Friday, June 29, 2007

I'll be bahk!

If you don't hear from me for awhile, you might think I'm pouting because my last post was such a dud. Although there might be good reason for that, it's not the case--the annual Fermoyle family vacation is about to begin! But never fear, as Douglas MacArthur once said, "I shall return." Or as Ahnold once said, (lower the octave, please) "I'll be bahk!"

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Grading my way

In the post on "my perfect public high school," Denever and I had a back and forth about my statement that any student who works diligently in a class should be able to earn at least a B. Denever asked if I incorporate effort into my grading system, and I do, but I want to explain that, and the explanation isn't short. I decided the best way to do this is to lay out my entire grading system for my regular American History classes, so here it is.

A: 96%
A-: 92%
B+: 89%
B: 85%
B-: 82%
C+: 78%
C: 74%
C-: 70%
D: 67%

1. Reading Assignments--30%: I preach to my kids that the key to doing well in my class is doing the reading assignments, so they count a lot. I put so much emphasis on this because if the students don't read the assignments, they don't know what I'm talking about when they come to class, so they won't get very much out of it.

I wrote my own text, so the average assignment is a little less than three pages. I did that because when I used a regular text, the students ended up reading a lot of material that I wasn't going to spend any time on in class and they would not be tested on. If something is in my text, students know they will be expected to know it.

My quizzes consist of five or six short answer questions, and I try to find things in the readings that students will be most likely to remember. The purpose of the quizzes is solely to reward the students for doing a reasonably good job of reading the assignments; it is not to see how well they can analyze anything. The one problem with this is that there are some students whose reading comprehension isn't very good. I have no desire to see some student reading the assignments day after day, and receiving zero after zero on their quizzes. To deal with that, I give my students an optional note-taking system that they can use when they do the readings. They turn their notes in before they take the quiz, and for individual quizzes I guarantee them a majority of the points for individual quizzes. Students who take the notes for all the assignments for a unit are guaranteed 70% of the reading points even if they bomb the quizzes. Not surprisingly, most of the kids who take notes on readings do quite well on the quizzes, but there are always some who don't, and the notes save them. The most rewarding situations for me have come when some students have bombed quiz after quiz early in the year, but stayed alive by taking notes, but then started to do reasonably well on the quizzes as the year has gone on. Obviously, kids with good reading comprehension skills have a big advantage in this category, but if kids are conscientious, they will do okay.

2. Current Events--10%: There are two parts to this, and they are both simple. The first part consists of keeping a current events journal. Two or three times a week, I will run off articles from Star/, pass them out to the class, and discuss them. In their journals, the students are to briefly write down what the articles are about and date them. They need a minimum of two sentences. Periodically, I will check them and give the kids points according to how many of the articles they've recorded, and if they've done it correctly.

Then, every three or four weeks, they'll be required to write a brief opinion on any of the current events we've talked about. I give them plenty of notice on the due date, and I don't accept any late opinions. The minimum requirement is three sentences, but a lot of kids get into this and end up writing a lot more than that. Being conscientious is the key to doing well in this category. A lot of kids get burned by putting off writing the articles in their journals and their opinions, or they forget to bring their journals to class. In fact, the first time I check their journals, it's usually a disaster.

3. Class Preparation and Participation--15%: This consists of a few things. The first one is something I call class responsibility points. I give everyone 100 points at the start of the quarter, and it's their job to hold on to them. They lose points by having unexcused absences, being late for class, forgetting to bring pencils or other materials, losing things that I've handed out, and for not having all their lecture/discussion notes when I check for them before tests.

I use cooperative learning about once or twice a week, and the scores for those assignments go into this category, and when we have videos, I have the kids write comments on them, and that also goes into this category. Once again, in this category, if the kids are conscientious, their percentages should be high.

4. Evaluation Points--45%: These are tests, quizzes (not the reading quizzes), and something I call final assessments. I have sixteen units, and my unit tests are objective--multiple choice and matching. At the beginning of each unit I pass out optional test review assignments to students who want them. It basically tells the kids exactly what they are going to have to know for the test. If students do a good job on these, they should do well on the tests. Some students don't take them--some because they don't need them, and others because they're too lazy to bother with them. And of course, some students who take them, don't do them. I don't give points for the test review assignments; they are strictly there to help the students on the tests.

I don't give final tests. Instead a give I series of four final assessments throughout each of the two semesters. These are essay type tests, and they involve putting together material learned from more than one unit. For example, the last final assessment of the year is on liberal and conservative periods in our history and it involves four different units going all the way back to January. They are each worth 100 points on their quarter grades, and of course, they each count as one-fourth of their final examination grades. I hand out guides for these about two weeks before the assessments are given, and although these are the hardest things we do, if kids put in the time, they can usually do pretty well.

Anyone with a reasonable work ethic would probably be amazed that students could fail a class set up like this, but it happens. Some kids simply won't do the work, and I won't give them any breaks. But when that happens, and when any of their parents want to question those Fs, I know I'll be able to back them up. When I show a confrontational parent zero after zero on reading assignments, despite their short length and the note-taking system, and zero after zero on the current events assignments, and lost class responsibility points, it takes the wind right out of their sails.

My class is set up so that a student who works hard and is conscientious should be able to do pretty well, but the class is quite difficult for kids with poor reading comprehension skills and a poor grasp of history. The best they can do, even when they work diligently, is a C, and although I wouldn't force them out of my regular class, I believe they would learn more in my basic class.

Denever asked if I grade for effort, and I do, but the effort is tied to performance. I'm trying to make it as easy and as attractive as possible for my students to learn. One of my major concerns is that I want my kids to learn how to be good students. Obviously, I also want them to learn American history, and I think the chances of that happening are best if they see a real opportunity to be successful.

So there it is--grading my way! It's been developed over a lot of years, and I like it. But as I told Denever, go ahead and hit me with your best shot!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

If you've got insomnia, read this; it could be your cure!

EHT is involved in some kind of blogging game that I don't entirely understand, but she "tagged" me, so I'm supposed to post eight facts about myself. I'm supposed to "tag" eight other people, but we'll have to see if I get around to that. In any case, here it is--eight facts about me. (I can picture people yawning already.) And EHT, I would only do this for you!

FACT #1: Like EHT, I am left-handed, but apparently it has given me more problems with my handwriting than it has her. My handwriting is atrocious. In fact, when I was a senior in high school, I went to a birthday party, and they had someone analyzing everyone's handwriting. When she came to my sample, the first question she asked was, "Do you have some kind of physical disability?"

FACT #2: Although I had the opportunity to coach hockey at a high school with an outstanding program, I never was a regular when I played. I was a back-up goalie in high school, and then I was a back-up goalie at Bemidji State University. My oldest son was a back-up goalie in high school, a back-up goalie in junior college, and then--like father, like son--a back-up goalie at Bemidji State. Between the two of us, we may have collected more slivers in our backsides than any father-son combination in the history of sports.

FACT #3: I graduated in a class of 440, and I would have been valedictorian if 239 of my classmates had mysteriously disappeared. In other words, I am no rocket scientist--a fact many of you have probably already figured out.

FACT #4: During the school year, I get up regularly at 4:30 AM, and on weekends and in the summer, I get up at 4:45. I like naps--a lot!

FACT #5: I used to golf a lot, but my swing was so ugly that my brother, who is a very good golfer, gave me the nickname of Igor--the name he regularly calls me to this day.

FACT #6: For the past seven years, my 5'2" 114 lb. wife has been the Weight Watcher leader in Warroad. Giving presentations doesn't come naturally for her, so during that seven year period, I have sat through two or three practice sessions every week. So if you want to know anything about Weight Watchers, I'm your man.

FACT #7: My all-time favorite book is The Stand by Steven King, and I have read it six times. (I already admitted that I am not a rocket scientist.) I have a re-read list of 107 novels. I try to read one new novel in-between ones that I re-read, and when I find one I really like, I add it to the list. I may be a little weird, but I'm organized!

FACT #8: My most embarrassing moment as a teacher came one day when I was walking around the room, checking my students' current events journals. As I approached a student in the middle of the room, I heard those words that no teacher ever wants to hear: "Mr. Fermoyle, your fly's open."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Paying kids to perform in school

I ran into another interesting post by Rory at Parentalcation the other day. This one dealt with a Diane Ravitch commentary on New York City's plan to pay students to perform better in school. Diane Ravitch was totally against the idea, but Rory was for giving it a shot. Now, two weeks ago, I declared Diane Ravitch to be my all-time favorite education expert after she wrote a piece defending teachers. She has authored several books and is recognized everywhere as an authority on education policy. Rory is a parent who frequently criticizes teachers and public schools. So who do you think I agree with? That's right--Rory.

Here is a blockquote from the Ravitch article that Rory used in his post. He disagreed with it, and so do I, but I've got a slightly different slant on it.

From the point of view of schooling, this plan is wrong because it tells kids that they should study only if they get extrinsic rewards. Yet what educators are supposed to do is teach kids to have a love of learning, to encourage them to improve their lives by enlarging their knowledge of the world. If they are going to study only if someone pays them, what happens when the payment ends? What will motivate the kids who are not getting cash payments when their classmates are being paid off for higher scores? The plan destroys any hope of teaching the value of intrinsic motivation, or the rewards of deferred gratification, or the importance of self-discipline for a distant but valued goal.

The idea of kids working hard in school because they have a love of learning is a wonderful thing, but that may never happen for a lot of kids if we wait for that to happen by itself. I have seen kids come to enjoy a class because they were initially motivated to get a good grade. They worked to learn the material because they wanted a good grade. Then as they began to learn the material and experience success, they actually got interested in the subject and enjoyed the class. The grade was the hook. If I'd have waited for them to love learning for its own sake, I'd still be waiting. For the kids we're talking about in New York City, grades aren't a sufficient hook, but maybe money will be.

Ms. Ravitch did say something that I definitely sympathize with: "If parents want to give their kids money to get an "A" or to pass a course, that's their private affair, but for the government to pay people to take personal responsibility for themselves is repulsive."

I completely agree with her philosophy here. And if there weren't a major problem, I would agree with her that paying students to perform better shouldn't be done. But it seems to me that we are talking about kids for whom nothing has worked. I guess I view this a little bit like FDR viewed the Depression when he became president. He believed we had to try something--anything--to get the country going, even if some parts of programs he pushed actually clashed with other things he was pushing. I think we need to try something--anything--to get these kids going. One thing that has definitely hurt education is our tendency to do or not do things based completely on philosophy, theory, or what sounds good rather than finding out what actually works. So I'm with Rory--I think it's worth giving this idea a shot.

There is one part of this plan that I completely disagree with, and it demonstrates how little the politicians understand about what actually happens in classrooms. Under the plan, kids would get paid for attending classes and taking tests, as well as passing tests. If they are going to be paid, pay them only for positive performance. Please don't pay them just for showing up. Politicians and judges have to learn that just "being in school" does absolutely nothing for anyone and it can do damage. If they are paying kids for just being there, there's a good chance they'll be paying kids for disrupting their classes and making it even harder for anyone else in those classes to learn.

Ravitch says something else in her opinion piece that I found very interesting:

From the point of view of society, the plan is wrong because it tears at the social fabric of reciprocity and civic responsibility that makes a democratic society function. Should we pay people to drive safely? Should we pay them to stop at red lights?

No, we shouldn't pay them, and we don't have to. We don't have to pay people for driving safely and stopping at red lights, because they will be punished if they don't. If they continue to drive recklessly, or if they continue to run red lights, we will take away their driving privileges. Now, if we would apply that principle to kids who won't try and won't behave in school, we wouldn't have to pay them either.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The perfect public high school

I have written a lot of posts about public education and how I think it can be improved. Here is my vision of the perfect public high school.

Every student has the opportunity to be successful. To me that means that any student who works diligently in a class should be able to earn at least a B. That doesn't mean that classes should be made easier. It does mean that expectations should be clear, teachers should make clear to students what they will be expected to learn, they should teach that, and then they should test that. It also means that if a student can't earn at least a B by working diligently, he or she doesn't belong in that class. And that means that classes have to be set up for kids with different abilities. If a student can't possibly earn a B in my regular American History class, then that student belongs in my basic class.

To me, every student having the opportunity to be successful also means having a good extracurricular program which enables students to excel in something that they're really good at. It might be football or hockey, it might be in music, or it might be in speech or drama.

Every teacher in my perfect school is constantly working to be the best he or she can be and to improve. The teachers know that if they are one of the best teachers in their departments, that they will be a valued member of that faculty, and they will have job security, regardless of how long they've been at that school. They know that if they get lazy and decide to coast, they will be in danger of losing their jobs. They also get paid a reasonable salary because they have a union negotiating for them.

The teachers are using the most effective methods for teaching their students because colleges of education and workshops present only those methods that have been shown to be the best by research. They have not been taught methods based purely on theory that are based on somebody's ideological agenda.

The administrators in my school are administrators because because they were the best teachers in their schools. They are NOT administrators because they didn't like it in the classroom, or because they simply wanted to make more money. They are the best of the best, and each one of them teaches one class so they can keep in touch with what is really going on in their school.

Every student makes a reasonable effort to be successful. I'm not talking about doing hour after hour of homework like that expected in places like KIPP schools. But I am talking about students doing those basic simple assignments that are expected in so many classes. There are students who sluff off now and then, and once in awhile a student gets an F in a class. But they know that if it becomes clear that they won't do what is necessary to pass a class, they will be taken out of that class. And they know that if they do this in more than one class, they will be out of that school. Because of that knowledge, it rarely happens.

Every student is also under control when it comes to behavior. That doesn't mean that the students are all a bunch of little angels. That doesn't mean that there are no students who cut up in class or who talk too much from time to time. It does mean that students know that if they don't at least try to control their behavior, the teacher has the power to kick them out of class and the principal has the power to kick them out of school. Once again, because they know that--in other words because they know there are limits--drastic measures by teachers and principals are rarely necessary.

You might notice that I don't have anything about parents in my vision of the perfect public high school. There is no doubt that parents are important, but parents cannot be controlled by public policy. Everything in my perfect public school can be.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Merit pay just doesn't excite me

Well, it seems like just about everyone else has blogged about Minnesota's merit pay plan for teachers, so since I'm from Minnesota, I suppose I should say something about it, too. The article that so many are blogging about appeared in the New York Times a few days ago. One reason it has taken me this long to do a post on it is that I wasn't aware of it until I checked out Education Wonks the next day. But another reason is that merit pay just doesn't excite me that much.

I want to make it clear that I'm not against merit pay. I understand the valid concerns that some teachers have about it, but there is no perfect way for paying teachers. I doubt very much that a well-thought out merit pay system would be any more flawed than the system most of us use now.

Minnesota's merit pay plan, which is called Q-Comp was explained to our faculty at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. It sounded very confusing to me, and it would definitely take a lot of work by a staff along with a school board to set it up. The money for Q-Comp is basically free money--teachers who qualify for it would get more money, and nobody would get less--but I think it's fair to say that a faculty would have to really want it in order to set it up. If you want to read about it, you can go to this Minnesota Department of Education website, but I'm warning you: prepare to have your eyes glaze over.

I could be wrong, but I think merit pay is overrated by many of its proponents as an incentive for teachers to do a better job. I should admit that, as of now, I am planning on retiring from my present job in two years, so there's not a lot of reason for me to see a possible merit pay system as a huge incentive. But it isn't just that. Money is nice, and it certainly does motivate, but I think it motivates some people more than others. I believe that people who go into teaching are less motivated by it than people who go into most other professions.

In many professions, when someone goes into them, it is a pretty safe assumption that the amount of money to be made is a primary concern. I worked for a life insurance company for a couple of summers when I was in my early 30s, and money was everything. All measurements were in terms of money. My manager was very motivated by the amount of money he could make, and it was assumed that everyone under him also was. But let's face it--if the amount of money you are going to make is a major concern when you choose a career, and you choose teaching, you must not be very smart.

I think my upbringing might be fairly typical of someone who ends up going into teaching. I grew up in a lower-middle class family. Both of my parents attended college, and it was drilled into me from the time I was very young that I would go to college too. But my parents also drilled into me over and over that the amount of money you end up making isn't important; it's important to do something that will make you happy. My insurance manager might have heard that from his parents, but I doubt that he heard it nearly as often as I did.

It's not that teachers aren't motivated by money at all. You can certainly see that it matters anytime a new contract is negotiated, and I'm sure that if you wave a couple thousand dollars in front of teachers, there are some who will do a better job. I just don't think it's going to make as big a difference as some of our captains of industry think.

I really believe that the way teachers are retained is a much more important factor in the motivation or lack thereof for teachers. I say that because I've seen it, and I've felt it. For at least 20 of the 33 years that I've taught, the school districts I've been a part of have been having financial problems. When that is the case, talk of which teachers are going to get the axe is always in the air. I've seen outstanding young teachers get cut, and I've seen others leave my districts and take jobs in others because they had no job security, and no matter how hard they worked or how good a job they did, they knew they couldn't get it. At the same time, I've seen some veteran teachers go into a coast mode, because they knew they were completely safe. If they were clearly the weakest links in their departments, it didn't matter because they had seniority. I hate to admit it, but on this issue, I think our captains of industry have a very good point.

Friday, June 15, 2007

An expert defends teachers!

Diane Ravitch is an education expert. That means that she is critical of American public schools, and she's one of those people who immediately puts this blogger into a defensive mood. But recently, after checking out Joanne Jacobs's site, I found that Ravitch wrote this piece after attending one of those conferences of "the elite" that considered what could be done about the dismal state of American education. Naturally, much of the discussion focused on those darned American teachers. Here is some of what Diane Ravitch had to say after that conference:

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

This is a tangled skein of causation, to be sure, but I have a radical idea. Next time there is a conference about the state of American education — or the problems found in each and every school district — why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we investigate the influence of the role models of "success" that surround our children in the press? Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?

It's time to stop beating up on teachers and ask why so many of our children arrive in school with poor attitudes toward learning. If the students aren't willing to work hard, if they aren't hungry to succeed, then even the best teachers in the world — laden with merit pay, bonuses, and other perks — are not going to make them learn.

Every article and book about successful education systems in other nations say that their students are "hungry" for education, "hungry" for the learning that will propel them and their families to a better life. Our children — with too few exceptions — don't have that hunger. It's not the fault of their teachers.

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.
Diane Ravitch just became my all-time favorite expert!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

When I think back on all the crap I learned in ed. school!

Kodachrome by Paul Simon (with lyrics slightly altered by Dennis Fermoyle)

When I think back on all the crap I learned in ed. school,
It's a wonder I can teach at all!

In a post last week, I said that I am reading Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles J. Sykes, a book that was written in the mid-1990s. Sykes painted a very dismal picture of what was going on in American schools, and I belittled him in my post for the dire predictions he made about the country's future, because they have turned out to be wrong. I'm not taking anything back, but I must say that after having gotten into his book that Sykes's panic was understandable. If the education gurus of the 1990s had gotten their way, and gotten everyone to teach the way they wanted us to, Sykes might not have ended up being nearly as far off the mark on his prognostications as he was.

Sykes's book did remind me of all the crap that was being pushed on us by schools of education and workshops a decade ago--get rid of grades, get rid of all awards for academic achievement, focus entirely on your students' sense of self-esteem, go exclusively to cooperative learning and allow no competition whatsoever in the classroom, ability grouping is actually racism, get rid of pencil and paper tests, and the list goes on and on. I have to wonder who were the people in authority who made the decisions that this baloney was a good idea.

Sykes tells a horror story about what was going on in American classrooms in the 1990s. He gives numerous examples from the classrooms of true believers in the raging progressive education fads of the period, and in the process, makes anyone who is involved in education look like an idiot. Sykes's problem is that he doesn't understand just how few of those who were actually running classrooms during that period bought into those ideas.

When I was in Mt. Iron, Minnesota, we had a wonderful female English teacher who had a saying she repeated anytime a new progressive teaching fad emerged and began to be pushed upon us--"It's all bullsh--!" That saying became somewhat of a mantra for our entire staff. The same attitude was held by all of the experienced teachers when I moved to Warroad. When we were told that all of Minnesota would be moving toward Outcome Based Education--the progressive fad of the early 1990s--the feeling was that we could ignore it and it would eventually go away. Thankfully, it did.

It is certainly possible that there are more elementary and middle school teachers who became true believers in the progressive garbage that was being promoted by education gurus in the 80s and 90s, but I don't know one high school teacher from either of the districts I worked in during that time who did. Not one! Amazing as it may seem, most teachers do have some common sense. Most teachers have an idea of what has a chance of actually working in a classroom, and they can certainly tell when something they are trying isn't working. Most of us are not going to continually bang our heads against a wall because somebody with a Ph. D. has a theory.

I have said before, and I continue to maintain that a number of progressive ideas have some merit if taken with a grain of salt and a very healthy dose of common sense. We should be concerned about our kids' self-esteem, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I admit, that I do use cooperative learning, but only to supplement things that I've already taught, and I don't grade the way the promoters of it tell me I should, and I certainly have not eliminated competition from my classroom. I even took ideas from Outcome Based Education that made sense to me, put my own wrinkles on them, and they have helped my classes. But I have no doubt that if I had gone into it lock, stock, and barrel like we were told to, my classes would have been a joke.

I have to admit that I've gained something from all those classes I've taken and workshops I've attended, but not nearly as much as I should have. I'm also convinced that if I'd taken my learning to seriously, I would have been harmed--and that means my students would have been harmed. It shouldn't be that way. It's been six years since I last took a class, so maybe things have improved. Nevertheless, I would still say that if Congress is looking for someone to investigate when the test scores of American students aren't as high as they should be, the American colleges of education would be a good place to start.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The children who are really being left behind

Ms. Cornelius had this post about this article by Tammy McCartney, a frustrated teacher who is leaving the profession. Here is the part of the article that most grabbed me:

Most of the students want to learn or at least want to be successful, but there are five who have no interest in furthering their education. These students talk while the teacher is talking, throw things when her back is turned and sometimes when it isn't. They sing, dance, roam the classroom, try to trip one another, horseplay and generally make it difficult to conduct class in an orderly manner. In fact, these behaviors make it difficult for a teacher to conduct class at all.

Far from being the typical class-clowning of yesteryear, these behaviors are malicious and often willfully disrespectful. From the beginning of the year, Ms. Smith has been contacting their parents, assigning detention, referring them for in-school suspension, discussing their status with principals and counselors, yelling and basically doing everything she can to contain these students. Nothing works.

When these students fail the tests and are "left behind," whose fault is it? When a wayward student injures another with horseplay, who gets sued? There are no behavioral consequences that matter for many of today's students and there are some parents who do not have the ability or the desire to discipline their children; they simply cannot or will not parent.

If this doesn't show the necessity for giving the teachers the authority to remove disruptive kids from their classrooms--not just for the day, but for at least the semester, I don't know what does. I left a comment saying something like that on Ms. Cornelius's site, but it never got published. I don't know if it was a case of Fermoyle computer ineptitude (always a likely possibility), or if Ms. Cornelius didn't see it or just didn't like it. I do realize that when I post and comment on this subject, some people think I've got a bit of Nazi in me, but I plead non-guilty.

Ms. McCartney's article is titled "Teachers Don't Leave Kids Behind," and she makes the point that no teacher should be blamed for a failure to educate the five troublemakers in her story. But it's not those five that we should worry about; it's the other kids, the ones Ms. McCartney says "want to learn, or at least want to be successful." They are the ones we should be concerned about, and they are being left behind, too.

I have seen classroom situations like the one that Ms. McCartney describes--mercifully, not very often. When you have that many really disruptive kids, learning is just about impossible for everyone. The teacher is placed into an impossible situation. All of those tactics that teacher was trying--contacting their parents, assigning detention, referring them for in-school suspension, discussing their status with principals and counselors, yelling and basically doing everything she can to contain these students--have absolutely no effect on students like that. I have no doubt that the teacher being described in Ms. McCartney's piece is doing her best. I completely agree with Ms. McCartney's point that she is not the one leaving anyone behind.

Schools in America need to do the things we are capable of doing and stop beating our heads against the wall trying to do the things we're not. There are some things we can't do. We can't educate kids who have no desire to be educated, and we can't educate kids who show up every day to school with the sole purpose of bringing attention to themselves by disrupting their classes. We can educate kids who want to be educated, but only if we free them from others who make learning impossible. I think it's about time we do that. Until courts, Congress, and state legislatures make it possible for us to do that, they are the ones who need to take a good look in the mirror when ever they talk about "leaving children behind."

Friday, June 08, 2007

Dumbing down American kids: A blast from the past

I have just begun reading Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes. I don't really like reading books that are critical of public schools, but I do think it's important to know what they are saying or, in this case, what they have said. One thing that makes this book interesting is that it was published in 1995, and it makes statements that very clearly imply that our economy should be in shambles by now because of the poor performance of American schools.

In a section called "The Cost of Dumbness," Sykes gives several statistics to show how drastically our lousy education system was cutting down on the productivity of the labor force in America. He convincingly demonstrated that the dumbing down that was taking place in American education would cause the drop in productivity to accelerate. Scary stuff!

That probably sounded pretty good back then, since when Sykes wrote the book we had only recently emerged from a recession. Little did he know that the economic recovery that had just begun would end up being the longest and one of the most robust recoveries in American history. Little did he know that a few years later, the American labor force would be called the most productive in the world. Like many other "experts" of the 1990s, Sykes compared America unfavorably to Japan, whose economy had been going great guns in the early nineties. It had begun to go into the tank when Sykes's book came out, but little did he know how long it would stay there. He also compared American education unfavorably to that of France, whose economy is now a mess with double digit unemployment and a labor force that isn't even close to ours in productivity.

In a section called "The Legacy of Dumbness," Sykes uses alarming statistics to list point after point over a spread of four pages to show just how dumb American schools have made our kids. After reading it, anyone should be convinced that the futures of any average American students would be hopeless. Yet, I have three sons who graduated from high school between 1993 and 1996--just about the time Sykes was writing and publishing his book. Two of the three were very average students, and test scores would seem to indicate that ours is a very average school. Yet, all three of them got their degrees and did well in college, and all three seem to be doing very well in their jobs. Anyone who read Sykes book would have to conclude that this would be impossible, but I know countless other young people just like my three kids.

The amazing thing is that I think I'm going to be able to agree with a lot of what Sykes has to say in his book. Sykes blasts the progressive teaching methods that have been taught in schools of education, and I have written posts complaining about the same thing. Like Sykes, I think the push for self-esteem often bordered on the ridiculous. And like Sykes, I think we must try to improve American education. But Sykes frames his arguments in a way that is insulting to those of us in the trenches who work our backsides off to provide our kids with the best education we can. And despite the problems and obstacles we have to overcome in K-12 education, the great majority of our kids have been successfully prepared for their post-high school lives.

Because Sykes's book is now twelve years old, it does a great job of making the same point that I have tried to make on this blog on a number of posts. For at least 50 years so-called experts have given us dismal assessments of American education and those assessments are almost always accompanied by apocalyptic predictions for our country's future. Those predictions have consistently been wrong. I really believe that any present-day author, politician, famous entrepreneur, college professor or think-tank guru who wants to make such gloomy assessments about American education accompanied dire predictions about the future needs to go back to books like the one Sykes wrote, and explain to us why those predictions turned out to be so wrong, and why we should pay any attention to anyone making those kinds of predictions today.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Can't read or won't?

Rory over at Parentalcation had an interesting post on reading instruction. The post included a video called Disteachia, in which a number of reading experts ripped the job that American schools are doing when it comes to teaching reading.

The statistics given are that 38% of people in America are at literacy levels below basic, and they say that a majority are below proficient--whatever proficient means. The doctors in this production blame nearly all of it on American schools. I always feel at a disadvantage when discussing teaching methods at the primary grades because this definitely falls out of my area of expertise. I'm a high school teacher, and that is what I understand best. I know very little about teaching the mechanics of reading, but kids are going to have to use whatever skill they have when they come to my class. I don't know what reading program our elementary school has been or is using, but I can say without hesitation that the biggest problem for kids that I deal with is that they won't read, and not that they can't read.

Reading assignments are the most important part of my American History classes. If students consistently do a good job on their reading, it's going to be hard for them to get anything worse than a B in the class. I wrote my own text, so the reading assignments are usually between two and three pages. I did that because high school students are notorious for not doing reading assignments, so I wanted to make mine very doable. I would rather have kids read two or three pages--nearly all of which they will be responsible for knowing, than not read six to eight pages--much of which will never even be discussed in class.

Every year there will be a number of kids for whom I will reach the conclusion that they have a major reading comprehension problem, only to find out that they can do just fine if they try. A student will be going along earning low score after low score on my reading quizzes, and then all of a sudden, he'll ace one. I'll call the kid up, and ask what he did differently this time, and he'll say, "This time I read the assignment." Well, surprise, surprise! This year that happened more often than any other year--when athletes were facing ineligibility, when parents put pressure on their kids, and for one young man, when we told him that we had decided that we would have to move him into my basic class. I can honestly say that the sophomores I've found who really can't read are rare.

I can only speak for my own high school, but I can say with confidence that our problem isn't that kids can't read, it's that too many of them won't read. I'm not saying that the experts on the video are wrong, but based on my experience, I do suspect that they are underestimating the "won't read" problem.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Blogger burnout and what I would change

The end of the school year came, and did I ever get hit with a case of blogger burnout. Last week I didn't even want to look at my own blog or anybody else's. Finally, today, I took a glance around, and the Portable Princess has inspired me with her post, "You're the Education God." The Portable Princess asks us what changes we would make if we had the power to do so. If you've been reading my blog, you probably have a pretty good idea of what my responses to that are, but here they are anyway. Since I've been blabbing away for the last year, this is probably a great way to wrap up the school year.

1. Give teachers the authority to remove disruptive and blatantly apathetic students from their classrooms. (In other words, give classrooms teachers the same power that coaches of high school athletic teams have.)

2. Give principals the authority to keep their best teachers, regardless of years of experience, when cuts have to be made. And also give them real power to get rid of teachers who aren't doing their jobs. (I don't think there are nearly as many of these as our critics say, but there shouldn't be any at all.)

3. Get colleges of education to quit focusing exclusively on "student centered" theories and methods (multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, etc.), and begin giving close to equal time to more "teacher centered" methods like Direct Instruction.

So there you are. If you agree, great! If not, as Pat Benatar would say, "Hit me with your best shot!"