Are We Too Soft on Our Students?

The Corps has…” This lesser known phrase, uttered frequently by members of the Long Gray Line, graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, reminisces about the perceived softness present at the Academy in the eyes of the beholder.  Ironically, the phrase expressed by the Old Grad as they witness some difference in standards, behavior, or environment is time invariant.  Ulysses S. Grant surely heard it when he was a cadet in 1840, as did the following more famous graduates: John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

The more well known phrases, to anyone born before Watergate, “Back in my day…” or “When I was your age…” convey similar meaning.

As a semi-centenarian, these sayings are all too familiar.  As a parent and teacher, they frequently flash through my mind.  Am I an old fuddy-duddy since I view my world through the lens of my past experiences, some of these decades ago?  I like to think not. Over the years I continue to adapt to my environment and, now, as a high school teacher, I adopt many new(er) sayings, “that’s dope,” “fo shizzle,” and “know what I’m saying,” into my teacher vernacular: in essence, I don a different lens situationally, which keeps me on my toes for sure.

Color Me Purple

As a recent ed school grad, 2011, I agree with many progressive views about education, but none in a dogmatic sense.  Likewise, as someone raised in a military family, I carry many traditional, conservative views, some of which are non-negotiable, such as respecting your elders, and superiors.  The latter view started dying out in the late 1950’s and 1960’s; I missed the memo while growing up on military bases around the country.

Which brings me to the point of this post, are we too soft on our students today?  Surely, times are different academically and behaviorally from the early to mid 20th century.  However, are we holding students to high enough expectations in these arenas?  More importantly, are students learning content at more than a basic level of understanding so that they are truly prepared for their subsequent course, and ultimately college or career?

Lowered Expectations

Our rate of technical innovation does not seem to have diminished of late.  However, the spike in the unemployment rate in 2009 and its perceived lowering since then due to many dropping out of the job search process (high school- and college graduates alike), coupled with the upward shift in wealth belie good times.  Could the softening of our treatment of, and expectations for, 50 million children each year over the past two to five decades have taken a toll on the level of academic preparedness?  I think so, at least for those in certain public education settings where a quiescent level of mediocrity is perceived as the hallmark of excellence. While this may sound harsh, as a new entrant to education from a quarter of a century in high-tech, I am consistently stunned at what I see deemed as acceptable levels of student work. Many of my students have difficulty showing their work on assessments. No teacher required them to write their work following any accepted mathematical conventions. It as if the Wild West or the Serengeti reigns supreme as destinations versus higher education or careers in any field requiring precision, clear communications, or standards.

I believe this holds true especially for those whose children attend schools that cater to the whims of the students and parents without consideration for their chilling effects on achievement and preparedness.  It is difficult to measure this effect in any rigorous manner; however, my sense is students of all socioeconomic levels could be challenged to attain at levels far higher than they are in today’s typical classroom.  Yet, doing so would raise many alarm bells for any individual teacher, as I learned this school year; hence, we celebrate mediocrity as a proxy for true achievement.

As an example, in certain high schools, nearly two-thirds of students receive A or B letter grades while fifteen-percent or so receive C letter grades.  While it is great that nearly eighty-percent of students receive passing grades of a C or higher in their coursework, one might ask if those grades truly reflect understanding, especially when compared to the same students’ results on various standardized tests where an A corresponds to “an advanced understanding of the content,” a B to “a proficient understanding,” and a C to ‘a basic understanding.”  It seems there is a significant bias upwards on grades when the centroid of the distribution on standardized tests shifts far to the left of that for letter grades.  Given this, one must ask how reliable letter grades are as true indicators of achievement and understanding. Many college admissions officers account for this uncertainty using multiple factors to represent student academic readiness, such as letter grade, rigor of coursework, class rank, SAT/ACT score, and the track record of prior admitted students from a specific high school.  Should not normalized letter grade and standardized test score distributions be similar?

Raising the Bar

Do not get me wrong.  I believe students require copious amount of unconditional love, support, and guidance.  Our roles as educators, as oft noted by eminent education historian Larry Cuban are diverse given the varied expectations for our public system of education.  Cuban (2015) notes that, in order of importance, the top five purposes for public education are as follows:

  1. Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;
  2. Help young people become economically sufficient;
  3. Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;
  4. Promote cultural unity among all Americans; and
  5. Improve social conditions for people.

Educational psychologists frequently mention the need for caring, supportive relationships as a primary determinant in positive student outcomes and the attainment of societal expectations for public schools.  I could not agree more with this necessity, for teaching is a field for ardent compassion.  Yet, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to your health. In other words, take all things in moderation. Just ask grandma or grandpa.

Hence, while I am not advocating ruler wielding sisters of faith rapping the knuckles of students who misspell vocabulary words, or jumble their times tables, I do believe we need to toughen up, somewhat, on how we raise our nation’s future citizens.  Study after study indicates that high-expectations from supportive teachers tend to bring out the best in students.  I like to call it “tough love,” however, that is often misconstrued.  A more apt term could be authoritative teaching versus the more domineering authoritarian model; these are derivatives of their use to describe parenting styles.

Unfortunately, many students, parents, teachers, and administrators confuse the two, especially when the school environment does not incorporate much of either style. Authoritative is viewed as authoritarian, with dire consequences for the person viewed as such.

For clarity, a brief overview of these differing styles follows.

Authoritative Teaching

  • I am concerned about both what my students learn and how they learn.
  • I always try to explain the reasons behind my rules and decisions.
  • My students understand that they can interrupt my lecture if they have a relevant question.

Authoritarian Teaching

  • If a student is disruptive during class, I assign him/her to detention, without further
  • The classroom must be quiet in order for students to learn.
  • I will not accept excuses from a student who is tardy.

[See: What Is Your Classroom Management Profile?]

From the few observations I’ve made in my short time teaching, it appears that many teachers prefer neither of these. Rather, they employ what is called democratic teaching or laissez-faire teaching. In my view, aspects of these are valid on occasion. However, as modal methods, they are abysmal as one abdicates the teacher’s responsibility to lead their class while the other abandons students almost entirely to their own hands. Neither serves students well. However, these are infinitely easier methods of management as the burden rests with the student behaviorally, which as adolescents may not be even close to the disciplined effort required to reach the goals set out for them via educational standards, such as The Common Core. On the other hand, academically, these same teachers rarely push or press their students beyond the average expected outcome.

Resilience and Grit

Lastly, the student bears significant responsibility in their academic outcomes.   To this end, resilience and grit are used together quite often of late as factors for student success.  Angela Duckworth uses the term grit as encompassing “the various skills and traits other than intelligence that contribute to human development and success.”

“…as educators and parents, we should encourage children to work not only with intensity but also with stamina. In particular, we should prepare youth to anticipate failures and misfortunes and point out that excellence in any discipline requires years and years of time on task.”

Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007)

In some ways, the storied playwright George Bernard Shaw captures the essence of grit and resilience in one of his many quotes:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Benard (2004) writes “resilience research clearly reveals to all who work with youth the following key points:

  1. Most youth “make it”
  2. All individuals have the power to transform and change
  3. Teachers and schools have the power to transform lives
  4. It’s how we do what we do that counts
  5. Teachers’ beliefs in innate capacity start the change process”

My present thesis relies heavily on Benard’s points, specifically the interaction of points three and four:

Teachers and schools have the power to transform lives


It’s how we do what we do that counts.


What do you think about the level of challenge we present to students? Are students prepared adequately for college and career? Are they prepared equally well across all ability levels? What do you see and recommend?

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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5 Responses to Are We Too Soft on Our Students?

  1. kentilton says:

    You are right about all those A’s and B’s being a problem: the only motivation we had “back in the day” was the stick of bad grades. Arne Duncan’s white suburban moms shut that down back in the late sixties (google “grade inflation”).

    But do we want to go back to intimidated, reluctant learning (presuming we could persuade the moms)? Can we do better? Can we create environments where students learn willingly and joyfully? Kids understand they cannot just play video games all day and will take pride in learning if we create the right environments for that — should we move towards the light of kids enjoying learning so much they learn more than in the bad old days, or just go back to the stick?

    One small point: if we move forward in the right way, kids will be earning “badges” by meeting an unbending standard of mastery, so we will turn around the collapse documented in Nation At Risk. We just won’t be relying on a stick

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Ken. One of the key components in my pedagogy is my intentional use of humor, goofiness, and whatever I believe is necessary to maintain students engagement in the curriculum I planned for them.

      BTW, Blazing Saddles had it all wrong…we do need those stinkin’ badges!!


  2. gflint says:

    Back in the day I remember memorizing all those formulas in math class. When I started teaching math 30 years ago I beat formulas into kids brains. I have since changed my approach to “here is a problem, find a formula/method for solving it”. Have I lowered the bar? I think I have just moved it to a different event.

    BTW, Blazing Saddles was not the originator of that quote, but their adaptation is more fun than the original.


    • I do not view what you describe as lowering the bar per se. I do believe that students should be able to survive without a formula sheet by understanding the concepts so they could reconstruct it / them as needed in many cases. Memorizing without understanding is nearly useless and not valued in my classroom. Computers are waaayyy better at that task, as they are at computing. However they are not so good, at present, at reasoning, complex problem solving and innovating / creating. They might someday…

      The Treasure of the SIerra Madre is the original use, if I recall. My usage was meant more humorously a la Mel Brooks…


  3. Pingback: When Life Gives You Lemons… | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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