Schools and Culture: Whither Personal Accountability?

Schedule change time at the end of one semester and the beginning of another. I gird myself. If there is one request for change I hear more consistently than others, three to four times a day at this particular juncture, it is to change teacher, most frequently of math, but generally of any class with an uptick of rigor. Chemistry, AP classes, etc. Second most, or possibly equally most requested, is a drop out of rigor to “regular” level class in that academic discipline.

Universities increasingly tell us they look for proof in the rigor of course work for evidence that applicants are ready to handle college level classes – hence, in part, the stampede to AP curriculum and the like. And they are right.

The statistics on freshman year failure, whether community college or university, are sobering. Some of it is the freedom of the first time away from parents, and the attendant party mode.

That noted, I suspect more of the freshman year failure rate is due to lack of readiness for university level coursework, and its expectations for writing, critical thinking, and commitment.

So we focus on doing a better job in the high school. Some kids arrive on our doorstep well on their way to college readiness. Another percentage, while still in high school, start the long march to full readiness from poor readiness, because somehow they have gotten the message.

But a disturbing number, in my experience, still choose to opt out of the race while in high school. My informal research, and I think that of others, indicates the sloughing starts in early middle school, but that’s for another time.

Most of this latter cadre are capable of better, but choose not to face the challenge for a variety of reasons.  Some are alienated from adult expectations by personal circumstances, others are preoccupied with socializing, or sometimes just bored out of their tree, or lazy, and so on downward into the morass.

Even those who take on increased course rigor too often want to drop an AP class because they are staring a D or an F, or even a C in the face, and assume that an A or B in a regular class will persuade a college admissions committee more successfully. In most of these cases, they are wrong.

Some of the kids who seek out of a rigorous class in fact are over their heads, and we work with them to find a more suitable class.

However, far in the majority of cases the fault is not with the student’s choice of rigor, or the exterior reality she may face in the classroom, but with the student’s understanding of what it takes to be successful in the face of rigor. Some simply have never learned to persevere through any difficulty, not just the academic, but in the broader context of life, as well. Challenged, this student seeks to escape or, just as dysfunctionally, does not find his way to greater commitment of time and energy in order to solve the problem, but becomes resigned to a lack luster performance and then grade, in effect opting out of the game.

My touchstone here is my own experience first as a working adult, then a spouse, then a home owner – I thought I was working hard, near my limits……. And then my wife and I had kids, and I discovered a whole new gear, because I had to, or my children, or my job, or my marriage would suffer. Exigency teaches in a way that words cannot, if one recognizes the “must do it” for what it is. I and my colleagues of various stripes try to persuade these students that their very own lives lie in their hands, for better or worse, but too often our pleadings do not penetrate nor affect student behavior.

So we seem to have a cultural phenomenon, a generation or more of kids that seem to lack the will or the ability to commit, or at least the fear of failure that might drive them to their own next level. The next level might be simply to give more time to the project, or to learn how to manage time better, or to learn how to interact more consistently with and ask questions of those who are teaching them. A high percentage of time the kids who ask out of a rigorous class have spent little time seeking extra help, and most spend too little time on courses that should stretch their time commitment.

Ours is a culture in which kids are given so much, and challenged so little, that they seem not to have had enough formative experiences that would prepare them for the call to higher level. Theirs is a dearth of what used to be thought of as ego strength, and the presence of a false faith that the culture that has given them so much will continue to do so, as jobs sift their way toward burgeoning middle classes in India, or China, or Brazil. In building we have thought their self esteem, worthy enough goal, we have only built a self esteem predicated in stasis, rather than a confidence to meet challenge.

Often such students and their parents assume that the flirtation with failure in a rigorous class is due to the quality of the match between their style and the teacher’s, are predisposed therefore in this situation to failure, and think another teacher will better serve them in the same subject matter. The unconscious assumption is that the problem lies in exterior reality, with the solution simply to  change that exterior reality, rather than learning to meet the new challenge.

In my experience it is true that style of teacher and student, and how they mesh well or do not, is a reality, particularly in math, probably because in math there is generally a right and wrong answer, which can be finessed only within confined limits. But then how and when and where will the student who changes teachers learn to adapt to the rapidly shifting sands of a given employment, or varied expectations of different supervisors, or of the job market in which they must survive? In changing their teacher, except in the most egregious situations, do we not simply serve to perpetuate their essentially juvenile behavior at a time when they are supposed to be shifting to a more adult outlook? Change exterior reality, ah, that is the solution! Reset the problem rather than look to solution in the students’ own growth, as though in the student entry into the adult world they can of course expect such magic intervention.

I see otherwise quality parents — wishing the best for their kids, anxiously pained to see them struggling, worried about their emotional health – in this parenting cauldron losing their nerve and letting son or daughter off the hook when they struggle in a class. In this I am referring to parents of students who otherwise and often perform relatively well in school.

More ominously, the same cultural predisposition not to hold kids accountable is crippling among kids who have not had the good fortune to experience some academic success along with consistent parent support. Such kids wander lost in the back eddies of academic life. They chronically just stay above the failure line and lead undistinguished academic careers, or they fail, and fail, and eventually drop out and off the map.

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