Thursday, May 27, 2010; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
May 2010

A Boston High School Senior, Chrismaldy Morgado, writing an Op-Ed in The Boston Globe [April 30], has claimed that students have some responsibility for their own academic achievement.

The Boston Globe may be forgiven for printing such a heretical claim, because it is trying to give a “voice” to young people, and the high school student may not be aware that his suggestion goes against the settled wisdom of the vast majority of U.S. Edupundits.

Our Edupundits are in substantial agreement, often repeated, that “the principal variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality.” I have nowhere found much interest in my own argument that the principal variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.

Yet here is a high school Senior, writing that: “students seem to socialize more than they should. In hallways, stairwells, and bathrooms, students sit and talk to their friends after the late bell rang for classes.” He adds that: “My friends agree that new teachers alone are not going to solve the problems at Burke [Jeremiah Burke High School in Boston is one of 35 schools in the state that is asking its staff to re-apply for their jobs]. Jussara Sequeira, a Junior, said: “Some of us students are not trying hard enough and I don’t think the school’s teachers should pay the consequences.”

Paul Zoch, a high school Latin teacher, in Doomed to Fail [2004] points out that: “the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education. That being the accepted wisdom, students are free to do nothing more than wait for the teachers to create success for them. Education reform literature rarely contains the thought that our students are primarily failing because they do not study enough.” Another heretic!

Many thanks to Paul Zoch, Diane Ravitch, Chrismaldy Morgado, and Jussara Sequeira for pointing out the egregious folly of leaving student effort out of the analysis of those things which make for academic success in the schools.

It is hard to understand how so many Edupundits miss this essential sine qua non of good learning outcomes for our schools. One possibility is that their view is so lofty and unfocused that they never take the academic work of mere students into account.

Tony Wagner at Harvard has found that only three high schools in the country, for instance, ever sit down in a focus group with their graduates and ask them for their thoughts about their education while they were at the school.

This still does not completely explain why students’ academic responsibility gets so routinely overlooked in all the multi-billion-dollar efforts at school reform.

Paul Zoch writes: “In reading about Japanese education, one is repeatedly struck by the expectation that the students must work hard for success, in contrast to the United States, where the teacher is expected to work hard to find a way for the students to succeed...Effort and self-discipline are considered by the Japanese to be essential bases for accomplishment. Lack of achievement, then, is attributed to the failure to work hard.”

What chance is there that the voices of Chirsmaldy Morgado and Jussara Sequeira will be heard in their call for more student academic effort in Boston high schools? It is hard to say. So much attention and concern, on the part of parents and the rest of us, seems to be on whether our students have friends and are having a good time in school, rather than whether they are working as hard as they can academically. It is far easier to blame teachers if student academic achievement is too low.

If we listened to those two public high school students, we should surely inform our students at the start of every school year, that they have the responsibility to pay attention, do their homework, read books and write papers, and in general give their very best efforts to making the most out of the free public education which has been provided them. Let’s tell them that their academic success is their job. It is up to them how much they learn and how much they grow in competence through their own work in school.

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