Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dumb Down Or Else

Last week, Erin Einhorn wrote this article in the Daily News about a New York City principal who essentially ordered his teachers to "dumb down" their classes so they could pass at least 65% of their students. Yes, he used the words "designing your expectations to meet their abilities," but this is just code for dumbing down (even I have used a more charitable term for this phenomenon, "subjective standards," which visitors here will find throughout previous posts, but I admit it means essentially the same thing).

Now, I don't think a 65% pass rate is unreasonable; as I wrote in an earlier post, I have found in my experience that roughly 2/3 of any class, sometimes less, never more, will do their work consistently and have a chance to pass. Indeed, throughout my teaching career in New York City, I have typically passed roughly 2/3 of my students every semester, with occasional variations up or down (this does not include the brief time I spent on Long Island, where I was forced to pass just about everyone even though the 2/3 ratio basically held).

What struck me here was not so much the exhortation to lower standards and expectations, nor even the blame-the-teachers strategy so often employed by administrators, parents, and the general public. It was the accusatory tone of the principal's memo itself. To wit:

"If you are not passing more than 65% of your students in a class, then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities, and you are setting your students up for failure..." [emphasis added]

Repeated use of second-person pronouns, even in correspondence, is usually intended to put the reader on the defensive; even if it is not an accusation, it reads like one. It's hard to interpret this as anything other than an accusation. This is clearly a person who wishes to accuse and blame his audience, and make the reader feel embarrassed and guilty. Looking at the clauses one at a time:

"If you are not passing more than 65% of your students..." Recall the discussion about failure in previous posts: failure is something the student did, not something the teacher did. The principal here seems to be buying into the same profoundly wrong concept that infects the minds of students and parents, i.e., that failure is punitive action taken by the teacher, rather than a denotation of student performance. However, if this is true, then it must also be true that passing is a matter of pedagogical grace, a gift instead of an achievement. Accusing and blaming the teachers for "not passing" x-number of students, turning both "pass" and "fail" into transitive verbs, takes both failure and achievement out of the students' hands.

"...then you are not designing your expectations to meet their abilities..." Aside from the euphemistic quality of the last seven words (discussed above), the clause as written implies that this can and must be the only cause of the condition cited in the first clause. Even if there were any credence to it, it represents an absurd over-simplification of what is in reality a much more complicated matter. It is a time-honored political technique to blame a particular problem on one particular person or group of people, or one singular cause, but all it really accomplishes is to firmly and wholly fix blame where it does not wholly belong, leaving any and all other causes unexplored, unattended and unaddressed.

And I don't need to go over again the long-term effects of adjusting standards and expectations down to the students' individual abilities, as I've written extensively about that in previous posts. How does this principal think these students got to be in the "lowest third percentile" (see below) in the first place? They have always had standards and expectations adjusted for their level, and they have grown so accustomed to it that they no longer have any incentive to learn. If standards and expectations are always adjusted down to the students' level, THEY WILL NEVER IMPROVE.

"...and you are setting your students up for failure..." Another classic politician's technique; imagine some horrible or completely undesirable outcome or goal, embody it in some clich├ęd and hyperbolic catch-phrase, and accuse someone of consciously and actively desiring to bring it about. Not to pick on the right-wing lunatic fringe, but this is like when they say, "If you think that, then you're helping the terrorists win." It's a despicable tactic, and should be beneath the dignity of a high school principal, particularly if his goal is to help, rather than defeat, his faculty.

All this is unfortunate given that some of the memo's content is quite useful and productive. He advises his teachers to examine their policies and standards, and to "scaffold[] your instruction and work[] through your assignments with your students, as opposed to simply assigning and expecting work." This is useful advice, but there is a difference between "working through assignments with students" and actually doing their thinking and work for them. There is also a difference between advice and accusation. The tone of the opening remarks that precede this suggest that the advice given here is meant to imply that teachers are not already doing any of these things, and that can be profoundly insulting. Few things in school make me angrier than when a supervisor accuses me of not doing something that I actually AM doing, based on nothing more than an assumption. (This was a favorite tactic of the vile, despicable creature who was the principal of my previous school, so when I see it now it bothers me even more.)

Further, as I have discussed before, for teachers to examine and refine their own efforts in this fashion, i.e., find ways to get more students to pass, is useful to themselves philosophically as a means of professional development, but for others to shift the burden and the blame entirely to teachers for passing or failing students is unreasonable, counterintuitive, and just plain wrong. We can NEVER, EVER make it OK for students to choose not to do their work, no matter what the quality of instruction. If a person has an obligation to do something, it is NEVER OK to do nothing.

Whatever constructive momentum the memo may have achieved in the middle of its first paragraph was sabotaged at the end, with this:

"Most of our students come from the lowest third percentile in academic achievement, have difficult home lives, and struggle with life in general. They DO NOT have a similar upbringing
nor a similar school experience to our experiences growing up. We must all remember this as we work with them and for them to make them successful."

This is just another way of saying, pity them. Feel sorry for them. MAKE THEM successful. There is a difference between helping downtrodden kids and feeling sorry for them; a difference between teaching them to succeed and artificially "making" them succeed; a difference between compassion and pity. When adults make excuses for kids, it validates and enables their making excuses for themselves. When adults feel sorry for kids, it validates and enables their feeling sorry for themselves. There is no hope for us as educators, not if we truly aim to educate, if our primary approach to working with children is to pity them, make excuses for them, lower our expectations and "make them successful" by pretending, and allowing them to pretend, that they actually are successful, just because they have "difficult lives."

I do not know Mr. Lieberman, nor have I worked in his school, so I must emphasize that this is not meant to be about him. However, the article and memo have unfortunately reminded me of the sick, demented, twisted monster who was the principal of my previous school, and the confounding hypocrite who was my supervisor on Long Island prior to that. I only make reference to the Daily News article and Mr. Lieberman's memo as further evidence of what I've essentially been writing about all along, much of which stems from my experiences with those two people (although to call the former a "person" would be far too charitable). I understand that principals and supervisors have accountability themselves, and need to achieve particular results. I just don't know that a profoundly wrong and counterintuitive educational philosophy is an appropriate short-term fix for a long-term problem. It's rather like trying to cure cancer with Tylenol.

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