Bad Students, Not Bad Schools
By Robert Weissberg
Transaction, 303 pages
When researchers at Indiana University drafted a report on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement, they chose a telling statement for the epigraph. Nothing from a teacher, an administrator, a philanthropist, an education official, or any other adult. Instead, a high school respondent to the questionnaire declares, “When I am not engaged, it is because the work is not intellectually engaging.” The lead finding in the year’s survey of 42,000 high schoolers, it turned out, was students’ nonstop boredom. Fully two-thirds of them stated that they are bored every day, one in six in every class. Four out of five claimed that the material just wasn’t interesting, while two out of five considered it entirely -irrelevant.
The epigraph provides a pat reason: don’t blame the kids. Rather, blame the books they have to read and the papers they have to write. Boredom happens in the minds of the kids, but the cause lies altogether elsewhere. The report proceeds to advise educators on how to change their practices and energize those listless youths slumping in the seats. It spotlights “engaging and interactive pedagogy,” those “instructional methods in which [students] are active participants.” Most of all, it urges, educators need to respect teen outlooks: “Giving students a ‘voice’ and recognizing their perspectives as important creates [sic] a meaningful place for students within schools.”
This talk of “engaging pedagogy” and “meaningful places” sounds so conscientious and commonsensical, and who wouldn’t act vigorously to save kids from their debilitating languor? Read a batch of state curriculum documents, listen to a few panels at the American Educational Research Association, attend an ed-school seminar, and such catchphrases and commitments start to feel as natural and beneficent as the Eighth Commandment. One hour with Robert Weissberg’s sweeping Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, however, dispels that confidence. According to Weissberg’s depressing survey of U.S. schooling from classrooms and courtrooms to elections and research centers and union offices, the whole approach stands on a misleading and sentimental, yet far-reaching and persistent, error.
It is this: the students bear no responsibility. If they are bored, educators and advocates insist, it’s because the textbook is boring. If they ignore the teacher, it’s because the teacher doesn’t heed their “perspective.” If test scores at a school remain abysmal, it’s because the curriculum isn’t relevant, or because rooms are decrepit, or teachers aren’t up to speed, or the testing mania drills-and-kills…
Weissberg, who taught political science for decades at the University of Illinois, offers another reason: “it’s the students, stupid, not the facilities or the curriculum.” That “obvious truth” hovers over the system, and nobody dares to speak it. Millions of lazy, incurious, disruptive, unintelligent, and nearly illiterate youngsters flood classrooms every day, and none of the popular and hugely expensive initiatives and ideas peddled by “education mayors,” well-meaning foundations, and professors of education will change them. Neither will the biggest earmarks and best teachers (to any significant extent), for the scope of paltry talents and anti-intellectual dispositions is too broad. The middling students far outnumber the motivated ones, and the most difficult ones—troublemakers and vandals, immigrants struggling with English, kids who hate homework (the Indiana survey counts 50 percent who complete one hour or less of studying per week)—effectively turn classrooms into free-for-alls.
Reformers, foundations, and politicians won’t face this plain fact, preferring to tackle the problem from the outside, so to speak. Year after year, as Weissberg shows in tiresome but accurate listings, a new initiative rolls out—laptops for every eighth-grader, bills to equalize school funding, after-school day care for single mothers, etc.—founded like the previous year’s on the progressivist assumption that a better environment will invigorate the lagging ones, close the racial gap, prepare every student for college, and so on. But bright students with a good work ethic excel whether they study with shiny laptops or grimy textbooks (Weissberg’s example is the Vietnamese boat people). And students who hate reading and have derelict parents won’t much respond to a culturally sensitive curriculum, a redefinition of “achievement” to include “emotional intelligence,” a school-choice plan, or a brand-new auditorium.
All these external strategies make no sense. “In sports,” Weissberg says, “this would be as if a basketball franchise with inept, lackadaisical players tried to reverse its fortunes by constructing a spectacular new arena, adding high-tech training facilities, inventing clever new plays, and hiring a Hall of Fame coach.” Yes, some improvement would happen but not nearly enough to justify the investment and make the team competitive. Soon the coach would grow weary, fans would pull away, and the arena would deteriorate.
Much wiser to cut the bad players and cultivate the good ones. This is Weissberg’s flat prescription. He explicitly advocates a policy “to eliminate the bottom quarter of those past 8th grade” or, in a less blunt formulation, “altering the mix of smart and not so smart students.” Unintelligent and idle students exact a lot of time and labor, holding up the gifted students. Once the bad-student pool reaches a certain proportion, the teacher, principal, and school board end up devoting all their attention to it. After all, Weissberg notes, it is easier to raise the cumulative test score of a school, district, and state by helping the large group of weak performers up to semi-weak than it is to bring a small group of proficient students to “advanced.” Let the intractable kids go and cultivate those who agree to be cultivated.
Imagine what would happen, though, if Weissberg advocated it in a speech at Teachers College or in an NPR interview, or at an Obama (or Bush) Department of Education symposium. The first charge would be “racism” because of the disproportionate number of minority kids excluded. “Elitism” and “nativism” would follow. Educators live in an ideological stew of egalitarianism, identity politics, and half-baked research, aiming to motivate and engage students, not expel them. They focus on the disadvantaged, at-risk kids and teens of color dropping out in droves, assuming their innocence as a matter of course.
That omission of responsibility turns education reform in the United States into an irrational enterprise. Weissberg devotes the bulk of his book to diverse elements of the reform effort, documenting the way each one rationalizes away the bored, unruly, and witless youth. Judges force municipalities to integrate schools, foundations write multimillion-dollar checks to enhance “learning opportunities” in urban schools, conservative leaders push charter-school expansion, academics discover innovative pedagogies that keep wayward students around . . . on and on. Never do they suggest that perhaps these 16-year-olds should be somewhere else. Reading these 250-plus pages of good intentions, bundles of cash, and feeble outcomes, one despairs of anything but a speck of progress here and there.
Weissberg’s vision for change is so far outside the mainstream understanding of the purposes of the public-education system that it has a perversely utopian quality to it. The only realistic solution Weissberg suggests is a nonpartisan government agency that would scrutinize legislation, research, and initiatives for their “education safety” in the same way that the FAA monitors airplane safety. But still, another irrational element in the system explodes that idea too. Weissberg himself identifies it late in the text: “Bad news extracts the dollars.”
An entire industry has prospered on malfunction. If public schools produced skilled, knowledgeable graduates, if at-risk kids turned into low-risk kids, if students in crumbling buildings achieved as well as others, an army of professors, advocates and activists and lawyers, foundation personnel, contractors and construction workers, security officers, after-school and summer-school tutors, and school administrators, counselors, and professional developers would have to find other employment. The more schools fail, the more money pours in. Los Angeles has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, and in September it opened the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, the most expensive school in U.S. -history, built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated. Faced with rising criticism over the price tag—the district is $640 million in the red, 3,000 teachers have been laid off, and the school term was trimmed last year by one week to cut costs—the school board president had a ready reply in the New York Times: “We are challenged to tell the story of why in Los Angeles in 2010 this is absolutely a great investment for kids and families.” The strongest voice for the project, a Kennedy aide who witnessed the shooting, sounded the same kids-first note, aligning it with his idol: “This is a wonderful tribute to him. This is what he wanted. He saw that kids were suffering as a result of poor education, poor school and low income, and wanted to do something about it.” So they built the Xanadu of schools. Inside, children will be bored, and act up, and disrupt the lessons, and limit the capacity of those who can and want to learn. But there will be outlets for every laptop, and free Wi-Fi.