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Originally published March 1, 2012 at 3:19 PM | Page modified March 1, 2012 at 3:19 PM

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Teachers can reach only motivated students

To reach the summit of improved learning, first scale the mountain of apathy, says Seattle high-school teacher Dan Magill.

Special to The Seattle Times

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CHIPPING away at the rock that sits next to the mountain.

That's what education reformers keep suggesting in their train of vague solutions for public education. Their proposals, such as "giving schools flexibility," are so broad that everyone will agree, but no one will know how to implement them or what effect they will have.

Brad Smith's recent column ("Give every student a chance for success," Times Opinion, Jan. 29) serves as an example. He presents a false picture of two opposing sides in the educational "reform" debate. On one side stand the ardent reformers who want key decisions to be based on student and teacher performance. Loitering opposite them are recalcitrant teachers stuck on seniority and oversimplifying the problem to a lack of funding.

This characterization is as great a problem as any facing education. I would like to reframe the reality. There aren't two sides. There are four corners. And in the middle hangs the goal: a sober-minded, analytical, skilled population that seizes opportunities by the gray matter.

What's stopping us isn't money (though it helps!). And it isn't a phantom deficit of student or teacher accountability. What's stopping us most of all is a misunderstanding of how great an adversary we face.

Waiting in corner one, the students — a word I'll define shortly. Warming up in corner two, the good teachers. The bad teachers don't get a corner, partly because there aren't very many of them. Corner three features the employers — people who just want dependable, qualified employees. And in corner four, we have the reform crowd — ones who influence educational policy regardless of their qualifications for doing so. These are the "meddlers."

I call them meddlers because they promote dubious ideas, such as charter schools, merit pay, techno-schools and accountability driven by test scores, regardless of the contradicting experiences schools have had with them.

They declare these ideas vital, charge opponents with being against change for no reason, and say "it's urgent" because we have a "crisis." Even if we do have a crisis (which I don't believe), just because an idea is new doesn't mean it will work.

Why are teachers forced to use data to prove we're doing our jobs, but the meddlers get to ignore data that directly refute their ideas?

This is why we need to redefine "student." Too many of us consider a student someone who goes to school. This is incorrect. A student is a person who goes to school for a specific and laudable purpose, and possesses the corresponding motivation and work ethic required to meet his goal.

This will no doubt take different forms in a third grader compared to a sophomore. But in either case, it can be summed up in one word: teachable. A teachable student tries.

A teachable student responds when school staff reaches out. A teachable student seizes opportunities, and finds the way to the middle of the arena. The teachers send her off, the employers hire her, and the meddlers try to use her accomplishments as evidence their policies are starting to work.

What the meddlers don't understand is that schools cannot guarantee results. Microsoft sells software. Starbucks sells coffee. Teachers? We sell opportunity. And we don't charge nearly enough for it.

My latest example of squandered opportunity: An "attender" who was reminded over a dozen times during a two-month period to make up one test. He never came in, and because of this did not pass the class.

With 150 students and an hour a day with each, should teachers devote the bulk of our time to the handful of attenders who reject all overtures to prioritize their education, or to the larger number of students who want help so they can reach their great potential?

The mountain is apathy — a lack of motivation. And motivation springs from within.

Dan Magill is a high-school teacher with Seattle Public Schools.

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