Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"It's all bullsh--!"

When I taught in Mt. Iron, Minnesota early in my career, we had a wonderful female English teacher named Judy. Judy was thoroughly competent,caring, witty, and consistently demonstrated great common sense. One thing I remember about her is that whenever the latest educational fad came along--one of those many "great" ideas that was going to make education great and save the world--this very feminine and articulate woman would almost always respond by saying, "It's all bullsh__!"

When I read Joanne Jacobs post on the Dallas superintendents new reforms, I couldn't help but think of Judy.

If you haven't already read Joanne's post on this, the Dallas superintendent issued an edict which will "require teachers to accept late homework without penalty, ignore homework grades that lower a student’s semester grade and give retests to students who fail."

The superintendent responsible for this stroke of brilliance, Dr. Michael Hinojosa, is understandably concerned about the failure rate in Dallas.

Dr. Hinojosa cited new research that determined ninth-graders who are flunking two or more classes in their first six weeks of high school are almost doomed to become dropouts.

“Our mission is not to fail kids,” he said. “Our mission is to make sure they get it, and we believe that effort creates ability.”

But why are they failing? My experience, and I am confident in saying the experience of most other teachers, is that the great majority of high school kids who fail do so because their effort is miserable.

Dr. Hinrosa citing his research is like sighting research that people who have their wounds cleaned after shooting themselves in the foot are almost doomed to limp.

We need to find ways to get kids to try harder in school and to take their education more seriously. Lowering standards so that anyone can pass with just a minimal effort isn't the answer to our education problems.

Right now, I am reading Restless Giant, James T. Patterson's history of America from 1974-2000. Patterson talks a lot about American education in the book, and especially about the disparities between whites and minorities. In one section that I read today, he says this:

The educational difficulties of black and (to a lesser extent) Latino pupils in America in the 1990s were profoundly demoralizing. Reformers called for a variety of changes: eliminating racially based questions from standardized tests, spending more money per pupil on classroom education and tutoring for minority children, strengthening the hand of principals and superintendents, (emphasis is mine) improving training of teachers, lowering class sizes, raising expectations about what students could accomplish, (obviously Hinrosa doens't buy into that one) and--above all--raising academic standards, as measured by rigorous testing.

There are an awful lot of reform ideas in that paragraph, but as for as I can tell, they haven't had much of an effect. There is one idea, however, that to me, is noticeable in its absence. You'll notice that no one seems to have tried strengthening the hand of teachers in the classrooms.

Maybe it's time we give that one a shot.


Anonymous Betty said...

From my experience, when teachers try to get tough and enforce the rules, the parents run to the principal, and the teachers are told to give the kids another chance. That is why private schools are able to have higher standards than public schools. If the student doesn't comply with the rules and turn in work, he is told to go to another school. Parents have no say in the matter.

8/20/2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Betty, I understand that public schools can't operate exactly like private ones, but when it comes to what you're talking about, we need to come a lot closer to it than we are. Now that would be a reform that might actually work.

8/20/2008 11:48 AM  
Blogger Urban School Teacher said...

Such ideas and suggestions like those being put forward by Hinojosa will serve only to lower already alarmingly low expectation levels among students and parents. There is no incentive to make an effort and strive for success.

8/20/2008 4:36 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

UST, Amen!

8/20/2008 6:12 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...


I'm homeschooling my 7 and 8-year-olds and count only grades above 80 as "passing." Anything under that, we back up and do the unit again or review where there are "gaps." Then I give them another test (usually a worksheet or something they haven't done before that would show me if they "got it" this time).

I think the whole point of education is NOT to impress some college board, but whether the child has learned the information presented.

I do understand the colleges want some sort of apples-to-apples comparison of student achievement. Methinks Harvard isn't trolling this school district for graduates anyway and my first impression would be to allow the students to try again.

Then again, as I said, I'm teaching much younger children. Maybe I will change my mind when they get older. :]

Hey, did you hear that California state colleges refuse to accept students who are homeschooled with Bob Jones curriculum materials?


8/23/2008 6:51 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., I use a system much like yours for my Basic American History class. Students must pass every test with a score of at least 80%. If they fail a test, they have to re-take it until they reach the standard. The catch is that when they do pass the test, they only get a score of 80% regardless of how well they did. I believe deadlines do matter. If my Basic kids fail a test, I'll let them take it again and again until they pass it, but I'm not going to put them on a par with kids who studied hard when the test was given the first time and earned an A.

8/23/2008 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Students must pass every test with a score of at least 80%. If they fail a test, they have to re-take it until they reach the standard."

Hey, my Mom used to do this when she was teaching English in middle school (about 20 years ago). She had one more twist ... the students "got" to study for the re-test during their lunch hours.

Amazingly, about 1/2 way through the school year the students had figured out that they *were* going to pass the tests ... the only question was whether they were going to pass them with or without losing their lunch period(s). At this point, most of them just started passing the tests the first time.

Now for the best part. My mom was teaching the slow/remedial class. Since the material was pretty much the same as the "normal" class, one could compare the two classes. The students in my mom's class were outscoring the kids in the normal class by year end.

-Mark Roulo

8/24/2008 3:22 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Mark!

Mrs. C., your mom, and me---looks like great minds run in the same channel! :)

I actually do something similar to your what your mother does. A lot of the kids in my Basic class are special ed. kids, so they normally are able to re-take the test in the Resource Room with a special ed. aid. We've had pretty good success with getting kids to pass the first time, and when they don't, it usually is kids that just have a very hard time with the material. (Ideas and concepts like that seem to be very tough for my Basic kids. We have a chapter on the basic principles of the Constitution, and we always end up having to give a few make-up tests on that one.) But when I determine that the failure is a result of lack of preparation (I have a very specific process for that), they have to make arrangements to come into my room before or after school. They definitely don't like that, so it rarely happens.

8/24/2008 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Lea said...

Mrs. C. & Dennis,

What an excellent idea on requiring an 80% minimum score and allowing retests until that goal is met!

My sons often complained of classes in which their grades were soley based on one or two assignments given early in a semester, and how discouraging this was when they failed a course whose material they finally understood but had no chance to prove that they did.

Your practices in this case would address this issue beautifully, and insure true understanding of the materials.

Great teaching!

9/17/2008 2:23 PM  

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