Archive for March, 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences

March 12, 2010

Are you familiar with the Law of Unintended Consequences?

A number of years ago we were told that students had actually progressed through 12 years of school and had received a high school diploma without ever having learned to read.  It was also revealed about this time that American students fared very poorly when compared with their counterparts in developed nations such as those found in Europe and Asia.  The American students were particularly deficient in science and mathematics.  While elementary students compared very well with their foreign counterparts, they began to lag in middle school and the deficit became pronounced when high school students were compared.

A number of fixes and tweaks were suggested.

Districts which had been “socially promoting” lagging students now had to subject their student body to end-of-year testing.  In time there was No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Social promotions were given to students who had failed two or more years, and the justification was to keep such students from being left too far behind their peers.  It was thought to damage their “self esteem”, and avoiding such damage resulted in a better student and better educational outcomes.  Such repeated failures, with low self-esteem, tended to drop out and never receive a diploma.  It was further believed that this problem of self-esteem carried on into life and tended to make people less able to function in society.

The solution to the lack of qualification of American students in math and science was to extend the requirements for graduation and to require an additional year (sometimes two) of science and math.  The Texas Legislature passed this when George W. Bush was Governor and the legislation was duly passed and signed into law.  Similar policies have become part of Federal education. Prior to this the high school student might take General Math and one or two years of Algebra.  They might take Physical Science and Biology.  These were beginning level classes and most students could pass them without too much effort.

With the new legislation, they now had to add more math and science to their graduation plan.  The only classes available were Plane Geometry and perhaps Trigonometry or pre-calculus, and after that there was only Statistics or Analytic Geometry or Calculus.  The additional sciences available were likely to be Physics or Chemistry or possibly Anatomy and Physiology.

The advanced math and science courses were no longer simple.  They had been designed and normally taken by students who were going on to college and planning on majoring in math or science or engineering.  These demanding courses were taken by students who planned to take classes in medical science and similarly demanding curricula.

It was not really possible to lower the level of these courses without harming the students who needed them in order to do well in college.  Some dumbing down has occurred.  “Regular” classes are now paralleled by similar classes labeled AP, for advanced placement, and IB, for International Baccalaureate.  AP and IB classes are taught at university level, and students who pass such, and who also pass an end-of-course test conducted by a university, can gain university credit, thus getting double credit.  At one time they gain credit for high school graduation and also university credits giving them a head start on a college education.  So you have regular Anatomy and Physiology and also A&P (AP) for future physicians and nurses.

Even so, A&P requires a lot of work.  The student who has been cruising along without doing much studying or much homework will have difficulty in passing such  classes.

The legislatures, however, have mandated that students take these extra classes.

It is left to the schools and, ultimately, to the teacher to enforce these mandates.

No amount of legislative mandate can make such classes easy or interesting unless that student can see an immediate use for the knowledge he gains.   It is often pointed out that, after school, most students will never have any use for Algebra again.   The same is true for Physics and Chemistry.

So the student who has struggled with, say, Biology, is now facing Anatomy & Physiology.  The student who has never mastered quadratic equations must now take Analytic Geometry.  And if he doesn’t pass these subjects he is not going to receive a diploma.

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences.  The student drops out.

The only real solution is a restructuring of the public school system.  Instead of most classes being college track, for students planning on going on to college, most students should have an opportunity for career education so that they can get a job after school.

Few high school graduates are ready for a job (note that the newest “standards” presented to the National Governors Conference do not even suggest that the student should possess  job skills; these standards expect the student to be able to attend college or job training)  Graduates end up working in construction or possibly in fast food because those places have menial, labor intensive jobs available.  The high school graduate is not qualified to be a machinist, or a mechanic, or a technician at any level.  So the high school student who wants to work as an airframe mechanic, as an example, must take a vocational course, at a Junior College or possibly through a correspondence course.  Neither of these is free.

European schools separate their students into tracks based on aptitude.  Those whose scores indicate that they aren’t best suited for University are placed into an apprenticeship or similar track.  These students attend school half a day and are taught the specialized practical physics or mathematics or mechanics for the program they’re enrolled in and then spend the other half-day actually working as apprentices in their future career.  They typically continue such a course until they are 20 years old, and then they go to work for a company (possibly for the one they apprenticed with) or they get low-interest loans that enable them to start their own business.  The companies providing the apprenticeship training receive subsidies from the government to offset the expenses incurred in training the student.  The student may also receive some small pay for the work he does.  Such a program would work well in America and would increase the number of graduates who are prepared to go to work when they graduate while reducing the dropout rate, and simultaneously remove nonperforming students from college prep classes so that teachers can concentrate on those who would be most likely to benefit from teacher help.

There would be more room at high schools.  Students in career tracks might have classroom work in the morning, apprenticeship work in the afternoon, and for half of them, this would be reversed.

I would also recommend that students be held responsible for their own results.  Students who demonstrate by misbehavior or repeated failure that they are no longer benefiting from a public education should be dismissed.  There may first be attempts at intervention to see if remediation is possible; but when a student demonstrates he is no longer gaining an education through attendance at a public school, he should be dismissed.  It is counterproductive to keep such a student in a regular school.  It harms other students by preventing them from acquiring a quality education and does little or nothing to educate the non-performer.

So…reform public education.  I’m realistic enough to expect that such reform would be at least as divisive as health care reform has been.  Still, we’re going to be forced into major changes by competition with other nations.  We shall need to direct those required changes in the way that’s best for us.

In this way we may, indeed, repeal the Law of Unintended Consequences…at least as it applies to public education.


Fixing America’s Schools: A Blueprint for Change

March 11, 2010

There are a lot of wrong ideas about American schools:

1.  American schools cannot provide a quality education for students.

The fact is that you can, right now, get a quality education in an American school.  Hundreds of thousands do it every year.  Those students go on to get jobs, go to college, become professionals in various fields, staff our military including the officer corps…if the schools didn’t prepare them to do this, then who did?  Of more importance is the question: why didn’t others manage to acquire a quality education?  Where did the failure lie, and how could this be eliminated in the future?

2.  Many students don’t get a quality education.  This is the fault of their teachers.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach, when they’re told to teach it, and to the student audience they’re told to teach it to.  Often enough they’re also told how to teach it and given whatever tools their school district is prepared to pay for to accomplish this.  Most teachers I’ve known supplemented their school-supplied budget by buying supplies with their own money.  This is widely known, but often not considered when teachers are accused of not caring enough about their students. If there’s fault, it lies in the system, not in those who teach.

3.  Requiring advanced degrees for teachers will result in a better education for students.

New Mexico requires their teachers to obtain a Masters degree; Texas requires only a Baccalaureate degree.  Texas teachers are generally paid better than their New Mexico counterparts, despite the requirement set by New Mexico for higher education.  Texas students generally fare better than NM students on standardized tests, in most cases.  Teachers who are able to do so look for jobs that pay better or are in more desirable schools (think of how difficult it is to get teachers willing to teach in ghetto or barrio schools!).  Enough said about this.  Some teachers would benefit from an advanced degree, or at least additional education.  For others, it’s not really cost effective.

It is, nonetheless, true that American schools rank very low among developed nations in the quality of the education they provide, based on rankings of students by achievement on standardized tests.  There is a failure here, in that relatively few students achieve the education that the schools are expected to provide.

President Obama follows President G. W. Bush in attempting to address the deficiencies in American education.  I doubt that his solution will be any more effective than President Bush’s attempt (“No child left behind”).  I’ve listened to Obama’s speeches, as I listened to GWB’s during his administration.  Both presidents’ attempts have in common that their proposed solutions sound good to politicians but don’t address the real failing of the school system.

The problem isn’t the teachers; each year, a crop of new teachers comes out of the education departments in the universities and others enter the profession from other careers.  Older teachers retire, new ones replace them, and some younger ones stay a year or two or five and then leave the profession.  This latter group is sometimes made up of people who just can’t function effectively in the classroom, but sometimes it’s because they can get better jobs outside the profession.  Better pay, less stress, more respect, less frustration with the bureaucracy of education…these send them into other fields of work.  The ones who leave aren’t the worst of the lot, either.  The ones who stay in the classroom are the ones who really love the idea of teaching or the ones who can’t get those better jobs.

Some few teachers are so talented that they are able to function within the limits of the system and still achieve more than might ordinarily be expected.  Those who only work within the system, as they’ve been trained to do, don’t achieve as much.  A few unqualified or ethically unsuited teachers get almost all the attention, and so it’s easy to blame the education failures on poor teacher quality.  Based on my own experience in three schools, I would maintain that, as a group, teachers are much more ethical and qualified than virtually any other professional group.  Consider some other professions; police officers?  Politicians?  Priests?  Business leaders?  Bankers?  The fact is that NO profession is 100% perfect, nor will it ever be.   A few teachers are so talented and energetic that they rise above the system. The rest achieve only what the system permits.

You can’t even blame the problem on administrators.  They, too, move around from school to school, and generally they don’t make any significant difference when they leave or when they arrive at the new school.  Some few administrators are able to work outside the system and achieve more, but again, those who do the job we’ve trained them to do don’t achieve much.  If a few achieve more than others, they do so despite the limitations of the system.

You can reasonably assume that the system itself is flawed.  Administrators and teachers work within the system but have no authority to change it, they move around, they enter or leave, but no change takes place. The system itself must be changed.

American schools once worked.  Look at what was expected of a high school graduate around the turn of the twentieth century; it’s an eye opener.  They were expected to do much more in the fields of math, language, writing, geography; possibly less in science, and nothing in some of the fields that are considered important now (computers, etc).  The schools we have now are lineal descendants of the schools we had then.  It is fair to conclude that the system was effective in the late 19th-early 20th century, although fewer students remained in school for the full twelve years. There are now more students and new tools to help manage education, but the system has not kept up with changes in society.
It is much less effective in providing a quality education than it was in the early 20th Century.

Schools fail to teach discipline or personal responsibility.  They rarely teach ethics or morality.  These topics were once taught by family or social entities, or by religious institutions.  Parochial schools teach a religious version of morality and sometimes ethics, but this often fails to translate into non-religious life.  Even religion doesn’t often maintain the hold on people that religious leaders would prefer, and attendance at church and the idea that church is very important in everyday life are both much less common today than they once were.  Religious ethics and morality appear to be as much a failure as any other aspect of education.

Discipline is defined within the military services as willing obedience to orders.  Obviously this isn’t what schools should teach; but schools should instill a willingness to cooperate for the good of society, or willingness to work within a system to achieve common goals.  The students who learn this get an education. Those who don’t, fail or drop out.

There is little sense of personal responsibility among many students, particularly among those who are failing and who are most likely to drop out.  Failure is not considered to be the fault of the student, it’s the fault of the teacher or the administration or society.  It’s the fault of race, or poverty, or low self esteem.  How often does anyone in authority say “it’s the fault of the student?”  Failure…there is no consequence to falling short.  Laziness?  Perfectly acceptable.   Sit on the couch and watch the TV, but don’t do anything for yourself.  Get the right brand of shoes and you too can jump like Michael Jordan, without having to work for his skills.  With the portable gym and 5 minutes a day you too can look like Schwartzenegger.

I didn’t hear much from President Obama about discipline, willingness to cooperate with the educational process, or personal responsibility on the part of the student, and so I think that his approach is going to fail just as did the efforts of his predecessors.

Discipline: what happens to students who refuse to cooperate with the education system?  What about those who commit crimes, who take drugs, who paint graffiti over the walls, who engage in destruction simply because they want to and nobody can stop them?  What about the gang members: is it anything except a stopgap to forbid gang members from displaying their membership by wearing gang colors?  Do uniforms really get students out of gangs?

Students were expelled from school for antisocial behavior a century ago; nowadays, the buzz is “we can’t deprive a child of an education”.

Politicians equate time in school with educational improvement.   This is demonstrably false.  Quantity does not equate to quality.  A variety of laws supposedly compel students to attend school for 12 years, and students are expected to complete this by the time they turn 18 years of age.  If this were true then this essay wouldn’t be required.

Ethics: cheating is rampant.  The fact that cheating is an ethical failure is not even considered.  The only rule is “don’t get caught”.   Even if you do get caught, your parents will keep any consequence from happening to you.  Everybody does it.  And if everybody does it, it can’t be wrong, can it?  If you’re caught cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper in college, you are expelled.  In high school, the same behavior might result in a failing grade, but often not even that.   There are already so many failures that teachers are forced to pass students who don’t earn a passing grade.  They haven’t done the required work…but they will be passed anyway.

Should we blame the schools for not insisting that students develop discipline or ethics or morality?  Should we blame the educational establishment that exists above the level of the school or school district?  Should the departments of education insist on or even test to assure that students are achieving this?

Is anyone really to blame?

You can blame the political entities.  You can blame the school boards and the departments of education at the state and federal levels.  You can hold them responsible for the mess that they have created.   Until you, the voters and taxpayers do this, until failing schools result in the removal of school board members, nothing will change.

The solution will have to begin with a reorganization of the political system.  This is the difficult part.

Theoretically the school boards control the schools in their district.  This is not precisely correct; there are numerous state and federal entities that channel money to the districts and establish rules on what is to be taught and how the school boards can operate.  The main function of school boards is to establish a budget, set tax rates, and hire a superintendent.  They may also get involved in purchasing contracts, hiring principals and other staff, setting payrolls, establishing programs…but these are peripheral activities.

The tax function passes the blame to the electorate; they generally vote in board members who will promise to keep tax rates low.  School boards don’t insist on a quality education.  They may pay lip service to this, but they WILL insist on the district living within the budget they set.  In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and in California, perhaps in other places, teachers are being encouraged to turn off classroom lights and function using natural light; they’re also setting thermostats lower in the classrooms and turning down the thermostats on water heaters.  They’ve already cut the quality of the lunches they serve, to the point of classifying ketchup as a vegetable rather than a condiment.   Teachers may be laid off and schools may be closed; the school week may be cut to four days.  There is no pretense that these steps increase the education provided to students.  The overriding consideration is that the schools live within their budget.  If a restrictive budget hampers the educational process, too bad; but the budget remains the driving force behind school activities.

President Obama wants to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.  He does not, however, plan on giving teachers authority to go with this responsibility.   Responsibility without authority is guaranteed to produce failure.

The political entities, from President to Governor to Legislators to judges, retain all educational authority; we, the voters, need to insure that they also are the ones who are held responsible.  If there is a teacher who is doing an unacceptable job of teaching, you can be sure that someone has the authority to remove that teacher from the classroom.  If a student is no longer benefiting from attending public school, then someone has the authority to remove that student from school, but it won’t be the teacher or administrator; if the student is disrupting class to the point that other students are also not receiving the full benefit of the educational process, then someone has the authority to expel that student.  The person with the authority must be the one that we hold responsible.  Instead, the teacher, who has no such authority, is often the one blamed.  And political figures are the first to blame someone else for failures caused by their policies.

There are currently several approaches being tried in schools in order to raise academic achievement and the test scores which measure this.  One of these segregates the best students into advanced placement classes.  These students are virtually guaranteed to pass all their mandated achievement tests; that’s how they got into AP in the first place.  You might conclude from this that all AP teachers are superb teachers (their students pass mandated achievement tests, after all), and those who teach “regular” classes are mediocre at best, because fewer of their students pass those tests.  Those “regular” classes contain the disruptive students (control of disruption, usually referred to as “discipline”, is time not spent on teaching), the special education students (federal policy, possibly federal law, requires “inclusion), and whatever is left after the better students are removed; some of these special education students are low-IQ, some are physically handicapped, others have failed two grades in the past (in Texas, such students were routinely steered into special education categories, and “placed” into the next higher grade; failing two grades was considered evidence of special needs) and some have learning difficulties, such as dyslexia.   When these students are placed in regular education classes, they take more of the teacher’s time than regular students do, and they benefit less than would regular students who aren’t getting that time from the teacher.  Only the individual needs of the special education student are considered; no one outside the classroom considers the result of this and other social engineering policies on the regular education student.   This is an example of an unfunded mandate.  If the teacher had ten or 15 students (which would require that more teachers be hired), then he/she might well be able to devote the time to the special education student that he/she needs.  When classes are 35 or more students, there is no way the teacher can help any of his students very much.  Aides might help, and teachers who teach in self-contained classrooms for special-needs children have such aides.  Aides are generally not required to have a baccalaureate degree, and they are paid less than a fully-qualified teacher.  But as a general rule, regular education teachers get special education students but they don’t get an aide to help with teaching.

Funding: It isn’t possible to treat all school districts as equal.  Some have a tax base based on agriculture, others have an oil field in the district.  Some have major industries in the districts that can help support a large tax base.  This inequality in funding means that there will be inequality in the schools.  Some schools have computers, some have pictures of keyboards for the students to learn keyboard skills on.  Eventually, the only equitable solution is some sort of federal funding.  It is important not to fund down to the poorest schools, but to fund up;  raise the poorer districts to parity.  School districts and the school boards that control them also bring religion, ethnic and cultural bias, sexism, and a host of other local issues that reduce the effectiveness of their schools.  With federal funding comes federal control…and that’s what’s going to make the reorganization difficult.  Local boards don’t want to give up control.  Consider the recurring attempts to make school an extension of religion; prayer, teaching creationism instead of evolution, just as examples.   Not only science but often social studies have to pass the local-board examination.

Reorganizing the schools: that’s actually the easiest part of the equation, although it will  require a new approach.

Decide what the school is to accomplish.  Hire a principal who can supervise teachers who will make that happen.  Provide enough staff and supplies to do the job.  Fund the school according to what the job requires, rather than provide a set level of funds and tell the school that they must do the best they can with what is provided.

Some schools may require more staff, others may be able to function with less.  Some may require more security, others again may only need a campus security guard.   Some schools may need teacher’s aides to help, while others won’t need that.  Teachers should teach, period.  Currently they are required to perform security duties, attend various meetings, any number of distractions.  They watch the hallways between classes.  They perform bus duty to make sure that the gangs don’t have a free hand to bully or spray graffiti or destroy property.  Let teachers teach, and if they can’t, get rid of them.  Smaller classes with more teacher contact are critical in the early grades; larger classes may be effective in later grades, but again, one size does not fit all.  Low-income, inner-city districts are likely to need smaller class sizes.  Give the principal the authority to make such changes as he finds necessary, and then hold him responsible for what he accomplishes.  But first, give him/her the tools to do the job.  If it costs more, pay the costs.

Students: in the end, teachers can’t really teach; they can only assist students to learn.  The final solution is to motivate students to learn.  A number of approaches might work.  See the later essay on the NO FAILURES program.

As a suggestion, no one should be able to get a driver’s license unless he is at least 16 years of age and has passed his high school competency exam (students can usually take the exam for the first time in 10th grade).  If he can’t pass the test until he’s 17 or 18 or 21, then he waits to get that driver’s license.  Driving without a license sets the process back a year for each infraction.  Absences, failures…the work must be made up on weekends.   In a word, make it easier to pass than to fail.  Make failure have real consequences; make passing have real benefits.

Schools need to be for education.  When a student can’t benefit from a standard education, remove them from the school.  Don’t make school a place for institutionalizing those who can’t benefit from education.   Establish a set of standardized criteria for remaining in school.  When a student can’t meet those requirements, channel them into other types of education: vocational education or apprenticeships, for example  (this is currently done in Germany, among other places).  Don’t require the school to warehouse “students” who demonstrate that they are not progressing in a standard classroom setting.  Inclusion is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m told.  There are children who can’t function in a classroom setting, and it’s time to recognize that.  We recognize that there are few athletes who can function like Michael Jordan…but we refuse to see that the same is true on the cognitive level.    Continuing the analogy: could the Bulls have won national championships if they were required to include the short and the physically weak or inept on their team?  And why should we expect schools to function when we require them to perform the same sort of thing in their field, academics?  I think we should do all we can for those who are handicapped by birth or circumstances; but we should not handicap all the others who are fortunate enough to be in “regular” classes.  Raise those who need help as high as we can; but don’t lower the others to make it appear that the playing field is level.

About sports: one or more students die every year, and many more sustain serious injuries, playing sports in middle and high schools.  Imagine the outcry if a student died in class, perhaps doing a science experiment!  Add to that the amount of school time lost to sports, to practices, to leaving early to get to a game; think of the time that players don’t spend doing homework, or copy from others because they’re too tired after practice to do the work themselves, or simply because they consider sports to be more important than academics.  Sports may still have a place in school, but not the place it currently holds; it needs to be toned down until it’s done for the benefit of the student, not the school, and not the vicarious thrills that parents and coaches obtain from the efforts of the kids.  It just isn’t worth what it’s currently costing.  Put sports achievement on parity with academic achievement.

Organized sports currently teach a lesson we don’t want taught, that it’s alright to cheat, just don’t get caught.  Anything goes if it helps generate a win.  Play by the rules and lose, and you’re a loser; cheat and win, and you’re a winner.  Winning isn’t the best thing, it’s the only thing, and sports teaches you about life…we’ve all heard that.  And we’ve also seen the results, in politics, in economics, in life.  When your HMO cuts you off, despite the promises they made to get you to sign up and pay your money, hey…they’re rich, so they’re a winner.  Wonder where they learned that?  When a lawyer lies to get his client off, well…he’s a winner too.  Guess who the losers are?

When our schools don’t educate students, guess who the losers are?

The No Failures Program: Teaching Discipline in American Schools

March 11, 2010

I wrote this essay and sent it to the Albuquerque Journal.  The paper declined to publish it because it was too long to fit on their Op-Ed page.

American schools, including those in Albuquerque, can be competitive.  It doesn’t require much at all.  Not even a lot of money.  A little, sure, but not as much and not in the way you think.   Read on.  This is a description of a program that was tried in a setting similar to that found in Albuquerque Public Schools.

Another teacher and I did it.  We designed our own program and ran it for a few months.  The other teacher was a math teacher and I taught science.  He was a noted disciplinarian; I was a science teacher and a theoretician.  We needed both our talents while we were designing the program and working out some of the bugs.  The program began as mandatory tutoring and evolved over time; we called it “No Failures”.  We had the support of the principal at our school and he had money in the budget to pay teachers for tutoring after school.  We started with just the two of us and then we added other teachers (at $15 an hour, the going rate then for after-school tutoring; salaries and paper/ink were our only costs) as the student numbers increased.  Toward the end of the school year we added student tutors and were trying to figure a way to get them paid, although I don’t remember if we ever managed that.  We were working on this and other improvements to the program when we were both kicked out of the school during a “reconstitution”.  It was something like what has recently happened at a Rhode Island school in the national news, but we all still had jobs.  We were just forced to transfer to another school.

The program worked this way: any teacher or administrator could assign any student to the program.  Once assigned, attendance was mandatory. It was like detention in that respect, but students could be assigned for anything, disciplinary infractions, excessive tardiness, for failing a test, or for not doing homework.  No excuses accepted; you’re in the program, although teachers exercised their own judgment as to when assigning a student to No Failures was the best course to follow.  The assigning teacher or administrator then gave us the name (attendance was required on the day after being assigned; that way, the student could notify his parent and make such arrangements as needed) and we waited for the student.  If he didn’t report after school, then the next day either his last-period teacher brought him or we went to get him before school was out, and he got extra days for not reporting on his own.  When the student got to where we were holding the program (a classroom at first; then it was the cafeteria) he got either a math or language arts worksheet (occasionally social studies or science if a teacher requested it), and he was there until he finished and had the work checked. We had different levels of work available and assigned the sheets based on what the student needed. The sheets were designed to last about 40 minutes if the student worked at completing them, and there was help from us when a student needed it.  If the work was not done properly, the student got to do it over, with help.  We really were tutoring, just that our tutoring involved behavior as well as academics.  At first a couple of the students with behavior problems decided to try us out, not work, just sit and do nothing.  So we waited too.  One lasted almost three hours, and we were not angry.  We were being paid for our time, and it was important for the student to learn to cooperate with the education process.  After that the word got around.  No more three-hour waits; soon most of the students were being dismissed in 30 minutes or so (a bonus for working).  That allowed us to concentrate then on the students that really needed academic help.  At the end of an hour these were dismissed.  Most of the students had the ability to do the work, but simply had gotten into the habit of not using their abilities.  For a couple of students that simply wouldn’t cooperate, we called in parents and asked that a parent attend the program with their child.  That’s something the worst behavior cases didn’t want, sitting after school with Momma.  Your friends laugh at you; peer pressure now was working for us.  A number of students made real progress because of what we did in the short time that the program ran.

That year the teachers at our school voted our program the best thing that had happened at the school that year.  Surprisingly, so did the students, including a number of our repeat offenders.  For a change, someone took them seriously and didn’t accept the excuses that they had been cultivating since elementary school.

At the end of the year, the superintendent, working with the school board, decided to “reconstitute” the school.  We all had to reapply for our positions and neither my partner nor I was selected to remain.  So the program died before it had a real chance to make a difference.  The plan to reconstitute the school had been in place for months, although we teachers didn’t know it.   The reconstitution failed.  That school is still on the list for lack of academic progress, and it’s now been 15 years since the “reconstitution”.  I transferred to a different school, immediately became the department chair for science, and over the next ten years brought my department’s annual test scores from the low 70’s to over 90%.   My associate, a math teacher, went on to a different school and did well too.  Despite the “reconstitution”, it was never about the teachers.  I don’t think it was about the teachers in Rhode Island and I don’t think it’s the teachers in Albuquerque, either.

The point of this long-winded discussion is to illustrate that our students aren’t stupid.  They are often lazy, they will get away with anything that adults let them get away with, and no teacher has much influence over them.  Teachers see students for an hour or so each day, administrators usually much less.  Peer pressure rules.  But–they aren’t stupid.  Make it easier to pass than it is to fail, and they will pass. I don’t mean give them a grade; make them earn it.  But have a program in place that consists of both incentives (help when they need it, possibly being employed to work with other students who have problems and getting paid for their work) and penalties.  Take their time away.  Keep them after school.  Keep them on Saturday and if that doesn’t work, keep them on Sunday.  Church?  Get a volunteer minister or priest to come in to the school and hold services.  No driver’s license until they pass the final AYP exam.  Pay the teachers for the extra work they do.  Get students involved and pay them for their work. When you do this, the peer pressure works for you, the parents and educators, instead of against you.  I always figured that if you gave the kids a chance to succeed, they would, and self esteem would take care of itself from there.  Successful students have high self-esteem.  They succeed in school and also after they leave school.

Oh, and our students at that school were 99% Hispanic, and almost all of them received free or reduced-price lunches.

School boards, why not give something like this a try?  Parents, why not make sure that your school board members push for a program that is fitted for the schools in their district?  Superintendents, principals, try it.  It’s a lot cheaper than paying teachers thousands of dollars in stipends, and it looks like APS won’t be getting any of those extra federal grants.  If parents and community members get involved, students will respond.  You won’t need a state-run committee or liaison officer.

Two principles that we followed made our program succeed: hold the student responsible for his own learning, and accept no excuses.  It was working for us, and it can work in Albuquerque too.

The American Education System: an Analysis and Critique

March 11, 2010

It’s an accepted fact that the American public school system is broken.  Only a little more than half of the students who enter the system in Kindergarten will graduate on time 13 years later.  When they finally graduate, their diploma is almost worthless.  Some of these (possibly 70%) will go on to college (also referred to as University; the terms are used interchangeably in this document), and of these, many will begin their college career in remedial classes because they are not prepared to do the work that a university expects them to do.  They will be required to take classes in mathematics and other core subjects such as English Composition.  Some of those who enroll in college will never get past this barrier.

This condition arises because our public schools urge students to go on to college, whether they are suited for such a course or not.  This is generally the best course that a high school can recommend, because the school has few other options for its students.  The counselor will recommend college, or possibly a community college, because there are no good jobs for high school graduates.  They have few marketable skills.  The only jobs open to them are menial in nature, unskilled, jobs such as are found in the fast food industry or as unskilled labor in construction or similar industries.  And yet, a lifetime of television advertising entices them to get a good job, make a lot of money, buy luxury goods and get a credit card so that these items can be paid for.  They’ll need good credit because that new car they’re urged to buy costs a lot of money.  The jobs the high school graduate can qualify for are poorly paid as well as being menial.

The public school system has failed them.  They have failed themselves.  And together they have failed society.

There are a number of people who are seeking solutions to this problem.  That unemployed “graduate” might go into the armed forces (who will first have to provide an education as well as the physical conditioning that the high school grad doesn’t have) but many of them are unemployed or underemployed for at least a year after they leave high school.  Because they are unemployed and life is passing them by, they become a problem for society.  They may engage in antisocial behavior (gang activity, graffiti) or take drugs or drink excessive amounts of alcohol.  This behavior is concentrated in the minority Hispanic and Black population because these are the ones who are most likely to fail to gain an education in the public schools.  Such minority students can learn; many do.  But not all of them.

Nothing less than a restructuring of the American public school system will solve the public school problem.  Such a restructuring will not be completed in less than 10 years and it may take much longer.  In part this is because we have a system, however poor and inefficient it is.  Parents, voters, legislators, and administrators are familiar with the current system; it’s the one that brought them to where they are now.  So they conclude that with a little bit of tinkering the system can be made to work.  We, as a society, have been trying that little bit of tinkering for many years.  It’s an item on the agenda of every new president and every governor and legislators at every level.  There are new directives every year, and frequently these directives are not accompanied by the funds to carry them out.  And the situation gets worse every year.

This restructuring may cost money, but probably not as much as you might expect.  It will, however, cost school districts that local control that they cherish.  Local control is inefficient and ultimately unfair.  Most districts are underfunded.

Those districts which have a tax base that can support high pay for teachers get the best teachers.   A teacher who does not measure up will be dismissed; there is sure to be a waiting list of eager, well-qualified teachers to replace the dismissed one.  Teachers can work in relatively pleasant surroundings in suburban schools or in less pleasant inner city schools.  They can have sufficient funding to support the education program or they can be forced by necessity to purchase paper or other supplies from their own pocket.

The best performing districts, those which have the highest percentage of graduation when compared to enrollment, are generally the ones with the best funding.  But it does not have to be this way.  I would argue that this comes about because schools with the extra funding are able to succeed not because of the educational system but despite it.  The reality is that we must somehow provide a quality education to all students in all our schools, not just in the few.  That quality education must specifically address the needs of Black and Hispanic students, because they are the ones least served by the current system.

Restructuring needs to begin with the needs of the student.  The current system assumes that all students have the same needs and does not attempt to tailor the student’s education plan to individual circumstances.  This one-size-fits-all approach works fairly well in elementary grades, although even here some students require special programs.  The standard class does not provide a challenge for a few students, so they may receive more demanding classes.  This is the student considered particularly gifted and/or talented.

Other students are at the other end of the spectrum.  They require extraordinary support because they cannot benefit from a standard education.  The student may be physically unable to attend regular classes or absorb the material being taught.  He/she may be dyslexic or be diagnosed as AD/HD (Attention Deficit , in that he cannot concentrate as well as his peers, and Hyperactivity Disorder, in that he cannot control his physical activity).  He may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Down’s Syndrome or simply not develop as fast as others for whatever reason.  Such students require more adult assistance and may, even with such assistance, not progress very far.

The remainder of the students are expected to progress through the mechanism of a “standard” education.  They do this without extra support or special classes.  Most of them succeed through the elementary grades.  Elementary education should provide the student with general skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, keyboard skills and computer literacy, and elementary knowledge of the structure and functioning of American society.  They should have some idea of what science is and how science works and of the role of technology in a modern society.  Students who need extra help should be provided that help, but it must be recognized that some students simply cannot perform with their peers.  No amount of legislation can alter this.  Students who are identified as being unable to function in a standard school should not be left in the schools, even in some supportive setting.   Decisions as to when such dismissal is appropriate should not be arrived at without a lot of thought and only after every attempt has been made to help the student become able to continue with his peers.  But after it has become obvious that the student has had all that the education system can offer him, it is counterproductive to allow him to remain in school.  Keeping him in an educational setting is social engineering at this point; it is not education.

Students should be tested at the end of the elementary grades to determine their ability to continue in the standard educational “track”.   If they have not mastered the elements of an elementary education then they cannot be expected to function in the more demanding atmosphere of middle school.   This testing must be mandatory and the student must demonstrate mastery in order to continue on the standard school track.  Failure here puts the student into a different track, one which leads to a career in some field other than those taught by universities.  Such a career should not be viewed as menial or low-paid or uninteresting.  Consider that there is no requirement for a degree to work in the field of movie production.  Carpenters, electricians, dolly men, camera operators, costumers, model makers, and computer operators are all part of the modern movie business.  Medical technologists operate x-ray and scan systems, and veterinary assistants help the vet care for arnimals; robotic systems installers and mechanics work in industry; heavy equipment operators build roads and airfields.  Aircraft technicians are well paid and work in interesting, challenging fields such as airframe maintenance or engine maintenance or avionics maintenance and repair.  There are also policeman and fireman that are the basis of ambition for many young students, but there are also ambulance attendants/drivers, bus drivers and truck drivers, farm technologists such as combine operators and maintenance people, welders and wind or solar power technicians…and all of these offer careers that are superior to in every respect to fast food jobs.

Testing is being conducted at various points along the academic path, but such testing is primarily used to determine whether the school is doing what it is supposed to.  There are no consequences to the student for failing these tests.

There will be other posts in this series discussing what schools fail to do, and why, and some suggested solutions.

Hello world!

March 11, 2010

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