The educational reform we need most

School reform has become a real yawner. Even in the face of falling test scores, the exodus of the best and brightest teachers and employers’ anguished complaints about school graduates, the topic just seems to cause eyes to roll. The school reform debate is a revolving merry-go-round of predictable topics: hire better teachers, get parents more involved, have longer school years, longer school days, year-round schooling, more computers, more assessment, better teacher education. And round and round the arguments go.

Underlying all the reform talk is the educational blame-game. We don’t have the right teachers; get rid of the teachers’ unions; we’re teaching the wrong stuff, it’s a curriculum problem; we don’t have enough computers and technological support; parents are unsupportive and uninvolved; and that the hearty "money" perennial, the public is stingy and trying to do education on-the-cheap. What is missing from discussions of educational reform is the real problem, the elephant in the school house: the kids. 

American children are, by and large, a mess. Their embarrassing academic performance in school (i. e., achievement scores in math and science) is only one indicator among many. In a recent survey, 64 percent admitting to cheating and 30 percent to stealing. Boys (35 percent) a little more than girls (26 percent). The same large-scale survey revealed that one in five has stolen from a friend and 23 percent have robbed from their own family! Well over half of our high school seniors are already sexually active, giving the US the highest rates in the developed world of illegitimate births and sexually transmitted diseases. One primary reason why American businesses have gone overseas is that young Americans don’t have a clue about how to put in a day’s work.

Of course, this is not accurate for all American youth. Approximately 15 percent of our children have used their educational opportunities and achieved some resemblance of mature adulthood. They have some semblance of self-discipline and know how to set goals and even how to achieve them. The great majority, however, are unskilled, unmotivated and unready for the harsh economic realities of the 21st Century which are rapidly closing in on them.

Honey, I spoiled the kids

It is, of course, bad form to blame the children. But, let’s face it. They are the ones who don’t do their homework, who have the work ethic of a slug. They are the one who come to school primarily to socialize with their friends, and whose idea of a tough day is when the batteries on their iPod run out. They are the ones whose idea of teacher harassment is being asked a questions, such as, "How come you’re late for class again?" Or worse, being given homework over the weekend. They are the ones whose deepest sense of human injustice is having the privacy to their lockers violated. They are the ones whose life horizon stretches to that blessed day when they get their own wheels. Or, perhaps, to getting away to college where the real party-hearty time begins.

This is not an allegation that our children are born defective. Or that the genetic material we send off to school is somehow substandard. Our homes and schools have pretty much the same stuff to work with as Finnish or Indian or Taiwanese homes and schools. Then why the glaring differences?

The problem is our children are addicted to pleasure. They have become the new Lotus Eaters. Over the last forty years, young Americans have drifted along in a corrupting culture that has made few demands on them. They wallow in a wrap-around world of instant gratification. They have no chores or work at home and no parents teaching them how to self-discipline themselves and how to work. Once they reach the age of, say, twelve or grow over five feet tall, teachers have little or no authority over them. Since school failure has so few consequences, kids can sink to whatever level they choose and still hang around in school to be with their friends.

Americans have evolved a unique children-raising process, based on the pleasure-principle. Parents are eager dispensers of happiness and strain to be their children’s best friends. Teachers have been reduced to nurturing guides, devoid of real clout. This youth culture of low expectations simply isn’t working. Children aren’t built for pleasure. They are built for challenges and growth.

If one thinks that the 21st Century will, indeed, bring on the Age of Aquarius and that America will be leading the world into a renewed Land of Milk and Honey, we can keep on fueling our kids’ pleasure addictions. If we think that the Post WWII era was a unique period of prosperity and now the rest of the world is aggressively competing with us for their share of the pie, then we need to rethink what we are doing with our children.

Parenting vacation time over

If there is one truism about our species, it is that human beings are adaptable to our surroundings. Our cultural surroundings are, however, made, and, as such, they can be unmade. History is filled with accounts of nations picking themselves off the floor and regaining greatness. We can make the culture our children need in order to grow and flourish. The places to start the cultural change are the home and the school.

Parents have to return from their prolonged vacation. We can’t outsource the raising of our children to their peer group, social agencies, or the media. This means a change in parental behavior and a change of goals. It means eyes off the TV and the golf ball and onto the world of our children. We need to reengage with our children on a very basic level, as in "I’m in charge until you are ready to go out on your own."

Once upon a time, before our romantic, progressive ideas about human nature starting dictating our parenting policies, the word "training" was synonymous with being a parent. We looked upon children as young animals needing to be trained how to think and behave. This cultural wisdom was everywhere in phrases like, "As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines." Practically, it means parents demonstrating, correcting, encouraging and, yes, punishing. Figuratively and literally, it means being "hands-on" parents.

Schools need a similar sharp change in direction. It goes without saying that parents should have the opportunity to be able to select the type of school they believe is best for their particular children. Little will change in our schools until the public school behemoth is forced by competition to improve. However, almost all schools need a shift in direction. Instead of catering to "where the student is," schools should focus on where the student should be. If educators are not ready to identify what a graduate should know (that is, a serious, no-nonsense curriculum) and, more importantly, what kind of person he or she be, then they don’t deserve the name "educator." But clear goals are not enough. We have to return the teacher’s authority that is central to education. No more toothless teachers or Jon Stewart wannabees masquerading as educators.

We need schools that have a strong culture, a culture have clear expectations for how people should behave. This means sensible rules and clear consequences. These in turn guide behavior. If some students cannot yet exist within a school culture, then they should be removed and placed in another, one with a stronger carrot-and-stick culture. If the handful of hardcore resisters need an educational Devil’s Island, then so be it. Teachers and administrators and school board members cannot continue to allow undisciplined, attention-getters to set the educational tone of a school.

Clearly, Americans are heading into rough economic waters. The relaxed spirit of the 1980s and 90s, which has lead to our passive, but indulgent child raising must go. We must pry our children from their pleasure addictions and get them ready for the new realities. If history has taught us anything it is that it is cruel to the pleasure-addicted.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at [email protected]


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