On Monday, as I sat and watched the news of another school shooting my heart was again saddened that as a nation we seem to be raising a generation of children who do not know how to cope with adversity and who do not have resources accessible to get help. NBC Nightly News raised the question, “How do we stop the violence?” As a former high school teacher I paused to reflect, then I realized that this question can’t be answered until we broaden our scope to include:
- What has changed in the school environment over the last two decades ?
- What are we doing differently as a culture?
- How do our values impact the rise in violence?
- And, how can we prevent violence in the future?
These are all tough questions and it isn’t enough that the media has dialogue about it. We should all be having the tough conversations that lead us to action to save our kids. I will work to address each of these questions in a four-part series.
So what has changed in the school environment over the last two decades? I think several things have changed. First, in the late 80’s things did begin to change. We started to reward everyone for participating. Trophies were awarded for playing instead of winning. This transferred to the classroom where students would argue, “I worked really hard on this essay so I deserve a better grade.” My response often had to be, “I am grateful that you worked hard because without that hard work your grade would be lower. Now we need to talk about what else you need to do to earn a higher grade.” It was hard for students to understand that hard work did not automatically equate to meeting the expectations or requirements of the assignment. As an educator the difficulty compounds when the parent provides the same argument. As a parent myself I work to teach my children the difference between hard work and exemplary work. Hard work is a necessary step to achieve success, but it does not guarantee it. Exemplary work is even harder. And, as they get older and progress through the grade levels in school expectations of what is exemplary should be rising too. In an “everyone gets rewarded society” everything seems to lack value. Mickey Goodman shared a similar report in her article in the Huffington Post, “Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?” She also believed that we give kids a false sense of success.
Another thing that has changed is that educators have started to write curriculum designed to teach to standardized tests. This means that a certain amount of material must be covered in a particular manner. Although accomplishing work is critical to education, when teachers are teaching to a test things get overlooked. One of the things that I believe has happened as a result is that teachers have less opportunity to build in time to know their students and develop relationships peer-to-peer or teacher to student. I would argue that this is key. Relationships are key in the classroom, workplace, and certainly in the family. When test scores drive school funding, teacher competency, and anticipated student success, etc. we spend more time fulfilling the requirements. Students learned quickly that what matters is the test. How to get the grade became the motivation rather than how do I give my best effort, challenge myself to be better, and really compete for skills and knowledge that stretch my thinking and my abilities. An example is the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) given to sophomores the majority of whom pass it in 10th grade. If however, a student does not pass they will retake it twice a year until they do. It is true that they cannot graduate without passing the test but those who pass it as a sophomore are left asking, “If I can pass the graduation test now, why am I still in high school?”
Next, we began to use a soft approach to discipline because parents demanded that schools could not implement punishment. Schools should have policies, but a business model became the norm for schools. This led administrative teams to view students as customers and then parents took on a role that the customer is always right. So, discipline in many schools became a negotiation. Then, following Columbine, administrators decided that the best solution is a “No Tolerance” policy. This meant everyone is at fault in a fight or altercation. This is the polar opposite of giving everyone a trophy who participated. It was no longer about who started it, it was instead about defending oneself as well. This policy clouds right and wrong in the school environment and we will come back to this in Part 3: How do our values impact the rise in violence?
For students, these may be the first in a series of things that have impacted their learning environment. Certainly there are others as well so hopefully this sparks more conversation about what changed in the educational environment. When we can fully answer this question we will be better able to develop a strategy to turn it around.