Sunday, December 14, 2008

Too much time covering my backside!

I am a little frustrated. Our team took off from school after third hour on Friday for a hockey trip, and after two games, we traveled 170 miles in a blizzard to make it back home last night. After church, I headed up to the school this morning to catch up, but I had a great substitute so I knew that wouldn't take very long. I ended up spending a lot more time at the school than I really wanted to, however. The reason: I had to spend so much time covering my backside. And why do I have to cover my backside? Because I have a number of kids who are failing and a number more who are close to it, and I know that if any of those kids fail or if any of them become ineligible to play a sport, and I haven't kept the parent informed every step of the way, fingers are going to end up being pointed at me. The student's failure will become my failure.

I want to make it clear that our community has a lot of kids who do well, and I have my share of them. I just wish I could spend more time on them. The problem is that we also have too many kids whose concern and effort in school is mediocre to miserable. I have set my classes up in such a way so that if kids consistently do the things they are capable of doing, they are going to have a very good chance of earning at least a B. If they get a little lazy for any length of time, however, they're going to be in danger of failing, and if they're in a sport, there's a fair chance they'll find themselves on our ineligibility list. The benefit of doing things this way is that some kids who have a tendency to get lazy get shocked into performing as the year goes on. Last year, twenty-five out of eighty sophomores in my American History classes failed the first quarter, but only a handful failed the last one.

Making sure that every parent of every potential failing student is informed every step of the way is a major headache. When a student falls into failing territory, I have to make sure I immediately inform the parent. If the kid moves into D territory for awhile, then falls back into F-land, I have to notify the parent again. Likewise, if I put a student's name on our ineligibility list for extra-curricular activities, I have to inform the parent, and if he or she gets off and then has to go back on, once again, I have to re-notify the parent. In our second and fourth marking periods, this gets quite confusing because it's possible for a student to be failing the marking period, but not the semester and vice-versa. And you just know that, despite the fact that only a few of the parents I send reports to ever respond, if I forget to inform just one, that will be the parent who will want to make an issue of it.

I am not against trying to keep parents informed, but there has been more and more emphasis placed on doing this. Along with this has come the very clear message to the teacher that you'd better not fail kids if their parents haven't been fully informed. The obvious solution for teachers is to not fail students unless they are the absolute bottom of the bottom-feeders. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers choose to take this approach. This is just one example of the many things that have been done during the last thirty or forty years to discourage teachers from imposing any consequences on any students.

There are those who believe that the key to getting better effort from American students is to get teachers to have more creative lesson plans. I'm all for creative lesson plans, and that sounds so wonderful, but I don't think that's the answer. I have rarely been able to wow any of my non-performers with any of my lesson plans, no matter what I've tried, although I have been able to impress many of my kids who were already trying. I think it's much more important that there be meaningful consequences for those who don't perform. The more difficult we make it for teachers to impose those consequences, the less likely it is that they will.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

High school reform? Forget the experts!

I was browsing through the blogosphere, and I came upon a U.S. News and World Report piece titled "The Future of High School Reform." The subtitle to the article read, "Education experts voice their ideas at U.S. News's education summit." I thought, "Hey, that looks interesting!" So I read the entire article...And didn't find one worthwhile thing.

Oh, the wizards in the discussion talked about "one-size fits all," standards, charter schools, the need for better teachers, and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theory, but there was not one thing that any of them said that indicated to me that any of them had any idea about what the real problems are in American education. When talking about low achievement, not one word about discipline and not one word about student effort. Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows that those are the things that matter more than anything else, but not one word about them. NOT ONE! I'd love to give you a quote from the article, but there wasn't anything worth quoting. How a group of people who are supposedly so knowledgeable about a subject that I am so interested in could manage to bore me the way they did is amazing. What is depressing is that these are the people who public officials turn to when making policy. Honestly, I don't think they have a clue.

There was one idea I ran into in my browsing that was at least worth discussing, and that came in this seemingly off-hand remark by Joanne Jacobs:
I think public schools can enforce values too. Let kids who don’t want to behave go to the Socialization Center, where they can watch movies and play video games to prepare for a lifetime of unemployment. Those who wish to learn can attend safe, orderly schools devoted to that purpose. Most kids don’t want to be losers. They’d choose a real school, if one was available.

I like the concept of separating the wheat from the chaff, but I'm afraid that among some groups of kids, Joanne is overly optimistic about how few kids would choose to go off to the "Socialization Center."

Our hockey season began on November 17th, and I am reminded that if we really want to improve high school education in America, all we have to do is look at high school athletics. That is where the effort to achieve excellence takes place in American education. There are three major differences between high school athletics and the classroom:

1. The kids who take part in athletics choose to be there.
2. No one has "the right" to be on a team. If a player refuses to conform, the coach can dismiss them. (Since our players know this is the case, we rarely have to do it. We have dismissed a total of two players in the twenty years I've been at Warroad.)
3. Coaches can easily be fired if the administration is unhappy with them.

I am not saying that we have to run our classrooms exactly like our athletic teams, but I truly believe that anything we need to improve high school education in America is contained in the three points above.

Please forgive my lack of production

I appreciate the people who check in on my blog from time to time, and I really appreciate those who make comments. You are the people who make this fun. I always feel guilty when my production slows down, because I know that going too long without posting risks losing people. My production has slowed down lately, and the reason for that is hockey season has begun. The beginning of the season is always the toughest with long practices and lots of evaluating. This is basically an opinion blog, so I usually need to be fired up about something to post. Early in the hockey season, I'm so mentally and physically tired when I get home from practice that kicking back with one of my John Sandford or Robert Parker novels sounds a lot better than reading and writing about education issues. I've been trying to post something once a week, but even that has been difficult. Hopefully, by about the first of the new year I'll be able to get more into this again. Until then, I hope you'll bear with me.