Friday, July 07, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #7: The key factor in determining a student's performance is his or her ability

The general public has always seemed to believe that the key to a student’s success in school is his or her academic ability. A student’s performance depends, people think, on whether or not the student is “smart.” The A students are “smart,” whereas the D students aren’t. My experiences as a teacher have convinced me that intellectual ability is not the most important factor.

Any teacher or high school student can tell stories about kids with relatively low ability who do amazingly well because they try hard. They can also tell you about kids with a lot of ability who do poorly because they just don't care. There is no question that students with less ability will experience more frustrations and setbacks than will students with greater intellectual ability. This can make it hard to keep trying, so they will need more help and encouragement, and I believe most schools bend over backward to provide it. Nevertheless, the major factor in a student's performance is his or her effort. Students who take education seriously and try hard do well. Students who don't care about school do poorly. The single biggest problem in education today is that not enough students in public schools make their own education a very high priority.

One interesting thing I've found is that students who try hard get smarter. A few years ago, I had a girl in one of my American History classes who tried very hard, but her grasp of the subject was not that impressive. She would take fantastic notes (which were optional) on the reading assignments, but she would still get some items wrong on the quizzes. She would get very high scores on objective tests, because she worked so hard on the test review assignments, but on any essays or opinion assignments, she seemed very mechanical. The thinking just wasn't there.

Two years later I had her again in my Economics and Sociology classes, and she still made her fantastic effort, but it was clear that her thinking had improved. Her writing was better, she had become much more skilled at analyzing things, and her opinions were now always well reasoned. The girl got smarter.

For a number of years early in my career, I taught seventh grade classes and twelfth grade classes. Eventually I had twelfth graders who had once been in my seventh grade classes. I can still picture certain students who as seventh graders had a hard time with the material, but who worked very hard, often ending up with C+’s. As seniors, they were much more successful. They still had to work hard, but now they were earning A-'s and B+'s. On the other hand, I can also remember students with so much ability as seventh graders that, with very little effort, they would earn B's and sometimes even A's. By the time these students were seniors, they were down to C's and D's. At some point along the way, their ability ceased to carry them.

Every so often during my teaching career I will have some sort of educational revelation and, about twenty years ago, I had a very depressing one. I was correcting a final test I had given, and thinking about the students who were earning C's and D's. At that time, I used sixty percent as the cutoff for passing, and the final test was made up entirely of multiple choice and matching questions. Since a monkey should have been able to get between twenty and twenty-five percent of the test answers correct, it was clear that students earning between sixty and seventy-five percent weren’t learning much.

After that final test, I made a major effort to become more creative in my teaching. The students I was most concerned about were those who seemed mired in mediocrity, so they were the targets of most of my new ideas. Some of these ideas--mastery learning, for example--created a tremendous amount of work for me and, one day a couple of years later while carrying out one of those ideas, I had another educational revelation. (If you have the urge to yell, "Hallelujah!" now, go right ahead.) I looked out into the classroom and it was clear that many of my C, D, and F students were putting forth their usual effort -- little or none. While I was working my backside off, the kids I was trying to help wouldn't lift their fingers to help themselves.

The lack of effort by some kids never ceases to amaze me. There are students who never -- and I mean never -- attempt to do any of the homework assignments, and there is no guarantee they’ll do any work in class, either. Amazingly, some of these students are honestly surprised when they see the F’s on their report cards. Some of them only try during the last week of a marking period, when their situation is completely hopeless. I always find myself speechless when one of these kids, who may be twenty to thirty percentage points below the passing minimum, comes up to me and asks if he can do extra credit, or asks, "What can I do to pass?” (Be reincarnated!) They think if they give it the old college try for a whopping five days, the teacher will give them a break. I think part of the problem is that too many of these students have already received too many breaks.

I am a typical public school teacher in that more of my time and effort is focused on kids who don't try than on anyone else. Nevertheless, critics are very quick to blame public schools for students who lack motivation. They say we aren't doing enough to reach these kids. I remember a talk show I saw on TV a couple of years ago in which the host and a guest representing some educational reform group wrapped up a segment on public education by saying that low test scores weren't the fault of students or their parents. It's everyone else's fault: state legislature’s, teachers’ union’s, school board’s, etc.

To that, I can only say one word, and it starts with a B.


Blogger happychyck said...

I've always had a lot more respect for the hard-working students than those to whom school came easy. Unlike you, I have not had the opportunity to see what years of perseverance (or apathy) can do for a student, but I've always felt those tenacious students are the ones who would well in LIFE.

7/07/2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

You are absolutely right, Happychyck. No matter what we're talking about, I'll take a person with mediocre talent and a great work ethic over someone with great talent and a mediocre work ethic any day!

7/07/2006 11:11 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I figured out this myth pretty early in my career. Just last night I was chatting with one of the living testaments to it.

Other students chalked all of her A's up to natural intelligence-- which she does have. However, she's still not comfortable with English, her second language, so intelligence was not enough. Coming after school with grammar questions, e-mailing me with papers for suggestions before they were due--THAT is what got her A's. Now that she's starting in college, she still checks in when she's having trouble.

She is who I point to when I tell my honor kids what they're there for, not the kid with the highest IQ.

Differing work ethics are the reason there need to be some sort of echoes of the tracking system.

However, I will say for the teachers, it's not always a matter of working harder for us either, but working smarter. Just because we work our backsides off does not mean that we are putting forth the most engaging lessons. Besides, I've often heard the best teachers are the ones who put the majority of the work on the students.

Yes, I know that it sounds like hogwash, and I've had a hard time living up to it too. But our efforts must not be measured in exertion, but in efficacy. I hope when you had your revelations you were constantly monitoring and adjusting according to what did and didn't work. That's worth at least as much as creativity.

7/07/2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Laura, it does NOT sound like a bunch of hogwash, but I still also have trouble living up to it.

Your comments have me feeling like I need to justify myself here, so please bear with me. When I had my Revelation #2, I was using mastery learning. This was when Outcome Based Education was becoming the rage in Minnesota, and I was experimenting with it. I never became a "true believer," but I do think there were some good things in OBE. In any case, with mastery learning I had to give tests and re-tests, come up with corrective assignments for kids who didn't pass the first time and enrichment projects for kids who did. That is a lot of work for a teacher.

And don't worry. I'm not THAT creative. In the early years of my teaching career, I was very traditional, and much of what I do has remained traditional. But for last 20 years or so I've tried to add variety in an effort to reach more kids, and I think I've gotten pretty good at keeping what works and throwing out what doesn't.

Thanks again for your comment, Laura. I need someone to keep me on my toes.

7/07/2006 1:21 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said... ethic? Is a person's work ethic inate from the start, a product of their environment, or is it shaped as we journey through school and life? Do others (teachers/boss) influence our work ethic?

.....and I agree. I would much rather have a room full of students who have a great work ethic than a room full of Mensa candidates.

7/09/2006 5:38 AM  
Blogger DCS said...

Great post.

7/09/2006 5:47 PM  
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