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Posts Tagged ‘educational standards’

Every school send kids to the dean for fighting or stealing or drinking.  Then those kids get detention or suspension or some other punishment.

And then they just keep on failing in class.

My school not only allows, but requires teachers to give detention  for missing work and low grades during an extended lunch period.  Each subject has a certain day of the week (English is on Tuesday) and we’re supposed to hold students who are failing and make them do their work.

That’s right, we stigmatize failure.  We hold students immediately responsible for their choices to slide by and not achieve.

Any student who fails to show up will get an after-school detention with the deans.  That’s right, our deans support our teachers and help them get results by making kids accountable.

Do they get the message and become more self-motivated?  Not always.  They’re teens.

But they know that success is important to us.  They know what our priorities and expectations are.  That’s more than can be said for most schools.

“But you work at an elite magnet school for the arts!  Sure, they’e not all geniuses, but they all did have to apply to get in and have to keep their grades up to stay in.  Most schools don’t have that luxury.”

That changes nothing.  Bottom line: students will not take academics seriously if we don’t.  If we want improvement in our schools, we absolutely must make academic success our top–our only–goal, and zero in on it with passion.

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Some current received wisdom: failure is good for us because it’s a strong teacher, and American kids today don’t get to experience it enough because they’re bubble-wrapped through life.

Both ideas have a lot of truth to them, but there’s another that needs to get out there, too:

American kids do still experience failure–constantly–but it’s been completely neutered.

Young people don’t fear failure, nor do they learn from it, though many of them will fail test after test, class after class, all the way through their school career.

Why?  Because what happens after those failures?  Increased practice?  Shame?  Loss of privileges?

Nope.  Nothing.  After the vast majority of daily school failures in this country, for the average teenager, life will proceed normally, as if nothing bad had happened at all.

We, as parents and school personnel, not only don’t hold their feet to the fire, we actively intervene to soften the natural consequences of failure.

In a climate like that, how could students possibly be expected to learn anything about academics, much less life?  Where’s the incentive?

If anything, they learn that failure is harmless and that hard work is pointless.  These lessons would prove terrifying in the real world if the real world itself weren’t increasingly so bent on maintaining that status quo…

 

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The California State University system has succumbed to the overwhelming needs of underprepared students:

Wracked with frustration over the state’s legions of unprepared high school graduates, the California State University system next summer will force freshmen with remedial needs to brush up on math or English before arriving on campus.

But many professors at the 23-campus university, which has spent the past 13 years dismissing students who fail remedial classes, doubt the Early Start program will do much to help students unable to handle college math or English.

“I’m not at all optimistic that it’s going to help,” said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year’s freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

During a session in one of my own remedial college classes this semester, I discussed my notes and advice after reading one set of their essays, and I noted that the past tense of use was used, as in, We used to go to high school.  Invariably, these students had written, We use to go to high school.  Just another example of miswriting based on an exclusively oral culture.

But that’s not the bad part; such instruction is par for the course–no pun intended.  What really shocked me was that after I explained that rule, they argued with me about it.  For a few minutes.  Pretty viciously.  They had to insist that they were right, that the slangy version they assumed to be accurate really was, and that their professor was somehow wrong.  Perhaps their strength in numbers somehow proved to their satisfaction that they could shout me down?  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

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An article just posted in the new City Journal exposes the problem of lowered expectations in No Child Left Behind’s obsession with “proficiency.”  I worry that students now graduate high school thinking that that word denotes some amazing accomplishment, not realizing that it only indicates bare minimum competence.  The law of unintended consequences at work, but no big surprise.

But NCLB’s accountability system led to another distortion, this one harming top students. Because the law emphasized mere “proficiency,” rewarding schools for getting their students to achieve that fairly low standard, teachers and administrators had an incentive to boost the test scores of their lowest-performing students but no incentive to improve instruction for their brightest.

And the Wall Street Journal looks at lowered expectations via legally mandated “accommodations” for a slew of self-perceived “disabilities.”  Great article, but I wish they’d also mentioned ADHD.

Schools are required to extend “reasonable accommodations” for students with documented disabilities—including psychological ones—to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

But there’s hand-wringing among university administrators and faculty about how to support college students with mental health issues while making sure young adults progress academically. One of the goals of college, after all, is to prepare students for the working world. And not every boss may be OK with a blown deadline for a critical client report, no matter the reason. Professors also want to make sure they’re being fair to all students.

I’ve been carping on things like these for years.  Our public schools have been neutered to the point of system-wide impotence largely thanks to policies like the ones analyzed above.  I’m overjoyed that people are talking about them, though.

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Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that UNLV will begin a new class next year, a required freshman orientation course.  The class looks like a seminar designed to acclimate students to college life and work, focusing on the purposes of higher education and the skills required to succeed there. 

A local talk radio host ripped into it this morning, and the comments under the RJ story are universally negative.  But here’s why they’re all wrong. 

If this seems like a dumbing down to anyone, consider the caliber of students we now work with.  The decade-plus long experiment in Nevada with the Millennium Scholarship has filled our campuses with students who barely squirmed out of high school, who did it with lowered standards, and who now come to college with little financial investment of their own in it.  Many simply do not have the background to succeed here.  If UNLV wants to reduce its abysmal drop out rate, such remedial training is necessary.  Who can fault us for giving our students  the foundation they need? 

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Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a letter from a teacher about standards and testing.  It was both touching and practical.  Her story ends like this:

Let’s get back to studying science, teaching cursive writing, the stock market, great literature and history, and a remarkable thing will happen: Teachers will love to teach again and students will be a bit uncomfortable. They will stretch, be nervous and learn determination. Then, ten years later, they will still remember the requirements of an assignment that changed their lives and share it with their aging teacher.

I sent her an email thanking her for this letter.  Wise words as we start a new school year.

 

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Clearing some old dead weight off my bookshelves (The Starr Report?  Um, pretty sure I won’t need to read that one twice…), I came across another late-90′s acquisition that was fun for a few minutes, but has long since lost its usefulness: celebrity martial arts movie star auto-bio I Am Jackie Chan: My Life In Action

Surprise!  It’s not that good.  The best part was a section on page 56 where Chan reflects on the horrendously gruelling training he underwent as a youth.  In short, the children at his school were forced to train from 5 AM to 12 AM seven days a week, for their entire childhood.  Cruelty and beatings straight out of Dickens was the norm.  Chan’s thoughts can certainly be tied into my larger worries about the world’s downhill slide:

As harsh as it may have seemed, it was a system that had worked for decades, even centuries, producing the very finest acrobats, singers, and fighters that the world has ever seen.

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Scene 1

IRS- Tax forms must be submitted by April 15.  No exceptions. 

Citizen A- But I didn’t have time!  I had other things to do. 

IRS – What things got in the way of a priority obligation that comes around ever year?

Citizen A – You know, like dances and field trips and clubs and stuff.

IRS – That’s OK.  Just get it in when you have a chance, please.

Citizen B – I didn’t understand it.  Can I just do it later?

IRS – Did you file for an extension with us first?

Citizen B- No.

IRS – Did you contact us for help ahead of time?

Citizen B – No.

IRS – Sure!  Do whatever you want! 

Citizen C – I have some other excuse.  Can I get out of it, too?

IRS – Of course!  Those firm deadlines aren’t for people with excuses for not getting it done. 

Citizen D- This sucks.  I don’t want to do it either.

IRS – Hey, sure, cool.  No pressure.  Do some of it when you can, or not.  Whatever you want. 

Citizen E- I already did my taxes, but I did them way, way wrong.  Can I still turn them in and get credit?

IRS- Fine by me!  It wouldn’t be fair to make you do them over.

 **********

Scene 2

Boss- Smithson, you’ve been late to work more often than not, you no-call/no-showed twice, your last expense report was copied from Wikipedia, and you keep breaking the company’s policy about no personal calls during work hours.  I’m afraid I have to reduce your salary.

Employee- You can’t do that!  You hate me!  That’s not fair! 

(more…)

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For the past several years, I’ve taught a class called American Literature Honors. Immersing myself in that subject has made me realize that each of the three words in that title implies something powerful, and something contrary to the mainstream. In fact, I wonder if such a title will become controversial in the near future.

The first idea stated by the name of the class is that there is such a thing as an American identity, a nature that must meet some kind of criteria and that is discernibly different from any other identity. This is important to recognize.

It is undeniable that the term “American” exists, and therefore must mean something. Even relativism, the great intellectual cancer of the 20th century, can’t look the word in the face and say it means nothing, that it carries no more semantic weight than any current youth slang. It stands to reason that “American” can’t be defined as anything we want it to mean, but must have parameters that will include some things and exclude others. Simply admitting this is a victory over the foggy forces of multiculturalism.

The second is that “literature” exists, as opposed to other kinds of artifacts or fields of knowledge, and even other kinds of writing, and that this is worthy of being studied. Also, there is an area of intersection between the two, that some amount of this “literature” is decidedly “American” in character.

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I’m haunted by the Biblical story about leaving the ninety and nine sheep safely in the fold to go rescue the one lost sheep:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  (Matthew 18:12-13)

As a teacher, does this mean that I should ignore the students who are succeeding and more self-sufficient and spend my time trying to “save” struggling students?

Certainly, this is the mainstream philosophy of public education: I had plenty of professors in college who told prospective teachers, “Don’t worry about the smart kids–they can take care of themselves.”  On any campus of which I’ve ever had any substantial knowledge, the number of programs targeting (and the amount of budget invested in) the needs of high achieving students was dwarfed by the gargantuan industry that is remediation, credit retrieval, and discipline, among plenty more.  A case can be made for these priorities; after all, there are (sadly but honestly) far more kids in America today on the left side of the bell curve than on the right. 

However, mere majority shouldn’t dictate our standards.  Might it not better serve the long range interests of our nation by agreeing to raise the bar and fully develop the potential of those with the most of it, rather than focusing almost exclusively on making minimal gains with the very lowest skilled?  How well would any hospital operate (to borrow a metaphor from Walter Williams) if the vast majority of effort was spent on emergency cases nearing terminal status, and letting the stable patients fend for themselves? 

Still, this doesn’t help me in the classroom, for surely the Savior’s injunction means something to me; it must apply somehow. 

I think I’m figuring out a way in which it does. 

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This morning, I received the following email from a counselor colleague:

_____ is currently getting an “F” in your _____ class ____ period. She feels she will not be able to get her percentage up enough to pass, and therefore has signed up for AIS Eng. 4, second semester. Would you please allow her to use class time to work on her course? She has a full-time job and any time she could use to work on the AIS class would help her a great deal! Please have a discussion with her about it and thanks!

This was my instant response:

_____, _____ “feels” like she isn’t going to pass, so you want her to stay sitting in my class but doing what she wants for the AIS you’ve gone ahead and signed her up for instead?

I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. What kind of message does that send? What precedent does it establish? (more…)

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For an award I tried out for a couple of months ago, I had to begin my application binder with a short essay about my “focus and philosophy of teaching.”  I didn’t get the award, but I still like what I put together for it.  Here’s what I wrote for this section:

        I.            The best teacher is a trusted mentor, and I strive to become such for my students.  This means that I establish a comfortable rapport, which I do by the same method used for creating relevance and interest in my curriculum: by utilizing students’ prior knowledge and interests of their cultural milieu and introducing material (and myself) accordingly.  This is consistently brought to my attention as one of the most effective things I do for students; their understanding of, respect for, and recollection of class learning and skills are greatly augmented by it. 

      II.            By no means, however, does this mean that I water down content or lower expectations for student work.  (Indeed, if my personable class atmosphere is the first thing that most students seem to remember about my classes, the strenuous work load comes in a close second.) Rather, I use our amiable relationship as a way to elicit greater effort from students—more diligence and attentiveness to their work, greater care for its quality, and a commitment to read, write, study, and think more.  As a mentor teacher, I begin by modeling these things myself, discussing with students what I’ve been reading, conferencing with them in person and via email regarding their writing for class and giving genuine feedback, and leading my classes with the tenor of one who is comfortable acting casually, but only because he is holding himself to exacting intellectual standards, and who is requiring the same from those whose minds are in his care.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I inspire desire.

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Student: Hey, uh, like, sorry I was gone for the last few sessions of workouts.  Can I get all my make up work and stuff?

Personal Trainer: Make up work?  What do you mean?  We do exercises here.  I give you intense, important training for reaching your goals.  You can’t just “make that up.”  Either you’re here to do the work or you’re not.  If you’re not, then you’re not going to get the health that you want.  Do you think that there’s some kind of easy alternative I can give you and it will be just as good as if you’d been here and done your exercises right when you should have?  If that were true, what would be the point of anybody ever going to the gym?  We could all just do the “make up work.”

S: Um, whatever.  Can’t I just get a worksheet or clean your room for some points or something?

PT: What?  How would that make you healthy?  That’s hardly a substitute for all the demonstrations and guided practice you missed.

S: Ah, man, I dunno what you’re talkin about, but you’re supposed to give me some make up work.  It wasn’t my fault I was gone.  I got sick and had a family emergency.  Don’t you believe me?

PT: It doesn’t matter why you were gone.  If you’re not here to do the work, you can’t get the benefits.  I don’t just hand out health here; you have to earn it.  Even when you are here, you’re not working out very hard; mostly you just complain about how heavy the weights are and tell me that workouts should be easier and “funner.”   And when you’re not at the gym, you’re just sitting around eating junk food—you’re undoing any progress we’ve made here.  If you aren’t here, every day, doing all the exercises as well as you can, you won’t get in shape. 

S: What?  You’re not going to get me in shape?  Dude, why are you failing me?  I’m here!  I’m working!  I shouldn’t be punished for the workouts I missed!  Just let me be in shape!

PT: Punish you for missing workouts?  Let you be in shape?  Do you seriously not understand how nature works?  I can’t just automatically give you the knowledge, skills, and benefits that everybody is supposed to work hard a long time for.  Right now you’re overweight, weak, and sickly.  I can’t just wave a wand and change that. 

S: Hey, that’s not nice!  You can’t say that!

PT: Kid, it’s not an insult, it’s just the truth.  I’m sorry if everybody else is dodging that just to make you feel good, but in the end, that’ll just lead to you getting some nasty surprises in life, like when you try to climb a flight of stairs and find out the hard way that you won’t be able to.  It’s just reality and I’m trying to help you.  You’ll never get in better shape unless you realize that you’re out of shape now.  If you really want to be healthy, you’ll have to work hard.  In fact, you’ll have to work harder and longer than your peers at the gym because you’re so far behind. 

S:  What?  That’s not fair!  Why do you hate me?  Look, just give me my make up work!

PT: Alright.  If you want to catch up, you’ll have to start doing all the normal workouts—every day—and stay later so you can spend extra time doing all the exercises you’ve missed out on.  Then, maybe, you’ll be able to get healthy by the time the year is over. 

S: Ah, man, I don’t care that much.  I’ll just do an online workout or summer gym. 

***********

Other education-related satire:

Presenting the Modern Gym!

The Great Grade Bailout

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THE GOOD

A boy in an honors class mocked an assignment on Tuesday with his partner, then decided to declare to everyone that “this class is pointless.”  I called him on it, and he wasn’t the least bit ashamed or penitent. 

I called his mother and she was mortified.  She apologized profusely and asked to come in to see me and have him apologize, even asking if she could sit in class with him next time.  We met before school Thursday and she read him the riot act.  I showed her his work from that day, which was by far the shortest, sloppiest paper from the class.  I said I’d like him to do it over, and she assured me it would be done over the weekend, adding that any future work that was of substandard quality would also be revised to my liking. 

After this had all been explained, I asked him if he understood.  He sat silently until his mother told him to answer with, “Yes, sir.”  He sullenly said, “Yes.”  She told him again to be more respectful, threatening to smack him if he didn’t.  He again responded with attitude, so she reached around and slapped him on the back of the head.  This time he said, “Yes, sir.” 

She thanked me for my effort and assured me again that he would perform better, in academics and behavior.  I have no doubt that he will. 

 

THE BAD

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There are forty students enrolled in my third hour class.  Thirty showed up today: one had been suspended, nine others were truant. 

For the previous two classes, their homework—as explained at the beginning and end of each class and posted on the board—was to get a copy of a novel from a list I’d given them, and merely to bring it in to class today.  The list included authors such as Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury (and, for that matter, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer) among two dozen others, the only other requirement being that the book they choose be at least 250 pages long.  I told them that our school librarian had a copy of the list and could help them find a book.  Obviously, they had a few hundred books to choose from.

Out of the thirty students in class today, only ten had a book.  A few others probably had a book but left it at home.  However, the vast majority of the unprepared twenty clearly hadn’t put forth any effort at all, hadn’t bothered to write down or remember the assignment, and had lost or thrown away my handout list.  They didn’t even care enough to try to do it.  Keep in mind that the assignment was merely to have a copy of the book with them.  That was it. 

And only one-fourth of the kids in that class will get credit for it. 

Is this a remedial class?  Far from it.  (more…)

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