Beyond Your Child's Classroom
What's been going on with America's students?
America's students today suffer from a prevalent backward predisposition towards their own future success. Lulled into a false sense of security by their surrounding society and influences, plus a slackening of school requirements for excellence, students would rather stage a protest against additional time in school than for the possibility of adding to their own learning prowess. The overriding attitude toward time spent in school as that of 'getting through it' instead of active strengthening of a students learning ability has led to an increasingly poor showing in academic performance. This drop in performance is a harbinger for the future of American business and its societal place among the rest of the global community.
Multifaceted in its make-up, the problem stems from several incorrect perspectives and conceptions of the reality of the student condition. The students' lack of engagement is partially a response to the values and goals held by adult society as a whole. One example of this multi-tiered problem is that a clear message has been sent to America's children that success in later life is not contingent on the tangible everyday work of the school day. Students have been led to believe, perhaps subconsciously, that luck, connections, and the like have as much to do, or more to do with success as any striving for academic superiority. All of society, even the students themselves, contributes to this and other problems surrounding today's educational system, and it is an invisible cancer eating away at the nation's future.
Since the mid-1960s SAT test scores have dropped significantly. At first this was considered the result of an influx of lower performing students from diversely ethnic backgrounds; however, there was also an identical drop among the white majority in overall testing. Surprisingly, the deepest drop happened during periods of stagnant growth and is not limited to test taking. In measures of skills and talents of how students read, write and add and measures of what can be done with these talents, there has been significant decline since the early 1970s. Poor academic performance is even apparent among top students. There has been no improvement whatsoever among all classes and strata of students and this leveling off of academic improvement is cause for alarming concern. America's best and brightest do not fare well against other countries' students who are considered average in their own country. America's 'A's' do not equal other developed countries' 'C's'.
Imagine if you will, America striving to stay atop the economic world while employing citizens who cannot even read or write in a competent manner. The economic costs of such a tragic waste of time and money on schooling and re-schooling just to formulate a competent workforce for the basics is akin to 'whistling past the graveyard.' Capitalism has brought America to the top of the economic world. Will the relentless pursuit of economic positioning among America's people and businesses at the expense of our own future slowly kill us internally?
Amazingly, America's response includes a lessening of the requirements for successful SAT test taking. Those who have allowed students to produce less than other students had to produce 25 years ago have deluded America's youth. Performance that received barely a passing grade a quarter of a century ago is now given a 'well done' with a passing grade. There are many reasons for lessening these requirements and some people will tell you that it was a needed move for equality to all students, but these people are misguided and be fret of the facts. They do not understand the toll it has taken on Americas' academic health by giving students an easier time of their work and thus resulting in a student community that has become painfully average.
But what, you may ask, is the nation's major servant, the government, doing for today's student? The political arena has certainly given its best shot at curtailing these alarming problems of school performance disintegration. Unfortunately, their efforts have resulted in a zero return on investment. When the fine points of schools are studied, such as teacher evaluation and program organization, it is found that schools can make at least a marginal difference. The liberal view point, as always, is that more money must be spent to create better environments and opportunities for learning. This has given schools a many facetted look of academic and non-academic parts that give the student a wider range of influences beyond books and lectures. Naturally, the conservative view is that this spending has only caused an erosion of student's performance resulting in over distraction and the whole process must be returned to the basics. The fact, however, is that student work quality dropped off long before any of this spending happened and was the causality for it in the first place. Today's problems are not only the schools themselves, but the entire social environment that students are growing up in. There is an attitude that over half of all students in America have that has dropped overall performance. When one takes into account that students without this attitude, those who can 'swim against the stream' of indifference succeed in American schools; it proves that outside influences have taken their toll on the rest of the student nation. Therefore, any government measures to shore up the educational system cannot solely concentrate upon the schools themselves. The entirety of a child's life must be studied and the influences thereof reformed, if possible.
The level of engagement or disengagement of students is the number one precursor of success in school. Outside influences that direct these measures can cause a downward spiraling effect that the student is barely even aware of. For instance, students who work are given less responsibility in their school work. The student becomes increasingly bored and therefore works more hours outside of school, and the cycle continues. Too many students' engagement problems also are the result of social attitudes. Class time is the 'commercial,' as it were, to be sandwiched in between their real lives which is composed of their extra school network. Among this network it is believed that striving to succeed well in school and being involved in class activities is a waste of time and 'uncool.' The majority of students feel that all one has to do is get through school and graduate, it isn't necessary to do well or learn anything in order to succeed once school time is completed. The concept of the brain being a muscle which must be exercised much like their physical bodies is anathema, if realized at all. Too many of these students, their parents, and the surrounding working world know all too well that no one is going to look at a students' grades from grammar school and high school when considering employment. Therefore, due to this invisible work record, the level of engagement in class can be at whatever level will get you passed to the next grade.
Any study based on student ethnicity differences may at first be met with a politically incorrect label, but much can be learned by studying the effects that the American school system has had on immigrants' children who come to this country. Alarmingly, it is a statistical fact that the longer a family remains in America, the more school success erodes with each generation. This is true for some ethnics more than others and points out some glaring problems which continue to be largely American in scope. Ethnic differences in achievement persist across a wide spectrum even if we take into account economic differences. Pervasively, it is found that Asian students do far better than other ethnic groups across all strata and the strongest indicator was their degree of engagement in studies. Asian children find no shame in being good students. A more accurate gage of student success can be found in what those students believe to be their chances for success later in life. Asian students do a better job in school due to the fear of not getting a good job after school if they fail. They are also emotionally involved in the pride of their parents and join their Asian peers in striving for success, often mixing their socializing with school studies. Children of other races, however, suffer from an undue optimism about their chances for success later in life. This perspective has a direct connection to how poorly they do in school. The students of African-American heritage and those of Hispanic descent tend to believe that it won't matter how they do anyway and subconsciously forgive themselves from striving for excellence. Sadly, in many cases they may have seen concrete evidence for these attitudes in the failure of the idealized American dream within their own families. Many of those families also seem to communicate to the child that there will be a loss of culturalism if one gets a good education in America and then begins to act 'white.' Unfortunately there are too few examples of African-American and Hispanic intellectual success for these children to emulate. In the social group, Asian students don't have this problem as they are often allowed to be, if not expected to be, a part of the 'brain' crowd. The nations 'white' children themselves appear to be ambivalent as to their own futures, sharing the problems of both successful and poorly performing ethnic students. They fall into the majority of 'B' students in most groups, but suffer from the outside influences that have made those 'B's' of today equal to the barley passing grades of yesteryear. The surprising minority of all ethnic and white students who do not fall into these negative attitudes presents further evidence that success in school is a matter of perspective and approach and not one of skin color or national background.
As stated already, the longer a student's family remains in America, the less productive the student. Partially to blame is the concept that 'grades make you what you are.' If a student relaxes himself in his efforts and then does less productive work, he usually gets lower grades. But today's majority of students who don't perform well believe that their lack of success is due to other factors surrounding them, be it luck, family problems, economic woes, et cetera. Therefore, when these students get 'D's' and 'C's,' it is perceived as a reflection of their identity. The successful student, and there are many in today's American schools, believes his own hard work and effort or lack thereof is a cause for success or failure. These students prove it everyday to themselves that it is not the American school system that has failed them if they get poor grades. Socially, however, they may suffer the scorn of their peers who do not do so well. Due to a prevailing attitude among students of a cavalier 'marking time' in school, which results in lower grades, the psychological defense has been the blind agreement of 'coolness' or being 'with it' if school is given a casual glance of attention. It's a dangerous psychological trap that has America's students wasting away on the vine. This trend is not seen in other similarly developed countries and mirrors the internal American problem seen in the generational decline of immigrant students.
Problematically, the struggle is also found in the American home due to a prevalence of the wrong types of parenting styles that result in ineffective stances toward school. Whatever position parents take of themselves as, firm, accepting and autonomous is absorbed internally by their children. Parenting is often a balancing act of love and discipline, mercy and justice where one without the other will not produce correct results.
Out of the three styles: authoritarian, authoritative and permissive, it is found that children with at least one authoritative parent were able to do much better than those with none. Correct parenting styles are now a statistical fact and cannot continue to be ignored by parents when planning the raising of children. Authoritative parenting often creates students with good school and social skills, teaching them responsibility for their actions. Naturally, since these students feel more responsible for their own actions, the idea of outside influences having too much control over their success is minor. Authoritarian parents tend to create poor social skills but acceptable school skills. Permissive parents create high levels of social skills but negative attitudes toward school and adults. Either one of these last two creates a poor fit for the overall experience of the student in school. Authoritative parenting across all social and economic strata, show a marked improvement in school performance, due to the correct psychological 'fit' of the child for success in school.
Parents who also show up at school and make themselves visible tend to 'spike' the child's interest and belief in the overall efficacy of school for their later lives. This not only involves the student, but the teachers and administration take notice of such involvement. This can work on several levels and for diverse reasons, such as either showing school employees the parents' belief in the system or, additionally, leaving little room for teachers and administrators to hide their problems and mistakes within the crowd of parents and students. But how many parents today can find the time and energy to be so involved in their student's school? Schools themselves may create their own problems by not making themselves available to parents caught up in the double income working world of today. For many schools themselves, there just isn't enough time in a day for parents, too many students, and not enough pay. The collapse of the parent/teacher system under such economic and population stress can be seen all across the board as one of the major factors in student failure. Someone has to make the first move, however; and who would be better than parents that support the schools, through private funding or public taxes, taking a responsible stance and shearing down the size of their lives to make room for responsible scholastic participation.
Between the tenth and sixth grades a parent's influence drops off significantly as the peer group takes over as primary director. By the time a child reaches high school it has been found that peer pressure is more important than any parental influence. This pressure can often happen without the child realizing he is being taken in one direction or another. Labels, such as 'brains' or 'jocks', are often used by the student to define the society around them for easier access. The disturbing statistic is that less than 5% of any student body labels themselves or others as being in school for the main purpose of academic achievement. Among American students there is wide spread pressure not to do TOO well. To do well is often communicated covertly as 'showing off'. The prevailing norm in high schools across the country is to 'fly in under the radar' and graduate, otherwise, the student may find himself left out of the social climate. This pressure is often hard to prevent and, paradoxically, short lived, as the students' future will always be with him but current social conditions will be short lived.
When considering the influences outside of the home that will mold and shape the child's future, parents need to consider that neighborhoods and schools will be a primary source of the child's social contacts. As with any public climate, like minded neighborhoods will have schools that are filled with future friends who also reflect parenting and teaching attitudes that may be beneficial or may be of concern to parents. Let us consider that there is a student who usually is expected to do well in school simply because of their race and assumed scholastic prowess that is placed in a school populated with students from other ethnic households. These households may indeed share attitudes and feelings toward school work that are not synergistic, if so; there will be an overwhelming social pressure for that student to be less productive. Whereas in a school filled with like minded offspring, the student may encounter other pupils who are oriented towards school. As a result, they will create bonds that combine socializing and studies and find themselves successful simply due to association. Whether financially well off or monetarily poor, the students' parents must consider that it is the parenting styles and social climate of other children's rearing that will do more than they themselves will ever do for the future of the child reaching the high school years.
The ultimate source of achievement problems begins with how students spend their time out of school. The number of students who hold part time jobs after school has risen to 80% since the 1950's. It's no coincidence that this figure runs parallel to the decline of student achievement. National companies who hire teenagers are more concerned about thriving on cheap labor, for which they need not provide any benefits, than they are about the nation's scholastic future. Complaints about students who can't even make change without a calculator or computer should give national companies pause for thought about their involvement in creating and maintaining the problem themselves. The antiquated idea of the struggling student who must work to help out the family is out of touch with current statistics. It has been found that the overwhelming majority of students who work, earn money for the trivial things in their lives, such as CD's and other luxury items. These students may work more than 20 hours a week, severely damaging their own ability to succeed in school while at the same time learning job skills that will not transfer into the working world in any meaningful way beyond the level of the job they have. Working students often cheat more, skip class or perhaps take too many easy classes. Other involvements, such as after school activities, sports and clubs are usually only dabbled in for anywhere from 10-15 hours a week, if that much. Further studies show that socializing outside of school, added on top of socializing already done in school, can be as high as 20 hours a week or more. If all of these influences are added up together, it is painfully obvious that today's student spends as little as 15% of their overall time on scholastic pursuits. Not coincidentally, Asian students score lowest in all categories of outside school activities. Their success is evidence of the correct social climate, parenting styles and attitudes toward school work that create a smooth road toward achievement. This happens in American schools despite the clamor of the school reform movement. The lesson here is that school success is as much a product of the ways a student lives their lives as it is the school they attend. Far too many poor parenting styles, greedy and careless employers and the quick thrill media come in contact with today's students and school is just one of a long list of things a child does every day. America should never be surprised at the level of disengagement of its student body due to the fact that school engagement has become a triviality in the national psyche.
Before this writer becomes chided for dwelling on all the negative things that have happened to the American educational experience, let's take a look at those things that can be done to right the sinking ship.
1) The nation must realize that the problem is symptomatic of a complex network of social and private problems that must be addressed en-masse. School reform and restructure are not enough to solve the problems of the educational system and past attempts at reform have failed.
2) Parents must realize that the priority of childhood is doing well in school. All other influences must be sacrificed to the extent that scholastic achievement is primary in the students mind. It must be driven home in clear and uncensored language on a national level that doing well in school has ultimate benefits for the child's mental, emotional and physical well being. Parents, too, must step up to the plate and become more physically involved in the rearing of their children if they are going to have them. Adult's lack of engagement in the lives and scholastic achievement of their own children has become a pervasive health problem in this country that may become one day a major factor in the down fall of America as a whole.
3) Colleges today are too willing to accept any student who has been given a high school diploma regardless of how well they have done in their studies. This has resulted in students taking the low road to their later lives and creating a work force of questionable merit. When one considers that this includes professions such as doctors and lawyers and political leaders, the resultant society, perhaps less than four generations away, may have 'Orwellian' overtones. It's a science fact that advanced societies are the easiest to destroy, for how many among us can build an automobile or create a vaccine? Once these abilities are lost a society must be concerned with re-building the wheel, as it were, and in today's world climate America can hardly take a break from its global position to heal its own internal wounds. Toughening standards for student advancement is no longer a debatable convenience, but must be enacted for the future of mankind.
4) Remedial classes at higher learning institutions have to be eliminated. The practice of providing schooling for skills that should be plat formed and ready to go to the next level has weakened the overall effect of both a high school and a college diploma. Any students who do not possess the readiness for higher education should be disallowed and sent back to secondary colleges or some alternative until these skills are achieved and provable.
5) All after school activities must be examined. Extracurricular activities involved with the school institution can often be beneficial for the student in limited amounts. Parents need to judge the effects of sports and clubs and such and then limit the child's involvement in order to get the maximum benefit of education for that child. National records and statistics do not, however; show any need at all for students to work upwards of twenty hours a week on part time jobs. Studies have shown that it is more of a waste of time and an interference with school work that results only in lower performance. If a child must work, the hours a week should be concentrated to the weekend and less than 15 hours per week. Work time numbers above the 15 hours show nationally to be disastrously detrimental to the school experience.
Solving the problems of academic dementia among American students must be studied from the point of view that takes in to account their entire lives and the effects on their production that parents, friends, employers and the schools have on the struggling student. Until these things are accomplished, America's future lies in the hands of lost generations.
About The Author
Mark M. Boudreaux is Publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper, The L.A. County Weekly Canyon Crier. This legal newspaper is distributed throughout the San Fernando Valley and Studio City in the Area of Los Angeles. Mr. Boudreaux also art directs and consults on the Tolucan Times and Entertainment Today newspapers. A former member of the Alpha Theta Epsilon honor society, he has also worked with the United Press Club of Los Angeles on educational issues and also student advising with Linda Christas online schools.