Monday, June 05, 2006

PESPD'S MYTH #2: The American People Want Their Schools to Have Higher Standards

Early in Jay Greene’s book, EDUCATION MYTHS, which is basically a blast at public education, he mentions as fact something that teachers know is a myth: parents want schools to set higher standards for their children. In fact, I would argue that a major reason that the standards of public schools aren’t higher is that we try so hard to give the parents and other people in our communities exactly what they want.

In my book, I have a section called "The American People Blah, Blah, Blah." I wrote it during the political campaigns of 2004 because that’s what I felt like I was hearing anytime I heard a politician talk about education in America. They would say things like, "The American people demand that our schools have high standards," or, "The education of our children is the highest priority for the American people." These politicians and people like Greene make it sound as if the public in general, and parents in particular, are willing to do anything it takes to bring about a better education for our nation's children. The implication is that any educational problems we have are the schools’ fault. Teachers and administrators just aren’t working hard enough. We’re not doing what "the American people" want. Baloney! (I would use a different word that begins with B, but it would seem unprofessional.)

When it comes to supporting education, my community is better than average, but there is no way that it fits the scenario painted by those politicians or Jay Greene. Let’s take my school’s attendance policy as an example.

Quite frankly, I think our school has done a lousy job with this, but that’s because we’ve been losing the battle to parents. I don’t know how many kids in our high school missed 25 or more days of school this year, but it was a lot. They missed so much because their parents consistently write notes for them, and our school didn’t have the guts to tell them "No!" nearly as often as we should have.

Some of the parents who write all these notes are lousy parents, but that’s not always the case. We have tried having policies to deal with our problem, and sometimes it has been parents of some of our best students who have undercut those policies. We used to have a 10 day limit on absences for a semester that worked pretty well, but then an influential member of our community who wanted to take his daughters on a cruise protested, and the policy turned to mush. In March and April, I had four different girls, all of whom were good students, take two full weeks off from school to go to Hawaii with full approval from their parents. Now to me, that is not exactly demanding high attendance standards.

And it isn’t just attendance. When I first started teaching in Warroad after fifteen years of teaching in Mt. Iron, Minnesota, I came with strict policies for cheating and for leaving the room during class. I was forced to back off of both after a firestorm of protest from parents. One of the parents was a school board member who was so irate that he went in and actually started pounding on the principal’s desk. (One lesson I learned from this was that parents are much more willing to challenge a teacher who is new to a district than a fifteen year veteran.)

Demanding high standards? I have worked with a lot of parents of special education kids over the years, and most of them are pretty good, but some of them aren’t. I have sat in on IEP meetings where parents "knew their rights," and demanded the lowest possible standards for their kids. And it’s not just parents of special education kids. Higher standards would almost certainly mean more homework for students. Do you think parents who have their kids working during the school year want that? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the employer in a neighboring community, who encouraged his teenaged workers to skip their afternoon classes so they could work more, would want that, either.

Despite my negativity here, I know there are a lot of good parents out there. I know there are parents who support everything our school tries to do, and everything I try to do. But please don’t tell me that the public and parents are all demanding high standards. Every teacher knows that whenever schools try to raise any standards, some parents will fight us every step of the way.


Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

With all due respect, I don't think you've made the case that parents oppose higher standards. I know parents across all socioeconomic strata. I've never heard a parent complain that standards are too high. I've heard many complain that standards are too low.

Parents do have rights. And with those rights comes responsibility.

Granted, some parents can be a pain in the neck. When you choose to work in the public sector, it goes without saying that you will encounter difficult people. Please don't characterize all parents (or the public in general) as enemies just because of a noisy minority of folks who would test the patience of Job.

6/05/2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, I think you and I just disagree on this one. I should add that I have no doubt about your sincerity. I believe you really do want high standards, and if I started suggesting specifics, my guess is that you would say, "Yes! Go for it." And you are not alone, there are other parents out there like you. Nevertheless, in my experience, I've found that the public in general and most parents are not that way.

If asked the general question, "Should public schools have higher standards?" I have no doubt that nearly every parent would anwer, "Yes." The problem comes when you get specific, like our attendance policy that I used as an example. Many people support higher standards right up until the time that it means their child might get a lower grade, or right up until it becomes inconvenient for their family (like the prominent member of our community who wanted to take his daughters on a cruise.)

I would maintain, as I indicated in the first paragraph of my post, that communities tend to get from their schools exactly the standards that they want. If they want higher standards, the school will raise them. If they don't, and the school tries to raise them anyway, the public will rebel, and the school will back down.

This is perfectly natural in a democratic society. School districts are often trying to pass referendums, and they know they haven't got a chance if they do things that parents don't want. That's why our attendance policy has been turned to mush--we're so afraid of upsetting too many people, especially the wrong people.

6/05/2006 1:00 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis: I want to make sure we're using the same definition for "standards." When I use the term, I'm talking about academic or content standards. As you know, content standards indicate what children are expected to know and be able to do in each academic area (reading, math, science and social studies, for instance).

I may be wrong, but you seem to be factoring in district policy since you mention issues such as attendance. If you're talking about district policy, I tend to agree with you. But when it comes to content, I really don't think any parent wants their child to have mediocre skills in reading and math.

You may argue that a district can't have high standards in core areas if its policies on attendance leave something to be desired. But inasmuch as schools lose funding every time a child misses school, I doubt if a district will allow its attendance policy to be too lax, but I'm sure your expectations in this area are higher - a reflection of the days when you and I were children.

Frankly, I strongly favor a longer school year. Three months off in the summer - what a waste.

When it comes to other areas, such as cheating, I'm 100% behind you. Shame on that school board member for bullying the principal!

Should you care to comment further, I'll let you have the last word on this. :-)

6/05/2006 2:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Since I responded to your first comment, I've been thinking a lot about when I first came to Warroad. I was coming from another school, and of course, after 15 years there I had developed ways of doing things. My first few months here were miserable. I came here a very confident veteran teacher, and within a month that confidence was destroyed. You may have trouble believing this, DCS, but the major problem was that my standards were too high. It wasn't just cheating, and allowing kids out of the room; it was everything. By my seventh year, I was the district's teacher of the year, but the subject of my teaching came up at every board meeting for the first two or three months I was here. There was one gentleman who met with me and told me to hang in there, and one woman who told me she was praying for me, but other than that, I felt about as well-liked in town as Osama Bin Laden would be in New York City. And it's not that Warroad's a bad place. I'm convinced that it is better than average when it comes to supporting education.

To overcome my situation, I did two things. I worked my backside off, but I also lowered my standards to come down to the expectations of the community. I had to do that to survive. I hope I've slowly brought them back up, but it's hard to say because I do things so differently than I did 15 years ago.

Finally, DCS, you might have trouble buying this, but I don't mean this as an attack on parents. I ended up getting to know the fist pounding board member later on and came to thoroughly like him. And the parent who subverted our attendance policy was a great parent in every other way. His kids have graduated and they come up and hug me every time I see them.

What I am attacking is the idea that parents are demanding higher standards, and schools aren't giving them to them. In my experience, that's just pure hogwash. I have seen a number of instances where teachers or the schools have tried to raise standards and met resistance. I honestly cannot recall one instance of a community demanding that a school I've been part of raise its standards. Never!

And finally, DCS, even though you told me you'd give me the last word, feel free to shoot back if you want to. Heck, Bill O'Reilly does it all the time.

6/05/2006 7:34 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

Perhaps you could change the wording in your myth to read "American politicians want their schools to have higher standards". I'm tired of my profession and the children I teach being the political football. The ball keeps getting passed around so much that we never get into the endzone. Now I do realize that there are people out there who really care about raising the bar whether they are politicians, education policy makers, parents, or teachers but ponder this for a minute....think about the millions of dollars that have been spent over the last fifteen years, think about all of the revisions, mandates, and standards that have been set. Are we really better off? Have we made tremendous gains? Not really. Why? Could it be that there is a segment of folks who actually profit because our schools are not meeting the bar we have set?

6/05/2006 9:36 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I'm with you EHT! No field has more "reform programs" than education, and no field has had more acronyms to describe them. Here are three of my favorites that I've heard from presenters at various workshops: TYNT=This Year's New Thing; LYNT=Last Year's New Thing. And finally, NCLB. You think it stands for No Child Left Behind, right? Nope. Actually it stands for New Crap Like Before.

6/06/2006 3:25 AM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis: OK, you win. Bill O'Reilly and "New Crap Like Before" - LOL! Also, I agree wholeheartedly with EHT.

6/07/2006 4:24 AM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

I have to say, I agree with you on this one, Dennis.
I've noticed this trend in my school, as well, and it's sad. The school I teach at is considered somewhat prestigious for the area. It's an affluent district, and it pushes students to go for some form of higher education--hopefully ivy league (no stress on the students, obviously ;))
I've noticed though--and commented to other teachers--the number of absences my students take. I had two students who were gone for 1 1/2 weeks for a mission trip (good cause, but take it over winter break). And many more who took an extra week off for Spring Break (we were already given almost a week...) The school thinks nothing of it, and in fact, promotes an indirect way: I told my students who were going to be missing that much school that since it was a preapproved absence, they had to finish their homework beforehand. A parent complained, and funny, the assistant principal told me I had to give this student the same number of days he was gone to make up the assignments. I was livid.
I had a student who cheated. She copied her term paper word-for-word from a website. Because it was a major paper, she failed the quarter. Her father called to ask if there was something I could do. Not a chance.
At the school, we have a higher grading scale (93-100 A...etc.). We pride ourselves on making students work to earn an A. Parents want to lower it. They want to change it to the 90-80-70-60 scale.
Also, check out this post by ms. teacher...

6/08/2006 1:59 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I knew I wasn't the only one who sees this type of thing.

6/08/2006 3:07 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/08/2006 3:08 PM  

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