Why Students Fail

Today the Minneapolis StarTribune started a three-part series entitled “Tutors Profit as Kids Fail.”  I’m not sure they need three parts.  A big part of the problem is exposed in the first three paragraphs.

“Jeremia Jackson is supposed to be working on his online tutoring lesson, but the 8-year-old can’t keep his eyes off ‘Burnout Paradise,” a high-speed car racing game blaring on the family’s big-screen TV in St. Paul.

“‘Go back and jump off the ramp,’ he tells his sister, Tangeline, as she controls a red Lamborghini.

“His grandmother tries to keep his mind on his studies.  ‘Pay attention to what the lady is saying,’ she urges.”

Anyone see the problem here?  Come on, Grandma!  Turn off the damn TV!

If Jeremiah has trouble remaining focused at home, it is a safe bet he has the same problem at school.  Perhaps if we had better prepared students the tutors wouldn’t be needed at all.  In fact it is hard to tell if the tutors contribute to better outcomes anyway.  Why?  Well…why will a kid without a propensity to study and learn in school be any better off in a home environment?

The Supplemental Education Services, a program packaged with the poorly-conceived No Child Left Behind program, exists to help close the large educational achievement gap in the United States.

Politics is a problem.  After decades of improved academic achievement, the United States is now on a failing trend.  As an example, Tim Pawlenty, a one-time presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor, blames unions and teachers for our failures.  Well, I went to the same schools Tim attended, had the same teachers and took the same courses.  We turned out all right, even if one of us is of more sound mind and reason.  (Sorry, Tim.)

Publicly-funded schools gave our nation the educated citizens it needed to thrive and take advantage of its economic advantages.  Conservatives whine and whimper about the plight of so-called “job creators” in this country.  It seems sensible to me that one of the best things we can do for employers is provide them with educated workers.  But once again, conservatives fail to grasp the importance of public investment.  I don’t think it is unreasonable, therefore, to look at politics, not teachers and unions which at one time built the world’s leading education system, for today’s education malaise.

Guys like Pawlenty argue that we need to make schools more competitive and accountable, like business.  (Business, right after that holy capitalist, Jesus Christ, is a conservative politician’s favorite touchstone.)  So here you go.  We have a tutoring program, sucking millions of dollars from school district budgets to fund the private tutoring industry, and look at the results.

At the very best this sort of service should be redundant, reinforcing what happens in a proper school classroom, but instead it looks like a failing surrogate for what isn’t happening in the classroom.

Let’s not forget that public schools in high-income communities do quite well.  Graduation rates are at record highs in these areas and students learn their lessons well.

The simple truth is an ugly one.  In poorer communities schools are underfunded and face further funding declines.  Unequal public school funding as a result of income and racial segregation delivers failing results.  It is an achievement gap that exists as a symptom of an increasingly unequal society.  This has nothing to do, as people like Pawlenty see it, with “out of control” teachers and unions.  Nor is this problem that will be solved by outsourcing public education to private tutors.

Poor Jeremiah isn’t prepared with the sort of discipline and maturity that a child needs to learn.  That is problem one.  But I think we need to look at why we have growing achievement gaps in the first place.  I would argue that the reason falls firmly on the shoulder of misguided politicians.  We increasingly live in a culture that judges opportunity as a sort of god-given entitlement.  Some of us are better than others.  Supporting the poorest isn’t the responsibility of the richest.

That’s exactly what god-fearing capitalists and conservatives think, right?  Well, follow the votes, look at the policies they support.  Claiming concern for the future of our children is one thing, but doing something about it is another.  Ignoring and destroying the community values that once supported education in this country causes achievement gaps.  That’s why students fail.


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