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.