Friday, May 25, 2007

Special ed. students and the honor roll

Carol Schulz, a grandmother in northern Minnesota, is calling in the ACLU. She is angry because her granddaugher was not allowed on the honor roll at Crookston High School.

As a special-education student, Schulz's granddaughter's modified classes kept her below the credit level required by the school to make the honor roll this spring, though she has a 3.75 grade-point average out of a possible 4.0 GPA.

Schulz said that system is unfair.

Crookston High School officials say credit requirements that give less weight to modified special-education classes than mainstream classes are necessary to be fair to the most students. The honor roll system also is tied to class ranking, which often is reviewed for college admissions and scholarships.

Schulz, whose granddaughter has mild mental retardation, called a meeting with Crookston High School officials last month after learning that her granddaughter would not make the honor roll. Schulz is her granddaughter's legal guardian.

Schulz's granddaughter had taken seven classes and received A's in five of them. However, she needed one more weighted credit to meet the school's honor roll policy. Two of her classes were modified and another, band, also is a nonweighted course.

Students at Crookston High must be in at least five nonmodified courses for the semester and receive a letter grade in each in order to make the A or B honor roll, according to Ron Lutovsky, high school counselor. There are seven class periods a day, leaving room for two modified and other nonweighted class options, he said.

I have slightly mixed feelings on this one. I am certainly not against a special education student, who does her best, receiving recognition, but on the other hand, I think Crookston's policy of using weighted grades in their honor roll makes sense. True academic achievement involves effort, but it also involves a certain amount of ability. If we want more true academic achievement in our schools, then we need to reward it, and if those rewards are going to mean anything, some students are going to be more capable of earning them than others. That's true in athletics, it's true in the fine arts, and it's also true in academics. I think it would be nice if we could find a way to reward people like Carol Schulz's granddaughter without pretending that her performance is on a par with the kids who are taking much tougher classes than she is.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Roger Sweeny: Academic rigor not necessary or sufficient for most students

In my last post, I did some hand-wringing about the low priority we put on academics in America. There were a number of very interesting comments made by various people about that post, but the one I found most interesting was one from Roger Sweeny. I hope Roger doesn't mind, but I found it so interesting that I decided to use it as a post. I thought it represented a very intelligent and unusual point of view, and I'm interested in what other people think of it. So here it is:

Why should public schools, schools that kids have to attend until they reach 16, be academically rigorous? It certainly isn't what most kids want.

The answer that is usually given is that academic rigor creates success later in life (usually defined as a higher income). But I think that is simply untrue.

There is no question that, generally, kids who do well in school make more money than kids that don't. But the direction of causation doesn't run from school to success.

Kids don't "do well" in life because they did well in school. The kids who will do well in life are the same kids who will do well in school. They are goal-oriented, hard working, etc. They make their schools look good.

No doubt schools can help develop some habits of hard work, etc.--but as Dennis pointed out a while ago, it is often athletics that does this more than academics.

Lots of things can develop qualities that will make a person more successful in life. Academic rigor can do this for some people. However, for most people it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Academics in America: A very low priority

There has been a great deal of hand wringing over the past several years over how poorly American students do on international tests compared to students of other nations. This is usually blamed on the schools, and especially, the teachers who are teaching those subjects. The fact of the matter is that a major reason for our kids' poor performance is that our society is not serious about academics.

Let me share with you the story of Ben. Ben is in my seventh hour American History class, and he was there on Wednesday, April 26th. Ben plays baseball, and on Thursday the 27th, they had an away game, so he missed class that day. The next day--Friday, the local police put on a staged automobile accident program during the last two hours of school for all the kids going to prom to discourage them from drinking and driving, so he missed that day, too. Then on Monday, he had another away baseball game. Then on Tuesday, he had another away baseball game, but on Wednesday, he was in class. On Thursday, he had baseball at home, and the players usually don't miss any school for home games. But this was a double-header and they had to start early, so Ben missed again. Then on Friday, they had another away baseball game. Ben is also in the band, and on Monday, May 7th, the band director had requested a practice session during seventh hour for the concert that night, so chalk up another missed class. Then, on Tuesday, (Surprise, surprise!) another away baseball game. So between Wednesday, April 26th and Wednesday May 9th--a two-week period, Ben was in his seventh hour class a grand total of one day.

Fortunately, Ben is an unusually responsible kid, so he was regularly coming in before school hours to check in, pick up assignments, and take quizzes and tests. He is also very bright and a great reader, so he did amazingly well on the tests. His grade dropped a little during that two week period, but not very much. There are other spring extr-curricular participants, however, whose grades have dropped significantly.

You see, it isn't just baseball players who miss a lot of school. In fact, although seventh hour gets hit hard by that sport, overall they don't miss any more than the other spring sports. The boys and girls track teams take off early about twice a week, and they often miss at least half the day. Boys and girls golfers--varsity and junior varsity--generally miss two days a week, and when they miss, they miss the entire day. And it's not just sports. Knowledge bowl season just ended, and they missed an entire day once a week for seven or eight weeks in a row. And if you think the kids involved in knowledge bowl are all A and B students, dream on. One of my Basic American History students missed regularly because he was the Knowledge Bowl student manager.

If you are appalled by the amount of school some of our kids miss, I can't blame you. But if you want to blame the people running our activities, I'd disagree with you. The baseball coach is one of my best friends on our staff, and he is charged with running that activity. He is trying to do the best job he can, and I think he is succeeding fantastically. If you want to blame our principal for allowing this, I'd disagree with you. If he tried to restrict those activities, parents of kids in those activities would be upset; they'd go to board members, and board members would go to him, and believe me, it wouldn't be to tell him to keep supporting those academics. And if you want to look down on our school district for allowing this, you'd better think again. This goes on throughout northern Minnesota, and I'll remind you that Minnesota has one of the best reputations for K-12 education in our nation.

The only people who really care about all those kids missing all those classes are the teachers of the classes they are missing. And if when they complain to our principal or superintendent, they get about as much sympathy as gnats buzzing around our heads on a muggy day. Like I said, they have other pressures they have to deal with. After all, we are a public school, and I have never heard of a phone call being made to anyone by any parents complaining about how often their kids are missing English or history or math. Kids can miss so many classes for so many activities in our school and others because our society doesn't see them as being very important.

Missed classes for extra-curricular activities is not the only evidence of this. As I've said before, in athletics, if a player is disruptive, lazy, or doesn't show up for practices, he or she will be kicked off the team. We won't put up with it. And I'll guarantee you that there would be calls of complaint to the athletic director from parents of other players on the team if any coach ever tolerated that. But in our academic classes, we accept that as standard practice.

Two years ago, the Minnesota State Legislature passed and our governor signed a bill prohibiting public schools from starting before Labor Day. They did this under pressure from resort owners around the state. Fall sports are allowed to begin in early August, however. Can you imagine the public outcry if high school football was delayed? Our legislators wouldn't dare do such a thing. Nope, it is only our academics that they feel free to jockey around.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post defending high school athletics, and I'm not backing away from that. I've heard many non-coaching teachers complain that sports are too important, but that is not the problem. The problem is that in our society, academics are so unimportant. When it comes to the things the American public is interested in, academics are so far on the back burner that they barely register.

I hate to speak heresy, but I can actually understand why the public feels this way. We've treated academics as a low priority for as long as I can remember, and our economy keeps rolling along. We had full employment through most of the nineties, we have full employment now, most people coming out of our schools end up with about the type of jobs they had hoped for, and they have decent lives. I wish all of the kids I had over the years had cared more about American history, but I guess I can see why they think it's not that big a deal. I honestly don't know many parents who dream about their kids getting an academic scholarship, and I don't know any who dream of their kids becoming a history professors. On the other hand, I know plenty who dream about their kids getting athletic scholarships and pro contracts. And if their kids have any musical talent they probably dream of one day seeing them on American Idol.

It's not that the American public doesn't care about academics at all. They want enough academics to allow their kids to get whatever it is the parents want for them. Granted, there are parents like those who participate in edublogs who view academics as very important, but they are the exceptions. Generally speaking, parents are getting what they want, and as long as that is the case, they aren't going to want to see the priorities of American schools change.

The American public doesn't put a very high priority on academics, but the elites of our nation do. They want change. But in order to bring about that change, they don't dare tell the public that their priorities are wrong. That would not be good politics. So instead of that, they tell them that there is a crisis. They tell them that the schools are the bad guys, they tell them the schools are the failures, and they tell them schools are not giving the public what it wants. An actor says we are doing a terrible job teaching civics, rich entrepreneurs say we need to break up the teachers unions and use merit pay so we can find better teachers, blue ribbon commissions are formed so they can shake their heads in disgust at the total job we are doing, and politicians tell people that those bad old schools are leaving children behind.

Maybe we do need change. Maybe we should put much more emphasis on academics in this country than we do. But it would be nice if some of those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians had the guts to come straight out and try to convince the public that academics are more important than they think they are. I suppose it's possible that those actors, entrepreneurs, and politicians don't understand how low a priority the American public puts on academics, but I really don't believe that's the case. I suspect they won't talk straight to the American public because they think they're just too dumb to understand.

Friday, May 11, 2007

One idea for what to do with "Pains in the Class"

I just came home from our local grocery store, and I was reminded of a good idea from a book I didn't like. All I did was pick up a Mother's Day card for my wife to go along with the present I had already bought, so I wasn't there very long. But while I was there I happened to bump into three different students of mine, each of whom, in there own way, are pains in the class.

All three of these kids appeared to be working hard, all three of them were hustling, all three of them were polite and friendly, and all three of them had smiles on their faces. I rarely see any of these things from any of these kids in school. Oops, I take that back. I do often see smiles on their faces--after they have done something that they're not supposed to do.

A few years ago, I read THE WORM IN THE APPLE by Peter Brimelow. Most of the book bashed public schools and teachers, so I didn't like much about it, but I did whole-heartedly agree with one thing that Brimelow said. Brimelow suggested that we could improve public schools by making the General Educational Development (GED) certification program meaningful, and by removing the stigma from it. A GED is supposed to be equivalent to a high school diploma, but, as Brimelow pointed out, many employers don't view it as such. As a result, there are a number of kids who want to start making money in the working world, and have no desire to be in high school, but they're stuck there, because they feel like staying is the only way to get that needed diploma.

A lot of kids who are irresponsible in school are irresponsible in every area of their lives. Over the years, however, I have learned that that is not always the case. The three kids I saw today at our grocery store are good examples of that. These are not bad kids, but they aren’t buying the arguments about how wonderful and valuable education is. I think they would be better off in the long run if they did, but they don't. That being the case, I have no desire to have them in my class so I can make them miserable, and I certainly don't need them there so they can make my other students and me miserable. Wouldn't it be great to have a meaningful GED program that would free them so they could get their high school graduation equivalency and then be able to move on with their lives?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Idiot politicians!

I'm piggybacking off of the Daily Grind again, so I hope Mr. McNamar doesn't mind. Some of his stuff is just too good to pass up.

Last week Mr. McNamar did a post on the Connecticut state legislature, which is in the process of passing a law that would make it illegal for schools to give out-of-school suspension to students in most situations. As those guys in the Guinness Beer commercials say, "Brilliant!"

This is a classic example of the ignorance and arrogance of politicians in dealing with public schools. Does anyone really believe that we need any of the few discipline tools we have left taken away from us? But the Connecticut House of Representatives voted for it unanimously despite the opposition of "a broad cross section of school officials." Great job, Mr. and Ms. Representative! Don't listen to the people who actually have to deal with the problem. After all you know best.

Before I go on, I should say that I recognize the problems with out-of-school suspensions. The most important one is that it's a poor deterrent because many of the kids who get suspended simply view it as a vacation. But you know what? Sometimes it's nice for the rest of the class--and, yes, the teacher--to have a vacation from students like that. A couple of my prize students were suspended from school a couple of weeks ago for trouble they had gotten into in another class, and my classes went smoother than they had in weeks. And because they went smoother, the other students in that class learned more.

I will admit that the numbers being suspended in some of those Connecticut schools looked awfully high to me. And if the Connecticut state legislature wanted to look into the reasons for so many suspensions, that would be reasonable. But I am certainly not going to jump to the conclusion that those schools are doing something wrong, because I'm not working in those schools. And neither are those idiot politicians.

To top off their work of genius, the Connecticut House of Representatives couched their bill in vague language:

The pending legislation would allow schools to issue out-of-school suspensions only to students who pose a significant danger to people or property or a "disruption of the educational process."

As one superintendent said, "It will be interpreted 166 different ways, and there'll be 14 lawsuits. Students will be placed at risk, and attorneys will make a lot of money."

Who knows? Maybe that's exactly what some of them want.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Update on Steven

For anyone who doesn't know, Steven was a frequent commentator on my blog throughout the fall and early winter. He and I disagreed on just about everything, but I think we both enjoyed going back and forth with one another. He was taken out of commission, however, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year, and I did a post on his situation in early March.

I touched base with Steven earlier this week to see how he was doing. It sounds to me like he's been through a piece of hell, but the surgery did go well, and his prognosis sounds good. He's up and taking walks now, but he will still have to go through radiation therapy.

Steven says he's been reading my blog, but he's refrained from heaping any more abuse upon me because Crypticlife and Rory have done a sufficient job of keeping me in line. Thank heaven for small favors!

Actually, I can't wait for Steven to start participating again. I've said before that I really feel good whenever someone who comments agrees with me, but I also know that it's probably the ones who disagree who do the most to make things interesting. So I'm looking forward to Steven's return from the disabled list, and I hope those who are familiar with him will keep him in their thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A tale of four students

Last week I wrote about Bill Gates and Eli Broad who think that high schools need reform because they aren't doing a good enough job. This week I read about a congressional effort to put more money into hiring better math and science teachers because they think the ones we have aren't doing a good enough job. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I don't think these experts get it. They want higher test scores from American kids, and when they don't get them, they continually blame those who are teaching the kids. If the kids aren't performing, it must be the schools' and the teachers' fault. They seem to never consider that maybe it's the kids.

I want to tell a tale of four students. The names are changed, but the students really do exist in Warroad, and I'll bet teachers around the nation will think that I'm writing about some of their students.

Christine is a girl in one of my American History classes. Although she didn't begin the year looking like she would be one of the top students in the sophomore class, there were no indications that she'd have any trouble in my class. When she took the quizzes for my reading assignments, it was clear that she had reasonably good comprehension, but she was a little inconsistent. At about the mid-point of the first quarter, she began to do the assignments less and less, and by the end of the quarter, she wasn't doing any of them at all. I also give some very simple current event assignments, and she consistently took zeroes on those. Christine failed the first quarter, and although it might seem impossible to do so, she went downhill after that. She failed both the second and third quarters by twenty or more percentage points. Early in the fourth quarter, however, there were signs of hope. Christine read the first couple of assignments, and was even getting points on current events. I called her up after class and encouraged her to keep it up. I told her she was now doing exactly what she needed to do, and if she kept it up, she would have no problem passing the second semester. But once again, Christine sputtered. She missed one reading assignment, then two, then three. Then she was absent for a day, then she missed another assignment, and then she was absent again. When I checked her current events, once again, she didn't have any. Christine will almost certainly fail this semester, too, leaving her entire year of American History to be made up.

Then there is Alex. Alex is a bright young man, and he also began the year doing reasonably well in my class. But one day in October, Alex was absent. Then he was absent again. Then again...and again...and again...and again. Alex has now been absent 45 days from my class. We have a computerized system for recording absences in our school with seventeen excuses--ill, needed at home, doctor, dentist, parent request, etc. I think Alex has nailed every one of the seventeen at some time during the year. He's had some skips but most of his absences have been vouched for by his mother.

Then there is Jessica. Social studies isn't easy for Jessica, and like Christine, she failed the first quarter. Unlike Christine, her parents were all over her as a result. Jessica does not have great reading comprehension, but I have a note-taking system that the kids can use to guarantee themselves decent scores on the reading quizzes. Jessica began to do those regularly, earned a C the second quarter, and in doing so managed to pass the first semester. With that accomplished Jessica proceded to start her third quarter much like the first, and she dug herself a very nice hole. This time, however, she recovered in time and worked very hard to climb out. She began once again to regularly do the reading assignments, she got good scores on her current events, and she even studied for tests. She pulled out a passing grade for the quarter, and kept the momentum going right into the fourth. Two weeks into the quarter, and after our first test, Jessica was pulling a B. I should have known what would happen as soon as I posted the grades. It was as if Jessica couldn't stand to actually have a good grade, so she once again began to skip the reading assignments, and she has been falling ever since. She will probably continue to do so until she is close to failing, and hopefully, she'll catch it in time and pass once again.

There are lots of students like Jessica. Her comfort zone is in the C and D range, and she refuses to get a B. There are others whose comfort zone is the B and C range who refuse to get an A. I don't know how many times I've seen that during my teaching career. Some kids just can't stand too much success.

But then there is Kevin. Kevin is a senior in my AP American Government class. He's a good student, but there are definitely a number of kids in his class with more natural intelligence than him. You'd never know it by looking at their GPAs though. That is because Kevin works his backside off. Kevin reads every assignment, and in this class, many of them are long. I give the students a review day before each test, and Kevin is relentless in his questioning on those days. When a paper is due, he makes sure he knows exactly what is expected, and his work is excellent.

Kevin is in class every day. He was a captain on our school's hockey team this year, and in January he got to the point where he could barely skate because he was suffering from a painful bulging disc. His coaches and his parents finally forced him to take a two weeks off from the sport, because he would never have done it himself. He did miss one day of school to see a doctor, but he was back in class the next day. It was too painful for him to sit, so he would come into class early, go to my cabinets, dig out about 15 books from my first semester Economics class, stack them on top of a desk, put his notebook on them, and take notes in a standing position. Kevin did that in all of his classes for about a month-and-a-half.

In March, the hockey team played in the state hockey tournament, which is a very big deal in Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to make it to the state tournament eight times during my coaching career, and I know that there is a huge emotional letdown after it is over. Whether you are a coach or player, it takes a real effort to get yourself to do anything when you get back. Three of Kevin's teammates and the two hockey student managers are also in my AP American Government class, and I could really see the effect on them. We had a test in the class a week after they got back and their performance was dismal. But not Kevin. Kevin came back and fought through those post-state tournament blahs, just like he fought through everything else. He took his test standing up, and earned the third highest score in the class.

Last year, our present day seniors bombed the state math test that was given, so we failed to meet our AYP in that subject. So I guess that makes us a failing school, and it would seem to say that our math teachers are doing a lousy job. But last month, Kevin was accepted at Michigan Tech University, and he will enter their engineering program next year. I want to repeat that their are a number of students in our school with more natural ability than Kevin, and some of them are even getting Cs. They just don't care like Kevin does.

There is a great misunderstanding in the debate over education that takes place in America. It is a misunderstanding that you hear almost anytime education is discussed. That misunderstanding is that it is the job of schools to educate children. It is impossible for us to "educate" kids. We can only give them the opportunity for an education.

Kevin has latched on to that opportunity with a stanglehold, and he will not be denied. Kevin's efforts go above and beyond the call of duty, and we shouldn't expect every student to be like him, but a lot of students could come a lot closer to that than they do. The fact of the matter is that Kevin goes to the same school and has the same teachers as Christine, Alex, and Jessica. Kevin is learning and performing the way we hope a student would. Christine and Alex are learning very little because one won't try and one won't show up. Jessica, although she doesn't have a great deal of ability, is not learning nearly as much as she could because she is so satisfied with mediocrity. If the elites of America are dissatisfied with the performance of American students, they need to understand that our "student problem" is much worse than our "school problem."

It is the job of schools to try to motivate students, so we definitely bear part of the responsibility. When we allow disruptive students to remain in our classes and our schools, we are denying other kids their full right to an education. When we make it clear that students like Christine will be allowed to remain in our classes and school even when it becomes clear that they have no chance to pass, and when we allow students like Alex to continue to attend classes after missing twenty, thirty or forty days, we are contributing to the blase' attitude that so many kids have to their education. But we aren't the only ones who share part of the blame. Our culture with it's emphasis on entertainment and stardom (Did you see how many people tried out for American Idol?), parents, and the kids themselves are also responsible.

My point here, however, is not to examine the causes of this problem. But would-be "reformers" need to understand that getting better math teachers might make a small difference in the motivation of students, but not nearly as much as the proponents of that idea think, and increasing length of the school day and school year, and changing the curriculum won't make any difference at all. If education in America is ever going to significantly improve, the first thing we need to do is to get more students to care more about their education.