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.