising them into strong, happy, confident young people. But just as good teachers should (and do) want bad teachers run out of the profession, it should not offend any of America’s outstanding parents to hear an explicit acknowledgement of the damage caused by ineffective ones. And I sincerely doubt it surprises conscientious parents to learn that some of their neighbors aren’t pulling their weight at home.
One day several years ago, a grandmotherly lady knocked on the door of the portable building where I taught my class. She was holding the tiny hand of a toddler.
“I found him walking down the highway,” she said. “Cars were zipping by. I didn’t know what to do so I brought him to you.”
I called the office and we figured out who this child was. He belonged to the mother of two of my students. Another teacher and I loaded him up and drove him home, but no one was there. I peeked through the windows to see if maybe mom was asleep inside. Fifteen years later I can still close my eyes and see the squalor. It was mostly newspapers and old food strewn all over the floor of the decrepit trailer house; I don’t remember any furniture in the living room. This lady and her four children were part of America’s population of the desperately poor.
That little boy is probably seventeen or eighteen now. I hope he’s okay. His older sister got pregnant by a much older man, dropped out of school and moved away. His oldest brother died before he reached adulthood. His other brother suffered a devastating physical calamity and will be handicapped for the rest of his life.
The tragic outcomes for this family are real and painful. They are devastating for that mother and costly for our society. I am not blaming the mom for her poverty; she’s doing the best she can. But so are the teachers of her children. I refuse to parrot the silly season philosophy that the school or any teacher will be to blame if none of her children end up college-ready.
Could the school have done more for this family? Of course. Maybe we should march out the two dozen teachers who worked there in those days and burn them at the stake for not saving those kids from their fate. We could tell them, just before we strike the match, not to use the fact that they were never trained as social workers as an excuse, that even though their expertise was in elementary music education or secondary biology they should still—as humans—have stayed late and scoured the internet to find social service organizations to help that family. They could have called Child Protective Services. (They did.) They could have taken mom into their homes and bought her a nice dress for interviews and helped her learn skills needed to obtain and hold down a good job; I mean, of course, after they prepared supper, did the laundry, got homework done, bathed their kids and tucked them into bed. At the very least, they could have taken up a collection and dropped off Christmas presents anonymously on the rickety porch of that house—oh wait, they did that. Well, still—they could’ve done more.
But that family’s neighbors could have also done more, right?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. In my view, when teachers start aggressively playing the blame game along with their dogged critics, the game will change. When the punching bag starts hitting back, the punching may stop.
A “unified theory of accountability”—what I have called shared accountability and contextual accountability in other articles—would apply leverage to more than just teachers and schools: those children’s parents and the politicians who designed the systems that purport to help desperate mothers like this should be encouraged to take ownership of and responsibility for the effectiveness of their roles. If data-driven accountability is the leverage used to get schools to do more, what is the leverage our society exerts on parents who coddle or neglect their kids, or on voters who should vote out ineffective elected officials who don’t lift families out of the poverty that makes good parenting so much harder to pull off, which in turn inhibits learning, which in turn lengthens and strengthens the chain of generational poverty?
Am I missing something, or is the answer “Nothing”?
When it comes to the education of a child, the teacher is indeed the quarterback, and there is nothing wrong with demanding a positive quarterback rating. But by fixating on the quantification of the teachers, we have forgotten that there is another side of the scoreboard. If the teacher is the quarterback, then the parent is the middle linebacker tasked with defending the child’s heart from all sorts of threats. It doesn’t do much good to insist that the teacher throw touchdown pass after touchdown pass if the middle linebacker is letting the other team run up the score every time the teacher steps off the field.
The absolution of the American parent does precisely nothing to help the American child; if anything, it irrigates the orchard of neglect.
We hear often how three teachers in a row can close the achievement gap, and it’s interesting and telling how this kind of education speculation pretends that those three great teachers operate in a vacuum. I wonder: does it take more than three great teachers if the mother is addicted to meth-amphetamines? Does it take five great teachers in a row in that case? Seven, perhaps? Why do social scientists ignore obviously-important variables in their pseudo-formulas?
How many great parents in a row does it take to close the achievement gap?
Is anyone even asking that?
In broaching this tough subject—the value of serious, “no excuses” parenting—I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. I am a parent, and I know how hard the job is. But I also know how important it is.
We can and should establish a more professional teaching corps. Doing so will make a great difference in the outcomes of our children. But why are we stopping there? If we are going to help children, let’s help children. Let’s not go halfway.
Quality schools are good. Quality homes are better. Quality both is the recipe for a brighter American future.