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An education question: Whose fault is it when healthy fourth or fifth-grade students miss 15 to 20 days of school each year, when they regularly show up late to class, and when they rarely if ever complete their homework assignments? Do we blame these 10-year old kids for these lapses….or do we blame their parents?
When the circumstances change, when it’s a high school senior or college student who exhibits the same lack of discipline, we know instantly whom to blame. Clearly, it’s the student’s fault. But because 10-year olds are still at the mercy of their parents—depending on them to feed and clothe them and establish a household work ethic—laying even part of the blame on the kids seems not only unrealistic but counterproductive.
Yet, bizarre as it seems, in the public school system, when kids miss class or fail to turn in their work, it’s neither the child nor the parent who gets the blame. It’s the teacher.
In contrast to private schools, where entrance exams are required, tardiness and excessive absenteeism are not permitted, and recalcitrant students are routinely booted out of class, public schools are all-inclusive, warm body institutions. Attendance is not only free, it’s compulsory. It’s mandatory. Which means that many of the less motivated, poorly prepared students are going to come to regard it as one cut above prison.
Because public school teachers have to play the hand they’re dealt, what are they supposed to do with a classroom full of uninspired, truant, tardy, undisciplined kids who are there only because the law requires it, and whose parents offer little or no support or encouragement? What are teachers expected to do with students as unprepared, and unreceptive as these?
Answer: They’re supposed to play dumb. They’re supposed to pretend that these students’ home life doesn’t matter, that the universe begins and ends in the classroom. They’re supposed to shut up, stop whining, and go about the task of getting these kids ready to achieve high test scores. Get them to behave like “serious” students so that the American tax payer won’t feel cheated by underwriting teachers’ salaries.
Ask any public school teacher, and they’ll tell you that their “dream class” would consist of students who had gotten sufficient sleep the night before, eaten a nutritious breakfast, completed their homework assignments, and are sitting at their desks, bright-eyed and busy-tailed, ready and relatively eager to learn their lessons. The students don’t need to be budding geniuses or Junior Einsteins. They don’t even need to be above average. All they need to be is relatively prepared.
One way of achieving this “dream class” is to appeal directly to the parents. Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on consultants, experimental techniques, teacher bonuses, and outreach programs, that money should be spent directly on the parents. Offer them money for their child’s performance—for perfect (or near perfect) attendance, for their child completing his or her homework each day, for improved test scores.
Naturally, people will argue that such an expenditure is unAmerican, that it is not only wasteful and reckless but that it sends the wrong message, encouraging materialistic remuneration for something—a good, solid education—that should be its own reward. They’re absolutely right. A good education should be its own reward. But, clearly, in many families, in many neighborhoods, and under way too many circumstances, it ain’t.
And instead of painting ourselves into a self-righteous corner—refusing to budge because of adherence to some abstract principle relating to virtue being its own reward—we should come to grips with sociological realities and proceed accordingly.
High school jocks and academic whizzes are given scholarships for performance on the athletic field and in the classroom. Correspondingly, because fourth-graders are still at the mercy of their home environments, such “scholarships” should be given to their parents. Give a family $100 if the kid misses one day a year or less; give them $100 if the kid turns in all (or almost all) of his homework; give them $200 if the kid improves his annual test scores.
These underachieving, undermotivated 10-year olds are going to require some sort of impetus, something to keep them focused academically. It can’t simply be their teachers. It has to be the people who play the most important and decisive role in their lives. It’s has to be their parents.
And if it takes money to achieve that goal, then so be it. Since when did the notion of paying for stuff become alien to us? We bailed out Wall Street. We bailed out General Motors. Is it so farfetched to begin investing in the American family by offering cash incentives? Clearly, we need to do something.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org