Thursday, November 20, 2008

No room for failure

From CitizenNetMom:

The big problem for us is not the advanced students, though. It’s those who struggle to pass Algebra 1, and who will have loads of trouble with everything beyond that. There’s no room for failure, as repeating a class would require taking two math classes in the same year. (snip)

The bottom line is, today’s high school students have many fewer options than their parents did, and next year’s freshmen will have still fewer options than their older siblings did. There is no room for experimentation — they’re essentially picking a "major" for high school. Unlike college, there is no room for changing majors.

At 14, a student must choose a path for the rest of her life.

She has a lot more to say about the new tougher requirements I will encourage parents and legislators to read through it. I'll remind people that we've had Democrats in control of the House Education Committee for a good long time and that committee, which was Memphis heavy, was responsible for these standards. I can't explain why they thought this was a good idea when they clearly knew that too many of their students couldn't reliably maintain a B average to qualify for lottery scholarships.

Taxpayers, voters and parents should look toward the new Republican controlled Tennessee legislature and encourage them to seriously consider rolling back some of this. These new standards may look good on paper and in theory however, they will not improve the graduation rates. They will only increase the dropout rate as more and more students who didn't get Algebra I, partly because their basic arithmetic or reading skills were insufficient, get frustrated and leave.

It seems a good time to review just what our society can afford to provide in the way of education. It has got to be clear to nearly everyone that the sky is not the limit. Let's set some reasonable benchmarks and once they've mastered those skills let's free up students to move on with their lives outside of taxpayer supported government schooling in the workplace or further education or training.


Nashteach said...

Hmmm. I'm kind of mixed on this, but tend to disagree. I think we need some higher standards. The comment "the big problem for us is not the advanced students" I find troubling. Why? Because various levels of government have already been watering down standards for some time now. Whether it's "core curriculum" from the 1990s that pushed learning of more facts to the detriment of teaching skills, or the focus in this decade on "minimal skills" standardized testing, advanced students have made sacrifices for their struggling peers in money, class size, curricular rigor. So, every time I hear the notion that the advanced students will be okay, I start expecting these kids to have to make more sacrifice.

There’s no room for failure, as repeating a class would require taking two math classes in the same year.

No, there's this thing called summer school. As in the real world, if you want a vacation, you've got to get the work done first. Further, I'd argue the practice of "taking two math classes in a year" should be abolished. Perhaps we have bent over backwards to see that anyone, despite repeated failures, can graduate in four years. By making it easier, I wonder if we are allowing for more failure.

they’re essentially picking a "major" for high school. Unlike college, there is no room for changing majors. At 14, a student must choose a path for the rest of her life.

No, no, and no. First high school is not college; it is preparation for college (or work). Second, anyone in a comprehensive high school can change from college prep to vocational or vice versa by the beginning of their junior year. Beyond those two "tracks," there is no such thing as a major in high school. Third: "choose a path for the rest of their life." Give me a break! She's telling us that if someone completes a college prep path they then incur a lifetime bar from becoming a plumber or air conditioning repairperson? No. The alternate is true with the exception that to go to a college, one is supposed to study foreign language. That means taking a few classes before being fully admitted to college. That isn't even close to the equivalent of being "trapped" in a path for life. (It's more hyperbole!) It just means, as in real life, if you want to change paths you need some training before fully making the change.

Let me share a personal example that as an educator I know to be true for many students. When I was in high school, to get into the next year of Honors English, we had to get the signed approval of our teacher and a grade of "C" or higher. Did that mean some were removed from the Honors program? Sure, but it also meant many of us knew where the bar was a strove to meet it. I worked harder knowing I'd have to ask for that signature. Now, if a parent asks, anyone gets in and stays in the Honors program no matter the level of success or failure. No one got to take two years of Math in the same year because they failed the year before.

So, yes, to a degree higher standards mean more might drop out, but it also might mean that the 50% of students who currently flunk out of college might have a better chance of success. That's a good thing. I'm for improving the graduation rate, but not if it means watering down a high school diploma to mean very little.

N.S. Allen said...

Suffice to say that I think a lot of these new standards are bad ideas. The P.E., personal finance, and area of focus bits are all unnecessary and silly. The people who thought them up should be kept firmly away from education issues for the rest of their days.

As regards the idea that we should avoid rigorous math requirements lest the drop-out rate rise - what sense does that make? If kids are failing algebra because they lack skills in arithmetic, we need to improve the way arithmetic is taught, not stop requiring them to learn it. If kids are dropping out, we need to increase access to counselling, tutoring, and other programs that will help them stay on top of their education. But, if we react to the knowledge that students are failing a certain subject by not requiring them to study it, we're basically saying that a statistic, the drop-out rate, is more important that what students are actually learning.

You can argue over whether the four year requirement is good or bad, certainly. It has its upsides and its downsides. But either mathematics is an important enough subject to require four yers of study in, in which case we should mandate that, or it isn't, in which case we should not.

With regards to "what our society can afford to provide in the way of education" - the real question is how much our society has to lose, if we don't start providing more. It's just absurd to look at life in the "world is flat" era, where America's students already lag behind those of other developed countries, and to conclude that what we need to do is to scale back the goals of public education.

What really baffles me about so-called critiques of government-run education is that they seem to have all ignored every country across the globe where students are doing well. Are those nations stepping back government-run education? Are they privatizing the education system? Do vast swaths of their students engage in home-schooling?

As far as I can tell, the answer is, in almost all cases, no. So, why is the solution to education woes in America so drastically different from what works elsewhere? Are America's students less intelligent? Are our politicians more corrupt? Are we just, as a nation, somehow less capable of running schools than, say, Finland?

I don't know any Finns, personally, but I figure that none of those things are true.

Nashteach said...

personal finance...unnecessary and silly.

I couldn't disagree more. In my experience economics classes have become very theoretical and focused on the Macro, a true social studies class. With as high of a poverty rate as we have in MNPS and even Tennessee, we would be remiss not to teach students how to handle money. The current economic crisis and high rate of foreclosures should be evidence enough we have not done enough as a nation to teach the tools of financial responsibility.