Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dear Arne Duncan: draft 2

I am a teacher, and just to be clear, I don't teach AP or Honors classes. Those lofty class environments are not at issue for this topic.

Just a few years into my teaching career, we were informed that teachers were expected to educate our charges not only in the "three Rs" but also in ethics/morals. My first thought (Hah! I never have first thoughts without a nexus of connecting thoughts leading rapidly to a conclusion, but it feels like a first thought) was, "Better make us a boarding school, then," because no way was I going to be accountable for teenagers' ethical training without 24 hour access to the influences on their lives.

I know you're trying to get a handle on the federal government's role in improving the education of America's youth, and you want teacher pay to reflect teacher effectiveness. Most of us can agree with that in principle, but in practice, not so much. Notwithstanding being held accountable for their moral development, being held accountable for their math skills requires nearly the same amount of control over students' out-of-school environment. We teach our hearts out during school hours, and at 2, off they go, out of our supervision. Anyone who thinks even a small majority goes home and dives right in to homework tasks or even plans the pm hours in such a way as to budget several hours for homework ensuring a reasonable bedtime is completely out of touch with reality.

Give a homework assignment due the following day. First period, you'll get 10%, Second period, 20%, Third, 30% and so on, but you won't get more than 60%. Ever. The increasing percentage is caused by having other classes before English class during which students will ignore what's happening in that class and doing the "home" work. I once bribed an English class with a pizza party if everyone would have a ROUGH DRAFT 3 days after the assignment. Didn't happen; the highest percentage for my sophomore class was 47%. Students don't do homework. They play sports, they play video games, they "hang out" with friends, which seems to be 4 or 5 kids sitting around texting other people.

We send them off and any focus on school evaporates. Parents often aren't around to help them or even monitor them. Increasingly, students exhibit the attitude that school is an interruption in their far more important activities, their social lives, their playtime or their jobs, nowhere near the stepping stone to a better life that we teachers constantly harp about. Their only motivation is to get it done with as fast as possible and with the least effort possible.

What about the kids who want to learn, I hear you object, surely there are some. Yep, there are, and they really brighten up a day. In each class of 30, maybe there will be 3 who have the golden combination of motivation and readiness. They are precious jewels. Others are the most tragic cases of all. They want to learn, but they are not ready for the topics that we are presenting to them. That is a pointless activity, a complete waste of everybody's time and creates a subclass of usually disruptive students who have been promoted grade after grade regardless of any mastery of the content. I once had a student at Spokane Community College who came to me privately and confessed that he had managed to graduate high school without learning to read and could I please teach him.

Social promotion has to stop at every level. How can teachers be evaluated based on the performance of students who are in no way ready to learn at the level they've been placed. It's not rational; it's not fair.

Not just for teachers, either; it's not fair to students. Nearly every kindergartener goes to school excited to learn. What happens between then and high school for so many of them to turn in to sullen school-haters? Here's one scenario: six-year-old Dave isn't ready to read. In his end-of-year report card, his teacher notes his difficulty. Despite his parents' misgivings, Dave goes on to second grade. He has no learning deficit, so he receives no extra help and his teacher has a full class. Dave eventually comes to the end of third grade, not reading well if at all. How do any of us feel about doing something we're not good at? How about being tested on something you can't do? Frustration, anger, negativity, disruption, dropping out.

Make some real change in education; stop promoting children to grades they aren't ready for merely because they have aged a year.

1 comment:

Stephanie Frieze said...

There are a couple of things about my childhood that were different than those of children today (more than a couple, actually). One was that there was a least one parent around all the time. My dad traveled for Boeing, but I had June Cleaver for a mother. Someone was always around to make sure that I was doing what I was supposed to. Moreover there was a stigma attached to failure. Now no one cares. Had I not passed a class and been left behind by those I'd known since first grade I would have been mortified. I was not a great student, but I certainly cared about graduating on time. Either we are promoting them just to make them feel good or they don't give a rats butt and are willing to take more than four years to graduate from high school. The school needs to force parents to take responsibility for being parents and stop caving in everytime someone wants to get their student a "pass."

I can see we are both really looking forward to fall.