Are Lazy Students the Real Problem in Public Education?

A veteran Salt Lake City teacher says students refuse to put in the work.

Over the past few years teachers have borne the brunt of the blame for the challenges facing the nation's public schools. But in a scathing op-ed in Salt Lake City's Deseret News, Teresa Talbot, a veteran of Utah's public schools who's about to enter her 25th year in the classroom, claims "the main problem with our education system today is not what is taught, where it is taught, by whom it is taught or how it is taught." Instead, says Talbot, the issue is students who refuse to put in the work required to earn a good grade.

As evidence, Talbot cites several examples of teachers having to scale back assignments or needing to give students time in class to complete work they didn't finish at home. Talbot's own math students balked at doing multiple step problems. "I'm not doing that; it's too much work," her students complained. Talbot also says students frequently ace the homework but end up failing tests on the same concepts, "because they are not the ones who actually did the work they turned in."

Talbot's op-ed isn't the first time a teacher's frustrations about unmotivated students have sparked debate. In 2011 Philadelphia English teacher Natalie Munroe had to fight to keep her job after blog entries, in which she described her students as "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners" who "curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades," and "complain about everything," went public.

The hand-wringing over lazy students isn't confined to K-12 education, either. In 2009 Babson College instructor Kara Miller's ruffled feathers—and garnered plenty of support in the comment section—with her opinion piece for The Boston Globe, "My Lazy American Students". Miller shared how her students earning C's D's and F's were "almost exclusively American," while her top-notch, hardworking students were from abroad. Last year former Utah Valley University business professor Steven Maranville filed suit against the school after he was denied tenure because of negative student evaluations. Students were angry that Maranville used the Socratic method in class. "Students told me they had never been asked to do this kind of work before and weren’t about to do it now," Maranville said.

Are these educators right, or is this less a problem of lazy students and more about poor teaching? Indeed, for every educator who complains about students not doing homework, there's another who wonders why they're still assigning it—or whether the students aren't doing the work because they don't actually understand the material.

Ultimately blaming teachers or students—or even putting the onus on terrible parents—doesn't help improve things. Talbot concludes that society needs to remember that "education requires two parties: a person who teaches and a person who is willing to work and participate in the learning process." But, given that Talbot's soon-to-be students now know she thinks they're not eager to learn, you have to wonder whether this school year will turn out positively for her class.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Slongood

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