Sunday, January 28, 2007

What if we weren't so tolerant?

A few weeks ago I did a post on why so many high school kids are so lazy. Between the commentators and me, we talked about parents, we talked about our culture, we talked about poor teaching, and we talked about other things. But I really think the bottom line is that some kids do so little simply because they can.

The semester just ended at our school, and I ended up with eleven kids failing my regular American History class. That means they don't get credit, so they'll have to make it up by going to our alternative learning center or by coming back and spending another semester with gool ol' me again next year. Of the eleven, ten weren't even close. Sixty-seven percent is the bottom passing score in my class, and a couple of these kids were in the fifties, others were in the forties, and there were even a couple in the thirties. One of the students who failed was taking the class for the second time. She's a nice girl, but she just can't seem to get to class and do assignments consistently enough to earn a passing grade. She failed both semesters last year, and she is now three for three.

I talked to our counselor, and together we asked some of these kids if they'd like to move to my basic class (everyone in that class passed), and the others we asked if they'd like to try our ALC. I don't have the authority to tell any of these kids that they can't be in my class, but I tried to make it clear that it wasn't in their interest to do so unless they were willing to make a big turnaround from the first semester. Three kids opted for my basic class, but the rest all elected to stay in my regular class. After only one week of the new semester, there is no evidence that there has been any change in any of them. It's just the same old song--frivolous absences, missed assignments, and a total lack of effort. I have to ask, what good does this do anybody? But yet, they continue to do nothing because they can.

On the other hand, I have three winter-sport athletes who failed the first marking, but they all ended up passing the semester. Along with their coaches, and in one case with the parents, I got together with the kids and made it clear that I had no desire to put them on our ineligibility list week after week, but if they didn't do the work, that was exactly what would happen. If they didn't make a reasonable effort in the classroom, they wouldn't be able to play their sports. It was amazing how the effort and scores for all three of these kids skyrocketed. The only problem was that one of them went into the tank as soon as he raised his grade enough to be safe. He never did badly enough to become ineligible again, but his grade ended up being a lot lower than it could have been. Once again, he did poorly because he could.

Speaking of sports, although I retired from coaching our hockey team last year, I still go and work with the high school goalies a couple of times a week. Every time I go to those practices I am struck by how hard the kids work. Their effort is nothing less than fantastic, and everyone wins because of it. The players get better, the team gets better, and everyone feels good about what they're doing and accomplishing. There are definite differences between athletics and academics, but there is no question in my mind that part of the reason for that fantastic effort is that a poor effort won't be tolerated. In my eighteen years at Warroad, only two players have managed to get themselves kicked off the hockey team, but everyone knows the situation--coaches don't have to tolerate kids who make a poor effort, and any player would have to be a fool to put that to the test. I can't help but wonder what would happen if classroom teachers didn't have to either.

13 Comments:

Blogger Pamela Parker said...

It's not just that there's an immediate negative consequence if they do poorly in their athletics. I think it's in large part a lack of connection between passing the school class (or in reality, learning the material the class teaches) and future opportunities, uses, or relevance. There is no point to sitting in a class you plan to fail, but if they don't understand what failure means in the future, they'll stay shut down. That's a big reason why the experiments where low income kids have been given guaranteed college tuition early in their school years have been so successful at prompting those kids to do well in school.

1/29/2007 7:26 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Care to share some details on those experiments, Pamela? I take it they're conditionally guaranteed college tuition on getting a certain GPA?

As for consequences, I'd agree that relevance of the material is the main issue. I never really cared much about history until law school. It's also particularly good for internet debates on quite a few topics.

As for what might happen if teachers didn't have to, if you accept universal education to a particular age, Dennis, some teacher somewhere will have to deal with it. There's certainly no universal hockey team membership. I don't think we need to go quite as far as allowing educational banishments just yet. And consider that in the case of hockey, it's positive reinforcement that's helping the kids -- the kids work hard in school because it allows them to continue doing what they enjoy (alternatively, it's negative reinforcement if you actually did mark them ineligible and they had to work to get it back). Either way, kicking them out of school is punishment -- it eliminates educational behavior altogether.

Kids have few general rights and privileges, so it's hard to build official contingencies around them. Driver's licenses are certainly one that can be used. Other than that, however, rights would have to be invented. Or maybe schoolteachers have better ideas of what students are able and enjoy doing than others. There's that cell-phone ban thing, would it make sense to allow students to carry cell phones in schools only if they achieve a certain GPA? Regardless, I don't think it should be just one thing. There should be a whole set of rights involved, enough so that not having them is almost like being a second-class citizen. Perhaps on a complex schedule, so that more appealing rights require a higher GPA score (and making sure that more difficult or less popular classes are given more points towards this score). Maybe make them wear school badges with their identification and some color indicating their status (A student=blue, B student=green, etc.), and reevaluate the status often.

Regardless, I think what you'd see would be lots of underperforming students try much harder. You'd see some try to trick or play the system. You'd see students encourage each other more to keep their friends in the "club".

Here is a link to an interesting study on how much a school can affect behavior under certain circumstances. Consider it carefully, especially if you're in high school but even if you aren't and know exactly what it is. It wasn't a well-controlled study, unfortunately -- but, it is very suggestive.

1/29/2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

You sure have some dumb kids! I'm surprised you haven't become a total burnout case.

1/29/2007 3:33 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Pamela, I thought you made an interesting comment, and you're right about the relevance problem. I don't think kids in general see the point of working for something unless it has meaning in their lives NOW. It is tough to sell American history to kids on that basis. You can talk about things like citizenship all you want; a lot of them aren't going to be buying. The only thing you can do is to try to make things as interesting as you can, and I think I do that. I can even get a rise out of my non-performers in class sometimes (when they're there).
Crypticlife, I think you're ideas on this are interesting. One thing I've thought about was if we could work with local business people and tie our ineligibility list to kids being able to work after-school jobs, but I'm afraid that's not very practical. I do believe, however, that we need a bottom line, and the only bottom line I can think of is that if you refuse to work, you can't stay in the class. As I've said before, I think if we did that, some kids would end up getting the boot, but most of the non-performers would begin to work. In fact, I think this would be the biggest favor we could do those kids.

Elizabeth, I'm shocked! How politically incorrect of you! But, I kind of like it!! Actually, in spite of my non-performers, I still like what I do, because I've got other kids who do perform. And every so often, I am able to get a non-performer to pick it up. That's a pretty good feeling.

1/30/2007 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

There are programs which allow that. Our school runs a semester of Outdoor School, which requires an interview to enter. Also, because so much of the work is self-motivated, they can wash out students who aren't doing their assigments. Unfortunately, it's a model that will never apply to the rest of the school despite the success that the ODS program has with it. Even my French Immersion program basically has to take all comers, and I'm not supposed to suggest that the students switch over to the English stream.

One thing I've found in my history classes that gets the attention of students (and unfortunately, not everything falls into that category) is to trace the ripple effect forward to the present. When we look at the Industrial Revolution, one of the first things I tell my students is that it's directly responsible for forcing them to sit in their desks 5 hours a day. That usually perks them up a bit because it involves them personally. As I said, I haven't found a tie-in for everything, but when I do, I can see that even the slackers take a little more notice than usual.

My bigger problem is the Language Arts classes. "Why are we learning this?" is a perpetual refrain all LA teachers become inured to. Try explaining left/right brain dichotomies to students in 10th grade, and you can hear their eyelids droop. Yeesh!

2/01/2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

What is "Language Arts"? Is that, like, reading and writing??

2/02/2007 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Yes, basically - there are 6 streams in our LA classes: reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and representing (as explained in our curriculum guides), both in English Language Arts and Français en immersion. The main ones are reading and writing, but we're starting to see more emphasis on the other streams as well.

2/03/2007 2:23 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Think about what Ian H. says. It is amazing, but I know that it's true. In the teenage culture today, it's difficult--even impossible--to get some kids to understand that they need to learn to read, write, listen and speak better. We all know how important those things are, but some kids simply can't see past next Friday night. I want to emphasize that I'm talking about SOME kids, not ALL, but it's definitely too many. Ian's situation might sum up what high school teachers are up against in the classroom better than anything else that I've seen.

2/04/2007 3:19 AM  
Blogger Denever said...

FYI: the "memoir" about the Third Wave experiment that crypticlife linked to is strongly suspect. People have tried to verify the version of events that Jones describes, without much success.

Even if it were taken as true, everything Jones describes occurs in the military as well. Inculcalting pride through discipline and community certainly wasn't invented in Nazi Germany. What matters is what use the now-discplined community puts its energy to.

2/04/2007 3:36 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Thanks, denever -- I looked into it and it seems you're right, it's in doubt. And I wasn't implying anything moralistic (if I were, we'd need a much longer conversation), but merely noting that there could be vast, vast changes in our results if we change the system. They could be good, or bad, depending on what we really want. Part of Dennis' argument must be (or should be) that our goals are not to score highly on tests. I don't think his argument is entirely invalid in principle, but I believe scoring well on selected tests should at least be one of our goals as an educational system.

2/06/2007 7:13 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I think we are beginning to put too much emphasis on tests, but I'm not as anti-test as a lot of people. I want American kids to become better students, and I would certainly hope that that would be reflected in test scores. I think the best way to accomplish that is to require reasonable effort and behavior in order for kids to be in our classes.

2/06/2007 9:18 AM  
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Anonymous Reine Marie said...

Great article to read. I looked into it and it seems you're right, it's in doubt ;)

5/22/2015 8:34 PM  

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