Yes, they can

Coming out of a long bout of illness, I recently felt well enough (I thought) to scan the educational news horizon, and came across the second part of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. What I saw was not only sobering, but infuriating.

Only 36% of teachers and 51% of principals believe that all of their students have the ability to succeed academically.

Not only do a lower percentage of secondary teachers believe setting high expectations for all students would help improve their performance, but distressingly few (62%) believed that addressing individual needs of diverse learners would help; and even fewer (57%) saw the value of collaboration among teachers and school leaders. These figures are not unrelated.

For many years now, I have argued with secondary colleagues who hated the mantra “All children can learn.” I’ve heard high school teachers (some openly, some under-their-breath) attack the notion that every student presented to them could learn (the corollary of that obviously being – “Every child should be taught”). If we accept as an article of faith that every student has the ability not only to learn, but to be academically successful, then we can’t really justify not doing everything we can to help each student achieve that goal.

However, if fully 64% of us think at least some (maybe quite a few) of the students for whom we are responsible don’t even have the ability to succeed, then we have just excused ourselves from anything close to our best efforts on their behalf. Sadly, I’ve had more than a few conversations with teachers who feel exactly that way. Some go quickly on the defensive pointing to the lack of responsibility on the part of many students and parents to hold up their end of the educational contract. Ironically, the same survey indicates that the students are more aware of their responsibilities in this process than teachers or administrators may want to believe. But even if student and parent weren’t holding up their end, what does that have to do with my belief in the ability, and more important the opportunity, for this young person to succeed in my class or at my school?

The inconsistency in the thinking is revealed by the other two figures. There has been a persistent and decided reluctance on the part of secondary and post-secondary teachers to adjust what we do for the benefit of the students as compared to our elementary or middle school colleagues. We have been slow to even attempt ideas like teacher collaboration, notwithstanding that the antiquated structure of most high schools discourages such collaboration. Similarly, the student loads faced by most high school teachers (100-150 students/day), makes addressing the needs of diverse learners physically daunting, especially if we don’t collaborate to get it done. Which is why I don’t understand why more of us haven’t joined a coordinated charge to change these structures for the benefit of our sanity and the success of our students.

I know the conditions under which we are working; know them 20 years too well. But this lack of belief in students’ ability to succeed has an even more insidious undertone. I’m thinking now of an earlier post I wrote on the revival of lower expectations for poor students and students of color as educators bristle under the deeply flawed provisions and implementations of NCLB. NCLB, poverty, economic recession, corrupt or inept policymakers, and a dozen other problems are all real, formidable obstacles facing education in America today. And all the more reason we, educators, should be unshakable in our resolve to be part of the solution.

Bottom line: There is no excuse for a professional educator not believing in the ability and the right of every student to achieve academic success. Period.

Update: For another interesting point of view on this, see my colleage, Bill Ferriter, over at The Tempered Radical.

Related categories: ,