As I wrap up my semester, I worry over students who failed and consider what I could have done differently to teach them better. However, I don’t take credit for the students who succeed. The students who succeed always seem as if they came to me ready to fly; teaching them has been my pleasure, but I don’t feel as if my lessons tipped the scales for them. If I know I’m not responsible for students who succeed, why do I think I could have changed the students who did not? Michael Winerip’s recent New York Times article, “In Gaps at School, Weighing Family Life,” discusses the findings of a new study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” Completed by the Educational Testing Service, the study “took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.”
Listen, this report isn’t really news; it simply collects in one place many variables we’ve heard about before. I just really want to make sure sincere teachers hear about this report, not so we teachers can abdicate our responsibility, shrugging our shoulders and holding up our hands in defeat but because this report confirms that teachers and schools may not be the only major factors in students’ success. Even as I write that, I feel a little silly. It looks so egocentric in print. I understand that my students who do well succeed because of parental support, good attendance, a family culture of reading, and a home environment that supports studying and learning; I think I would have described those factors before hearing about this study. The culture of education, however, continually critiques me, the teacher, for students who struggle. The factors impeding some students’ success can be piled up before teachers meet them, especially when teaching high school. I’ve compared myself to a triage nurse; sometimes I’m just trying to stop the bleeding—I don’t also get students reading and writing up to grade level. I assess myself as having failed those students somehow. But really, how can a teacher, in forty-two minutes a day, expect to compensate for the challenges described in this study?
Should I continue to extend myself to students who are behind and believe they will make great strides? Absolutely. The conviction that I’m here to help students grow is at the very core of my desire to teach. However, this study does vindicate the responsibility I feel as some students slip through my fingers. We need a different ruler for these students. Measuring students who start so far behind as failures because we don’t bridge the gap in one year isn’t fair to those students or to us teachers. We need to measure the distance we gain from where students begin to where they end up even if that still leaves those students behind grade level. Otherwise, the demoralization will kill students’ motivation and wear us teachers out.