Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dumbing Down

There are certain terms public education critics love to use that I get tired of hearing. It annoys me when conservatives use the term "government schools," because Milton Friedman told them they should refuse to use the term "public schools." There is one that bothers me much more than that, though. That term is "dumbing down," and I read it again the other day in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

California and some other states have inflated test outcomes by lowering the achievement standard students need to meet to be proficient in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, university researchers say.

It amounts to a dumbing down of how the states calculate student progress, the researchers concluded.

I know that many NCLB critics who read this article would be happy to say, "I told you so!" and they would certainly have a point. Nevertheless, the "dumbing down" phrase really gets me. I've heard that phrase over and over again during the last two or three decades, and it always gives one the sense that the standards of public schools are constantly declining. Most people, if asked, would probably say that they believed that to be the case, but even Jay Greene--not exactly a great friend of public education--says that is a myth.

What annoys me the most about the phrase "dumbing down" is that it is so often used by high-brows "who demand high standards," but seem to have no idea of the variety of learners and learning abilities that public schools work with. When they picture today's typical student, they probably picture kids who were much like themselves. I think it's safe to say that they don't picture kids like Suzy.

Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed. Students have to do a lot more than pass this one very easy test to pass the class, but they can't pass the class without fulfulling this requirement. Over the years, I've had a couple of kids, who had passing grades before the Required Knowledge Test, guess that I wasn't serious and that I would pass them even if they didn't take care of it. They guessed wrong. Although Suzy always got the Required Knowledge Test taken care of in the end, it was not easy for her.

My Required Knowledge Tests were inspired by another social studies teacher in our school and the Jay Leno Show. The social studies teacher loved to let me know any time former students of mine were unable to answer American history questions he'd ask in his class, and the Leno Show sometimes features segments showing people who are unable to answer incredibly easy social studies type questions. There are some things that anyone should know after having an American history class, and I wanted to make sure that my students knew those things. This wouldn't really solve my problems with the other social studies teacher or Jay Leno since I wouldn't be able to control whether they'd remember all those things two or three years down the road. Nevertheless, I could make sure they knew it while I had them in class.

Since the body of knowledge for students increases as the year goes on, my Required Knowledge Tests get longer each quarter. The test at the end of the first quarter in nineteen questions, and the one at the end of the fourth quarter is seventy. It was the test at the end of the third quarter that caused the most problems for Suzy. On that test, she got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.

One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.

Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"

She replied, "George Washington".

Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"

Suzy said, "In the 1770s."

"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"

"In the 1940s."

"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And you like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"

At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience, "George Washington!!!"

This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. In fact, high school teachers see things like this every day.

Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. But let's face it, if you asked her a question about World War II today, my guess is that she might not give you a very good answer. She did the work necessary to earn a passing grade in American history. Her attendance was good, she was always on time, she regularly did her assignments, and she could learn and repeat answers. Does that mean I can I sit here and tell you that I think she really understood it? No. I think she got some sense of American history while taking my class, but would I call her "proficient"? Probably not. But there is no question in my mind that she deserved her passing grade.

I've had a number of Suzys in my classes over the years, but I've also had students like Chrissy, who got a perfect score on her SAT. I've also had students like Bobby, who wrote one of the funniest and most insightful essays that I've ever read when he answered a final test question on the history of liberals and conservatives in America during the 20th century. I have to do everything I can to set my class so that it will be challenging for Chrissy and Bobby, but I've also got to do everything I can to set it up so that Suzy has a real chance to learn as much as she can and to be successful. I've got news for the experts: that isn't easy. I have a sneaking suspicion that when the high-brows look down their noses at public schools, and complain that something has been dumbed down, a lot of them might have Chrissy and Bobby in mind, but not too many of them are thinking of Suzy. They probably couldn't care less about her. Well, they can afford that luxury, but I can't. It's my job to serve all of them.


Anonymous kate q said...

Critical conservatives don't mean that bad students are bad people, or that they shouldn't be taught as much as possible. We mean that they shouldn't be called good students.

Someone who can't meet the criteria shoudn't pass the class, even if he is a nice, hardworking child of the new millennium who is not like me.

If Suzy couldn't remember the difference between the gas pedal and the brake, we could either deny her a license, or remove that requirement from the test. Who wouldn't be aghast at any consideration of the latter?

Suzy's actual error showed a lack of critical thinking that seems about as scary, but you didn't dumb your class down: you held her to the usual standards. Thank you.

7/06/2006 6:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Kate, for your comment. A source of my frustration here is the plan that by 2013, schools are supposed to have 100% of our kids "proficient" at whatever tests states decide to give. According to the plan in place, if we don't meet these goals, we will be labeled failing schools. I have two big problems with that.

Suzy is far from the worst student I've ever had. In fact, she did okay. As I said in the post, she made a reasonable effort, and with help, she'd generally earn Cs in her classes. But if you truly want to have "high standards" for what we call "proficient," she, and other students like her, would have a tough time meeting them. I don't think it would serve anyone well to deny kids like Suzy a high school diploma.

There are other kids in public schools who make almost no effort, and they don't deserve diplomas. The courts and state legislatures have made it impossible for us to deal effectively with them, and now they want to label us as "failing schools" because they're not proficient.

That's very frustrating for those of us in public education who really do want to make our schools better.

7/07/2006 6:49 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

The problem is that the mentality that permeates NCLB and other reforms doesn't take into account the varying levels of students or handicaps they might have. The one test politicians want to use to measure you, me, and the students doesn't take into account the work ethic of the student, the work ethic of the parents, or other huge influences.

7/09/2006 5:46 AM  
Anonymous Redkudu said...

This struck a chord with me. Our English department is very focused on Advanced Placement programs, and AP test scores. As a teacher, I prefer to teach on-level kids, to the relief of many teachers who don't want to. Yet, I'm constantly sent to AP training courses, then told to "dumb down" (or, the most recent catch phrase is "modify") for the on-level kids.

My frustration is that this shows little to no awareness of varied learning abilities, and the unique abilities and obstacles of my students. I cannot simply reduce the number of questions on an AP assignment to "modify" for my on-level kids. They must be taught to their strengths and abilities through different methods that recognize their individual learning styles. Yet there is that overwhelming sense of, as you say, people thinking more of the upper level kids, and viewing the on-level kids as lesser learners.

7/16/2006 6:18 AM  

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