Thursday, October 11, 2007

Whose Fault Is It?

Perhaps a better question would be, how do we resolve this dilemma?

A fellow teacher participated in an interesting conversation this past week, and she shared it with me while we took a few laps around the track to clear our heads. It's long been a complaint of high school teachers that junior high teachers aren't adequately preparing their students, especially in math. However, when you look at standardized test scores for freshmen arriving at our school, a large number of them are categorized as "proficient". What gives?

Some might say that perhaps our teachers aren't that good, but we have plenty of objective evidence that we are. Our AP teachers consistently get extremely good results--and I do mean extremely good results--from our students on AP tests. At various times I've been able to compare my Algebra 1 and/or 2 students to others in the district, and my students fare favorably. Our geometry scores have risen nicely the past few years. I know our math teachers, and I know how competent they are--honestly, and I say this without any reservation, we don't have a bad one in the bunch at my school. And I can recognize bad ones, as I've worked with some before. And these aren't bad. Not even close.

So what gives? There are several possibilities.

One is that our teachers aren't very good. I was willing to entertain that thought, but after considering it in depth, I don't think that's the issue. Even if we have one teacher who isn't the strongest, all our teachers are at least competent, and mostly more so. Again, I say that honestly. I have no reason to lie here.

Another possibility is that the best students are used to cruising through school without much effort, and unless you're an Einstein, that's not going to continue at our school! So the freshmen take some time adjusting to new standards.

Another possibility is the high school culture. Junior highs are much more "nurturing" and accommodating of mistakes; students get several chances to correct their mistakes. In high school, they're expected to be much more independent, much more responsible for themselves. That doesn't mean we're cold and heartless--at my school, nothing could be further from the truth. But in many cases, flunking a test means flunking a test, without the chance to take it over to get a better grade. In other words, freshmen experience a culture shock when leaving an environment where adults supervise them to the nth degree and arriving in an environment where they're expected operate with significantly less supervision.

Yet another possibility is that students, particularly freshmen, take a significant number of AP/honors/advanced courses, and aren't prepared for the workload.

And there's also the possibility, another one I'm not yet prepared to accept, that standards for lower math courses don't adequately prepare students for upper math courses.

And lastly, there's the anti-testing argument that says that the tests don't tell us what we'd like to think they tell us.

So there are all the reasons I've been able to come up with. Might there be others? I'm sure the actual reason is some combination of the the ones listed above, along with some others not yet listed.

So we don't think our freshmen come to us as prepared as they should. Where does the fault lie?


Anonymous said...

I'm not a teacher and being Canadian puts me in a boat further from shore in regards to how American schools function but I have heard the same argument from teachers here.

Many feel that the level they need students to enter college or university from the high school level is insufficient due to the work load not being up to par.

How I personally felt while in high school was that the teachers who taught the various math and science curriculum were oriented to teach larger classes with "one-size-fits-all" lesson plans which in effect left some students lagging behind the others.

Dan Edwards said...

IMO, part of what you are seeing is the result of social promotion.
I have 7th Graders who cannot do basic, simple addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, much less deal with fractions, decimals, ratio, etc. Why should they? They don't learn their "times tables". Why should they? It is not like they will repeat the grade until they learn the curriculum. Likewise, they can't read either. The majority of my students are comfortable reading at Grade 3-5 levels......and thanks to open court and its ilk, they can't figure out textbook reading. Oh, but they are from economically disadvantaged families. They are from families with no father. They are from a certain ethnic background.

They are certain to fail. No one holds them accountable. Yet, teachers are accountable. Teachers cannot force them to stay after school to get help with their deficiencies.

You are in a "better" school district. What is it like over in West Sac? Up in Folsum? In Sac. City Public Schools ? In Rio Vista ? In Modesto ? In Oakland ? In Fresno ? In San Bernardino ? In Coachella ? In Phoenix ? In Denver ? In just about anyplace......

Darren said...

Why do you ask, Polski? Looking for a change of scenery? :-)

W.R. Chandler said...

Polski stole my thunder, but I was also going to say that social promotion is a big culprit. I have quite a few 8th grade students who failed my class every trimester last year when they were in 7th grade, and for some of them, I mean failed: 15, 20, 25%. Yet, like I just said, they are now my 8th grade students.

The worst part is that these kids KNOW they will be passed on; I hear them talking sometimes. They figure why should they do their homework or try to learn anything if they are just going to be moved on to the next grade anyway. Unless there is a parent breathing down their neck at home, some of these students are unfortunately a lost cause, because they absolutely refuse to work or learn anything, because no one is holding them accountable.

Darren said...

But are those students scoring "proficient" on statewide tests? If so, then we've identified the problem. If not, then it's still ou there.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

I'm going to join the "social promotion" chorus here. I have seventh graders who have been socially promoted several times, who know (and will willingly admit) that they don't have to do anything and they'll get promoted, kids who are just sucking in oxygen. Every year my team would like to retain a number of kids and every year we don't because we aren't allowed to. The theory is that "we'll catch up with them in high school". Sorry, but by then, it's too late.

In addition, there's a huge disconnect between what the state considers to be proficient (30%) and what the state considers to be a passing grade (70%). So a kid can be proficient across the board, but still be non academically promoted. That's just plain stupid.

allenm said...

Fordham Foundation released a report, "The Proficiency Illusion" and from it I quote:

* Eighth-grade tests are sharply harder to pass in most states than those in earlier grades (even after taking into account obvious differences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).

to the report


And there's also the possibility, another one I'm not yet prepared to accept, that standards for lower math courses don't adequately prepare students for upper math courses. supported by some evidence.

My variation on this:

One is that our teachers aren't very good. that they don't have to be. Good, that is.

Receiving essentially zero organizational feedback the only reason to excel comes from internal resources and the gratitude of parents.

That's not valueless but the notion that teachers can't be motivated by more concrete rewards then those that are traditional is nonsense.

Darren said...

So in some states, it's possible to be "proficient" and still not know anything? I wonder if that's the case here in California....

Anonymous said...

Just a quick side point here, but suggesting that tests, particularly the politically mandated mandatory type, don't measure what they purport to measure, or that the data from a given test is of limited utility isn't anti-testing. One might be forgiven for believing that it's merely realistic. Tests surely have their place in education and in life. It is when we exceed their limitations that we have difficulties.

A large part of the problem is that school, on all levels, but particularly high school, has a far larger social component that many would like to admit, and that social component has only enlarged over the years to the point that it is the tail that wags the dog in many districts. Our schools don't exist for the sole purpose of education and never have. As other than educational motivations have displaced education, should we be surprised when performance, particularly as measured by politically mandated instruments that ignore the reality of education doesn't comport well with the reality that they ignore?

Dan Edwards said...

No, I am not looking to move.....But if social promotion is a problem at a "better" school district ( ie: higher socio-economic level community, well employed, educated parents, higher expectations that many students will want to achieve to be on par with their peers....), what is it like in school districts with high minority, dominent second language /culture, low socio-economics, uneducated, low wage earning parents ?

No, Darren, I'd say you are probably teaching in one of the top 10% school districts in California. Many of us are teaching in bottom 25% school districts where if a teacher, usually anglo, says a child needs to be retained and goes through the huge bureaucratic pile of crap needed to do actually retain a student, they are considered to be: a) racist b) a poor teacher c) causing problems/extra work for admin. d) hurting that child's self-esteem

Darren said...

I understand, Polski, I was just messing with you.

I attended a nearby school district, and taught my first 4 years in that same district. I know exactly what you mean.

Still, if social promotion is the only cause, how could those students score proficient in jr. high?

Ellen K said...

Two Words: Helicopter Parents. Hear me out here. We have a society that supports the concept of non-failure. I get freshmen who are, and I am sorry to say this, almost gibbering idiots, who cannot think, will not read and write only under duress. Their parents, by and large, support this lifestyle by purchasing so much junk and providing so much entertainment that the drudgery of learning pales in comparison. Luckily for me, this isn't true of all kids. In every group there's a few shining stars who have plans beyond the next weekend's beerbus, rave, party or whatever. But too many parents are unwilling to allow their children to learn from failure. They want safety nets, provisions and guarantees that no matter how obnoxious, absent, lackadaisical or simply ignorant their child may be, that glowing success is on the horizon. If you want proof of this argument, walk into any Resource English or Math class and ask the students what they are doing after high school. Even the most marginal of students will parrot out that they are going to college. And because we favor college over trade schools, and in fact are removing more vocational programs out of the educational setting, we end up with kids who would be wonderful electricians, terrific plumbers and boffo construction workers that are languishing in remedial college level programs until they are asked to leave. Sadder still are the kids who qualify for a four year university, but who spend most of their time and their parents money doing nothing productive. They take away class space, dorm space, time and effort from kids that give a flip and who are there for the education.