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Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as The 'Excuse' Schools

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The 'Excuse' Schools

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Are we transforming our nation's educational institutions into 'excuse' schools?

As a nation, we've often dismissed comparative international educational assessments. After all, we're an egalitarian society that provides an opportunity for everyone to receive an education through the secondary level, not just those who score high enough on exams to merit a place in high school. Therefore, we've argued, our heterogeneous group of secondary students can't be compared with those of selective public schools in other industrialized countries. Furthermore, our best and brightest certainly would shine in any international comparison.

Not quite. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study results debunked this myth. As we all know by now, our "best and brightest" secondary school students' performances were disappointing compared with their counterparts' in other developed nations when tested on their knowledge of advanced mathematics and physics. And the high-performing Asian nations didn't even participate in this particular assessment, which would have pushed us even lower on the charts. My guess is that if objective, culture-free measurements were available for other subjects, we'd fare about as well relative to other countries.

In another study, the College Board found that the SAT scores for "A students" have significantly declined over the past decade. Translated, this means that more high school students than ever before are being awarded high grades that don't represent corollary levels of achievement. If self-esteem is our goal, we're making our kids feel terrific about doing less and less.

As a veteran teacher with 22 years of experience in the public schools, I fear we are transforming our nation's educational institutions into "excuse" schools. First, we are providing extremely costly "accommodation" plans, albeit mandated by law, and special one-on-one instruction for an increasing percentage of students. Most of these children have legitimate needs, but a growing number, we teachers suspect, may simply need to put more effort into their studies and accept more responsibility for their shoddy performances. Second, we must reverse the incipient trend toward awarding high grades for mediocre performances by distancing curriculum and assessment from the local arena and instituting national standards and exams, because the very people who care the most about our schools are the unwitting culprits in dumbing down the curriculum and inflating the grades: our parents.

Our country's heterogeneity is enriching, but it is also challenging. Children often come to us from impoverished backgrounds, overburdened single-parent households, and abusive, dysfunctional settings. As educators, we've attempted to address the educational consequences of this "baggage" that children bring into U.S. schools in a variety of ways, from provision of extensive special education programs to various "accommodations" in regular classrooms. This is appropriate, but have we gone too far?

I teach in a community where most children come from relatively affluent and privileged homes. Yet, it is becoming increasingly common for children to be diagnosed with disabilities such as attention-deficit disorder when they do not live up to their frustrated parents' expectations in academic performance. In many districts, having children certified "learning disabled" in order to qualify for unlimited time to take the SATs is an increasing phenomenon. There is often no clear line separating the children whose motivation and effort need to be addressed from those who are truly disabled.

If self-esteem is our goal, we're making our kids feel terrific about doing less and less.

Therefore, the professionals often play it safe by diagnosing disabilities in order to qualify children for special programs and attention. Most of these children spend some time in small special education classes but are in regular classrooms for most of each school day. As a result, teachers with classes of 30 are increasingly being asked to "accommodate" various students in the regular setting. This can mean that three students are allowed to use their notes when taking exams, four more are allowed "extra time" on tests and assignments, two more are not auditory learners and cannot be held responsible for orally presented materials, three others cannot be held accountable for writing their assignments down--the list goes on.

The remaining students in the class often view this special treatment as unfair, especially when there is no notation of the accommodations on the transcripts of special-needs students who are in regular academic classrooms. Harried classroom teachers are so caught up in addressing these individual needs and completing copious amounts of related paperwork that they unintentionally neglect the compliant, average majority. And, yes, the most recent studies do indicate that class size makes a difference, at least in the United States, where students expect individual attention. As more and more students' individual needs require special "accommodations" by classroom teachers, class size will become more critical if the needs of both the accommodated and nonaccommodated learners are to be addressed.

Am I opposed to special education or to plans to help the truly learning-disabled? Absolutely not. But I also know that many of our students who had problematic learning styles and abilities in the past developed ways of compensating for their deficiencies; yes, they often did have to work harder to achieve academically. Today, I am concerned we may be accommodating to such an extent that we are enabling behavior that will prevent students from achieving their potential as learners and as participants in the future workforce--that we may be providing excuses for lack of effort and motivation.

While doing research in Japan two summers ago, I met with a number of educators in Hiroshima, Kobe, and Tokyo. We exchanged ideas about what works and what doesn't in our educational systems. I returned to the United States convinced that we have a great deal to learn from each other, even after adjusting for cultural differences. In Japan, educators admit that their schools need to do more to address different learning styles and abilities. But they are proceeding cautiously, and gently expressed concern that Americans might be offering "excuses" for some students who are just plain lazy. The Japanese emphasize effort in student achievement while Americans focus on ability.

And what about the causal relationship between caring and well-meaning parents and the dumbing-down of American education? Ironically, the people who sincerely want the best possible schools for their children are unwittingly complicit in lowering standards and contributing to grade inflation. There is more parental pressure on teachers to give high grades in entertaining classes than ever before. Administrators contribute to this process by rewarding teachers who give lots of A's in "fun" courses. The parents of students in these classes never complain to the administrators, but the parents of children who are bringing home low grades are complaining a lot--about the teachers.

Teachers who struggle to maintain high standards and hold students accountable are usually pressured into backing down.

As educators, we frequently witness devoted parents excusing poor performance and unacceptable behavior and wondering why their children never do seem to excel. Teachers who struggle to maintain high standards and hold students accountable are usually pressured into backing down. Students may be allowed to transfer to another (read, easier) teacher to get a complaining parent off the back of the administrator. Teachers may be asked to "rethink" their grades. Further complaints that a teacher is too demanding may result in transfers to other grades or schools. When given a choice, most students will elect to take courses that are not very demanding. Therefore, educators often adjust their standards to make their courses more "attractive," a factor that has been identified as a major cause of grade inflation in colleges, which now feature fewer requirements and a host of enticing electives.

This is not to deny that there are "unreasonable" instructors in the system, as well as those who make little attempt to engage students in the lessons. There are poor performers, and they must be "remediated" or eliminated from the system. (No, unions don't champion incompetence, but they do insist on due process.) The fact remains, however, that "good" teachers are inflating grades and lowering expectations in an effort to please well-intentioned but misguided parents, stressed-out administrators, and laid-back students. One battle-weary but highly respected colleague now responds to parents who call to dispute grades, "Just tell me what grade you want me to give your child."

The Japanese educators I met were also concerned with the amount of input American parents have in our educational system; those who have studied our school system identified parents as the primary cause of grade inflation in this country. They explained that, in Japan, parents want their offspring to have demanding teachers who will prepare their children for the competitive national exams; high scores ensure entrance into elite schools and universities. While admitting that their own high-pressure system needs revision, they suggested that instituting national exams in the United States would bring grade inflation to a halt.

The real challenge is to make public education our No. 1 priority, as it already is in Japan, by distancing curricula, standards, and assessments from local politics with its inherent dumbing-down pressures. We also need to re-examine the amount of accommodating that we're doing in the schools and demand more from all of our students. And, we all need to stop making excuses.

Jana S. Eaton has taught in Pennsylvania public schools for 22 years and based this essay on discussions with educators throughout the United States and Japan. She was the 1998 Pennsylvania Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Pages 34,52

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