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.


Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...


5/01/2007 6:34 PM  
Anonymous HappyPiranha said...

I completely agree that what is missing is student motivation. I teach regular biology, and I usually have a few kids transfer into my class by dropping down from honors bio. These were students whose 9th grade science teachers recommended them for honors bio, but who either couldn't or didn't want to do the work in honors. These kids should be stars in my class. This year I have one who works hard and is a star. Two of them, however, have been knocking down Ds in my class. Why? They won't do the work in my class either. These kids are so blase about class, and school in general, that I want to shake their parents and ask, "Do you want this kid living with you for the rest of your lives? Light a fire under this kid!"

5/01/2007 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preach it!
I teach AP Calculus to senior and my students were doing well throughout the year, understanding the material and passing the tests. Now, as we come down to the time for the AP exam, almost half of them have decided that they're done working for the year. So why did you take this course?

5/02/2007 3:36 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I can totally relate! The students who do the best in my classes are necessarily the brightest (some are), but the ones who work hardest. Unfortunately, as we move more towards a standardised testing model here, the ones who can just coast on their intelligence are going to be more and more rewarded for not putting in the effort. Unfortunate, but true.

5/02/2007 7:20 AM  
Anonymous maddy said...

I would also like to point out a motivation related issue: whichever state test is given on the last day of testing (math where I work) consistently has the lowest scores. Hmmm...

5/02/2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Yes, motivation is important. . . do I get to ask you about their side of the story? ;)

I'd tend to agree with you that at least some of the onus is on the parents in these cases, since the behaviors you're hoping to change mostly deal with out-of-school behavior.

I'd toss the argument regarding our culture's focus on entertainment and stardom -- not because it's wrong, but because it's not useful.

End-of-quarter grades are about the worst hopes for reinforcement out there, but they do at least go to the parents, giving some motivation to students trying to avoid their parents' anger. Reinforcers need to be proximate in time to be effective, and at the beginning of a quarter, the end of the quarter seems quite far. Quiz, test, and intermediate grades probably do not go to parents, and there's nothing inherently reinforcing in a grade. I'd suggest this helps explain Jessica's pattern. You might also be right about her desire to aim for a C or D -- this may have to do with what she thinks future or concurrent expectations of her parents would be (an uncomfortably cognitivist explanation for me), or with pressure from peers. Happypiranha, you suggest the parents should "light a fire" under the kids -- which sounds like what they did with Jessica. I think parents need more specific advice, particularly since 90% probably have no formal education in parenting.

Alex -- well, you advocate throwing him out of class -- is there really a point to that, if he doesn't show up much anyway? Does he disrupt your class when he is there? I'd also be curious what the reaction to him is when he does make an appearance. Is he being punished for coming (either by administration, or by teachers reacting negatively (or even positively!))? Anyway, you certainly can't reinforce him for much of anything if he's not showing up.

Christine -- well, she began to do the assignments less and less. That sounds like extinction to me, like her doing the assignments wasn't being reinforced. I'd be curious if that was the case in all classes.

Obviously, I could be off-base with all of these. There could be a million different competing reinforcers. I suspect, however, that this pattern causes the students to feel pretty bad about themselves, and they probably feel like they have no control over the situation (to bring in all those touchy-feely psych classes on locus of control and self-esteem, which really have a lot to do with learned helplessness and response abulia, and the executive monkey).

Kevin's just a poor experimental subject :). J/k, it would probably be as worthwhile to study why he performs as he does as to study why the others do not.

Incidentally, I've known a couple of teachers who dealt with the problem of grades being dubious reinforcers in various ways. One history teacher I had in high school gave a quiz every single day on the reading the night before. The quiz would be no more than 5 or 10 minutes and involve virtually no reading comprehension at all (questions like, "What was the name of the person discussed in last night's reading?"), and then give a test each Friday. Another teacher would give away things (typically really random and bizarre things of no clear value) as prizes for getting good scores on tests. In the Princeton Review test-prep class I taught, we were told to give small chocolates for correct answers or participation. I never had a dull class.

5/02/2007 3:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Come on, Crypticlife! I was on a streak. Five people in a row agreed with me (that might be a record!) and then you had to come along. You do keep things interesting, though.

I ended up four credits short of a psychology major when I finished college, and back then, B.F. Skinner was very big. So I am familiar with the concepts of reinforcement that you are talking about. You will probably disapprove of this statement, but during my teaching career there have been a lot of students for whom I felt like I might as well take all that psychology and throw it right out the window.

One of my points is that American schools face such scorn from the elites in our country because our kids don't do as well on international tests. I strongly suspect that an important reason for that is that kids in those other nations care more than our kids do. And I doubt very much that it's because the teachers in those other nations are better at reinforcement techniques.

Regarding Alex and Christine, I think there needs to be clear consequences for students' behavior. When Alex is able to stay in class dispite missing so many days, and Christine is able to stay in class despite making almost no effort to pass, other students see that. Unfortunately, there are a number of students who will be tempted to go the same route as those two. And those students effect other students, and so on. I really believe that this is a major reason that public education in America isn't better than it is.

5/02/2007 5:56 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Well, I kind of figured with too much agreement you might get bored. . . I don't blame you for sometimes feeling like throwing psychology out the window. I threw 90% of psychology out the window myself after majoring in it for college, doing most of a master's in it, having a two-year stint in a behavioral neuroscience lab (as experimenter, not subject!), and observing numerous psych evals, sessions, etc.

What I still pay attention to in psych is stuff with solid experimental support, which includes behaviorism, neuro- and perceptual theories, and a few cognitive ideas that have good support. Even then, I don't pay attention to drug studies until they've been replicated (too much profit to make through lying).

The problems you have probably don't stem from the efficacy of the behaviorist model, but rather from your lack of control. It's easy for me to sit here and say you should reward the students when they do what you want, but you do have numerous practical issues: you don't necessarily know what serves as a reward for them, rewards may be different for each child, there are competing sources of reward, you don't have complete access to the students, there may be competing punishers, there may be associative punishers, there may be classical conditioning effects as well (as opposed to operant conditioning), and you have the timing issue. That's a whole heap of things.

It's been said that in Japan, for instance, the teacher isn't the one doing a lot of the reinforcing. It's the other students (citing Yale psychologist Richard Nisbett on this).

Hmm. This line of reasoning actually speaks fairly well to your assertion that some students ought to be removed -- it would prevent them from reinforcing others for misbehavior, or reinforcing them in ways that are incompatible with the kind of performance you want. It may not be Alex and Christine that are doing the reinforcing, however -- what if there's some other student, performing a little better, who's subtly rewarding their behavior somehow? Then if you removed Christine, they'd just move to the next student in line.

Removal is such a blunt and hopeless tool, though. It's sort of like the death penalty as a solution for criminal behavior.

Wouldn't it be better if the other students consistently reinforced Christine and Alex for good performance? Isn't this really what does happen in sports? Teammates will shower praise on the team hero -- in fact, if it's a big enough sport, half the community will join into the praise. One potential solution is to try to think of what might get them to do this. Another might be to consider the role the coach does have in manipulating motivation. What do you think of the role of the team coach in providing, or modulating, motivation in the players? There's clearly some role there, even if it's not the main driver. How do they motivate demotivated teams?

I think I'll have more to say after further reflection.

5/04/2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, are you showing off? ;)

I said I "throw out all that psychology" but I really don't. There are a number of things I do to try to reinforce behavior/performance. There are students, however, for whom I sometimes feel like throwing up my hands and saying, "Nothing works!"

In our school, parents of kids who aren't doing well do get word about their kids' performance well before the end of a quarter. For example, I send out deficiency reports to parents of kids earning C- or worse at the end of the 2nd or 3rd and 6th weeks of the quarters. I also send reports anytime after the second week for students who have fallen into failing territory. I also have an American History group on my email, and I include on it any parents who want to be included. I send them the schedule of class assignments for every week, and they can contact me anytime they want to find out how their kids are doing. For the kids themselves, I consistently get back tests and papers within a day, and I post grades with all of the scores for the quarter weekly.

I think a problem is that some kids just don't care very much about their performance in school, so this reinforcement doesn't have a significant effect. I was really struck by your citation about Japan. I completely agree with that.

I know you've heard this from me before, but I think it's important: I am convinced that if we had the power to remove students, we wouldn't have to use it very often. If Alex knew that his absences wouldn't be tolerated, he wouldn't be absent so often. If Christine knew that she'd have to make a reasonable effort in order to stay in school and socialize with her friends, there's a good chance she'd make that effort. I really don't think we're doing anyone any favors by being so tolerant.

By the way, the best coach I've ever seen is Cary Eades, who is now an assistant at the University of North Dakota. There are a number of reasons why, but one of them was the fear that he instilled in players (and parents). He had a respect-awe-fear factor that I've never seen duplicated by any other coach. But if I tried to emulate his style, it would never work because it simply doesn't fit my personality. There are a lot of other things I learned from him that I can and do use, but that has been an important aspect of his success.

5/05/2007 3:51 AM  
Blogger M said...

anyone who has ever actually taught in a classroom knows exactly how true this is! Excellent points.

Also anyone who has ever taken a psych class on behaviour also knows that the best methods were not constant reinforcement but the kind that is unpredictable. If they know that a certain behaviour will always be rewarded then they will only exhibit that behaviour when THEY feel like a *reward* (as opposed to feeling like learning).

5/06/2007 5:20 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks, M! You know what I mean, and so did the first five people who commented. With all due respect to Crypticlife, who apparently does have some teaching experience, this is one of those situations where I think you have to have regular classroom experience to fully grasp this. We hear theories that are supposed to solve our problems, and it may sound like they should solve our problems, but when we get into real classrooms, those theories just don't do it. It's frustrating.

5/06/2007 8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some parents/others in my community specifically mention the possibility of a ruler or large wooden paddle being the only thing that kept them in line in school. There's plenty of evidence that both positive and negative reinforcement has an impact... question is, how long, and at what cost.

What the establishment, including our site administrators, are asking of us is for force intrinsic motivation on every child, and call us failures when it doesn 't work.

5/06/2007 9:57 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Yes, I agree teachers have experience. I'm just trying to contribute as best I can.

However, I do have a few comments:

"the best methods were not constant reinforcement but the kind that is unpredictable"

Yes, absolutely, m. I hope nothing in my comments gave any other impression (the only point that might have would be the students "consistently" reinforcing each other -- rest assured I meant "frequently", not "continuously"). I'd also point out that even if they perform only when they want the reward, that will likely be more often than "never".


"the possibility of a ruler or large wooden paddle being the only thing that kept them in line in school."

First, this would be punishment, not negative reinforcement. I am not rabidly against punishment, but it has many, many problems with it. It definitely does have an impact and can be useful, but correct implementation is beyond schools' ability.

" parents of kids who aren't doing well do get word about their kids' performance well before the end of a quarter."

This isn't reinforcement, you know.

" I also have an American History group on my email, and I include on it any parents who want to be included. I send them the schedule of class assignments for every week"

Nor is this reinforcement (though I think both are excellent practices).

"For the kids themselves, I consistently get back tests and papers within a day,"

Well, we know grades don't necessarily reinforce, right? But also, the behavior you want to reinforce is presumably studying, which may have taken place some time before taking the test. I think you've still got a time lag problem. Incidentally, this is one thing I think technology could help with -- on multiple choice tests, you can score instantly, even on each individual question and give feedback (one type of test a professor gave would involve getting the full point if you got the right answer the first time, then half credit if you got it on your second guess, then a fourth, and then none, and give an explanation at the end.) Of course, this is still of limited helpfulness ... just throwing it out there as an idea.

" and I post grades with all of the scores for the quarter weekly"

But you don't post names next to the grades, right? It would violate FERPA, but I think it might be a better idea than the "privacy" that currently exists. I think FERPA should allow posting grades within a class at the primary and secondary levels. After all, everyone gets to see the game-winning three-pointers and airball free throws, why not the A++'s and the F's?

I liked the idea of tying driver's licenses to school performance. Perhaps, even if the school couldn't do anything to actually affect d.l.'s legally, they could send a letter home to parents of all students who weren't performing to some arbitrary cutoff noting the performance and urging parents not to permit their children to get driver's licenses.

5/07/2007 12:53 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"With all due respect to Crypticlife, who apparently does have some teaching experience, this is one of those situations where I think you have to have regular classroom experience to fully grasp this."

Crypticlife, that might sound somewhat condescending, but it really isn't meant to be. As you know, a major purpose of my blog is to promote public education. I keep saying that we're doing a better job than most people give us credit for. I am honestly afraid that if people believe that public schools are doing as bad a job as our critics say, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when I write a post like this one, I'm hoping that other teachers will read it and nod their heads in agreement, but I'm also hoping to give people like you a better understanding of the problems we're dealing with. I feel very good about my success at doing the first, but frustrated about not doing so well at the second.

5/07/2007 3:06 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I know it's not meant to be condescending, Dennis, which is why I didn't react more harshly to it.

It is somewhat frustrating to be told "you just don't understand" -- after all, even if it's true there's not a lot I can do with that. I certainly don't want to discount teachers' experience. It certainly is valuable (though, I'd suggest, limited -- just as you would correctly assert that my teaching experience is quite limited).

One thing that bothers me is that there isn't enough experimentation on our kids. Surprised? See, I would even be willing to do a whole language experiment, if it were actually an experiment. Unfortunately, it never is, because the monitoring and verification and data collection and controls are never present. So education is doomed to meander along, not really getting better except by chance, and even those chance improvements are in danger of being wiped out from political forces. Evolution is so hard. :)

5/08/2007 10:15 AM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

Crap, I just read your post about Steve. Now I feel guilty about letting Steve down, because I have to mostly agree with you on your key point.

"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"

Personally, I believe that the secret lies in improving education at the elementary levels... its all about building blocks baby.

By the way, I was an "Alex" in school.

My whole parenting style revolves around ensuring my kids can't get away with what I got away with. Both my parents were natural hard working students... it never occurred to them that I might be lying about homework or school. I on the other hand have the motto of "trust but verify".

5/09/2007 6:31 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







3/03/2009 12:11 AM  

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