Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Education System Seen Through the Prism of a Web-Comic

A picture has been going around Facebook the recently that attempts to capture the cultural shift that has taken place in the last 40 years when it comes to education. Being married to a teacher, I get what the message for this graphic is: that parent's do not take responsibility for their children's performance in school the way they used to. At the same time, I feel pictures like this do a disservice to the discussion of how to improve the situation.

Like playing one of those kid's games where you're supposed to point out the differences, I found myself studying this graphic for all the differences and abnormalities.

  • The obvious one, of course, is the attitude of the parents and who they hold responsible for the grades. 
  • Then there's the kid's attitude, which is naturally changed with not being the object of any scrutiny. 
  • The teacher's expression in each panel is similarly changed now that parents in modern times focus their energies on the teacher. 
  • Call me chauvinistic, but after those primary differences, I ask myself about the teacher's dress. A skin covering dress to blue jeans and a low-cut cleavage-showing shirt? 

To those who would prefer to see all parents behave as in the 1969 panel, you cannot force every set of parents (if they are still a set, these days) to "care enough" about their kids to take an interest in their education. They will either play a significant role or they will remain passive--and their decision is likely to be less a function of how much they care about their kids as it is time and energy available left at the end of the day of work, getting dinner together, and every other chore in the house completed--and that's if they aren't working evening jobs, are actually home for dinner, and the kids aren't raising themselves for the most part. If there's nothing left, homework doesn't get checked.

At the same time, parents who are able to take an active role see one of two outcomes: their child does well in school because lessons are reinforced and reviewed at home or their child does poorly in school because the parents are doing too much of the assignment with the short-term goal of excellence outweighing the long-term goal of learning, only to have the child stumble in the classroom assignments when they cannot be coached by their parents. Teachers aren't likely to hear from the parents of the first case, while the parents of the second case end up in places like the second panel of this comic.

When such parents do meet with the teacher about poor grades, they commonly meet a young, female teacher, within years of having graduated college (because so many older ones are already burned out), possibly not even tenured, and dressed more casually then they dress for their own "professional" positions. Given their experiences and observations, can you really fault the parents for jumping to false conclusions?

Why did the teachers change? Educational theory has changed plenty in 40 years, but did that really change the dress code? You might scoff at worrying about how teachers dress, but the fact is that the way you dress acts as a catalyst for the relationship between how you feel and how others perceive you. Dress like a slob, others will treat you as a slob, and you will become a slob. Dress to impress, you will, and your confidence is enhanced. Figuring out which came first: lax teachers or overbearing parents will have to be determined by someone with greater credentials than I in historical sociology.

When it comes down to it, though, the disparity and overall low quality in the education system is not because people in one town are rich and can pay their teachers more while the tax base in another isn't as strong with more people living in poverty. The disparity is because people everywhere, rich and poor (though disproportionately poor to middle class) have more dual income earner households with each earner having multiple jobs to afford a meager living space and food on the table, all while having less time to dedicate to reinforcing their children's educations. It's economics, in more ways than the obvious. If we continue to misdiagnose the problem and have each side blame the other, there will be no improvement and the only ones to suffer will be the children.

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