Friday, February 28, 2014

The Common Core: Devils and Details

I have the honor of speaking on a panel with other education bloggers at the Network for Public Education Conference in Austin, TX this weekend. Here is some of what I will say.

When I began my journey addressing the Common Core State Standards in my blog one year ago, I was quite na├»ve. I assumed that the Common Core, for better or worse, was a fait accompli and so I focused on ways to help teachers address the standards without sacrificing what I knew to be exemplary practice in literacy education. As I dug more deeply into the Common Core itself and as I heard statements about close reading, ignoring the role of background knowledge and David Coleman’s famous decree that “nobody gives a shit” about how you think and feel when reading, I began to see how fundamentally flawed the Common Core was.

I investigated the people who wrote the Common Core and the process they followed for implementation and my blog turned from criticism of the standards themselves to concern that people who knew nothing about literacy were telling professionals how to do their job. Finally, with the invaluable help of my fellow bloggers, and after reading books like Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch and Test and Punish by John Kuhn, I came to the realization that the Common Core is not merely a flawed document that needed to be tweaked, not just a flawed process that now required a step back for educators to weigh-in,  but a coordinated effort to coerce states to adopt national standards that are tied to standardized testing of children and teacher evaluation based on those test scores. The Common Core is a vital cog in the corporate education reformers efforts to privatize public education.

The Common Core is wrong about literacy in many ways. The call for greater text complexity ignores what we know about developing fluency, especially in the early grades. As Hiebert and Sluys (2013) have pointed out, text complexity is based on the erroneous notion that we must ramp up text difficulty beginning in third grade in order to achieve “college and career readiness.” Kylene Beers and Robert Probst excellent book, Notice and Note, worries that “text dependent questions” in close reading will lead to student disengagement in reading. Having students do cold reads of material without efforts to activate prior knowledge flies in the face of decades of solid research in literacy. Finally, the Common Core pushes overly academic instruction down to the kindergarten where Fiano (2013) has shown that the elimination of work/play stations may harm the development of oral language so vital for these young learners.

The Common Core is wrong in process. No classroom teachers were included in the drafting process. When classroom professionals were invited to provide feedback, the feedback was used to make minor changes, but the Common Core pushers failed to make any substantive revisions. No early childhood experts were consulted, with the resultant problems that I outlined above. The Alliance for Childhood, in fact, drafted a letter of concern about the Common Core while it was still in draft form. The statement said in part, the standards “conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”

But finally, we must see the greatest flaw in the Common Core and its greatest threat is that it is tied closely to the corporate education reformers agenda. The Common Core development was funded in large part by the Gates Foundation. The public relations effort to get the public, the business community and educators behind the Common Core is being funded by the Gates Foundation. The Common Core is inextricably tied to the burgeoning testing industry and the attack on teachers through value added models of teacher evaluation, again promoted with money from the Gates Foundation. In the minds of the corporate privatizers, there is no separating Common Core from standardized tests and from the degradation of the teaching profession through spurious evaluation designs and attacks on tenure and seniority.

The Common Core is of one with the corporate privatizers efforts to destroy public education.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

All Kinds of Kinds: Evaluating a Teacher

               Evaluating a teacher demands nuance, not numbers

The Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, Don Henry, has a song with a refrain that says, “Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds.” I think the same is true when we look at the teaching profession.  

As a student in elementary school, secondary school, college and graduate school, I have had a few great teachers, many good teachers, and a poor teacher or two. I remember my third grade teacher, Ms. Miyamoto. Ms. Miyamoto was from Hawaii. She taught us to dance the Hula, how to prepare and eat poi, and other basics of Hawaiian language and culture. I remember mostly how she was unfailingly kind. For an 8 year-old-boy in 1955, her classroom was a valuable lesson in diversity and respect for other cultures. Ms. Miyamoto was a new teacher and she had her challenges with what we now call “classroom management.” I am not sure how she would be rated as a teacher today, but for me she was a good teacher indeed.

In sixth grade I had Mrs. Stout. I can say without equivocation that Mrs. Stout was a great teacher. I don’t know how she did it, but Mrs. Stout made every child in the classroom, including the class clown (moi), believe that they were intelligent and destined for great success. The one thing I remember that Mrs. Stout taught us was how to outline. She said we would need it in high school and college. She always assumed we were going to college, even in this working class suburban neighborhood in 1958 where college was far from a bygone conclusion. She made us all feel good about our potential.

In eighth grade history, I had Mr. Laidacker. I doubt that Mr. Laidacker was any administrator’s idea of a great teacher, but he was for me. Mr. Laidacker was strict (some said mean), aloof and totally involved with himself. He ignored the 8th grade curriculum (American History) and spent nearly the entire year teaching about his passion, The Civil War. And I mean passion. Mr. Laidacker knew more about the Civil War than Abraham Lincoln. And he could tell stories about the war that lit up the mind of at least one 13 year-old in that class. I can still remember in detail the report I did for him on Civil War medicine. Mr. Laidacker was not liked by most of the students in the school, but he is one major reason I became a history teacher. That passion was infectious for me.

I am sure that anyone reading this can name teachers who had similar ompact on them. The point is that teachers who were good for us, as individuals, may not have been good for other kids. But it takes all kinds of kinds in this world and all kinds of teachers to educate a child. Because of this evaluating a teacher demands nuance, not numbers.

The current mania for weeding out “bad teachers” and evaluating teacher effectiveness through student standardized test scores is wrong headed in the extreme. Teaching is one part art, one part science, and one part mystery. One child’s favorite teacher may be the wrong teacher for another child. Evaluating a teacher is a complex process, that certainly includes evidence of student learning, but it also includes many, many more things. This evaluation cannot be reduced to a number on a standardized test or on a rubric. This type of reductionism does a disservice to the complexity of the enterprise.

The evaluation of a teacher requires a knowledge of and sensitivity to this complexity. That is why I consider teacher evaluation to itself be part science, part art, and part mystery. The science is the easy part. Was the lesson well-planned? Were the students engaged? Did the teacher answer questions thoughtfully? Was the objective achieved? Did the students learn?

The art is more difficult. Was the lesson made relevant? Was it differentiated appropriately? Did children feel safe taking risks in this classroom? Did small groups function well? Were routine matters handled briskly? How effectively were problems handled? What is being learned in this classroom beyond the subject of the instruction?

The mystery is even more difficult. Did magic happen in this class? Did students feel cared for in this classroom? Was there an atmosphere of mutual respect? Does the teacher’s passion come through? What students might be inspired by this teacher? Was the joy of leaning evident?

I like to think of the act of evaluating a teacher as informed impressionism. Just as the impressionist painter, Claude Monet, used thousands of brush strokes to form the whole of a painting of a garden, so the skilled evaluator looks through multiple lenses to gain an impression of the whole of a teacher. This evaluation should be informed by student learning data, but that data is only one part of multi-faceted picture. It must also be informed by multiple observations of teachers working with children and working with colleagues. It is the product of the review of lesson plans, but also the product of conversations with the teacher that probe decision making and the ability to improve through reflection.

In other words, teacher evaluation is not easy and it requires considerable resources in personnel, time and money. The current calls for judging the complex act of teaching through reductionist and faulty value added models and theoretical rubrics are an insult to the complexity of the profession. If we are really serious about understanding and improving the evaluation of teachers, then let’s get serious about just how difficult that task is.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pearson Announces the Education Reformer Starter Kit

Pearson International, bullish on the profit potential of the education reform movement, has decided to branch out beyond the development of Common Core aligned tests and curriculum materials and is now offering The Education Reformer Starter Kit, designed for those venture capitalists, Wall Street Financial Analysts, and former sports stars who wish to get into the lucrative business of privatizing public education.

Pearson spokesperson, Phillip (Flip) Emoff, said the starter kit is custom made for the aspiring entrepreneur looking for new opportunities to tap into public funds for personal profit. "The public coffers may be the last frontier for big business," said Emoff, "and our starter kit will provide all the young Ivy League grad will need to tap into that market."

The Education Reformer Starter Kit will contain the following:
  • The All Occasion Reformy Phrase Book - Contains all purpose phrases designed to resonate with politicians and journalists and deflect real questions from parents and teachers. Some of the phrases include: We're in it for the kids; Work Hard, Be Nice; No Excuses; Poverty is not destiny; Zip Codes should not determine opportunity; unions protect bad teachers; and many more.
  • A completed application, ready for signature, for a grant from The Gates Foundation
  • A letter of recommendation from Jeb Bush and Educators for Excellence
  • A lifetime membership in Chiefs for Change
  • A Teaching Certificate approved by the United States Senate
  • A Common Core Decoder Ring
  • A DVD of David Coleman's close readings of iconic American texts
  • A framed 8 by 10 glossy of Michelle Rhee suitable for hanging
  • A "Get Out of School Free Card" (for use after 2 years)
  • An Arne Duncan Action Figure
  • A gift certificate for dance lessons with Mike Petrilli
  • A "Teach Like a Champion" lapel pin
  • An all purpose PARCC Standardized Test with gold plated number 2 pencil
  • A Charter School co-location divining rod
  • A "No Excuses" coffee mug
  • A Diane Ravitch voodoo doll
Spokesperson Emoff said the kit will be in stores this spring at a list price of $99.99. Expect discounted prices at Walmart.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Churn in New Jersey: Education Commissioner Chris Cerf Leaves to Flog Software

After spending three years doing his level best to destroy public education in New Jersey, Christopher Cerf, Chris Christie's handpicked Education Commissioner, is leaving to take a job flogging software to public schools as the CEO of Amplify Insight, a division of Amplify, Inc. He'll be working for his old boss, former New York City Schools Chancellor and fellow reformer Joel Klein. One thing you must admire about education reformers, they not only say they believe in "churn", they live it. Cerf has churned himself into a highly paid CEO position where he can make lots of money selling software to support his vision of churning over the public schools to privatizers who are promoting online learning as "individualized."

Cerf is a graduate of that reformer breeding ground, the Broad Urban Superintendent's Academy and like every other graduate of that "school" Cerf is in it "for the kids." Does this quote sound familiar? "As Commissioner of Education in New Jersey, I represent only one constituency – our students.  Too often in education reform, we focus on adult interests at the expense of children’s interests." In a video on Big Think, Cerf also says that he thinks consensus and collaboration are the enemy of progress. He's not interested in collaboration, of course, because he is in it for the kids. Let's take a look at what Chris Cerf has done for the kids of New Jersey.
  • Along with 45 other state education leaders, accepted federal Race to the Top bribes to implement the untested Common Core State Standards, PARCC testing and teacher accountability based on test scores.
  • Turned the public schools of Newark over to a crony from New York, Cami Anderson, with limited educational experience and an apparent disdain for the wants, needs and desires of children and parents in Newark.
  • Turned the public schools in Camden over to another New York crony, a 32 year-old Wall Street financial analyst, who oversaw the unpopular charter school co-locations in New York City, before working with Cami Anderson in Newark on the unpopular One Newark Plan. Camden parents should get ready for the One Camden plan soon.
  • Accepted a Broad Foundation grant for the public schools of Newark contingent on the re-election of Christie and the increase in charter schools in that community.
  • Showed he cared about kids by making sure they are subject to more standardized tests, including new tests for 2015 for which the students have not been prepared.
  • Pushed through a teacher evaluation plan unsupported by research and wildly unpopular with the teachers who will be the targets of the plan and the administrators who will use it.
  • Continued a policy of zero growth in the budget for administration of schools despite the call for more and more teacher observations in the new accountability design. 
  • Attacked teacher job security through attacks on due process.
  • Destroyed teacher morale in a state that is among the highest achieving in the nation.
  • Pushed a failed reform agenda of charter schools and vouchers, while ignoring the very real problems of poverty and segregation plaguing urban public schools in New Jersey.
Chris Cerf was in it for the kids for his 3 years in New Jersey. Apparently the teachers of New Jersey, who have made a career commitment to work with the children of New Jersey.were not sufficiently "in it for the kids." They needed to be chastised in the press, victimized by a clearly flawed evaluation system, and marginalized by an administration who did not want to collaborate with those on the front lines of public education. 

So Commissioner Cerf, best of luck to you as you go to your new job as the CEO of a company selling software "for the kids." The teachers, parents and students of New Jersey will stay right here trying to make the best of the mess you've made. Don't let your golden parachute land on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The House That Gates Built

When I taught in the primary grades, I loved to read aloud to children cumulative story books like There was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, The Napping House, and The House that Jack Built. Here is a reformy version of that last title. If you want to read the original you can find it here.

The House that Gates Built

This is the house that Gates built.

This is the money that lay in the house that Gates built.

These are core standards that were bought with the money that lay in the house that Gates built.

These are the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

These are the children all forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

These are the teachers all tattered and torn
Who are judged by test scores of children forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

These are the TFAs newly shaven and shorn
Who replace the teachers all tattered and torn
Who are judged by test scores of children forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

These are the reformers smearing teachers with scorn
Who hire the TFAs newly shaven and shorn
Who replace the teachers all tattered and torn
Who are judged by test scores of children forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

This is the Secretary, apparently sworn
To defend reformers smearing teachers with scorn
Who hire TFAs newly shaven and shorn
Who replace the teachers tattered and torn
Who are judged by test scores of children forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

This is the President, champion of reform,
Who appointed the Secretary, apparently sworn        
To defend the reformers heaping teachers with scorn
Who hire the TFAs newly shaven and shorn
Who replace the teachers tattered and torn
Who are judged by test scores of children forlorn
Who take the tests standard and uniform
That measure growth on core standards
That were bought with the money
That lay in the house that Gates built.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Common Core: Is “College and Career Ready” the Right Target?

Why "college and career ready?" Could it be because this fits the corporate reform agenda?

The designers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) determined that the purpose of a K-12 education was to insure that children were “college and career ready” by the time they completed high school. Having determined that our students were not “college and career ready”, they looked at what would be required of a graduate in the areas of literacy and mathematics to be deemed ready and built the standards backwards from high school through middle school to elementary school to provide stepping stones that would lead to that final goal. Holding aside for a moment whether this design construct makes any sense, can we say that “college and career ready” is the appropriate target for public education? And further, if it is not the appropriate target, why have the developers of the Common Core put so much stake in it?

Who could be against standards designed to make children “college and career ready?” It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Perhaps I have become too cynical. Whenever I hear a slogan that sounds too perfect, I get suspect and go into my Orwellian doublespeak mode. A great example of this is the Bush era “Healthy Forests” Act. The Healthy Forests Act was nothing more than a handout to the lumber industry allowing them to cut down trees and earn profits in areas where this had not been allowed before. It is telling that the “Healthy Forests” Act was opposed by every legitimate environmental group in the country, but supported by Bush’s big business friends. Is “college and career ready” nothing more than a gift to the education privatizers and wealthy corporations who are eager to support the CCSS?

For me “college and career ready” is too narrow a goal for public education. The problem with narrow goals is that you may find ways to achieve them and you may even find ways to demonstrate that you have achieved them, but because your goal was too narrow, you never achieve the larger goals necessary. For example, you may set a goal to have children learn to decode words. You may focus on that goal and you may, and likely will, achieve some measurable success. The problem is that you spent so much time teaching decoding, that you failed to focus on the real purpose of reading, and so you have created kids who have improved in decoding, but still can’t read. Getting meaning from reading is the true goal, not decoding. In public education, an informed and participatory citizenry is the goal. Does “college and career ready” get us there?

I would propose a broader target for public education. It is a target that I believe most of us would easily say “amen” to and yet we have watched as the goals for public education have been narrowed to something “measurable.” To my thinking the education of any human being has four dimensions.

1.    The life of the citizen
2.    The life of the mind
3.    The life of the body
4.    The spiritual life

The spiritual life is, and should be, outside of the purview of public education, but all three others are necessary targets of schooling.

The United States of America is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy. In order for that experiment to sustain itself, an informed populace is necessary. This is, of course, the original purpose behind public education since the days of Horace Mann. This has not changed. In a world where “news” organizations have become little more than political organizations flogging partisan viewpoints 24/7 and where all sorts of unsubstantiated opinions (like this one) are readily available on the internet, it is as important as ever to prepare children for informed participation in our democracy. Of course this preparation will include many of the abilities discussed in the Common Core, including critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. It would also include empathy for fellow citizens or citizens who are less fortunate. Despite CCSS author David Coleman’s disdain for “how you feel or how you think”, how you feel and how you think are critical components of being a contributing member of a democracy.

Despite what appear to be longer and longer work days for many Americans, we can safely say that most Americans will spend at least 1/3 of their waking lives at leisure. The quality of how that 1/3 of a lifetime will be spent is determined, at least in part, by our education. One target of public education, then, should be developing the habit of mind that leads a person to be a lifelong learner. Lifelong learners spend their leisure time in a variety of pursuits, not one of which is the “right” one. The key is how rich and rewarding these pursuits are for the individual.

That is one reason why in public education a dynamic arts program is critical. Despite President Obama’s view of art history majors, the arts are at the center of a quality public education. Children need exposure to all the rich visual and performing arts, the chance to participate in a chorus or a band or a dramatic production. They need to develop the teamwork that is a part of these activities. They need the chance to experiment with a variety of artistic expressions and they need to get a sense of the history of the arts. We are failing our children and our country if we do not provide them with opportunities that will allow them to have a lifetime of continued learning and the joy that comes from being an informed witness or participant in artistic performance. Public education should prepare our children, then, for the life of the mind.

Finally, there is the life of the body. Strong public education includes strong physical education programs and strong sports programs. It includes health education and nutrition education. One of the consequences I have seen from the three decade long push for higher standardized test scores is the continued diminution of the importance physical education programs and recess in schools. I recently visited a school where the children get one forty-minute physical education class a week and recess is a part of a 25-minute lunch that barely gives the kids time to get their lunches and eat. This is not acceptable, but unfortunately it is also not unusual. Children need plenty of opportunities for directed physical education and unstructured play during the school day. In addition the public school should provide organized sports programs, not only for talented varsity level athletes, but intramural programs for all children who only wish to participate in organized sports.

I am reasonably sure that these goals for public education are shared by most Americans. Some might rightly point out that the architects of the Common Core recognized that “particularly in the early grades social, emotional, and physical development are important considerations (CCSS).” Unfortunately, despite such qualifiers as this, with the CCSS tied so closely to standardized tests and teacher evaluation, they are bound to become the defacto curriculum for public schools.

It appears that the authors of the CCSS recognized that there was more to a public education than these standards. Why then the focus on the narrow goal of “college and career ready?” I think the explanation can best be understood if we look at who has funded the CCSS, who are the biggest boosters and what other initiatives the Common Core is tied to.

The development, roll-out and promotion of the Common Core was underwritten to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by Bill Gates and The Gates Foundation. Why would this captain of industry want to spend so much money on these standards? If you asked him, I am sure Gates would tell you that he was looking for a way to do good with all his money and this was the way he thought he could do it best. The problem is, of course, that this means the CCSS is representative of Gates’ world view. That world view is colored by his status as a wealthy “self-made” man. What was good for Gates would be good for all America’s children. So we get corporate, privatized education designed to produce a bright and compliant supply of employees for our multi-national corporations.

The true goal of the Common Core State Standards also cannot be understood without viewing them as a part of a total package that includes standardized testing and teacher evaluation. The CCSS had to be narrowly cast because student achievement of the standards was to be subject to standardized testing. It is very difficult to measure empathy, artistic appreciation and physical well-being with a standardized, fill in the bubble test. The CCSS gets rid of all that messiness by simply focusing on narrow, testable standards. Learning is complex and measuring learning is a complex activity that often must be done on the local level; that is, in the classroom, by the teacher who knows the children. The CCSS and the standardized tests they are tied to cannot capture the complexity of teaching and learning.

Why are the standardized tests necessary? Well, one reason is to gauge student progress, but the other reason is to evaluate teachers. The CCSS cannot be separated from the desire to quantify teacher performance. The Common Core leads to standardized tests of children, which leads to “value added” measures of teacher effectiveness. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the fallacious nature of “value added” measures, value added teacher evaluation remains a part of the reform agenda and are inextricably linked to the Common Core. Teachers who like the Common Core, but abhor all the testing and test driven accountability need to recognize that these are all a package.

So, why “college and career ready?” Why design standards that are “standardized test ready?” Why evaluate teachers with a widely discredited value added statistical model? Why take the easy road of an easily quantifiable set of standards that ignores the complexity of learning in all its messiness, all its potential and all its beauty? Why? Because these “reforms” serve the agenda of the corporate privatizers who wish to eliminate the bothersome democratizing impact of public education.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Myth of the Lazy Child

Kids, tell me what’s the matter with kids today? – Bye, Bye Birdie (Strouse and Adams, 1960)

Recently, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column where he charged that “too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel.”

The column, Obama’s Homework Assignment, praises Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his statement throwing parents and children under the school bus. He thinks Duncan is telling the hard truth to parents when he says, “To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

Friedman’s column and Duncan’s comments can best be seen as a part of the ongoing blame game in the education reform movement. Blame the teachers. Blame the parents. Blame the kids.

But in the column Friedman also quotes extensively from someone who by all appearances is an exemplary English teacher and who had worked tirelessly to ensure that every one of her students was successful. She expressed her frustration because she was told by the school administration that the 10 percent or so of her kids who had failed were “not allowed to fail.” According to her report, administrators said to her, “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” She wondered, “What am I not doing for them?”

Friedman went on to cite the concerns of another veteran teacher who noted that 30 years ago he might have had 1 or 2 students in a class who refused to do the work, now it is more like 30% of kids. “The difference is that back then, although they didn’t want to, they would do the work. Today, they won’t.”

I have no wish to disparage hard working teachers, but Friedman has brought them into his column to further his thesis that kids are not working hard enough and parents aren’t pushing them hard enough. So are “kids today” simply not putting in the effort they must?

I have heard from more than a few educators that “these kids today” are just not as dedicated as students as those of yesteryear. Actually, I first heard that sentiment in 1969; my first year as a teacher. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now.

There are no lazy children. In my forty-five years as an educator, I never met a lazy child. What we call laziness or lack of effort is a symptom. As educators we need to look behind the symptoms to find the root causes. Here is how one child psychologist put it.            

Children are not lazy. They may be frustrated and discouraged, anxious or angry; they may have become disillusioned or defiant, self-critical or pessimistic, and they may lack confidence in their ability. But this is not laziness. The misconception that kids are lazy is one of the most common, and most destructive, misunderstandings of children. (Barish,2012)

My son was a bright, but indifferent student. He spent little time on his studies in school and even less time on them at home. At the end of a typical school day, when he was about 12 or 13, he would dash into the house, throw down his book bag, dash up the steps to his room and appear a few minutes later in full soccer regalia and dribbling a soccer ball between his feet. He would dribble the ball out the door, calling over his shoulder that he was going to the field to “practice his skills.” He would then spend two hours, often by himself, practicing. His grades suffered, but not because he was lazy. His energies were, shall we say, “other directed.” By high school the soccer ball had been replaced by a spiral notebook filled with sketches and his scribbled writing. None of this writing was school assignment related. When I found the notebook under his bed and asked what it was, he told me he was “working on a novel.” This kid who was working on a novel was also barely passing English in his senior year.

The novel became a play, the play was produced by the wonderful high school drama teacher, Mr. Mann, who recognized his talent, and it was eventually produced professionally. Today, this “lazy” kid has a college degree and makes his living as a writer.

Many, if not most, kids who may be labeled lazy students are, like my son, other directed. These kids may take many directions to becoming indifferent to the school work in front of them. For some, it is discouragement. If learning to read or write or compute is difficult, as it is for many children, these children may become discouraged and give up. Few of us persist in areas where we are not successful. Other kids may be hyper-critical of their own efforts, and refuse to do work because they feel like they are not competent. Defiant children may be hiding their discouragement or anxiety behind an angry mask. Others may rebel because they feel like they have no voice or choice in what they are being forced to study.

What is the teacher to do when confronted with unmotivated and often defiant children? Understanding what motivates children is a place to start. Psychologists would suggest that motivation is a combination of interest, success, relevance and achievable goals.

Interest: My son was interested in soccer and then in writing. While it is not always possible to craft lessons that will meet these interests, it is possible to listen to children, find out what their interests are and craft assignments that tap into those interests. It is also helpful to give children some choices in their studies, so that they can explore an interest that is still relevant to the topic under study. A great example of this is the “I-Search paper, proposed by Macrorie (1986), in which the student writes a research paper based on an area of personal interest and expertise.

Success: If a child does not feel that an assignment can be done successfully, it will be difficult to motivate that child. The first step here is to acknowledge the child’s frustration. We should talk to them about times we have been frustrated or discouraged. Then we must build on a student’s strengths as they relate to learning. If the student is not a strong reader, lengthy reading assignments are not going to help with motivation. Perhaps the student is a strong visual learner and an assignment can be crafted that helps the student get the relevant information through video presentation. Yes, all students need to learn to read and write, but modifying assignments while simultaneously making sure a student gets help with skills that are still developing would be the ideal way to approach the situation.

Relevance: If we expect children to invest their time in something we want them to learn, it is incumbent on us to demonstrate how it is relevant. As teachers we should always be ready with real world examples of why what we are learning about is relevant. We should always be ready to answer the question, “Why does this matter?” in a way that the children we are teaching can understand it. We must also make sure that children can answer the “So What?” question for themselves.

Achievable Goals: Students, generally, want to please their teachers. Years of failure or feelings of incompetence may make the child defiant or disengaged, but nearly all children would like to feel successful. It is important, then, that teachers assist students in developing their own goals that are achievable. With disaffected students it may be best to start with short term goals and build up to longer term goals. The important thing is that the student gets a feeling of success by achieving a personally developed goal.

Nothing said here is a panacea and even the best, hardest working, most dedicated teachers will fail in their efforts to motivate some children. The real problem for our English teacher above is not that her efforts fell short or that her students were lazy, but that she and her students were trapped in an antiquated evaluation system that forces teachers to label kids as failures for lack of apparent effort.

A former school superintendent that I worked with used to ask all prospective teaching candidates this question in an interview, “Is student failure teacher failure?” My answer to that question would be a qualified, “Yes.” It is the responsibility of every teacher to do his/her best to meet the needs of every student and to find a way to motivate and educate even the most recalcitrant student. When we fail to do this, we have, in some sense failed. We must, however realize that it is impossible to reach all, and though we might fail on occasion, we need to face the challenges of a new class and once again set a goal to reach every student, even if we know that goal is a stretch.

Friedman and Duncan may feel comfortable blaming America’s parents and children for a lack of effort, but as teachers we cannot fall into that trap. Ultimately, where professional educators must come down is on the side of the children and assert that there are no lazy students. As teachers we must not blame the students; we must peel back the layers of disaffection the child uses for protection to find the key to that individual student’s wants, needs and desires. That is in every teacher’s job description.