I came of age as a teacher in the 1980′s, and in that era we read studies in teacher education courses about students whose school careers had been defined by race. Research had shown that teachers who expected African-American children to perform worse than their white peers in fact brought those results to pass, with few achieving on a level that would make a college education a realistic choice. We read the studies as cautionary tales – reminders that it is the job of a teacher to free oneself from prejudice of all kinds so that we can provide our students with equal access to a fine education.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when three decades later, in a meeting with others in my profession, the notion was shared that students from families where the parent had not enjoyed a college education should not be expected to reach the same level of achievement as students from educated homes. The defining feature was no longer race, but socio-economic status.
I wonder what the public thinks. Should a child be asked to reach a lower bar of academic achievement because of the accident of birth? Should the standards for graduation be lower in one town than another? I myself do not think this is a morally defensible position.
When I work with young children I am consistently struck by the intelligence, the sparkle, the potential of all the children no matter what their family background. We all start life full of a zest to learn as much as we possibly can. Certainly some of the students feel the weight of difficult lives, but rarely is the passion to learn impacted at young ages. I would consider it a violation of my vocation to expect less from children whose lives are shadowed by poverty than from those who enjoy comfortable homes and plenty of intellectual nourishment. If anything, those are the children we need to push the most.
As students get older, toward the end of middle school, some seem to lose the motivation to learn. These students are very difficult to teach in the context of a rushed school day with little time for relationship-building. The challenges of life have begun to catch up with them at this point and they often resist academic learning. Some no longer see a bright future for themselves.
When we teachers see a lack of motivation in students we should recognize the call for help being sent our way. We should understand that something must be done differently. We should not turn our backs and decide it is okay not to educate these students to a level comparable to their peers in towns with richer populations. Instead, we should look to the schools and think about what needs to be altered to enable these students to learn. Most likely the school program needs to shift - possibly both at the high school level and in the years preceding the age when motivation is perceived to diminish. The school district’s administrators, and all its teachers, have a moral responsibility to find ways of meeting the learning needs of these students.
We may have to involve social service agencies more actively in the schools – we may need to get students out into the community and connected to adults who can model satisfying professional lives - we may need to make classwork more connected to the real world students crave to be part of. We may not know yet the perfect solutions to the problem of unmotivated students, but we certainly will not find those solutions if we do not try.
We should not have a two-tier system, with children from privileged backgrounds held to high levels of achievement, while those from other backgrounds are expected to achieve at lower levels. Such a model has no place in a democracy. Korea, Finland, Canada, Singapore, China – all these countries and more have made it their central policy to provide equal education for all. The United States should do no less. Mid-coast Maine should work to provide equal opportunity for all its children.