I do not admire the Bush Dynasty for many things, but I do applaud the idealism behind the bi-partisan “No Child Left Behind” movement. In an ideal America, all of our students would find academic success regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. In an ideal America, parents, teachers, and students would exist in a symbiotic relationship that ultimately resulted in continual waves of educated, free-thinking citizens. We ought to embrace idealism like this at every chance, for it paints for us a picture of our potential perfection: it gives us something to “shoot for” as a society.
But America in the 21st century is not an idealistic society. Even when you look beyond such crippling contemporary crises as the crumbling economy, you still see greed, prejudice, and hatred. This is a society wherein hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan still exist. To say that these evils do not infect education in America would not even be naive: it would be reckless. Thus, idealism cannot exist in our schools; we can aspire to idealism — to a society, for instance, that produces only educated, free-thinking citizens — but we simply cannot accept it as a reality.
I began my teaching career in the public schools, though I jumped ship after two short years. I now teach at a non-profit independent school where I am given the freedom to teach what I know is best in my discipline to help my students become educated, free-thinking citizens someday. My colleagues in the public schools do not have this freedom, however, for they are required to produce students that perform well on standardized exams. I should hasten to point out that students who perform well on exams are not necessarily the same as students who will one day become educated, free-thinking citizens: all that a good score on a standardized test proves is how well a student can regurgitate information much in the same way a machine can. These tests do not measure thinking, morality, or even conceptual understanding: by their nature, they can only measure knowledge of facts. I have volumes of books filled with facts on my bookshelf right now, but these books and their sedentary facts by themselves will not improve the human condition, much less our society.
Ideally, I could tell you that all of my students leave my class at the end of the school-year fully inspired and ready to think through any problem they are confronted with; but I, of course, recognize that this idealism is the goal, not the realistic outcome. Even this year I had a few students who nearly failed my final exams and a few students who nearly failed my classes. Because I teach in a private school, I have relatively small class sizes, and so I can closely examine the reasons that cause these students to perform poorly. In many cases, I am to blame: usually, in this case, there is a simple lack of clarity in an assignment descriptor or rubric, or there is a concept that I did not teach as thoroughly as I could have; but being an independent school teacher allows me to learn from these mistakes and improve upon them in the future.
Even so, my reflections always reveal that I am not the sole cause of these few students’ poor performance — in fact, my lack of clarity or thoroughness is generally only a small factor in the students’ failings. The biggest contributing factors to these students “being left behind” in my class, year after year, are either failed parenting, failed motivation on the students’ parts, or both. When a student is doing poorly in school, it is the parents’ job to find out why. If it turns out that teachers are treating the student unfairly, then the parent has the ability to contact the administration to solve the problem. If, however, the parent is overlooking the child’s lack of effort and attention, then the parent — not the teacher — is to blame. Certainly, students can and do still fail even if both teachers and parents are doing everything they can to ensure the child’s success. In this case, we must hold the student accountable. If there is some learning difference making things difficult for the child, then — of course — the teachers, parents, and students must work together to find a solution. But if the child is fully capable of the work but simply is not doing it, then the solution is simple: fail the child. Ensure that he or she is responsible for the work. We do our society absolutely no good by passing on children who have failed the previous year’s schooling. How can a child develop into an educated, free-thinking citizen if he or she refuses to be educated or even to think in the first place?
I often tell my students that the old adage “practice makes perfect” is a lie, because we as human beings are frankly incapable of perfection — at least in any objective sense. Therefore, I tell them that “practice makes better.” Keep the idealistic image of what you want yourself to be in the front of your mind at all times and strive for it, but accept the reality that you receive. Education is no exception to this rule of “practice makes better”: we ought to strive towards the idea of No Child Left Behind, but we need to accept the fact that — at least in the foreseeable future of our society — there will always be lackadaisical, enabling parents and willfully unmotivated students. A teacher, then, can do all he or she can to ensure that the children succeed, but at the same time he or she must acknowledge that there always will be some children left behind. All of the parent-teacher conferences and all of the inspirational teachers in the world cannot change this reality; only a radical shift in our society’s priorities will accomplish this. In the meantime, we teachers can take heart knowing that most of our students will find success. Nevertheless, with the idealism of No Child Left Behind in the front of my mind, I will continue to strive through the reality.