Saturday, November 20, 2010

Repost: Testing, 1 - 2 - 3 ... (January 22, 2009)

A lot of people, of all ages, like to complain about what they feel is an inappropriate and excessive emphasis on "testing" as a modus operandi in schools. No one likes the idea of using standardized tests to make consequential decisions about students, and certainly about teachers, and "teaching to the test" is apparently one of the worst things a teacher or school could be doing. "Teaching to the test" could not possibly result in actual learning, because...

I think the value of standardized testing in general, and the New York English Regents exam in particular, is a topic for another day; I'm not talking about standardized testing. I'm talking about something more fundamental: the emphasis on testing to determine students' academic course grades.

I know I've discussed performance-based assessments before, so anyone reading this blog will know that I don't even use traditional testing to determine my students' grades. But for some reason it occurred to me today just how much opposition I've gotten over the years from supervisors and from other teachers, as well as kids, to the idea that students should have to actually produce work product, let alone that they should be required to do so on an everyday basis and be evaluated and graded just as much, if not more, on that everyday work than on some sort of cumulative "test."

Throughout my teaching career, I have based a significant portion of my students' grades on their everyday work. In one form or another, I have required students to write in a notebook every day, whether in class, at home, or both, and submit those notebooks periodically to be graded based on a performance rubric. The notebook is worth 40% of the grade; a student cannot pass the class without it.

Of course, high school students in most places are not accustomed to doing everyday work. They are only worried about passing the test at the end of the unit, and don't really bother to do the everyday work (classwork or homework) in the meantime, because they figure they can probably do the former without doing the latter and the former is the only thing that "really matters," and what's more, they usually turn out to be right. Even I managed to get by in school without doing the everyday work, for the same reason, even though I probably could have been a straight-A student if I had actually done the everyday work.

In fact, the only subject I consistently aced in secondary school was French, in 6th through 8th grades. My French teacher, Mrs. Dutacq-Benson, gave a graded written test/quiz/assignment in class every single day. Monday, vocabulary French-to-English; Tuesday, vocabulary English-to-French; Wednesday, dictation; Friday, sentence test (there was no French class on Thursdays). The next week, same thing. The cycle repeated itself as we worked our way through the textbook. The only homework was to prepare for these activities. There were no mid-terms or final exams to cram for, no papers or other long-term assignments, just everyday work. I never got such consistently high grades in any class in any subject on any secondary grade level.

While it is true that college and graduate school grades are based on one or two major assessments (mid-terms, final exams, papers), I really believe that high school kids should have their grades based primarily on everyday work. Testing has always been the easiest method of assessing accumulated knowledge and skills, but one cannot truly acquire knowledge and skills by cramming for a test the night before and then forgetting everything the next day. Neither can one acquire the study habits one needs for success in college, graduate school or professional (e.g., law and medical) school without becoming accustomed to doing everyday work, and engaging with large-scale tasks in small, incremental steps. In high school, kids are still very much learning how to learn. The end result is, I think, less important than one's engagement with the process.

I like to think of the school year like the baseball season; 162 games, each one as important as any other, and while even the best teams lose 1/3 of their games they approach each game as if they can and must win it. While one loss may not seem like a big deal at the time, in the scheme of the whole season, any single loss in April as well as September can be the difference between making the playoffs and not (just ask a Mets fan...) Very few people, kids or adults, think of a high school class as a course, in the truest sense of the word. One of the reasons kids don't learn is because they don't approach each and every assignment as if their grades depend on it. They view the everyday work as a nuisance, as just a means to an end (the end being the test), even, in some cases, as optional. They know that they can pass the test, and by extension the class, without doing the everyday work.

This is one reason why I don't give homework. As I've pointed out previously, I've always had about 1/3 of every class fail, sometimes more, rarely less, in part because I require kids to actually produce the everyday work and submit it for a grade, I set up the grading formula so that they can't pass without doing it, and about 1/3 of any random group of kids of any background in any place simply won't do the everyday work. Since I stopped giving homework, the failure percentage has declined.

The problem with homework is that it is essentially a Catch-22: If we make the homework so important, i.e., such a large percentage of the grade that the kids will fail if they don't do it, at least 1/3 of every class will fail. If we make it less important, i.e., a smaller percentage of the grade, then kids know they can pass the class without doing it and therefore won't bother to do it. Neither outcome is particularly desirable, and the possibility of failure has proven time and time again to be an inadequate motivator for students, especially when they know that the teacher, not they, will be blamed if they fail. In addition, very few teachers truly and properly scrutinize and assess each and every homework assignment, because not only do they not have the time but they don't consider it worth the effort.

Homework is therefore self-defeating; it either leads to widespread failure or becomes so insignificant to the final course grade that it can't be all that valuable to begin with as a learning tool. It only works for the kids who "get it;" the ones who truly want to learn and are already inclined to dedicate themselves to their studies. Yet we continue to give homework because for one thing, like so many other secondary-school conventions, we've always done it and long ago stopped asking why, and also because we like to give kids the benefit of the doubt, which as the two or three people who read this blog know, I don't think we should ever do. I think it is foolish and dangerous to assume that teenagers will be naturally inclined to do the right thing most of the time, especially in this day and age.

I suppose it was my experience on Long Island, and to a lesser degree at the phony, corrupt Queens "Arts" School of Narcissism and Dishonesty, that really drove this point home. These were the only places where supervisors openly and explicitly blamed me for the students' not doing their work. On Long Island, I was basically told that if more than one or two kids out of 150 failed, then I was surely doing something wrong. I wondered if it ever occurred to anyone that students have little, if any, incentive to learn or do their work if they know they can't fail. This was where the English chairwoman told me that the kids weren't doing their work because they "didn't get it," meaning I must not have explained it properly, if at all. She seemed mystified by the idea that kids would not "get it" and would not do their work if they knew they didn't have to, i.e., if they knew they would not be blamed, faulted or sanctioned for not doing it, or if they could be relieved of the obligation by simply claiming that they didn't know or understand what they were supposed to do.

It is a tremendous burden for a teacher to be responsible not only for planning and delivering his lessons and assessments, but for the individual decisionmaking processes of 150 teenagers over whom he has little or no direct control. Again, this woman was operating on the assumption that these kids were naturally inclined to do their work unless there was a serious and insurmountable impediment to their doing so. In other words, if a student did not submit an assignment then, res ipsa loquitur, he was unable to do the assignment, meaning something I had done or failed to do prevented him from being able to do it. What is a teacher to do when, in reality, that non-performance is a choice? Or the result of the student's own negligence? What is a teacher to do once students realize that all they need to do is claim they "don't get it" and they're off the hook?

Whether we give kids the benefit of the doubt or not, it is still unreasonable to assume that anyone will be automatically inclined to do anything if there is no meaningful consequence of not doing it. The fact that some people are so inclined does not change this basic logic. If we want everyone to do the right thing, we have to provide adequate incentives for doing the right thing, and for not doing the wrong thing, even for those who don't need them. The only way to require anyone to do anything is to create an undesirable, and inescapable, consequence for not doing it. No teacher wants a significant number of students to fail, but we also don't want to teach kids that it's OK to choose not to do their assigned work, or to be careless and negligent. Yet a great many administrators and teachers continue to insist on disincentivizing work, whether by letting kids pass their classes without doing the everyday work, blaming teachers when kids choose not to do it, changing requirements and grading formulae to reflect what kids are willing or unwilling to do (as opposed to what they actually do or don't do, in the context of what we require of them), or some combination of these.

So much of the law, especially in the civil context, is about incentivizing behavior. We use the law to encourage people to make the right decisions, to act reasonably and allocate their resources efficiently, in order to encourage desirable behaviors and outcomes and discourage those which are harmful to society or to the individual. All this emphasis on "testing" in schools, whether we're talking about standardized tests or academic classes, has a highly undesirable side effect that I've never heard anyone mention: It causes kids to neglect their everyday work to the point where they become unwilling and/or unable to engage in any real learning process, and thus prevents any real learning from occurring.

A lot of teachers probably don't care whether or not kids do their everyday work. That's fine. But I do, and I will not apologize for it. I have always insisted not only that students do their everyday work, and be evaluated on their performance in doing that everyday work, but also that one of the keys to improving education is to shift the emphasis away from testing, on both the state and school level, and toward an insistence that students take the time and effort to do their work and learn each and every day they are in school.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Repost: Race to the Bottom (March 16, 2009)

Here's the official meme from the Grand High Inquisitors with respect to the tragicomedy they call "differentiated instruction." The following is quoted directly from a memo we received last week about the upcoming Quality Review:


Reviewers understand differentiation as:

"...modified instruction that helps students with diverse needs and learning styles master the same challenging academic content...through the use of varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments.

Additionally, Reviewers will observe that teachers are demonstrating the skill of differentiation when they:

"differentiate the method of instruction by utilizing: flexible, skill-based groupings, cooperative groups, etc., group investigations, learning stations/centers, learning contracts and independent studies, modeling/demonstrating, think alouds and meta-cognition... visuals, varied questions and strategies to promote thinking such as: compare/contrast, categorize by characteristics, hypothesize & experiment, predict, evaluate using criteria, etc."

"differentiate the content by: providing supplemental or levelled materials at varying degrees of difficulty, offering multi-option assignments, allowing student to select..., creating simplified and/or extension activities, etc."

"differentiate the products by varying, modifying, and/or offering student choice..."

(emphasis in original)

Allright...does any of this make sense? The first paragraph, the supposed "definition" of "differentiation," seems to be somewhat innocuous. It does not suggest, however, that the use of "varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments" has to be carried out simultaneously, at the same time. It is perfectly reasonable to interpret that "differentiation" implies that these various materials, activities and assessments will be presented to students at different times throughout the course of a school year. How this definition necessitates any of what follows is beyond me.

The second paragraph, concerning "method of instruction," is naught but gobbledygook, a litany of buzzwords and euphemisms that bear no meaningful conceptual relationship to one another, are not presented in any sort of coherent sequence, and don't really add up to a larger point. Each of the ideas presented is, by itself, worthy of consideration, but unless a "Reviewer" observes a teacher for a long and continuous period of time, he cannot assess whether or not a teacher has "differentiated his method of instruction." That is, unless the Reviewer expects to see several of these things being practiced simultaneously.

The third paragraph, "differentiate the content," introduces the idea of letting students select what materials they want to learn and what assignments they want to do. I think there could be some value in this and have actually done it before, giving kids two or three options to choose from when producing a writing project. I can't really do it anymore, since all of my writing projects are now Regents-based. I've done independent readings too, in the past, where kids select the book they want to read, although when I do that I always have several students pick nothing at all. But during literature studies, all the kids read the same book. I cannot and will not teach multiple titles simultaneously.

The last paragraph, with respect to differentiated "products" provides nothing of use or value; it only repeats the vague concepts of "varying, modifying" and "student choice." If we think carefully, though, about what "differentiated products" means, it is probably the closest to what I do. The "product" that the student produces in my class is the individual response to the reading. Each student writes his own response, can choose which of the provided Guiding Questions to answer, and there's really no "right" or "wrong" response. In other words, every product which my students produce is unique to the student who produced it; no two notebooks or essays can ever be alike (unless they're copying from one another, but that's a separate topic). However, they're all graded on the same Volume-Comprehension-Response rubric.

Ultimately, I don't see much to this "differentiated instruction" business; the material provided here suggests that the Reviewers don't really understand it either, let alone have a clear or workable idea for how it might be practiced, let alone demonstrated in a single class period (or portion thereof). The key will be whether the Reviewers approach this from a pragmatic or an ideological standpoint. A pragmatist will look at my classroom and find students writing their own responses to readings and their own essays, and find me basing my writing lessons on their previous work, and conclude that my instruction is adequately "differentiated." An ideologue will look at the same class and find that the students are writing responses to the same reading, or doing the same Regents essay writing assignment, and being graded on the same rubrics, and that will not be satisfactory.

This was the problem I had at the phony, corrupt Queens "Arts" high school, and the demented gargoyle who was principal there in 2002-03. When it came to pedagogy, and particularly his ill-considered "Humanities" idea, this thing was an ideologue, not a pragmatist. It wanted two things: (1) "student-centered" instruction; and (2) exclusive focus on Social Studies content. Rather than go on a lengthy dissertation about this arduous and ultimately heartbreaking experience, suffice it to say that everything I did fit reasonably within the definitions this creature had given us for what it wanted. Yet nothing I did seemed to satisfy it; whatever I did was not sufficiently "student-centered" or did not sufficiently invoke or involve Social Studies content.

My sense right now at my current school is that the administration has taken a pragmatic approach to "differentiated instruction," not an ideological one. That is good. Who knows, it might even work if it is approached pragmatically rather than ideologically. Whether the Reviewers will do so remains to be seen.

The problem with "differentiated instruction," as either an ideology or a pragmatic concern, is that it will encourage what economists and legal scholars call a "race to the bottom." The term is usually used in the context of commercial regulation, in that where the federal government does not regulate a particular industry the states will then compete to have the fewest rules and the lowest, most lenient regulatory standards, in order to encourage businesses to go there. In the school context, not only does "differentiated instruction" dilute the student's incentive to learn and improve, it actually gives the student an incentive to become, and remain, as incapable as possible. Instead of competing with one another for high grades under the same high standards, as they should be doing, students will instead be competing with one another to get the easiest work, the least-challenging assignments and the lowest, most accommodating standards.

As it stands today, Special Ed students each have something called an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. These may include, among other things, testing modifications such as extended time, physical accommodations like reading aloud or scribing, and specific enumerated learning goals. The expectation is, however, that if a Special Ed student with an IEP is in a regular academic class, that the teacher has to accommodate that student by giving him separate materials and teaching him on a different level from the rest of the class. This, of course, is nigh impossible in most circumstances. The only practical way to accommodate Special Ed students in a regular class is to lower the entire class's content and standard to the Special Ed student's grade level.

This is the point I'm trying to make. "Differentiated Instruction," as it's been described to me, essentially seeks to give every student in the system an IEP. I'm starting to believe that this is where we are truly headed. Within five years, every student in the New York City schools, and beyond, will have an IEP. The whole idea of an academic "course" on the secondary level will completely disappear, as every student will be allowed to choose his own materials and set his own standards in every academic class. Ultimately, the lowest standards and least-challenging content will become the norm. Hence the "race to the bottom," for students, teachers, and schools. Students will compete for the easiest work and the easiest path to an "A", teachers and schools will compete for the highest number of passing and high-average students and hence will have to pursue the lowest possible standards.

I don't see any other alternative. "Differentiated Instruction" is just another way to make high school more like elementary school and less like college. It's another avenue to the subjectivization of content and standards that I've criticized and lamented so often on this blog, an attempt to codify and mandate this "race to the bottom." The objective standards I've been advocating are going to disappear completely from our educational lexicon. When that happens, it's over. Thankfully, I won't be around to see it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nodody Expects the Spanish Inquisition, Redux

Remember last year I wrote about my school's Grand High Inquisition (a.k.a., Quality Review), and how the result was absolutely hilarious because with all our emphasis on "differentiation" we had not shown sufficient academic "rigor," and I found that hilarious because you can't have differentiation and rigor at the same time?

Well, I finally got around to reading the 2010 Quality Review for my now-former school, which was done in the spring after I left. Yup, you guessed it ... they found plenty of rigor but not enough differentiation.

And round and round it goes ...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Trousers in Conflagration, Redux

Here's something I've also been saying for years:

Education Secretary: Schools Have Been Lying to Students

(h/t Crooks and Liars)

"As a country we're dumbing down standards and reduced them due to political pressure and we've actually been lying to children and parents telling them they're ready when they're not." - Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

I can think of one eminently appropriate response to this statement:


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cross-Post: Dropout Factories

I ran across this today at Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish, posted by Conor Friedersdorf. It's a letter to the editor from a California college professor, a lengthy piece and worth reading in its entirety, but I'm going to quote the last two paragraphs.

Before I taught college, I taught at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA. I had one student who had a basketball scholarship to UC Berkeley, dependent upon getting a C average her senior year. She was failing my algebra course. We brought her parents in. Her dad told me to give her a C no matter how well she did in my course, because she was the first person in their family to get into college. I told her parents that grades did not work that way, and that she could get free tutoring before or after school, but that she had to pass my course on her own merits. She missed the midterm exam, and her mother called the next day to tell me that her daughter missed the midterm because the daughter was getting her hair braided that day. I told her that she should take the money budgeted to the hair braider and spend it on a private tutor. The parents filed a complaint against me and I was reprimanded for that suggestion as "culturally insensitive". She was a bright, likable girl, and very popular. She had played basketball overseas in youth tournaments, and was a great player. As it became clear she might not pass the class, I had students and other teachers pressuring me to pass her regardless of her grade. I graded her final exam five times, each time being more generous, trying to give her enough partial credit to pass. I was able to work her grade on the exam up to 58%.  I gave her an F and she lost her Berkeley scholarship. It still breaks my heart to hear her sobs when I told her. I still think I did the right thing.

The common denominator in all of these cases is an assumption the students had that education consists of indulgences bestowed upon the student by a more socially privileged teacher or administrator who pities them. These students were uniformly astonished when other considerations, such as merit, trumped pity. When we lower the bar of merit to admit the underprivileged, the message we send is that merit does not apply to them. Then we fail them by failing to disabuse them of this assumption.

As any of the three people who have read this blog knows, I've told many stories like this, and argued over and over again what this professor says in his last paragraph. He is absolutely correct that students, and parents, expect their experience in school to consist entirely of being showered with praise and adulation,  being treated with deference, indulgence and, yes, pity by teachers and administrators. They expect teachers to feel sorry for them because of their life circumstances, an expectation often shared by administrators (see "Dumb Down or Else" from December 2007 for a more detailed discussion and example).

The professor is also correct that students are "uniformly astonished" when they discover that teacher has expectations of them, in place of pity or sympathy for them; that they have responsibilities in school, that they have to do something in order to learn, let alone earn a passing grade. Being told "no" when seeking permission for something, or having an excuse not be accepted as such by a teacher, is unimaginable to most kids, an entirely foreign concept. And we absolutely do fail them by failing to disabuse them of these assumptions, such as by having them start the school year with a 100 average.

It's always refreshing to find another educator who "gets it." And for the record, I think he did the right thing too.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Repost: Redefining Failure (June 6, 2007)

A couple of years ago I read an article in the Daily News about school officials in Britain who wanted to remove the word "failure" from the educational lexicon and replace it with the ridiculous euphemism "deferred success." In other words, if a child does not perform up to the minimum standard on an assessment, such as by answering too few questions correctly on an exam, we will not say that he "failed" that exam. The reason behind this, as stated in the article, was -- all together now -- we don't want the child to "feel bad" and "turn off to learning."

The only thing that really surprised me at the time was that it was happening in Britain, not here, though I'm sure it's crept its way across the pond. Many people have heard about this by now (Dana Carvey mentioned it last month on Real Time with Bill Maher), and thankfully it hasn't taken hold, at least not from what I've seen (the sentiment obviously has, but the euphemism hasn't). I only bring it up because I've been thinking a lot about what I wrote yesterday ["Twenty Questions" (June 5, 2007)], and I think there's a connection. The problem with the word "failure" is not that it makes kids "feel bad;" it's that no one seems to understand what it really means, least of all students, and yet no one wants to deal with it. Those who would solve the problem by simply eliminating the word "failure" and replacing it with a benign euphemism, regardless of their motivation, completely miss the point. They are correct that the word has power, but they are mistaken as to what that power is and where it comes from, let alone how to remedy it.

First, let's define "failure." What does it mean to "fail," in the general sense? My definition of failure is simple: the non-achievement of an achievable goal; a non-performance where performance is necessary or required and may be reasonably expected. Regardless of context, that is essentially what it means to fail. Now, toss yesterday's discussion into the mix: the economic model of grading (i.e., students start from zero and earn points by doing their work) on one side, and the entitlement model (i.e., students start from 100 and have points deducted along the way) on the other.

Under the economic model, a student can only fail as a result of inaction or deficiency. The student must complete and submit her assigned work in order to pass (i.e., earn 65 points or more), and also must perform at a certain level to demonstrate proficiency, learning, progress, and (eventually, hopefully) mastery, and thus be rewarded with a significant number of grade points. She must do her work to pass, and must do exceptional work to earn the highest grades. Therefore, the only way a student can "fail" under the economic grading model is if his work is substandard or deficient, i.e., below what he should reasonably be able to do at his grade level, or if he does not do the work at all, whether by choice or by negligence. This meets the basic definition of failure, supra. The student has an incentive to do the work and an incentive to demonstrate learning and thus increase his grade by producing higher-quality work product.

However, when we look at the entitlement model, and couple it with the ideas about blameworthiness which I also discussed yesterday, we realize almost instantly that the definition of failure, and the student's understanding thereof, must change under this scenario. Bearing in mind the necessary but mistaken belief that the student's grade should remain the same if she does not do her work, and that if she does the grade can only go down; i.e., where the student's final grade is a matter of how many points have been deducted rather than earned, the student now can only fail through action, and more to the point, profoundly negative and blameworthy action. If a student fails, it means she lost a significant number of points, that the teacher took them away, which could only have been the result of some terrible thing she did.

Regardless of whether the student (or parent) actually believes that he did something blameworthy to cause these points to be deducted, the perception nonetheless remains that a failing grade is some sort of proactive punishment; a "fine," if you will, a deprivation (unjust, of course) of something the student already possessed and to which he was rightfully entitled. A "failure" thus becomes tantamount to an accusation of grievous misconduct; "fail" becomes a transitive verb, an action taken by the teacher instead of a denotation of the student's performance. Hence students inevitably ask "Why did you fail me?" instead of "Why did I fail?"
Whereas under the economic grading model a failure means the student did not or could not obtain something, under the entitlement model it means the student has had something taken away. Whether we call it failure or "deferred success," this perception will not change.

It's no wonder, then, that the word "failure" is so upsetting to children and their parents. It has been made to carry a connotation which it should not, under any reasonable definition of the word, thanks to a misguided and counter-intuitive educational policy designed, like everything else, to make the children "feel good." Changing it to "deferred success" would merely sweep the problem under the carpet. The entitlement model of grading combined with the subjective performance standards I discussed earlier actually give students a powerful disincentive to do their work, learn, progress, and master their academic subjects. Why do your work if it can only make your grade average go down? Why try to improve when whatever your "best" is now will get you an "A" and allow you to keep that perfect 100 average you started with?

With all this talk about eliminating or redefining the word "failure," what about the meaning of "success" or "achievement?" Starting with nothing and earning 95 out of a possible 100 points is an achievement. Starting with 100 and only losing five along the way is not. In the real world, particularly in a merit-driven capitalist system like we have here in the U.S., success means making something out of nothing; taking what you have and gaining something more through skill, hard work, resourcefulness and perseverance. This is the lesson we need to be teaching our youth. Success is not starting with everything and ending up with only slightly less; it is not an accomplishment to merely avoid having what you already own be taken away, especially if you didn't earn it to begin with. Entitlements do not motivate people to better themselves.

Ultimately, I don't think the word "failure" needs to be replaced or even redefined; I think it needs to be better understood. So, too, do the words "success" and "achievement." These words should mean what they are supposed to mean, and nothing more.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gee, What a Suprise.

This was in today's NY Post:

NY Passes Students Who Get Wrong Answers on Tests

State education officials had vowed to "strengthen" and "increase the rigor" of both the questions and the scoring when about 1.2 million kids in grades 3 to 8 -- including 450,000 in New York City -- took English exams in April and math exams last month.

But scoring guides obtained by The Post reveal that kids get half-credit or more for showing fragments of work related to the problem -- even if they screw up the calculations or leave the answer blank.

The scoring guidelines, called "holistic rubrics," require that points be given if a kid's attempt at an answer reflects a "partial understanding" of the math concept, "addresses some element of the task correctly," or uses the "appropriate process" to arrive at a wrong solution. Despite flubbing the answer, students can get 1 point on a 2-point problem and 1 or 2 points on a 3-pointer.

Ray Domanico, a former head of data analysis for city schools, said kids deserve a little credit for partial knowledge but agreed the scoring system "raises some questions about whether it's too generous."

I'm not going to reproduce the entire article here, but you get the point; click the link above if you want to see some examples. The basic gist of it is that even on standardized math tests, just "trying your best" is good enough; the standards are being lowered to allow students who cannot do the work to pass anyway. This is further proof that our educational system values participation more than achievement, seeks to reward the attempt as much as success, and is unwilling to distinguish those who can do the work from those who can't.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not entirely opposed to the concept of "partial credit," and I do think kids should get some credit for trying. But there comes a point where "partial credit" becomes a hindrance to the learning process. Kids ultimately will not learn if they keep having it drilled into their heads that the result is always fine as long as they "tried," or as long as they produced something, or as long as they have some inkling of what they're doing no matter how limited, misguided or misapplied that inkling is.

When I taught on Long Island, I was told going in that the kids in that school were excellent writers. As one might expect, their actual essays told a different story. Their grammar and syntax were imprecise, their sentences were wordy and vague, they used the verb 'to be' far too often, and they used far too many 5th-grade "training-wheels" phrases ["What this quote means is..." "Another example of ___ is..." "This is a good example of ___ because ...."] Unfortunately, I was the first teacher who had ever told them that their writing wasn't very good, and they deeply resented me for it. When I showed a level-3 essay to my supervisor, she insisted it was a level-5; when I noted the language problems, she said, "Well, if you can pretty much understand what they're trying to say, that's good enough."

No, I replied, it's not "good enough." Writing in English requires precision. When you write, your words need to say exactly precisely what you mean; nothing more or less. It's one thing to give a student appropriate credit for his or her work, but it does no one any good to pretend that imprecise language is anything other than imprecise, and inadequate to the task of communicating ideas to the reader. 

I've gone off on an English-related tangent here; math, of course, is different. An essay or a notebook entry in English Language Arts is never "right" or "wrong" the way the answer to a math problem is. In English we identify and distinguish levels of performance, not "right" and "wrong" "answers" (although students in English, I have found, have a hard time telling the difference between these paradigms). Giving "partial credit" is one way to make math more performance-oriented and less result-oriented, and having thought about it I don't find the rubrics quite as outrageous as the Post does. Yet it's really just another symptom of how our educational system has shifted away from promoting and instilling new knowledge and new skills, to validating what kids already know and can already do.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Repost: Toxic Truths, Part II (March 28, 2008)

As a follow-up to a previous post, Toxic Truths (which you might want to read first; this is a very long post), I'd like to examine each of the individual concepts separately, to show precisely how parents and educators have convinced themselves and others to believe the opposite, how such belief manifests itself in school and in the classroom, and why it is ultimately counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

Before I begin, allow me to reiterate that any criticism of student behavior and attitudes which might come up here is intended as an indictment of the adults who accept, enable and encourage such behavior by teaching kids that it's OK, neglecting to teach them that it's not, or giving them the benefit of the doubt when their behavior or its propriety come under dispute.


- Not all children are smart.
- Not all children are talented.

These two basically go together. This was part of George Carlin's riff which I cited previously; the idea that "every child is special." What this morphs into is the idea that children who perform poorly in school, or in particular subject areas, must be good at something, so it's our job to find what each individual child is good at, create a curriculum and standards based on that for that one child, and be sure to compliment the child as often as possible on how good he is at that particular thing.

Perhaps another way of putting this, albeit a blunt and over-simplified way, is that if the child's schoolwork is poor we still have to say that it's good, so we have to find something good about it or, barring that, make something up. There is certainly nothing wrong with praising a child for what he does well and criticizing what he does not do well, but that's not what I'm referring to here. Somehow we've bought into the idea that every child must be smart and talented, so if that is true and they nonetheless do poorly in school, then there must either be something wrong with the assignment, something wrong with the instruction, or something wrong with how we assess their performance. This, inevitably, leads us into subjective standards, which I discussed at length in Raising Grades, Not Achievement.

Let me be as clear and straightforward as I can possibly be: A lot of kids are very, very stupid. Many of them don't know anything, can't do anything, are not interested in anything, and have no desire to do, or to be, anything. There are a lot of kids out there who have no intellectual assets whatsoever. I'm sorry, but it's true.

- Some children are smarter than others.
- Some children are better than others at certain activities and skills.

It might seem that these two belong with the first two, but collectively they express a separate concept. There's a difference between the idea that "All children are smart and talented" and that "Every child is just as smart and talented as every other; no one is 'better' than anyone else." This is another driving force behind the subjectivizing of academic standards. We cannot allow any child to perceive that we, as adults and as educators, think that some other child is "better" than she is in any respect. This is why, as Carlin pointed out, there is no more dodgeball in elementary school playgrounds, and why there are Little Leagues in this country where every game ends in a tie (by virtue of the trailing team being summarily awarded the difference in the score).

It's ironic, really (some would say hypocritical), that we go so far as to subjectivize academic standards and instruction in order to promote the uniqueness and individuality of every child, yet simultaneously enforce this contrived and phony "equality" to make sure not that everyone is treated equally, but that everyone is made equal by fiat. My favorite literary exploration of this phenomenon is Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." It has also been satirized on The Simpsons and was the main undercurrent of the animated film The Incredibles.

Here are the facts: Some kids are better than others. Different people have different degrees of brain power, different abilities and different degrees of skill within those abilities. That's simply how life works. Human beings are the most diverse creatures on the planet. Even if it weren't hypocritical to enforce this egalitarianism and promote individuality at the same time, it would still be absurd to pretend that all kids are "equal" in this way, to remove competition from their lives and thereby remove any and all incentive they may have to improve themselves and learn.

- Very few children are legitimate "A" students.

Kids I know from Camp Pontiac, who go to school on Long Island and other suburbs, tell me that most or nearly all of their classmates get A's or A+'s in any given class, or straight-A's in all their classes. Take a look at this article from 2006: ". . . of the 47,317 applications [UCLA] received for this fall's freshman class, nearly 21,000 had GPAs of 4.0 or above. . . The average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94 between 1990 and 2000. . . Almost 23 percent of college freshmen in 2005 reported their average grade in high school was an A or better. . . In 1975, the percentage was about half that."

Some of this has to do with the self-esteem movement and some of it has to do with competition over college admissions and related parental lobbying, and teachers and administrators caving in thereto. One Long Island high school junior told me, "There's a lot of pressure on kids to get A's, and there's a lot of pressure on teachers to give A's." So now we are at the point where A's are being given because of pressure, not earned because of merit.

I've been saying for years that an A is not an achievement if everyone in the class gets one. An A should be the highest grade in the class; whoever produces the best work should get an A. Everyone else should get something less than that, on a sliding scale. Of course, if you have an objective test and everyone gets all the answers right, that's one thing. But on performance-based assessments, not every product will meet the standard of excellence. That cannot happen. This is one reason why teachers and administrators like to either avoid performance-based assessments, or avoid actually assessing them objectively, which I discussed in detail
in Raising Grades, Not Achievement.

Regardless of the type of assessment used, I find it impossible to believe that such a high percentage of any random selection of youths of any background can actually, seriously be called high achievers. The whole point of having a grading system which distinguishes an A from a B, a B from a C, and so on, is to distinguish excellence from mere competence; to distinguish those with exceptional skills who produce exceptional work from those who are merely adequate. One cannot strive for excellence if whatever he does will be labeled as excellent regardless of its objective quality.

Whether we want to believe this or not, most people are merely average. Very few people are exceptional, otherwise the word would have no meaning. Students whose work is merely average or adequate should get a C, not an A. Above-average work should get a B. Those who meet the bare-minimum requirement and nothing more should get a D. Only truly exceptional work, and nothing less, should get an A. The only alternative is to abolish the A-B-C-D-F and numerical grading paradigms altogether in favor of one which allows everyone to be labeled as excellent without the system defeating its own purpose.

- Smarter children should get better grades.

A few years ago while I was coaching baseball, I had a conversation with my players at the batting cage about the difference between objective and subjective grading standards, arguing as I always do that a C paper is a C paper no matter what the student's individual ability or intelligence. One of the boys, a ninth-grader, said to me honestly and sincerely, and not at all in an obnoxious manner, that this "would give an unfair advantage to the smart kids."

My response was simple: You're darned right. Except for the "unfair" part. Smart kids should have an advantage in school. Why? Because they're smarter, that's why. They can remember more information, solve problems more efficiently and intuitively, make connections more readily, express themselves more clearly and accurately, and generally produce higher-quality work. There is no logical reason why students who have these abilities should not get higher grades than those who don't. Smarter kids who produce work which meets a higher standard than that of their peers should have that higher standard reflected by higher grades.

What about the kids who are not so smart? Well, obviously, they have to work harder to keep up, and endeavor to improve themselves so they, too, can eventually meet those higher standards. There's nothing wrong or unfair about that. And they may not ever get straight-A's. I'm sorry, but that's how it goes. That's not unfair; that's life. To use a baseball analogy, if a child can only hit the ball 150 feet, and the fence is 250 feet away, they will not move the fence 100 feet closer when he comes up to bat, nor award him a home run if he hits it 151 feet into the outfielder's glove. That would be absurd; absurd to do it, and absurd for the child or parent to expect it. The child has either got to get stronger and improve his swing so he can hit it that far, or learn to hit line drives to the gap, bunt his way on, steal bases, etc.

I'll tell you something else: It is possible for a person to actually become smarter. There are things people can do to exercise and develop their intelligence and learn how to solve problems, process and retain information, and express themselves with precision. And here's a hint: giving them A's in school regardless of the quality of their work is not the way to do it.

- A child's grade should be an objective measurement of his actual ability and performance.

I have often found myself wondering where children and parents think their grades come from; what they think that number or letter means. Just as they decide for themselves what the rules and standards are, as discussed previously, students often decide for themselves what grade they should get and what it will be based upon, and jump to inductive conclusions when the grade they actually receive is less than that. Usually they complain as if they believe the grade is or should be based on only one single thing. For example, a student will indignantly wonder out loud how she could possibly have received a lower grade than the boy sitting next to her, when he comes to class late every other day. Another will point to his most recent notebook or essay grade and demand to know how his report card grade could possibly be lower than that. Others will assume that they failed because of a single missed assignment or minor behavioral infraction, or that the grade reflects nothing more than the teacher's subjective personal dislike of them.

(Do I really need to explain these?)

What's basically going on here is that the child and/or parent decides in advance what grade the child should get, and then, when the grade turns out to be lower, works backward from there in deciding what it must have been based on. This is inevitably followed by an indignant claim that the teacher "can't" base the grade on that alone, and a demand that the grade be based on something else and increased.

Another phenomenon I've been seeing is the determination of grades (or, more to the point, passing or failing status) based on administrative or procedural anomalies. One example, discussed at length in Hypothetical, is the idea that if a teacher does not inform the parent in advance that the child is in danger of failing, then he cannot fail and his failing grade must be overturned. A colleague told me recently about a policy in his former school, where if a teacher's course differed even slightly from the contract given to students at the beginning of the year (for example, if he gives four quizzes when the contract said there would be five), then the student had to pass.

Between all this and the ubiquitous entitlement grading model (discussed at length in Fish Story), it seems that parents and educators have sought and found every possible factor on which to base a student's grade other than the one thing that it should be based on: the student's performance, in its entirety. Nothing more, nothing less.

- Children who cannot do the course work or who cannot understand the course material should fail the course.

Today's students actually believe that they should pass if they can't do the work or understand the material. They can't fathom why they would receive a failing grade on a reader-response notebook in which they wrote no responses because they "didn't understand the book." I've discussed this tortured logic in previous posts, and again it essentially traces back to the subjective-standard argument: the standard, i.e. the starting point for assessment, should reflect the individual child's ability, as opposed to the grade reflecting the child's ability in relation to an established, universal, objective standard. As I've pointed out repeatedly, the former leaves the child with no incentive to learn or improve.

The idea that a student should pass a course whose requirements he cannot meet, because he cannot meet them, may be one of the most absurd and counter-intuitive notions I've ever heard. It's mind-boggling that so many people actually believe it.

- If a child makes a conscious choice not to complete and submit required course work, he should expect to fail the course.

I have had students in the past who, in the same breath, refused to do the work and insisted that they should not and could not fail the course as a result. One girl in particular whom I will never forget, in the most noxious, sneering voice imaginable, said to me, "No, I'm not doing your stupid reading notebook, and you can't fail me, because you're a psycho." (Fortunately this sort of extreme behavior is rare. This individual was one of the five or six most despicable kids I've ever met in all my years of teaching; a true sociopath. She and two others like her were in the same class in the Long Island school where I taught in 2001-02. It makes me ill just to think about them.)

There are a million reasons why kids don't do their work, but regardless of the reason, they either don't perceive the risk in making that choice or don't care about the consequences. Some kids who don't do their work do expect to fail. The ones who don't have somehow been conditioned to believe that work is optional, that they cannot fail the entire course based on one missed assignment (regardless of the accumulation thereof), or that they will somehow eventually be accommodated as long as they had a "good reason" not to do it (e.g., they "didn't like it" or it was "too hard"). The trouble is, they often turn out to be right. Adults in schools bend over backward to make sure that kids do not suffer for their poor decision-making. Parents and administrators force teachers to make accommodations, reverse their decisions and defy their own policies. Students don't perceive risk because in many cases there is none.

I had a dispute once with my supervisor at that Long Island school, who insisted that the kids weren't doing their work because "they don't get it," meaning that I must not have adequately explained the requirements. Their forbearance was therefore proper and acceptable, and they certainly should not fail the course because of it. I replied that they didn't "get it" because they knew they didn't have to. It is far easier and less time-consuming to simply say "I don't get it" than to actually undertake and work through the task. If "not getting it" means you don't have to do the assignment, then you have no incentive to "get it;" in fact, you will actively try not to "get it." She disagreed, without explaining why.

- Children with long-term absences who do not actually attend school, do course work, take and pass exams, etc. should not pass their classes.

In that same Long Island school, I was forced to pass a student whom I had seen maybe twice the entire year. She was out with either a long-term illness, injury or family problem (I can't remember which) and had not done any of the coursework. But I was told to pass her because it was "not her fault" she was out, and she should not be "punished" for it (again, the false perception of academic failure as punitive action; see Redefining Failure). At my current school last year, I actually had a student insist, loudly and with great indignation, that he could not fail the first marking period because, in his words, "I wasn't here!!"

While I won't go so far as to suggest that this policy encourages kids to injure themselves or become gravely ill, we need to get away from the idea that just because a situation is not the child's "fault," we should pretend it doesn't exist and create an artificial outcome for the child's benefit. This has nothing to do with sensitivity; it's simple logic. There is no rationale for declaring that a child who has not actually taken a course, has not actually completed the coursework and thus not actually demonstrated proficiency in the course materials and skills, has in fact done so, because she was deprived of the opportunity by circumstances beyond her control.

We want kids to pass their classes, but we also want them to learn. If the latter is not a precondition of the former, if indeed they have nothing to do with one another, then what's the point?

- If a child receives a low or failing grade on an assignment, project, exam, or overall course, it means that his work is insufficient or substandard and needs to improve. 
- If a child wants a higher grade, he must produce better work.

It is stunning to me how these have become foreign concepts to kids and parents. The last thing in the world anyone thinks of when a child receives a low grade or fails a course is that his work may not be very good, or that he might have chosen not to do it. Either the standards are too high or insufficiently clear, the assignments are too difficult or too numerous, the weighing of different elements into the average is wrong or unfair or ill-defined, the teacher is either incompetent or is persecuting the student because he doesn't like her . . . the list is endless. I've had many students who do little or no work at all, or who cannot write a single clear, correct sentence in an entire essay, and then are shocked - shocked - to receive a low or failing grade.

In addition, the last thing anyone ever thinks of in terms of how to get a better grade is to work harder or produce better results. Complaining, arguing, procedural nitpicking, parental or administrative lobbying, transferring to another teacher's class, and in some cases threats and blackmail, seem to be the preferred methods.

To students who complain about their grades, I always say the same thing: You want a better grade? Do a better job. They have no idea what I'm talking about.

- If a child wants an "A", his work must be the best in the class.

See above discussion on what an "A" means, or should mean.

- Teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, in pedagogy, assessment and measurement, and they should be treated as such.

Here we get into an entirely different area, one which I have touched on earlier and may discuss in greater detail later. A good deal of what I've discussed above concerning grades is also affected by the fact that people in general do not trust teachers anymore. No one seems to believe that teachers know their subject matter, know how to assess and measure student performance against objective standards, or even essentially know how to teach.

What I'm talking about here goes beyond the simplistic blame-the-teachers mentality that the public and the media employ to explain the decline in the quality of schools and the academic performance of students. Of course there are incompetent teachers out there, but I would venture to say there are probably not very many. The certification requirements in New York are substantial, not the least of which is an undergraduate major and standardized content exam (i.e., demonstrated expertise) in the certified subject area. Teaching is a demanding profession and those who are not up to the task typically do not last very long. No; what I'm talking about here is what happens after the child under-performs and is dissatisfied with a grade.

If it was generally understood that teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, as well as in pedagogy, assessment and grading, we would not have all these challenges to grades and all this caving in to parental pressure. We would not essentially allow parents to decide for themselves what grades their children should receive, let alone allow them to pressure and threaten us into giving them what they want. Teachers and administrators who give students the grades their parents demand instead of the ones they have earned are essentially ceding their expertise to the parents. In other words, I can't be considered an expert if the parent and the child know better than I do what grade her paper should get. I'm supposed to be the expert; I'm supposed to know the difference between an A paper and a B paper. And on top of that, I've been doing it for years. I read scores of papers at a time, hundreds of them every semester, many thousands in my career. I think I can tell by now the difference between the A, B, C, D and failing papers.

It's rather like the 4th Amendment warrant requirement; the police need a neutral magistrate to determine if probable cause exists. The police (and, for that matter, the defendant) have too much of an interest in the outcome to make that determination for themselves. If I'm the judge, I'm supposed to be able to tell the difference between probable cause and mere suspicion, and more importantly, I have no stake in the outcome, which is why I get to make the decision.

I would argue it is extremely difficult for children to learn if their grades are pre-determined by their parents, who are indisputably interested parties. They are much better off being evaluated by a neutral, expert instructor.

Of course, students and parents don't believe teachers are "neutral" either...

- Children who misbehave should be punished.

This goes without saying. Or so one would think. There really is very little that a school or a teacher can do to punish misbehavior, even egregious antisocial behavior. Practically anything one could think of is somehow construed as "corporal punishment" (including a favorite of my elementary-school teachers, writing 25 or 50 times "I must not..."). The only punishment left is suspension from school or in-house detention, which as any student will tell you, is no punishment. Especially when they're absolved for whatever class work or exams they miss; after all, it's "not their fault" they weren't in class that day.

In early 2003, when I was teaching at that despicably corrupt, fraudulent Queens "Arts" school, a group of students stole hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from theme-park gift shops while on a school-sponsored performance trip in Florida. The parents of these children insisted that the school should not punish them at all. The principal (vile creature that he was) reluctantly meted out a nominal punishment, which in part excluded these children from Spring performances, but in the end even that relatively minor sanction was lifted.

I must confess I can't think of a disciplinary and punishment scheme which would be effective at maintaining order in the schools but which would not ultimately rely on the good faith of educators to avoid abusing their authority. I guess the question is, all else being equal, who should get the benefit of the doubt, the adults or the kids?

- Teachers should be annoyed, and should express that annoyance, when children misbehave.

This obviously refers to something that kids are guilty of more so than anyone else, although again the parents and administrators enable it. Children seem to believe that the teachers owe them "respect" but they do not owe their teachers any sort of deference. I've actually had students tell me that: "You have to respect me, but I don't have to respect you." They do not feel obligated to behave in any particular way nor to treat teachers in any particular way, but the teachers must be careful what they say and how they say it.

Two years ago I politely asked a student twice to get out of the doorway, where she was standing, holding the door halfway open, having a conversation with someone in the hallway, after the class period began, and take her seat. After being ignored both times, I had to raise my voice and instruct her, rather more forcefully, to comply. This produced a melodramatic, Oscar-worthy tirade from her about how "No one talks to me like that" and "I'm not your child" and "Don't you disrespect me" and on and on and on. (For the record, this was another one of the "five or six..." mentioned above.)

This is the sort of thing I should not have to explain. No one is entitled to a polite response to an antisocial act, particularly when that act is repeated. Kids need to get over themselves. I'm not going to waste time pondering the adolescent concept of "respect," which is simplistic and one-sided, nor explaining in any great detail the reasons why students do, in fact, owe teachers their respect, deference and best behavior. Suffice it to say that it's almost impossible for learning to occur, let alone for the schools to function, otherwise. A teacher has every right to be annoyed when children misbehave or interfere with their teaching, and every right to scold them when they do.

How can so many people be so wrong about so many things that are so important when it comes to school? How did we reach this nadir? Make no mistake: This is why our school system is failing. It's not a lack of funding or the influence of teacher's unions or the absence of Christian prayer in the classroom. It is a fundamental misunderstanding on nearly everyone's part of what teachers, students, parents and administrators are supposed to do with respect to the education of children; what their respective roles are supposed to be. And the schools will never be fixed as long as people think this way. Never.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bill Maher's New Rule: Don't Blame the Teachers

Bill Maher: "New Rule: Let's Not Fire the Teachers When Students Don't Learn, Let's Fire the Parents."

I've been waiting for education to become a topic on my favorite sociopolitical talk show, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (I'm a big fan of Maher even though I strongly disagree with him on some topics, like marijuana and animal rights, to name two), and last night we got this "New Rule," which you can read in its entirety at the link above. He was responding largely to the recent wholesale firing of the entire faculty of a "failing" Rhode Island school. Now, the piece isn't entirely satisfactory; it is, after all, only a brief segment and played mostly for laughs, which explains the too-many jokes about recent teacher-student sex scandals. There are a few lines I want to highlight, though:

Yes, America has found its new boogeyman to blame for our crumbling educational system. It's just too easy to blame the teachers ... We all remember high school - canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy.

But isn't it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn't us, and the fix is something that doesn't require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It's so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we're at it let's cut taxes more. It's the kind of comprehensive educational solution that could only come from a completely ignorant people.

Firing all the teachers may feel good - we're Americans, kicking people when they're down is what we do - but it's not really their fault.

Maher's commentary touches on a number of themes.

First, the idea of firing teachers as a "revenge fantasy" makes perfect sense to me, and is in line with what I've observed in the past about how students view their teachers as arbitrarily evil, cardboard Bond villains, which is how they always portray them in fiction writing. Especially today, where schools have gone from being institutions of learning to institutions of validation, when parents send their kids to school not to learn but to be praised and lauded for what they already know, teachers are an easy, convenient and frequent target.

Second, it is convenient to blame and/or fire the teacher because, as appears to be the main point of the commentary, it absolves the parent, the student and society of any responsibility for the actual occurrence of learning. People seem to think that teaching is the equivalent of casting a magic spell; if you do it right, the spell will work and learning will magically occur, and if not, it won't. Further, the idea that it's so easy to identify a "good teacher" or a "bad teacher" is absurd. When I ask people to describe either of these, the answer is always couched in vague outcome-based platitudes; "...makes it interesting...," "...gets the kids to learn...," etc. Getting rid of "bad teachers" is not only easy and cost-free, it's completely subjective and arbitrary.

Third, Maher makes a good point by implicitly asking the question, Where do we think we're going to find all these "good teachers" after we fire all the "bad" ones?

Finally, it's about time the schools turned to parents, and especially to students, and asked them "What are you doing to make sure you learn?" I can't count how many times I've sat with a student and a parent at Open School, where the student has done no work so far and is failing the course, but has never raised her hand, asked a question, come for extra help, etc. The parent or the child will say she is "completely lost," and "has no idea what's going on in class," and "doesn't understand the literature," and "doesn't know what she's supposed to do," and on and on and on. Complete and utter helplessness. And my question is always the same: "What have you done about it?"  

That's the question we need to be asking. The issue is not what the teacher is doing, as Maher points out in his commentary. If you're a student and you're "lost" or "not understanding" the material or "don't know" what you're supposed to do, What do you DO about it? If you don't know what you're supposed to do, what steps have you taken to find out? If you "don't understand" the material (a lie, but I've been over that repeatedly), what steps have you taken to generate and increase your understanding? In most situations, the answer is: Nothing. Why? Because they don't think they have to do anything, and because they know that someone, whether a parent or an administrator, will absolve them of responsibility and place the burden on the teacher, to either un-do the outcome or give the child "another chance," because after all, she "deserves" it.

The point is that neither students nor parents feel that they have any responsibility at all to their own learning, nor for making that learning happen. They still cling to the idea that if the teacher "makes it interesting" and showers the child with praise, that somehow learning will occur on its own. It's foolish, intellectually lazy and counter-educational. And "firing all the bad teachers" won't fix it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Repost: The Great Failure (April 7, 2008)

"The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense." - Jonathan Chait, The New Republic

This is not a political blog, and I don't like to think of education as a political issue because, as any of the two or three people who have read this blog can attest, I don't think politics or politicians can fix it. In fact, I don't think it has anything to do with which political party is in power, or whose candidates we vote for, and nothing written here should be construed to advocate the support or denouncement of one party or the other. But when I read this quotation in TNR I immediately thought of the schools. Replace the phrase "American liberalism" with "American public education" and the statement would still hold true.

I really believe that public secondary education, as I have described it throughout this blog, is the great failure of modern American liberalism. I discussed this idea in some detail in an earlier post: Conservative Pedagogy, Liberal Assessment. Subjective standards, entitlement grading, the ceding of teacher authority and expertise to parents, the bending-over-backward to absolve students of the consequences of their poor choices, the emphasis on self-esteem over actual learning, the suffocating limitations on permissible school-based discipline; these are all the product of abstract liberal ideas and ideals.
"...fixation with rights and procedures..." Look at the scenario outlined in Hypothetical. The idea that a child's failing grade can and must be overturned because of a procedural dispute with a teacher is a perfect example of this. It presumes (wrongly, in my view) that a student has a right to a passing grade, and that right cannot be infringed without "due process." Parents today seem singularly obsessed with rights and procedures. Administrators are therefore required to share that obsession in their policies and directives to teachers. Again, as I pointed out previously, procedural formalities become more important than the student's performance; the grade can be based on the former as well as, or instead of, the latter. This of course creates inefficiency; the more different factors that can be used to determine a child's grade or passing/failing status, the more resources are expended upon those factors and, necessarily, diverted away from actual instruction and assessment. And it defies common sense, in that a child's grade should reflect her performance, and the teacher's assessment thereof, with respect to standards and expectations.

In our pre-Open School departmental conference last week, our principal emphasized the importance of procedure and "due process," and having evidence thereof, because as he put it, that's what parents always insist upon knowing and, inevitably, will try to challenge. I would wager that the majority of parent complaints and challenges with respect to student grades are procedural rather than substantive. In other words, a parent is far more likely to insist that a child's grade should be raised or overturned because the teacher supposedly neglected some arcane procedural step, rather than because the student's work was actually better than the teacher's evaluation and he had actually earned a higher grade.

Students have a right to competent instruction, they have a right to know what the rules, regulations, requirements, standards and expectations are, they have a right to have their legitimate questions answered, they have a right to receive extra academic help when they ask for it and it is available, they have a right to be treated fairly, equitably, reasonably and honestly by teachers and other school officials. They do NOT have a right to pass their classes and advance to the next grade, nor to receive high grades, nor to be praised for their performance regardless of whether it is praiseworthy. They have a right to the opportunity, not the outcome.

The presumption that a student must be given a passing grade based on alleged procedural inadequacies requires a presumption that the student would have passed had the procedures been followed; again, that the student is entitled to a passing grade. In other words, we are willing to presume, absent any evidence, that the student knows the material and can do the work. We are not, however, willing to presume that the teacher followed procedure and provided the student with all of what is listed in the above paragraph. The teacher must prove that she provided adequate information, instruction and notice, and must overcome the presumption that she did not, but the student does not need to prove that he has learned, or done, anything.

This defies common sense. The whole point of a student taking an exam or doing an assignment is for him to demonstrate what he has learned. The grotesque inversion of logic described above goes back to the idea of not trusting teachers and giving students the benefit of the doubt in disputes of this nature. All a student has to do is claim that he did not know about an assignment or did not know how to do it, and automatically it is presumed that he could have done it and would have done it had the teacher told him about it and explained it to him. The parent therefore demands that the child be given the grade that he would have gotten under those circumstances, and that imaginary outcome be substituted for what actually happened (or, in less extreme cases, that the student be given "another chance" to do the work). In the end, the child does not have to actually do the assignment, let alone do it well or demonstrate actual learning. The parent demands a passing grade, the system obliges, and the child learns nothing.

It has, in fact, become so easy for a student to evade responsibility for assignments by claiming ignorance that teachers are compelled to take extraordinary measures to make sure students know about assignments, test dates, and the like. A teacher is practically required to tell the students about it in class, write it on the board, give them a printed handout, put it on the internet, e-mail every student personally, call every parent personally, then directly ask each child individually if he knows about the assignment and intends to complete it, and keep doing all this every day until the assignment is due. Anything less, and a child can claim that she "didn't know" and the parent will demand restitution. Is this really an efficient or reasonable way for teachers to expend their time and resources?

Claiming ignorance and accusing the teacher of incompetence is certainly easier than actually studying, paying attention in class, asking meaningful questions, and completing assigned work. The trouble is that this is essentially what today's kids are being taught to do. Not only do they have no incentive to pay attention to instructions, keep track of assignments and seek help, they have an incentive to ignore instructions, disregard assignments and not know what is going on in class; they actively try to not know. In a way, they're trying to create plausible deniability for themselves, but it only becomes plausible when adults accept and enable it. We should not. Students must have a duty to know what their responsibilities are; to know what is expected of them, to know what assignments are and when they are due, to listen to and follow instructions, to know what is going on in each of their classes. Teachers should not have to bear the entire burden of maintaining students' awareness of assignments and requirements.

How can the school system function efficiently, let alone generate actual learning, when it gives kids all these perverse incentives? For how long will we be willing to cast reason and common sense out the window, making the educational process far more complicated and less efficient than it needs to be, just to make kids feel good about themselves, while producing a population filled with self-esteem and empowerment but bereft of knowledge and skills?

"The persistent weakness of American public education is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense."

Sounds about right.

Friday, February 26, 2010

God Hates Me.

Between the fall of 1997 and January 8, 2010, I spent the better part of 12 school years as a New York City teacher. In all that time, if memory serves me correctly, I think the City public schools were given a grand total of two (2) snow days. It was always frustrating when City schools were open while all the suburban schools were closed, and indeed, during the brief and nightmarish time I spent teaching in the suburbs, there were no snow days. The schools were closed the day after 9/11, were pre-emptively closed in anticipation of an impending Nor'easter (which turned out to be nothing) in 1998 or 99, and there may have been one other snow day in all those years. Meanwhile, we had at least a half-dozen major snowstorms during that time that fell either on a Saturday or during the February break.

I suppose you know where this is going.

Since leaving the City school system seven weeks ago, there have been two snow days. Two in seven weeks, after two in 13 years.

Not that I miss working for the DOE, mind you. And I certainly don't miss the children. And I'm certainly very happy in my new job and career. Just having a little fun in my office, watching out a 29th-story window as the city gets whitewashed. Again.

Enjoy the snow day.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Over the Top

Two articles in the Daily News in the last couple of days caught my attention:

Mom Fumes After Son, 9, Is Busted for Bringing 2-Inch Long Toy Gun to School (follow-up here).
Queens Girl Hauled out of School in Handcuffs After Getting Caught Doodling on Desk.

Allright, what's going on here? Reading through the comments attached to these articles, I see two schools of thought emerging (not counting this-is-all-liberal-socialist-Marxist-PC-commie-leftist-Obama's-fault):

1. Rules are rules, the kid broke them, zero tolerance, parents need to get over themselves;
2. It was just a toy, it's no big deal, kids will be kids, how dare the principal punish the child so harshly.

What I'm seeing here is an awful lot of overreaction, on just about everyone's part, including the aforementioned commenters. The school officials overreacted to the children' s inappropriate behavior, the parents overreacted to the overreaction, and the public is now overreacting to both. In the case of the boy with the little toy gun, the child probably shouldn't have brought any toys to school, let alone a toy gun no matter what size it was. To hear the boy and the parent tell of it, though, the principal completely wigged out over it and treated the boy as if he had actually shot someone. I should note here that I don't entirely believe this; she probably did overreact, but not to the degree the boy and mother are claiming. We all know how children tend to exaggerate and distort things in order to cast themselves as innocent victims of arbitrary meanness, and parents nowadays are no help in that they take these distortions as gospel truth and then double-down on the distortion to pump up the outrage.

We can dispense with the lawsuit talk right now; it's an empty threat, and everyone knows it. Neither the parent nor the child has any cause of action here, against either the principal or the school/DOE, let alone one that would justify the expense of litigation. Bunch of nonsense, this. Even as an attorney, it annoys me to no end whenever something like this happens and everyone's first thought is of a lawsuit. The reality is that no parent, no matter how outraged, is going to go through the time, expense and effort of pursuing a cause of action in court that has no chance of succeeding, let alone of producing a large recovery.

I think that in this case we're just looking at a lot of bad behavior on everyone's part, most of which could have been avoided if anyone along the line just did the proper, reasonable thing in the first place. And as always, the important things get lost: the need for schools to have and enforce reasonable rules, the need for them to enforce such rules in a reasonable and effective way, and the need for parents to stop teaching their children that they are the center of the universe and that anything and everything they do is just wonderful.

Which brings me to the second case, the girl who was handcuffed for doodling on her desk. Now, in this case the child actually was punished for her behavior (the boy in the other case just got a stern talking-to and was made to sign an acknowledgment form), and in this case the behavior actually was, in a technical sense, criminal. Vandalism is still a crime in New York, as far as I know, whether the perpetrator intends to "undo" the damage or not (or, perhaps more to the point, whether or not it is possible for the victim to undo it). What's interesting to me is that the child is quoted as saying, "It could be easily erased." Note the use of passive language here, reflecting the complete lack of acknowledgment that someone would actually have to do the work of erasing it. And how does she know whether such work is "easy?" More importantly, why does she feel entitled to impose such work on someone else? The article says the marker was "erasable," but I don't buy it. I've seen plenty of desk graffiti over the years, but I've never seen a child using a dry-erase whiteboard marker on a desk.

Now, all that said, I think the whole arrest and handcuffing thing was over the top. I'd be lying if I said I never thought about having a student arrested and cuffed for vandalizing a desk; in fact, this past semester, I had a student who was a serial desk vandal (among other things) and I had that thought often. The tension here, I think, is between a proportional response to an isolated incident of inappropriate behavior on the one hand, and on the other the idea that we cannot let students think they can behave in an antisocial way and not have to pay a price for it, even if the harm appears to be minor. In this particular case, without knowing more about this girl and other surrounding circumstances, the response was probably disproportionate. If this girl was a serial desk vandal and had been repeatedly warned to stop doing it, that's another story.

There is a risk in letting students get away with "minor" infractions, in the sense that they eventually come to decide for themselves what the magnitude of the harm is, and therefore feel empowered to commit even greater harms while convincing themselves that the harms are not so great. One of the things that bothers me most about kids is that they tend to proclaim themselves the arbiters of the value of other people's property. The classic example of this is two boys playing "keep-away" with a third boy's baseball cap, throwing it back and forth, until it falls in a mud puddle and is permanently ruined. The owner of the cap will react strongly, and the cap-throwers will admonish him that it's "just a baseball cap" and only worth $30, or whatever such caps go for at Modell's. What they might not know, for example, is that the cap was the last thing given to the boy by his uncle, who died last month. Yes, that's an extreme example, but the point is that the taunters in this scenario have no right to tell the owner of the property which they destroyed that it was not worth preserving. No one has the right to determine the value to its owner of any property which does not belong to him. (That includes the value of labor, re: the girl's claim that undoing the damage she caused would be "easily" accomplished.)

I realize I'm taking the reader down a bit of a slippery slope here, but I believe the risk is genuine. I've said time and time again, and made it the thesis of my Law Review Note, that teenagers do a very poor job of evaluating risk and considering their actions carefully, to the point of being unable to even perceive risk. While they don't always need to be handcuffed and "taken downtown" every time they step out of line, they do need to understand that sometimes their actions do cause harm, and they cannot escape the consequences by unilaterally declaring that the harm is insignificant.

The worst aspect of this may be that these parents, particularly the mother of the boy with the Lego gun, are teaching their children that it is normal, proper, acceptable, even preferable, to feel and act outraged and victimized whenever they get in trouble in school; that the proper way to respond to what may or may not have been a lapse in judgment resulting in what may or may not have been unfair treatment, is to attack, threaten and actively try to destroy the life of that person. They will do this even when they are in the wrong.

People should enforce their rights, yes. People should be wary of unfair treatment, yes. Punishments should be proportional, yes. But no one is helped when everyone loses their minds.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye and a main character in the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, has died at the age of 91.

Will check back later with thoughts. A sad day today, indeed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jay - Ee - Tee - Ess ...

No, I'm not going to pontificate here about if/how/why my perennially heartbreaking, soul-crushing New York Jets are going to beat the mighty, awesome Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game this afternoon. To be honest, I don't think they have a chance; they simply can't score enough points to keep up with Peyton Manning and the Colts offense, who don't play a lot of 17-14 games. Some of my friends will surely get on my case for being "negative" or "pessimistic," but they make the same mistake that all blind partisans make in failing to see the difference between what one wishes or hopes will happen, and what one actually honestly believes will happen. I can want and hope for outcome A but nonetheless predict and expect outcome B, all at the same time. The two thoughts are not incompatible.

No, I post today because of something I read in today's NY Post, in an interview with Jets safety Jim Leonhard. When asked if he and his teammates would "run through a brick wall" for coach Rex Ryan, Leonhard replied, "Everyone’s been lied to, everyone’s been told something that really isn’t true. Your parents tell you you’re great your whole life, and sometimes it’s not true. I watch "American Idol" every once in a while, you see all the people that go on the show and they think they’re the best singers in the world because no one ever told them that they’re not. Rex is gonna tell you the truth."

I only noticed and posted this because it reflects the thinking that has been driving my teaching for years. I've always told people that I have some students who love me, and some who hate me; some who think I'm a great teacher, and some who think I'm a terrible teacher. And both for the same reason. The reason is precisely what Leonhard says about Ryan here. A lot of students come to my class having only ever been told how wonderful and fabulous they are at everything they've ever done, throughout their entire childhood. Their teachers may have even been taught, trained and instructed to do that; to never tell a student that his answer is wrong or her work is inadequate, because doing so would be "psychologically damaging." (This is what a student-teacher I supervised a few years back told me she had been taught.) They get to my class and can't handle my brutal honesty. I challenge them to do better, and they take it as an insult.

Now, I've had a number of students over the years who initially resented me for this, but who realized over time what I was doing for them and came to appreciate it. Sometimes that only happens after the student is not in my class anymore. But I believe, have always believed and will always believe, that we do kids no favors by praising everything they do without giving them any honest appraisals of their ability and performance. The kind of obsequious self-esteem boosting we see in schools does nothing but produce a lot of narcissistic, peevish kids who cannot and do not learn because they can neither take constructive criticism nor distinguish it from arbitrary meanness.

This is actually related, peripherally, to the sports topic I brought up at the beginning of this post. I have an acquaintance with whom I used to be very close, but we've drifted apart in recent years because, among other things, we don't see eye to eye on how to properly root for one's favorite teams, nor on how important such behavior is to one's life or how reflective it is of one's character. (He's a Yankee fan, of course, and thus knows little of the bitter anguish and wrenching disappointment suffered annually for decades by fans of the other New York teams. He's also quite a bit younger than I am.)  Specifically, he doesn't like it when I predict or expect that one of my teams will lose a game, or fail to make the playoffs, or blow a 7-game division lead with 17 games to play. He gets very upset when I do that, and thinks I should be more positive and supportive of these teams.

This is not necessarily an unusual or unreasonable position to take. The problem with this individual is (1) he can't distinguish blind support and unthinking advocacy from honest, measured analysis and reasoned, fact-based prognostication; (2) he seems to think that somehow my "attitude" actually has an impact on the outcome of those events (i.e., that my saying or believing they will lose actually causes them to lose), and (3), most disturbingly, he thinks I should do this for their sake, not mine. I could understand it if he thought that it would be beneficial to me if I were less cynical; that I would be happier and less stressed if I always believe, expect and say that my team will win every game, even if logic, reality and history suggest otherwise was more optimistic. There is something to that, even though the obvious counter-argument is that you're setting yourself up for disappointment when you do that, a lesson I learned a very long time ago. That's part of the reason why I try to be realistic, if not overtly cynical, about the future fortunes of my favorite teams.

But this individual makes a very strange argument; that somehow it would be better for them, for the teams themselves, if I was more "positive." Whether he thinks they're actually, in reality, more likely to win if I predict/think/say that they will win, or whether he thinks that I am actually hurting the players' and coaches' fragile feelings by not thinking they'll win every game, it's a completely absurd and irrational argument. The fact that he seems to care more about them than he does about me is doubly disturbing. (UPDATE: He's also a hypocrite;  after admonishing me before the game for my "pessimism" in predicting the Jets would lose, he updated his Facebook status after the game to mock and ridicule Jets fans for being stupid enough to believe they could win.)

In a way, it's not all that different from the idea that if we inundate kids with nothing but praise and compliments and "encouragement," that they will somehow actually learn, improve and succeed academically without ever hearing an honest, objective appraisal of their abilities and performance. Of course it's not the same as the sports-fan context, in that there is no actual contact between me and the team so the way I choose to root for them cannot and does not affect them (a fact which my acquaintance nonetheless seems unable to grasp). But the idea that positive thinking and positive "encouragement" or cheerleading always leads directly to positive results is foolish, no less so than assuming one's wishes will all come true if one simply wishes hard enough.

Of course Rex Ryan is not going to try to motivate his team to win by telling them he thinks they're going to lose. In fact, his public statements suggest the opposite, but what he's done is challenged his players to back up those statements. He has challenged his players to succeed by telling them the truth about themselves; that they are not as great as they think they are, and they have to prove it to him first. They're not going to win today, but these Jets are already more successful than any Jets team since the one that won Super Bowl III all those years decades ago. They have a coach who "gets it."