The consensus among Edupundits is that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement.
I argue that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
EdNews.org, 29 March 2007
Columnist EdNews.org, Houston, Texas
Edupundits have chosen very complex subject matter for their investigations and reports. They study and write about dropouts, vouchers, textbooks, teacher selection and training, school governance, budgets, curricula in all subjects, union contracts, school management issues, and many many more.
Meanwhile, practically all of them fail to give any attention to the basic purpose of schools, which is to have students do academic work. Almost none of them seems inclined to look past the teacher to see if the students are, for instance, reading any nonfiction books or writing any term papers.
Of course all of the things they do pay attention to are vitally important, but without student academic work they mean very little. Now, I realize there are state standards in math and reading, and some states test for writing after a fashion, but no state standards ask if students have read a history book while they were in school or written a substantial research paper, and neither do the SAT, ACT, or NAEP tests.
Basic math skills are important, and current standards try to find out if those graduating from our high schools can do math at the 8th-grade level, and a similar standard is in place for reading, but for the time being, higher education and the workplace are still not well designed for students with 8th-grade math and reading skills.
Students in Massachusetts who pass the state test for graduation, the MCAS, find out when they take their college placement tests that they have come up against a different level of expectation. In Massachusetts, more than 60% of those who go to community colleges have to take remedial courses and 34% of those who go to the four-year colleges have to take remedial courses. As the Chancellor of Higher Education in the Commonwealth has pointed out, the state is now paying for high school twice. The students have to learn to do in college what they should have learned to do in the high schools.
Once they are allowed into college courses for credit, they encounter nonfiction books and term paper requirements which they hadn't been asked to manage in high school.
After college, there are tremendous efforts at remediation required as well. The Business Roundtable has reported that their member companies are spending more than three billion dollars [>$3,000,000,000] every year on remedial writing courses for their employees, both hourly and salaried, in about equal numbers.
One of the sad and damaging consequences of this myopia among Edupundits is that everyone but students is imagined to be responsible for student academic work. As Paul Zoch has so regularly pointed out, the message that sends down the line to students is that their job is to get through high school with a minimum of work, while it is someone else's responsibility to educate them. The result is that, whatever gets decided about dropouts, vouchers, union contracts, budgets, textbooks, teacher selection and training, school governance, curricula in all subjects, school management issues, and the like, our students are not working hard enough on their own education.
Of course there are exceptions, students whose teachers demand that they read history books and write research papers, and there are students who do that on their own, in independent studies, partly because they have become aware that they must meet more rigorous academic demands down the road, and they are determined to get themselves ready.
But far too many of our high school students are waiting for someone else to set demanding academic standards, and when they don't, the students accept that, and get jobs, play sports, lead an active social life, spend hours a day on video games, and so forth. But after they slide through high school and emerge, they are mightily sorry they were not asked to do more and held to a higher standard for their own academic work.
We should not kid them about the need for serious reading and academic expository writing, and when we do, we are not educating them, we are cheating them. Edupundits should heed the old Hindu saying, "Whatever you give your attention to, grows in your life." The actual academic work of students while they are in school deserves a lot more attention than it has been receiving from them so far.