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Forget School Reform, We Need Student Reform

We talk a lot about school reform these days, but the idea isn’t new.  Since the 1960′s, we’ve been trying to improve our education system through various programs that most would agree have failed to do much.  The most recent reform efforts involve billions of dollars of Race to the Top grants awarded to schools who are committed to taking drastic and bold measures to fix the problem.

The system is broken and our kids are paying a hefty price for our inability to repair it.  But what if the problem really isn’t the school system but the students themselves?

In his column at Newsweek, Robert Samuelson suggests that declining motivation among students might be the real reason our schools are doing so poorly.  Because, as he points out, the best teaching methods in the world cannot overcome a student with no desire to learn.

The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.

To blame our school’s failures on the students themselves is a radical idea that, admittedly, not many have considered.  However, other than to point out the fact that, despite all the efforts at school reform over the years, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen only slightly since the 1970s, Samuelson has very little evidence to support his claim.

But I will give him this:  Adolescent culture likely does play some part in the way modern students approach education.  The term, as described by Diana West, author of The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization, generally describes a value system and way of looking at life that is selfish and short-sighted.  A desire for instant gratification, an unearned demand for respect and a focus on outer appearances rather than substance is not a recipe for success in school.

Do you think it’s fair to lay the blame for failing schools at the feet of our children?  How would you characterize your own child’s motivation – or lack thereof – to succeed in school?

Image: foundphotoslj/Flickr

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