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Innovations, old lessons go hand in hand in education

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It’s back to school time. And that means a new twist on the familiar laws of supply and demand.

As a parent of school-age children, and someone who has taught in public schools, it’s clear to me that this generation of parents is among the most demanding in recorded history. And, in response, all manner of schools — public, charter and private — are dutifully scrambling to supply those parents with new methods of teaching their children.

As for how parents got so demanding in the first place, there are several factors. There is the fact that so-called helicopter parents have decided to involve themselves in every facet of their children’s lives, and especially their schooling. And then there is the reality that many parents know that our society and the world are getting more competitive, and they want their children to have a solid educational foundation so they can go on to a good college. Also, many parents today have a variety of choices concerning where to send their children and, if they don’t like anything on the menu, they can homeschool. 

But there is another possibility as well as to why this generation of parents are so quick to demand that teachers, administrators and schools bend to their every whim: we’re living in a hyperspecialized consumer culture where the customer has been conditioned to get what he wants, when he wants it and exactly how he wants it. Order a cup of coffee, a hamburger or a pizza and you can get everything you want without putting up with anything you don’t.

It’s only natural that some parents would now extend those expectations to their kids’ schooling. In the educational marketplace, innovation is the new normal. There are more and more K-12 schools that offer project-based learning and greater interaction between teachers and students through things like a university-style Socratic approach, where those who learn can expect to be called on to show how much they know.

There is nothing wrong with trying new things, but let’s not lose sight of some old lessons we should have learned over the years about our educational system and how to improve it. Here’s a half dozen:

(1) The cake mix of educational success has these essential ingredients: The student has to be serious and committed to doing well, his or her parents have to be invested in their child’s education and committed to the same goal, and the schools have to produce an environment where all children can achieve at grade level and beyond.

(2) Low expectations by teachers are the source of many of the problems that plague our public schools and prevent students from achieving their potential. Young people have much more capacity to learn than they are sometimes given credit for. And when educators make counterproductive assumptions about who can succeed and who can’t, they set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(3) While most educators won’t admit it, race and class do matter. Ability grouping, also known as tracking, is illegal in many states. But it still occurs, not because of malice but out of necessity. It helps teachers manage a classroom of 20 to 25 students who learn at different speeds. And Latinos and African-Americans, along with economically disadvantaged whites, suffer.

(4) Measuring teacher performance is a slippery process, in part because of the age-old debate about whether teaching is an art or a science. If it’s art, then its value may be in the eye of the beholder. But if it’s science, then its value can be empirically measured through student performance. And rewards or penalties can be doled out to encourage better outcomes.

(5) Whether we’re setting higher standards or strengthening accountability or gauging student performance through regular exams, we have to be patient and accept the idea that changing the system will be a long and difficult ordeal because public schools routinely put the convenience of the adults who work there before the interests of the children who learn there.

(6) And, finally, teachers often make terrible students. They resist new teaching methods and fall back into old habits even though the student population has changed dramatically. They are especially hostile to being challenged by nonteachers, insisting that only those who have been in the classroom have the right to discuss what happens in one.

Parents want choices — that trend won’t change. As schools respond, there is nothing wrong with innovation and bright shiny objects.

But let’s not forget the basics either. Dedication, discipline and hard work on the part of students, teachers and administrators still go a long way toward educating future generations and putting them on the path to success.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a columnist for the Daily Beast and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam).

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