Mr. Ungren’s Opus

One of my favorite movies is “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. It’s a dramatic comedy about thirty years in the life of a high school music teacher. It has a wonderful cast that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Jay Thomas and both Alicia Witt and Jean Louisa Kelly when they were just starting. It’s a moving story that chronicles the journey of Mr. Holland as he progresses from a reluctant first year teacher to revered thirty-year veteran educator. I watch “Mr. Holland’s Opus” about once a year.

I suppose that one of the reasons that I like that movie is that it takes me back to my own high school years. Despite the inevitable teenage angst, I did enjoy those times. But the real reason that I like that movie is because Mr. Holland reminds me, in some ways, of one of my high school teachers, Mr. Ungren. Mr. Ungren was a demanding math teacher who expected a 100% effort and the results that usually went along with that. Like all great teachers he coupled those expectations with the talent to present the material and the willingness to go the extra mile for a student who needed the help (thanks, Bob). Most people have a “Mr. Holland” or Mr. Ungren somewhere in their school years. Many have more than one.

My wife and I are hosting a young girl from Japan this year as an exchange student. Her name is Ayumi and she is a delightful young lady and an excellent student. We’ve had occasion to meet and speak with several of her teachers this year and I’ve seen bits and pieces of Mr. Ungren in nearly all of them. It heartens me to know that the each generation of teachers since I was in school has been able to pass that legacy of dedication on to those who took their place. It saddens me that despite that resource, our educational system is slipping further and further behind those in the rest of the world.

Based on the results of the Program for International Student Assessment exam, and despite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), U.S. students continue to fall behind much of the rest of the industrialized world in problem solving and math reasoning abilities. Those are precisely the abilities that students need to successfully transition from high school to either college or the workplace. There have been some impressive improvements in U.S. standardized test scores, but those don’t necessarily equate to actual educational progress. More likely they are reflective of educators shifting focus from teaching students how to think to teaching students how to take multiple choice tests.

Some requirements of the NCLBA are positive and welcome. Teachers should be qualified and the requirements specified in the NCLBA are reasonable minimums. The Scientifically Based Research methodologies specified are also useful, with the caveat that all statistics can be manipulated to point to multiple conclusions about the effectiveness of nearly anything. The special attentions mandated for student groups that had previously been under-achieving are also needed as is the additional funding and latitude that states have to use that money. The problems lie in other areas.

The “carrot and stick” aspects of the act, while defensible from the standpoint of accountability create the incentive to stack the deck on reporting results. For example, modifying individual state standards and reclassifying the status of dropouts are just two ways that schools and states have learned to manipulate the system to improve their apparent performance. But perhaps the most damaging incentive is the one that tempts teachers to teach to the test rather than try to branch out from the standardized norms.  By narrowly focusing their methodologies, teachers minimize their ability to show the students that thinking their way out of problems is more effective than memorizing their way out.

I’m not an educator and don’t have the credentials to talk specifics about how a particular course should be taught. Beyond that, I’m sure that I don’t have all of the answers about why the academic performance of United States students pales in comparison to much of the international community. But, as a reasonably intelligent adult who has parented two children who have done well in life, I do have an opinion. It seems to me that, individual student potential aside, four factors have a major impact on an educational system’s success. Those would be government, teachers, parents and the students themselves. Let’s start with government.

State and federal governments have very specific and limited roles in education. The primary role is to provide supplemental funding, set the standards and monitor the results. They also have an obligation to ensure that we have a continuing supply of dedicated and qualified teachers. That can be done by helping local government pay teachers the type of salary a professional deserves and by developing tuition incentive programs to convince some of our best and brightest students that teaching is a viable alternative to working in the private sector. Past that, stay out. They’re our kids. Everything else involving education is the province of local government.

School boards are the trustees of our children’s education. At the most basic level, a school board member’s job is to provide the tools and remove the obstacles. Oh, if were only that simple. As so often happens in life, it all comes down to money. Facilities, payroll, text books, computers, supplies, the list is endless. Being a good school board member requires a delicate balancing act between tax revenue and needs. A good steward knows the difference between needs and wants. They also have the ability to convince taxpayers to pay for the former and resist the pleas of advocates for the latter. Multiple Olympic size swimming pools and robotics labs in a high school are great, if a district has the extra money. Most don’t and those funds would be better spent providing reasonable salaries for teachers, new textbooks that parents don’t have to rent, expanded classes for special students at both ends of the performance spectrum and safe, sound classrooms that don’t have wheels. Keep your eye on the ball people; your job is to facilitate the education of our children. If you think it’s to build Taj Mahal schools or stretch the life of a school long past the time when it should be replaced, then go home so someone who understands the job can do it right.

Teachers have a tough gig. There’s never enough time, resources and money are scarce and everyone thinks they know how to teach the students better than they do. Even worse, keeping classroom discipline is increasingly difficult and burnout is a constant threat. Despite all that, most educators do a pretty good job. The good ones don’t need any advice from me on how to do their job. They’re doing it just fine. They know their subject well, plan their classes, pay attention to the details and fight anyone or anything that gets between them and successfully teaching their students. My concern is with the ones who think that teaching is a job rather than a profession. They learned their subject just well enough to get certified, plan their classes as they walk in the door, watch the clock more closely than the students do and are full of excuses about why their students consistently under-perform. If you’re one of the good teachers then you have my respect, admiration and thanks. If you’re one of the clock-watchers, find another career. We can’t continue to let you screw around with our most precious resource. Our only defense against sub-standard teachers is the school administrators. They have the challenge and obligation to identify the bad apples and cull them out. That may sound too Darwinian, but the option is educational mediocrity. In a competitive world economy, mediocrity is not acceptable.

With every passing year, it seems that our adult lives become more busy and complicated. There’s never enough time to get things done. Despite that, there is one basic fact that will never change. Once you become a parent, the next eighteen years of your life has only one primary goal – raising your child to adulthood. If you don’t agree with that, you shouldn’t be a parent. There are a number of facets to that job and school performance is only one of them. But it’s a big one. First and foremost, parents need to set the goals and expectations. Most kids won’t; they don’t have the perspective. An equally important part of parental responsibility is to give children the help and support they need to succeed. Ask them what they are doing in class. Demand that they give the teacher the respect that they deserve. Make sure that the homework gets done and help them if necessary. Limit their time with TV and video games. Being a friend is easy and cool. Being a parent is tough. Be a parent, that’s your job.

Finally, the most important component of a student’s success is the student. History is full of examples of people who have successfully fought adversity to get an education. It’s appalling to see a young person who is handed an education on a silver platter throw that gift away with barely a second thought. It’s your life kid, and you have to take responsibility for what happens with it. No one should expect more from you than you have and you shouldn’t expect to give less than you can. To a large extent, your years in school will determine your success in life. That’s a pretty small commitment for an immense return. It makes little difference how well or how poorly the rest of us fill our roles. If you don’t do your best, you’ll never achieve your full potential. If you do give it all, nothing can stand in your way. It’s a pretty simple concept.

So, thanks Bob for pushing me to my limits. You taught me a lesson that’s paid off in more ways than I’ll ever be able to tell you. Not the least of those is that, while helping two children and eight exchange students with their math homework over the years, I’ve never been stalled on a trig or calculus problem. How many guys on the high side of fifty can say that?



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2 Comments on “Mr. Ungren’s Opus”

  1. Tom Says:

    This is a insightful and well written column that should be required reading for parents and educators alike.

  2. bent Says:

    bent says : I absolutely agree with this !

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