Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Secret of NIMH

I'd like to start this post with a question for the two or three people who read this blog: What percentage of the population, would you say, is crazy? I'm not talking about those institutionalized or adjudicated mentally ill. I'm thinking in more general terms; people who are out there, who walk among us every day, who are just plain flat-out straight-up dyed-in-the-wool nut-bag bat-crap insane?

I had a parent come in on Friday, after I called her on Thursday at her request, angry as all get-out at the fact that I gave her daughter a 65 in my class. I explained that the child's writing skills are not particularly good, Level 2 on the ELA Regents scale, and that she tends to arrive late and sleep in class. This was, in her words, "unacceptable," in the sense that a 65 was too low a grade for the child to receive based on the mother's conception of her daughter's academic ability. According to the mother, the child was a high-honors student at her well-regarded middle school and had "never had any problem with writing;" indeed she aspired to be a journalist. On the phone on Thursday and in person on Friday, she went on and on loudly about what an excellent student her daughter had been at what an excellent middle school she had attended, how "f***ed up" this high school is, how "ridiculous" it is that I do not give homework and that my assessment of the child's work was "unacceptable." She also chided me for not having called her on the phone immediately to let her know that the child was late or was sleeping in class, made the standard claim that the child "doesn't like your class anyway," and even went so far as to accuse me of being "too busy getting [my] law degree" to care about her child.

Thankfully, it is rare for a parent to be this abusive and insulting. Nevertheless, it was fairly clear fairly quickly that this person did not intend to listen to a word I had to say; she only came in to yell, and she most certainly did yell. I attempted to speak calmly to her and not engage her abuse or respond to her accusations, but nothing I said had any effect. I attempted to show her some samples of the child's writing, which I had photocopied alongside samples of student writing that had received higher grades on the same assignments, but she was only interested in that to the extent that she grabbed it out of my hand without looking at it (or even asking for it) and demanded to see the principal.

The recurring refrain in this person's ranting was that her child had done spectacularly well in her former school, particularly in writing, and when I asked her how the child was currently doing in her other classes, she replied, "Excellent!" Obviously, the implication was that this child is a straight-A student, a brilliant scholar, and if I'm giving her a 65 I obviously (a.) don't know what I'm doing; (b.) have a bias against her; (c.) am so wrapped up my legal studies that I cannot or will not teach or evaluate her properly; or (d.) all of the above.

Well, here is the reality. Later in the day, I went to talk to the Assistant Principal of Organization about this, and we took a look at the child's records. She was a mediocre student at best in middle school, and when I looked at her current report cards, I saw all I needed to see. For both the first and second marking periods of this semester, while she did receive a 90 in Dance, in her academic classes she received 55's and 65's across the board. I don't even recall seeing a 70. I was both surprised and unsurprised when I saw this; surprised because the mother had actually had the audacity to claim that this child was valedictory material and was receiving "excellent" grades in every class but mine (and surprised that I had not seen through this), and unsurprised because, pardon the conceit, I am so seldom wrong about kids when it comes to their academic ability and performance.

The fact is this child is a poor writer and a poor student. She has difficulty even assembling coherent sentences, her ability to understand what she reads is limited, she does not ask questions or participate in discussions, has literally nothing to say when called upon, is late to class half the time and sleeps through it half the time. She has demonstrated neither any interest in nor enthusiasm for learning, for any of the materials we have been reading, or for improving her skills. Frankly, this child is not especially intelligent. I've been teaching for 12 years and I can tell when a kid is just not very smart. Unfortunately, we can't say that to either a child or a parent, because the result is the kind of irrational affrontery to which this parent subjected me and, as I later found out, the principal, guidance counselor and at least one other teacher.

The sad part is that this is the primary reason why a child like this performs so poorly in school, and continues to perform poorly year after year. If a teacher like me points out that the child's work is of low quality and needs to improve, and the parent reacts to this by getting angry with the teacher, and the entire school, accusing everyone of incompetence and bias, then the child obviously learns, inter alia, that her work and abilities are just fine the way they are. Not only is there no need for improvement, there is no possibility of improvement. If my writing is so good now that I deserve an A for everything I write, how could I ever possibly write any better? How could anyone?

I had a long talk about this with the principal later in the day, and it was refreshing to discover that she essentially agreed with me, not only on this particular child and parent but on the more fundamental concept of objective academic standards. I had given her a copy of the writing packet I had assembled (comparing this child's writing with that of students who had received higher grades on the same assignments) the day before, which she did find useful in the meeting with the parent. To make a long story short, she essentially told the parent, "Your problem is not with my teachers. Your problem is with your daughter not doing her work." She even encouraged the parent to follow through on her threat to pull the child out of the school.

I can't tell you how refreshing it was to hear a principal talk like this. It gives me so much hope that maybe the school system can be saved, that maybe education in the U.S. can get back to doing what it is supposed to do, if we have more people like this running the schools. The deplorable, demented gargoyle who was my principal at the phony "Arts" school in Queens where I taught in 2002-03 would undoubtedly, automatically have taken the parent's side in a case like this. So would the strange, flaky hypocrite I worked for on Long Island the year before that.

Before I write my book, it appears I'm going to have to do a lot more research. It seems to me, although I don't actually teach middle school, that middle schools have in a wholesale fashion adopted subjective academic standards and are unwilling to make objective qualitative distinctions between different students' work product. This is what I want to know; this is the question I want answered: WHY are so many educators today UNWILLING to OBJECTIVELY distinguish high-quality work from mediocre or low-quality work?

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