A study out this week by the liberal Center for American Progress found that kids in the middle don't think school is challenging enough.
That's right: According to the great silent majority of students surveyed over the past three years by the Department of Education, the problem is not too much homework but too little; it's not assignments that demand too much, but those that are, quite literally, too easy.
Consider: Among eighth graders, 57 percent say their work in history is either "often" or "always" too easy. Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors say they rarely write about what they study in class. (What do they write about?) In math, where much has been made of the gap between our kids and those from other countries, 21 percent of all 12th graders say their classes are "too easy."
What's happening? I fear it is as simple as this: While kids at the top have been subject to enormous attention for the supposed pressure-cooker competition to get into the top colleges, and kids at the bottom have been subject to enormous attention because of debates about whether they should be promoted even when they lack basic skills (and how to provide the remedial help they need), kids in the middle just slip by. Or slip through, neither failing nor soaring, neither demanding extra attention nor getting it, doing OK as opposed to doing their best.
Believe me, I've seen it. Anecdotally, I'm sure everyone reading this knows of students who go from year to year in the middle, with no one even trying to figure out whether they could do better, or what it would take for them to do their best.
I know of kids with very treatable learning issues who simply were never diagnosed because they were making mostly B's or C's — and it was the A students and the D/F students who got all the attention.
I know of parents who can't forgive themselves for not realizing their kids had problems or weren't being challenged, because the schools and teachers kept telling them what a "pleasure" their children were. Pleasure? Maybe. But too often, pleasure is a synonym for a student who demands very little and does well enough.
We debate standards when what we really mean are minimums.
We wring our hands over the pressure being out of control. But really, most of it is self-imposed, or imposed by parents of students in the most accelerated classes. Schools pride themselves on the number of students who get into top-tier schools, without asking how many could have gotten into top schools had they received the attention they deserved.
Kids in the middle deserve as much attention as those at the top and bottom. They are telling us that they need to be challenged. They are telling us that "teaching to the middle" should mean challenging the kids in the middle, not accepting middling mediocrity as good enough.
Some educators, responding to the latest report, argue that what these students are really saying is not that they don't have enough to do, but that they are bored. I can still remember sitting in my high school classes, with those old-fashioned ceilings with the little holes in every panel, and counting the holes.
The challenge is not to simply assign more work, but to assign work that emphasizes critical and creative thinking, that sparks kids to look down instead of counting holes in the ceiling panels. Technology is not an answer to everything. Talented teachers and attentive parents will always be key, but technology makes it possible to teach a class in which everyone is not working at the same level or on the same lesson.
Our kids are telling us something very important. We need to listen. We owe them better.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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