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Education Reform Key: Stop Enabling Students' Self-Defeating Behavior

People often ask me how we can bring about meaningful, widespread education reform. And though my answer includes several priorities, it always starts with one: every adult in every school must stop enabling students' self-defeating behavior.

In a chapter titled Unemployment Training: The Ideology of Non-work Learned in Urban Schools in his book, Star Teachers, Martin Haberman describes in great detail--and accuracy, based on my experience in urban schools the past 18 years--several ways this enabling occurs.

My own experience as an enabler seemed unlikely at first, since I entered teaching with high expectations of students. But when students failed to meet those expectations, I quickly concluded they were incapable of doing so. In turn, I lowered (and lowered and lowered...) my expectations, and enabled (and enabled and enabled...) students' self-defeating behavior. Here are just a few of many ways I did this:


  • Giving truant students opportunity after opportunity to turn in make-up work.

  • Re-teaching lessons to accommodate students who were absent the day before.

  • Allowing students to do extra credit to compensate for poor grades on quizzes and tests.

  • Backing off on assigning homework because most students weren't doing it.

Eventually I realized that while indulging kids like this can make life easier for teachers (i.e., avoid conflict with students, parents, and administrators), it can never make life better for students. I also realized that my earlier conclusion was wrong. It wasn't that students were incapable of meeting high expectations; they were unprepared to meet them. Not just in terms of academic skills but also work habits. Organization. Persistence. Dependability. Punctuality. You name it, my students lacked it. So much so that I began targeting their work habit deficits as much as their academic deficits. And whereas I once enabled students' poor work habits, I later helped students develop strong ones.

I'll elaborate in future posts on the work habits I targeted, and how I targeted them. For now, though, I encourage you to reflect on and share your experiences related to one of the biggest obstacles toward meaningful school reform: we as educators enabling self-defeating student behavior.


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