Sep 16 2010

What’s really wrong with student motivation?

Category: child marriageharmonicminer @ 8:00 am

Jay Matthew’s discusses the views of his friend, Robert J. Samuelson, in Why 17-year-olds’ scores have stalled since the ’70s

I learned much from him during <our student years>, as I have continued to do during our long friendship. He enlightens me even on topics in my specialty, such as his latest column in the Post, “The failure of school reform.

He starts with a stark summary of how little progress American teenagers have made in the last four decades of aggressive efforts to improve public schools.

Well, yeah.  Old news.

He recounts explanations for this that fail to withstand scrutiny. The problem can’t be high student-teacher ratios because those have dropped. It can’t be minimal preschool preparation because a larger portion of children are getting that early start. Teacher pay has also improved to the point where two people married to each other and each making the average teacher salary of $53,230 “would belong in the richest 20 percent of households,” Samuelson says.

Instead, he concludes, “the larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.”

Speaking as a university professor who thinks of himself as a teacher, I can certainly attest to the necessity of high student motivation.  Nothing replaces it.  Nothing at all.  But poor student motivation is itself an effect of other things, not a fundamental cause of low achievement.  It’s a necessary step along the way to failure, but focusing on it is like saying you starved because you didn’t eat….  it doesn’t explain why you didn’t eat or didn’t have food.

It is hard to deny his view that in the last 40 years as “adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.” The old my-way-or-the-highway ethos of school discipline that ruled even nice suburban high schools like mine in the 1960s is long gone. Even the schools with the toughest discipline policies these days are run by educators who do everything they can to keep students in school

….. I think Samuelson could also refer to his frequent columns on how immigration has inflated our poverty rates, and suggest that same influx may be depressing average test scores.

Samuelson says policymakers should reconsider before they blame teachers for not doing a better job. Against the realities of low student motivation, Samuelson says, “school ‘reform’ rhetoric is blissfully evasive.” One of the most recent examples of overblown rhetoric, he says, is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for “a great teacher” in every classroom.

…… Samuelson’s recapitulation: “If we don’t recognize that motivation is a problem,” he told me, “we won’t address it.”

Sure, student motivation is critical.  But what creates motivation in students?  A few things are obvious.

**  High expectations at home.   Children learn an enormous amount about what constitutes “success” in the first few years of life, before anyone can possibly blame the failure of the schools.

**  The student’s belief that the student can live up to those high expectations.  If you don’t think you can do it, you won’t try.

Less obvious, apparently, is that student success can’t be faked.  It’s pointless, and ultimately defeating, to give praise for trivial or no achievement. So:

**  The student has to experience real success, and that success has to be recognized by some reward or praise, even if small.  This has to happen over and over, in many small steps along the way.

Only motivation that flows from high expectations, hope for success, and real achievement, honestly recognized, has any chance of growing into the kind of drive that leads to consistent, repeated effort.

But let’s be clear.  Telling students how wonderful and brilliant they are, in the absence of good behavior and actual achievement, is a prescription for failure.  It is bound to be a self-fulfilling prophecy to tell students that they can’t achieve to a reasonable level because someone is discriminating against them (a message minority students get over and over from all sides, all too often).  Telling minority students that their sub-culture is “just as good” in the area of education and achievement as the dominant “American educated elite,” that traditional education is a “white thing,” is bound to damage them.   Giving them the message that they should be rewarded just as if they had achieved is disastrous.  Telling them that they are “auditory learners” is nearly the same thing as giving them permission not to learn to read skillfully.  And politically incorrect as it is to point out, having a married father in the home is probably a bigger predictor of educational success than any other single factor…  just as it is the single best predictor for staying out of jail as an adult.

Most of these values, understandings, and self-perceptions are caught at home (or they aren’t!) before school ever starts.  Expecting the schools to somehow fix things, by being brilliant and motivating, is not a successful strategy.  Sadly, our schools have gotten so politically correct, so fearful of telling the truth about what works, our education establishments so self-protecting and our politicians so thoroughly lobbied by the teachers unions, that there is little remaining hope by any half-honest observer that anything can be done to really deal with our problems without a radical restructuring of our entire approach.

Minority parents everywhere want school choice and vouchers, especially those parents who are invested in their children’s success in school.  Unfortunately, the failure of the system to adequately educate those minority parents (in the last generation of students) can be seen by the fact that those parents who want school choice for their own children continue to vote for political candidates who won’t give it to them, precisely because those politicians are so beholden to the teachers unions and public education lobby.   There is a word for doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results, and that word apparently describes these parents, who continue to vote for candidates who will maintain the educational status quo.

I am somebody” is not enough.