Monday, April 25, 2011

Bad Students, Not Bad Schools???

In his book Bad Students Not Bad Schools, professor emeritus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Robert Weissberg sharply departs from educational orthodoxy and poses some troubling questions about the state of American Education and the persistent achievement gap. His thesis that systemic failures in academic achievement are less reflective of substandard schools and more indicative of the motivation and ability of students themselves has been written off as "pessimistic" and even as "racist," but few have been willing to seriously explore the most important question: to what extent does evidence and experience validate or invalidate his thesis? In no way am I endorsing his vision, rather I am declaring that by allowing intellectual taboos to narrow this debate, we are limiting our ability to successfully address what all sides agree is a serious national problem. Given the forty years of failed progressive and (to a lesser extent) conservative reforms, alternative explanations and solutions must be considered, because as Albert Einstein best put it, the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Here is a brief summary of the contents of the book:


Chapter 1 Introduction: A Nation at Risk or a Nation in Denial?

Academic achievement requires intelligence and motivation. School resources, pedagogy and instructional quality are important but secondary. Unfortunately, both liberal and conservative reformers have ignored brains and work ethic and concentrate on secondary factors. It is possible to attract smarter, more motivated students if the high political price will be paid. Politicians, parents and reformers instead prefer mediocrity since it is easier.

Chapter 2 Bad Students, Not Bad Schools

“Bad schools” are not created “bad.” Indifferent, anti-intellectual often violent students make schools bad, and pouring in more resources will fix nothing unless the students themselves change. Chairs and desks do not fail exams; students fail, and to assert that the physical facilities bring inadequacy allows parents and students to escape responsibility. Shipping slackers to a “good school” solves nothing; worse, this misguided policy will ruin the “good school.”

Chapter 3 Motivating Students Or You Can Take a Horse to Water And Make a Dehydrated Equine Feel Better About Herself ? Academic achievement requires motivation, and today’s educators foolishly believe in making learning fun and “relevant”—the Sesame St. model. This approach is doomed. Learning inescapably involves pain, and without a struggle, personal advancement is impossible. Substituting cheap self-esteem to avoid agony is particularly harmful to the intellectually less able.

Chapter 4 Closing the Racial Gap in Academic Achievement

American educators have long obsessed over closing racial gaps in learning and every attempt, regardless of the billions spent or tactics, has come up short. More important, trying to close these gaps undermines learning for both whites and blacks. The futile effort will only dumb-down education so as to provide the illusion of progress.

Chapter 5 The “War” on Academic Excellence

Recent efforts to uplift the least able students have harmed smart kids. Programs for the intellectually gifted have been decimated under No Child Left Behind. This is the opposite of what occurred in the late 1950s and early 60s when the US responded to Sputnik by concentrating on bright students. What rescues America from self-imposed education collapse is importing smart youngsters plus scientists born overseas. This may not last forever.

Chapter 6 The Museum of Failed Educational Reforms

The parade of “guaranteed-to-succeed” reform fiascos resembles comets--they keep returning despite past disasters. This applies to both liberal and conservative panaceas. Disappointment is predictable: few reformers suffer personally from dismal outcomes, research assessments are often shoddy, advocating futile gimmicks can be career boosting and reform-minded foundations are unaccountable for their iffy schemes. Americans are addicted to low-effort magic bullets.

Chapter 7 Business-like Solutions to Academic Insufficiency

Reformers often insist that education should be treated as a business with clear standards and strict accountability to insure progress. Total nonsense. The parallel is inappropriate—you can’t “fire” non-performing students no matter how rotten or disruptive. The business-like infatuation on test scores and accountability almost inevitably subverts quality education and promotes cheating.

Chapter 8 The Alluring Choice Solution

School choice—vouchers and charter schools—infatuates “conservative” educators. This approach has seldom succeeded. More important, it falsely assumes that if students and parents were given ample choice, they would crave academic excellence. More likely, they prefer sports and country club-like facilities, not tough academics.

Chapter 9 Reforming Education is Now the New Great Society and Why Fixing Schools Will Subvert the Social Peace

Education spending has sky-rocketed with little to show for these billions. Reformers misunderstand what today’s fixes are about. Schooling has become the reincarnation of the 1960s Great Society, a cornucopia of social welfare jobs and contracts. It is less about boosting learning than securing the social peace by preventing urban unrest.

Chapter 10 Hope?

American education struggles as the intellectual abilities of students declines. Conceivably, educators may be performing admirably given this down turn. Nor may modern society require universal stellar academic achievement—tasks can often be mechanized or outsourced to smarter foreigners. Our most formidable obstacle to progress is denying the obvious—it’s the students, not the schools that bedevil American education.

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