Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dear College Math Professor

I'm sorry, I truly am.  But it's really not my fault.  Please don't blame me.

I'm truly not incompetent.  I know you must think I am when you get that student in your class who did so well in high school but doesn't seem to know anything about math.  You wonder what the heck is going on down there in high school, why can't those darned teachers teach these kids anything?  Do high school math teachers know any math at all?

We're not incompetent.  We really do know math.  But we operate under an entirely different set of rules than you do.

Hear me out.

See, you might think that the grades I assign should reflect a level of competency and fluency with course material--that a student who gets an A did an exceptional job and has an exceptional grasp of the material, that a student who gets a B did well above average and has a reasonably strong grasp of the material, etc.

Oh, if only that were so.

 Maybe for most students it is that way, but for a small but growing number of students, the grade I assign is sometimes entirely independent of the student's mastery of the material, and I'm required to assign a higher grade than what you and I think the student should receive.  In fact, I'm legally required to assign this higher grade, even if the student can't meet any reasonable standard of competency.  How can this be, you ask?  Well, I don't know about how this works at your level, but here in high school we're hogtied by a federal law that's been effectively stretched and abused; that law is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504 of that law.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was written to protect the rights of those with physical or mental impairments, and to provide training for people with handicaps.  Section 504 of that law specifically requires "reasonable accommodations" in the workplace--or in the classroom--so that the "disabled" can fully participate in all areas of society.  And therein lies the root of our issue.

Now don't get me wrong.  I understand that diabetics need to be allowed a snack in class to control their blood sugar, even though no one else can eat in class.  I understand that an obese kid won't be able to walk across campus in our 5-minute passing period and will need extra time to get to class.  I understand that an asthmatic needs to be allowed to carry his inhaler with him, even though we don't generally allow students to carry prescription medicines around with them.  I understand that students who are hard of hearing, or with vision impairments, might need to sit near the teacher at all times.  And if that's all we were talking about when it comes to Section 504, then grades wouldn't be an issue, and you wouldn't think I'm a dolt.

But wait.  Included in the definitions is one small phrase about  the law's applicability to students with specifically designated learning disabilities.

Now can you see the problem?  Can you see the potential for abuse?

I'm here to tell you that it's not potential, it's here.  It's abused.  It's chronic.  It's gross.

And I'm just a lowly minion who's told what to do and threatened with federal sanctions (and lawsuits and disciplinary action) if I don't comply.  If I don't give certain grades, the entire weight of the federal government comes down upon me.

All it takes to get a "504 Plan" is one doctor to say a child has a problem, and voila!  A "504 Plan", as it's called, and a cushy ticket to A-grade-town.  Even high school students--they could have been seen by a doctor in 2nd grade, and if that doctor said they have ADD or "oppositional defiance disorder" or a "sequencing issue" or "verbal processing difficulties" or "dyscalculia" or whatever, then here's what happens.  School officials--sometimes in consultation with a teacher, often not--meet and come up with a "plan" that will bypass the student's disability and get the student Stanford-ready--a silver bullet!--and then that "plan" is imposed upon the teacher who will, since it has the force of federal law behind it, enforce it to the letter or face severe sanction.  And that plan will periodically get updated as the student gets older, but no parent in his or her right mind is ever going to have accommodations removed from this "plan"--they like seeing high grades on report cards, and don't want to accept that their kid isn't truly as capable as they want them to be--so what happens is that as time goes on, even more requirements are imposed on teachers.  Eventually, these requirements become educationally unsound, but as a teacher I'm still required to obey them.  Often these requirements involve how I assess the student's knowledge, and sometimes they even impose specific grading requirements.

Again, don't get me wrong, I'm all for helping students who need help.  What I'm against is having to assign a grade--and most people, especially my fellow educators, interpret a grade as indicating some level of course mastery--that in no way reflects mastery or knowledge at all.  And what's worse, there's no way to indicate that the student got that grade because of excessive accommodations.  When your university admissions team looks at that student's transcript, they see great grades and everything is wonderful.

When you get the student and they can't do anything in your class, you might wonder how this student ever passed the math classes required for university admission.  You'll think I'm incompetent--how could this student, who knows nothing, earn such grades in a math class that's an entry ticket to college?

Please, don't blame me.  And don't think of this as reflecting on my integrity as a teacher.  I have to console myself with the thought that I'm merely an arm of the state in this case; the grade is not a reflection of me, my beliefs, my teaching ability, or of my assessment of the student's abilities.  No, in too many of these 504 cases the grade merely reflects what those above me, and those who came before me, want me to put on that transcript.

Yes, that belief structure is the same heartless one we hear all too often, "I'm just doing what I'm told, just doing my job."

Well, now that kid's your problem.  We both know this isn't right.  I hope you fare better than I did in this battle.

And lest anyone think I'm violating confidences here, this is not about any particular student or any particular event.  This is not a venting caused by any recent student, parent, administrator, or 504 Plan imposed upon me.  This is truly just a general venting on a topic about which I'm very passionate because it is abused so much.

Update, 12/15/12: On a related note:
Eighteen-year-old Jared DeWeese is severely disabled. He cannot walk, talk, read or write. Nevertheless, WSB-TV reports, he is receiving straight A’s in several courses, including algebra, biology and world history at a school in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Now, Jared’s father, Wes DeWeese, is publicly questioning exactly how such a feat is possible, given his son’s limited aptitude and cognitive skills.

“My wife and I were pretty astounded,” Wes DeWeese told WSB-TV. “Glad he’s getting 90s and 100s. But he can’t do any of these. He has the mental capacity of a six-month-old.”
What is the explanation?  It's quite similar to the explanation for including educationally unsound requirements in 504 Plans:
A spokesperson for Gwinnett County Schools, Sloan Roach, said that the district is merely following the Georgia Department of Education’s policies and regulations. Those regulations require schools to provide students with disabilities — no matter how severe — access to the same academic courses other students take.

“We take those courses you see other students taking and we adapt those courses,” Roach told WSB-TV.

Roach added that students with disabilities, such as Jared, are graded based on “participation” with the curriculum.


Happy Elf Mom said...

I have a child with an IEP who cannot read. He failed Algebra the first time around because (duh) he cannot read the textbook. He passed just fine this last time because someone read to him and he was allowed extra time on tests.

I don't know how it is in your school, but in ours, several classes have a regular and "basic" level. My son is taking the "basic" and if he ever wished to go to college (he obviously doesn't, just because he can't read well doesn't mean he's dopey enough to think he can keep up), it would be obvious to who-ever is looking at his transcript that these are not the usual classes.

I had no idea that a 504 made things so easy! In all our parent advocacy-type meetings with outside agencies, they seem to feel an IEP is better than a 504 almost always. Hm.

Darren said...

My experiences with IEPs indicate that they are not abused as much as 504's are. IEPs are for kids who are identified as special education--to be blunt, their disabilities are more "real". 504's are abused so that kids without genuine disabilities, or kids who *should* be special ed but whose parents can't tolerate that designation, get services they otherwise wouldn't.

Unknown said...

There is no group of parents with whom I have dealt in my teaching career that is more annoying, demanding, smug, and entitled than parents whose child has a 504. I have never seen anything like it.

maxutils said...

First . . . unless the law has changed, you CAN indicate a grade was based on modifications . . . that said, IEPs come from 504s. And they are VERY much overused, Happy ElfMom. Especially for ADD and ADHD, to get students extra time for tests . . . they might be slightly harder to get in CA than a marijuana card, but not much. My experience, though, is that the students are not deserving of the IEP or 504 plan don't pass, anyway. Maybe the courtesy D-, but not the C they need to move on. The ones who truly have disabilities make up for it with effort . . . and the modification is usually just extra time. Or, in the case of one of my former students, having the word problems read to him, after he completed the purely numeric ones in class, because he had dyslexia. I agree with timed tests, but if the student can do the problems, they know their stuff. If they can't, you can give them a week.

Ellen K said...

IEP's are legal documents and by Federal law must be followed to the letter. This is why a student who as recently as last summer was in a mental health hospital, was allowed for two months to terrorize entire classes with impunity because he could not read and the IEP designated reading program was not available due to be extremely outdated. The new normal is that instead of pull outs or sheltered classes for severely challenged students, resource teachers go into the classroom and teach the material to that one student at the same time the classroom teacher is introducing material. This is distracting and often leads to more confusion. We have seriously disabled students, not merely kids who cannot read, placed in general ed classrooms, often without any aides, and the teachers MUST address the needs of those students before they teach anyone else for fear of being sued. A class for electives can often be up to one third filled with students on IEP's ranging from as mild as extended time to pages and pages of specific modification and accommodation standards. Recently a teacher near me had to call administrators when a student who is Downs Syndrome and bipolar (and who eats clay or glue if she can) was having a meltdown worthy of a two year old. What is the chance that any of those regular ed students are going to feel more compassionate after having their classes repeatedly disrupted in this manner? And how many of those students will ever take the elective again since it is viewed as a type of dumping ground for the disabled? Please understand, I have a son who is dyslexic and ADD. I get that some students have special needs. But when we are wheeling in kids for American Sign Language classes who cannot move their arms or putting kids who cannot read or write into foreign language classes just to make numbers look good, we are doing these students, and their peers, no favors.

Anonymous said...

I teach math at the college level, but I've also taught at the high school level, though it has been a few years. Your title caught my attention.

First, let me say that I'm quite sure there is plenty of room for improvement with respect to my own work, and the probably the work of my colleagues, as well. More to it, though the test we use for placement is well-established, administered to tens of thousands of students here in CA annually, and our cutoff scores are vetted in an elaborate process, it could also be improved on. It's far from being perfect. So I'm not suggesting that we're totally squared-away in higher education (rather, the opposite is true).

In addition, I have friends who currently work in K-12 middle school and high school classrooms teaching math, and I'm aware of the issues they struggle with: indifferent/incompetent administrators, a system which doesn't always appreciate instructors who have high standards, and so forth.

That said, the issue you raise-- abuse of the system for handling kids with special needs-- is a problem, even at my campus, but it seems to me to be of lesser importance than a parallel issue, which is students graduating from high school who really don't seem to know much mathematics at all.

At my campus, it's routine to see students fresh off the boat from K-12 come in and place far below where they should be, based on their transcripts. For example, it's quite common for a student who passed algebra II in high school to place into our equivalent of algebra I (we call it elementary or beginning algebra), or even pre-algebra.

If you look at the breakdown of where we place incoming students-- based on their placement test scores-- only about 10% are ready for prime-time (i.e., ready for college-level mathematics). About 30% are placed into pre-algebra, 30% are placed into beginning algebra, and 30% are placed into intermediate algebra (our equivalent of algebra II).

As a taxpayer, I'm ambivalent towards this situation. On one hand, I'm very thankful for my job, which I generally enjoy. On the other, I find it appalling that I am taxed so heavily in this state to support this wasteful system which spends so much money to teach and reteach (and reteach and reteach) the same material. One dirty little secret of remedial higher education is that the attrition rate in these developmental math courses is extremely high, so it is quite common for the students to attempt the classes two or three times before succeeding, if they ever succeed. I'm working on my grades today, and it's a depressing process, as it always is.

It's depressing for the students, as well, since the lower they place, the lower the probability that they'll ever make it to transfer level mathematics. Say that the probability of passing a developmental math course is 50%. If the student starts three levels below transfer level (pre-algebra), the probability that they'll make it to transfer level is no more than (0.5^3), or 0.125. The data bears me out on this.

Continued in part 2...

Anonymous said...

Continued from part 1:

I have some ideas about how to address this, but I have no power to implement them, and I'm skeptical that I'll see any real improvement in the situation before I retire in 25 years or so.

Regarding the issue raised by Darren, the same problem exists on college campuses everywhere. As the father of an autistic, I totally agree with a coworker who describes students that "catch a disability" when they go to the disabled students office at my campus, which is partially funded on the basis of how many they serve. I'm not an expert, but I've heard descriptions of how they assess whether a student has a disability, and from what I heard, the process is laughable.

The disabled students office at my campus is regarded by many instructors (myself included) as a place where many students go to cheat on their exams, since they are allowed to take them with minimal supervision.

So in other words, Darren, there's no need to apologize. We have the same problem, more or less.

Dean Baird said...

Darren said:
"What I'm against is having to assign a grade ... that in no way reflects mastery or knowledge at all."

I've never done this nor have I ever felt pressured to do this. Nor have I ever been threatened with consequences for having run afoul of federal law.

No 504 plan that I'm aware of required assignment of a grade not earned. Ever. Some demand extra time for tests; some require a quiet environment for test-taking. None of them require marking a grade that does not accurately reflect student performance.

It's as if we teach at different schools in different districts in different states. But I do not know how that could be.

In my experience, the kind of 504 plan you describe simply does not exist.

Darren said...

Count yourself lucky.

Mike43 said...

My father-in-law is a tenured professor who deals with the same issues at his university. When testifying to the state legislature, they asked what could be done about it.

He suggested that the universities be allowed to back bill the school districts for remedial courses.

Made headlines for one day, a lot of screaming calls, a concerted lobbying effort by the school districts, and finally dismissed as unworkable.

Next time he testified, he told them then don't yell at the universities when we complain that 30% of of their budget was spent on remediation.