The kids have been back in school for a few short weeks, and already the term "reform" is in the air. Then again, the concept of school reform seems a constant syllabus in the American educational system. Articles about reform are back in the news and again focused on teachers.
As a 30+ year veteran of teaching and administrating in high schools rooted in character education, I can perceive that some pundits have valid points, and others are in fact beginning to see the light.
In a recent article, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson states that attempts at school reform have been disappointing, one reason being that "no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy."
More importantly, however, he suggests that the larger cause of failure is shrunken student motivation. "Students, after all, have to do the work," he says. "If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail."
He cites a 2008 survey of public high school teachers in which 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem, and 29 percent cited "student apathy."
But what is the cause of this student apathy in what is an increasingly strengthened adolescent culture, retail and media market? Let's face it, the focus is on teens. It's their time to take charge and shine. So why don't they?
Thomas L. Friedman, in an op-ed to the New York Times, looks to the culture and begins to get closer to the mark. He states, referring to Wall Street and the economic breakdown of recent years, that we have also experienced "a values breakdown - a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism."
In other words, a bail-out - heck, even a reward - for disastrous decisions and behavior.
Today's kids are growing up in an educational culture driven almost exclusively by grades and test scores, a culture that identifies academic 'winners' and 'losers' at an early age and does not begin to address the personhood of the student as a whole: who the child is, and wants to be, how the child makes moral choices for self and for the greater good.
Instead, what they have seen is a gaudy display of the win-at-all-costs culture, which has indeed cost us greatly in its deplorable lack of character.
In other words, from the point of view of the student, why should we care about geometry, when it really is a dog-eat-dog world out there? What difference does it make to read Hamlet and Twelve Angry Men, and learn about the economic order of supply and demand, when the whole thing's a farce?
Busted! We've been called on our behavior.
It is the character choices we make in life that make us who we are-not our external achievements. While it's great to win the football game, drive the new car, wear the latest fashion, use the newest gadget, and score high on the SATs, these things do not add up to a defined personal identity or genuine self-esteem.
Meaning is found in the decision not to cheat to make the grade.
Motivation is found in the commitment to work hard to do our level best, even it means we fail.
Growth comes from parental involvement and expectations, not just to get into a "good" college, but in raising the bar of learning, encouraging the child's struggle and to avoid the quick fix, and supporting the child-win or lose. In short, adults and authorities need to model character.
Samuelson goes on to suggest that charter schools might break this pattern. From personal experience I know this to be true.
The Hyde Organization is a network of public and private college preparatory schools in Maine, Connecticut, New York and Washington DC focused on character and leadership development.
For more information about Malcolm Gauld, Hyde Schools, and "The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have" parenting book and seminars, contact Rose Mulligan at 207-837-9441, by email at email@example.com and visit www.hyde.edu.