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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Problem is Us

Sometimes I get misunderstood as a guy who’s against kids. Since publishing my latest book, Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, some think I whine about how this generation of students are undisciplined and feel entitled.

Actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I love this generation of students. But they’re in trouble. More than you may think.

According to Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system,

“The truth is, despite a handful of reforms, the state of American education is pitiful and it’s getting worse. Spending in school has more than doubled in the last three decades, but the increased resources haven’t produced better results. The U.S. is currently 21st, 23rd and 25th among 30 developed nations in science, reading and math, respectively. The children in our schools today will be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than the previous generation.”

Ugh. It’s both sad and unnecessary. So what’s the problem? Why are 3 of every 10 students dropping out of high school?  I have an educated guess.

* They’re not necessarily stupid.

* They’re not necessarily bad.

* They’re not necessarily troubled.

They are bored and have disengaged teachers. Not all of them. Many teachers today are fabulous and are my heroes. But far too many moan about the need for “student engagement” when they’re the ones that need to re-engage.

So, how can so many bad teachers be teaching?

It’s simple. It’s the only industry I know where you can perform poorly and keep your job. One of the key problems in American education today: “tenure.” It’s all about job security. Even if you’re a pitifully unproductive teacher—you get to stay in front of the class. So, if the bad teacher won’t leave…the students do. By the millions each year. The new chapter president in D.C. Teacher’s Union said his top priority: job security for teachers. You see—education is not about the kids. It’s about the adults. That’s a crime.

When I sound the alarm about “Generation iY” I’m not whining about the students. Quite the opposite. I am challenging parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers to re-engage in the most important task we have today—preparing our kids to lead the way into the future.

What are some steps we can take?  Here are a few.

1. Join us as we engage in this challenge. You can give on-line at:

2. Check out Michelle Rhee’s campaign: Students First. (She’s formed a lobbying group to counter the special interests that have hurt graduation rates.)

3. Read and pass on our latest book, Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future.  Just go to:

Let’s act now. Let’s solve this problem by first admitting: the problem is us.



  1. Sarah Thompson on October 7, 2011 at 8:20 am

    The more I hear and read, the more I think we did the right thing with home schooling.  If done right, it can be very a effective educational alternative! 

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      It’s true that there’s no perfect system – glad that you found one that works for you and your students!

  2. CAR on October 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    This article really resonates with me.  The reason so many talented people don’t go in to the teaching profession… because the system is broken and political power will prevent it from ever being fixed.  I so admire the fortitude of the really good teachers my kids have had – to persist and succeed in reaching kids at a time when so many hurdles outside their control stand in the way is awesome.  In corporate America, a company with sub-standard performers and broken processes will eventually fail to exist – it is a fact that plays out over and over again every day across the country and the world.  Yet in the one area above all others (education of our youth) that will determine the fate of this country, true performance based reward (and penalty) systems and the ability to effect real proactive change from the bottom up is stifled by individuals (not all, but many) who earned their responsibilities by the number of hours they have logged within the system rather than the positive impact and change they have made real.  It has long been true in virtually any human endeavor that what is rewarded will be acted upon and repeated.  In a system where rewards for innovation and measurable improvements are few and far between, and time on the job mandates the level of respect you are given, it is hard to imagine how anything will change anytime soon.  There are so many talented people (teachers, adminstrators, etc) in the system that are handcuffed by the hierarchical politics that have become the foundation of our educational system.  We have the talent, the ingenuity, and the knowledge to fix this, but we do not have the servant leaders up, down, and across the system to make it happen.  Leaders whose primary interest is in partnering with parents to build young children in to young men and women who can lead successful, product lives in their own eyes.  If the vast majority of school adminstrators and teachers were acting in the best interest of the children day in and day out and were committed to making change happen, there should be no worries about getting rid of “tenure”.  The fact that those in the most influential positions to make that happen refuse to even consider it speaks to the very problem itself – eliminating tenure would make teachers earn their position and the respect of their peers and superiors (not to mention the kids) consistently – every hour of every day.  They are clearly not up to that challenge.  To quote John Maxwell (or perhaps someone before him)- the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  It is one of the toughest things for a leader to do, but it is far and away the thing that defines the level of success they and those they lead are able to achieve.  Defining reality is not in the repertoire of the key influential individuals on the “inside” of the educational system.  Sad but true….

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      Wow! Great insights – really appreciate you sharing. I’ve said it before but the teachers who are making a difference in students lives are the real heroes. I hope we can change the system before they disappear!

  3. Sjdtch on October 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I am one of those teachers that IS engaged with my students and have been teaching 22 years.   I agree that many are not,  but I also understand some of the frustration effective  teachers like myself  have trying to engage students. Many come to us ill prepared not always academically, but socially.  The art of conversation has died,  and many students have little respect for themselves, others and the classroom.  Parents are either totally disengaged or hovering so close that they do not hold their children accountable for anything.  By the time we’re done counseling those who enter our rooms angry or defeated due to something negative that happened before school,  and cajoled a dozen others to “join in and be a part of the classroom community” we are well into our day and already exhausted.

    We spend every night revamping lessons to meet the needs of my students who didn’t get it and every weekend tweaking lesson plans that last year worked well but won’t work well with my new mix of kids.  We  join online communities to assist with writing lessons, incorporate as much technology as we can to meet their tech-no needs, all the while expected to keep up with RtI paperwork, and student  personal records. We make numerous calls to disconnected numbers trying to schedule conferences with evasive parents  AND  try to accomodate those hovering parents who now have our school emails and remind us daily with the 4 to 5 “urgent” messages they send.

    We buy belts for students to meet the dress code, extra clothes for the uniform closet, pens, pencils, highlighters, paper, teacher resource memberships, calculators and a myriad of other items so that all have an even playing field on which to learn and can be engaged.  I’m not complaining and will continue to do so as long as I’m blessed with a classroom of children who look to me to help them achieve the goals for the year.  I do all these things and still feel guilty that I’m not reaching every child even though every teacher before me has been unable to reach them either.

    I personally don’t believe in tenure.  I’d prefer to see performance pay because I believe I do a better job than the majority of the teachers and to be honest, I’d like to be compensated for it.  Administrators need to have the tough conversations with teachers who no longer meet the needs of this new generation and see that they’re either mentored into the teacher they need to be or no longer allowed to teach. The practice of sending a poor teacher to another school only continues the same destructive cycle.

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing! I could not have given a better example both of what’s right and what’s wrong with our current system. You (and teachers like yourself) are certainly heroes that I desperately wish we had more of!
      Unfortunately, it sounds as if you are fighting an uphill battle everyday against the system that rewards tenure over performance. I realize there is no easy answer but let me thank you personally for the work you do! I know your students appreciate the way you give selflessly to help each one of them.

      • Ukvayat on October 11, 2011 at 10:48 pm

        First, thank you for replying Dr. Elmore, I appreciate that in your busy schedule. It really meant something to me.

        Fighting this negativity is something that is harder for people who have experienced all this change to their style. The perspective shift needs to happen, teachers need to focus back on the students and instilling positive expectations even when things may be rough or trying, which all change is. We need to help them see the creative freedom still reigns within our objectives, within our tested standards and pursue the depth of learning to teach students not just what to think, but how to think. Our perseverance and attitudes are shaping a cynical and detatched generation because so often we are setting a bad example. I’m glad there are teachers like us, Sjdtch, who can model that for the teachers who need it.But I’d also like to hit on ‘What is tenure?’ In the state of Kansas, from the mouths of our state representatives and senators, it is only the right to know why you are losing your job. It can take a minimum of 3 years but up to 5 years of a constant series of evaluations (1 for each quarter) each with their own discussion and also summative meetings BEFORE a teacher earns this tenure (due process as we call it). We are evaluated on criteria designated by the state that demonstrate best teaching practices (teacher performance). Should we be lacking in any one area, the teacher, administrators, and district work together to iron out these rough spots so any teacher should know if they are not making the grade. Then when a teacher earns due process, evaluations continue on a regular cycle even after this fact to help the teacher continue to grow. Should a teacher fail in these regards and show no desire to change, their job is in jeopardy and they should have seen it coming from a long ways off. In this way due process (tenure) is the benefit of proven and consistent performance.

  4. Ukvayat on October 10, 2011 at 6:56 am

    As a teacher, I completely agree. But on the same side of this coin with the ‘bad teachers’ is the role of the parents, “You see—education is not about the kids. It’s about the adults. That’s a crime.” While this is attributed to teachers in this statement it is also true of those ‘bad parents’. Studies have shown that the number 1 influencing factor in student achievement is parental involvement. Yet, our government only spends legislation on the teachers and the classrooms. There is no accountability for the parents! I gladly fill out form after form, go through evaluation after evaluation, and prepare my students for tests if that is what is necessary for them to succeed. But you have some parents who utilize their children as a means of income and tax credit, who would rather use their tax return on alchohol and drugs than to get their child the insulin they need. If test scores really matter so much to our government, then tie student success (or lack of) to their parents dependent deductions. At least hold parents accountable in some way. It breaks my heart to see so many students who have no one at home to push, encourage, and engage them, but it makes my day to encounter those who do.  Parents, do not suffocate your children with the weight of your desires. Teachers, do not let pass before you the life of a student without positively seeking an impact on an individual scale.

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      Great point – the parents certainly share responsibility here. The best situation that students can hope for is engagement both in the classroom and in the home.

  5. Sjohnston on October 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I have been a public school teacher since 1986.  This was back when education was at the beginning stages of the state of Texas creating ways to measure students’ knowledge levels.  With each new year or so, there was a “new and better” standardized test that would do a more thorough job at making sure students were learning what was expected of them.  The tests in which, I personally have administered began with TABS, next TEAMS, then TAAS, and finally TAKS.  As the state began to attach funding and accreditation levels to the tests, the pressure placed on districts to have a good showing increased dramatically.  As the pressure increased on districts, the pressure was passed on to administrators, and inevitably, landed squarely on the teachers’ shoulders.  I am witness to curriculum changing to support “the test”.  Lesson plans are not left up the the creativity of the teacher anymore.  In fact, the curriculum is dictated such that continuity is maintained.  It is sure that this has enabled goals for higher test scores to be met. Unfortunately, it has squashed many ideals once possessed by teachers who held in high esteem their ability to enlighten students’ minds with passion and creative processes. My own sons, who attended a local public intermediate school, informed me one day as the TAKS test approached, that their teachers did not like teaching.  One was in the 5th grade, the other in the sixth.  They had different teachers in different grade levels, yet they both told me the same thing.  I asked my sons why they thought their teachers did not like teaching, and they both replied, “Because of the TAKS test!”  Wow!  I thought.  How would students know such a thing?  Well, I’ll tell you.  It’s because we teachers have let “the system” get to us and in doing so, we have passed this discontent on to our students.  However unknowingly or unintentionally it may have been, this is what has been happening everywhere…at least in Texas.  I heard the same type of chatter and attitudes among my educational peers, as well.  We can point fingers at whose shoulders should bare the blame, or we can realize that the system is always going to change.  We teachers need to stop letting things like, TAKS testing and the pressures that go with it, distract us from our purpose.  A teacher can choose to let things such as the TAKS test define his or her teaching abilities or not.  Tim, teachers need HELP!  We all need a coach that helps us refocus on what is important!  Forbid it that I should dare say, “It’s not TAKS scores!”  Every teacher has the capability to be a great teacher!  This is to all my fellow teachers out there, “Teach those students with that initial passion that brought you to this profession!  Find new ways to engage those students.  Don’t be afraid!  Fear’s job is to cripple and to hold one back.  Whether this is your first year to teach or your 30th year to teach, pass on the passion of learning to those students that are longing for it!

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:42 pm

      Great encouragement to all teachers. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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The Problem is Us