Blame the Student?

One of my closest friends from back home, who is finishing up his law degree at Pitt, sent me a column from USA Today last week and asked my opinion on it. The column, by Patrick Welsh who is an English teacher in Alexandria, VA (same city I taught in last year, different school), argues,

Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack of funding, poor teachers or other ills. Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s the failed work ethic of todays kids. That’s what I’m seeing in my school. Until reformers see this reality, little will change.

Welsh specifically talks about the success of his immigrant students, specifically mentioning two from Africa and one from the Caribbean, in contrast to the middle class “native born” students he sees. While Welsh does not explicitly state this in his article, it must be noted the the majority of his school’s students are either African-American or Hispanic (the school was the real life basis for Remember the Titans). It seems that, at least to some degree, Welsh is comparing the performance of native born students of color (and white students) with the performance of immigrant students of color. This comparison is troubling for a number of reasons, but most important is the fact that African immigrants have a higher level of education as a group than ANY OTHER ETHNIC GROUP in the United States, including “native born” whites (I was made aware of this fact at a lecture given at Columbia a couple weeks ago). As many studies have shown, the ONLY social factor which serves as an accurate predictor of a student’s success in school is her/his parents’ level of education. Therefore, the relative success of his immigrant students is to be expected. Without considering other factors in his students lives, Welsh’s comparison is unfair and meaningless when held up to rigorous consideration.

The problem with a critique such as Welsh’s is that it removes responsibility from the teacher (and the administrators and district) for the student’s performance. It allows a teacher like Welsh to point to the students he sees as models of success and ask “why can’t my other students be more like them,” instead of asking himself “what can I do to help the students who are not succeeding in the way I would like them to?” Of course, there is only so much a teacher can do – you can bring the horse to the water buy you can’t make it drink — but I will never understand why anyone would go into teaching unless they believed that every student in front of them has the capability and (somewhere, even if it’s buried deep inside) desire to learn and succeed. Instead of pointing fingers at the students and their parents (as David Brooks did recently in the NY Times as well), perhaps time could be better spent studying models of schools which are succeeding with a wide range of socio-economic groups.

Update: More thoughts on the subject from Coach Brown.

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