Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm not in the camp that reflexively calls schools or teachers bad. I'm in the "culture" camp, believing that schools are a microcosm of the communities they serve and that low-performing schools are low-performing not because their teachers are bad (most probably aren't) but because there's a culture in the community that doesn't value school. Here and there, hither and yon, there are schools that are able to turn out well-educated students despite the odds, but such schools require a Jaime Escalante or a Joe Clark and sadly, educators like them are *not* plentiful or even easy to find.
But I also don't shy away from identifying when schools (and districts) shoot themselves in the foot with stupid ideas or, worse, educational malpractice. My own district is, for change's sake, switching from "American traditional" math in high schools to "integrated math", and that's a disaster waiting to happen. But what I heard today just made my heart melt.
Twice today I heard reference to taking a course online (from a major university west of the Rockies). It's one thing to take California's required "health" class online in order to free up a class in a student's schedule at school, it's another to take a math class online--and the reasons for doing so are painful.
As someone who's busting his hump getting a master's degree in math online, I can tell you that one class a semester takes 1 1/2-2 hours of work per weekday--I'm pretty good at math and I'm motivated to learn, and that's what it takes me. I can scarcely imagine how a math class delivered online could be as good or as effective as one delivered in person.
The first student to talk to me today wants to drop my statistics class at the semester. This student is working very hard and earning a C, and I've made it clear that next semester's curriculum is "mathier". As I said, this student works hard but admits to not being "good at math", and then told me that he/she took Algebra 2 online via the west-of-the-Rockies university in order to pass it.
Later in the day a second student came to tell me that he/she would be dropping my other class at the semester. This student is not earning a passing grade and I'm not surprised that I won't be seeing him/her next semester. What bothers me, though, is that the student then informed me that he/she would be taking the course online via west-of-the-Rockies university. I asked, why take it at all? The reply: I can pass it there.
These are not mere incorrect perceptions. In fact, they're very accurate perceptions--students can pass those online courses, even though they wouldn't stand a chance of passing the "same" class at our school. Our school district knows this, too, and still approves such classes for credit. And note that the first student mentioned above took Algebra 2 there, do you think that's coincidental? Or do you think it's because Algebra 2 is a required class to get into almost every university in the country?
Our school district also has a computerized "credit recovery" program. Like "the miracle of summer school", students who have failed classes--in many cases, failed so many that they'd never graduate on time were it not for credit recovery--can make up their classes via online programs. One of our teachers taught/supervised that program for a semester and refused to do it after that, saying there's no education taking place in that program. I exaggerate only slightly: a student can read a couple things on the computer screen, answer a couple questions on the next screen about what they just read, and voila! Instant education. That's how they "pass". I've seen students make up semesters of failed classes in a month or two and then come back to our school in time to graduate.
So the school district in which I work allows students to bypass the already low bar we have for a high school diploma. It seems that getting students to graduate is far more important than getting them to learn. In effect, we're selling hollowed out and debased credentials. Let me say that again: We're selling. meaningless. credentials.
Would it be better if kids who aren't educated didn't get a diploma? What's the value in a diploma if we give them to everyone?
In this instance my school district participates in educational malpractice. We could, and should, do better.
Update: Now that I think of it, I haven't heard of the credit recovery program this school year. To be honest I don't know if it still exists in our district, I'll find out and update.
Update #2, 12/11/14: Yes, we still have it at our school.