Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Misunderstanding of the Problem

Yesterday I wrote about the drop in both NAEP and ACT scores, and I dinged teachers for inflating student grades and GPA's while objective performance slips.  Grades are entirely within the purview of the teacher.

The drop in performance, though, isn't entirely the responsibility of teachers:
Johnny can't read, or write, do math, or think. But teachers are demanding more and more money and resources that strapped school districts around the country can't pay.

The question is why. Recent standardized test scores not only don't show any improvement, they show kids are regressing. And with recent strikes in Denver, West Virginia, and the ongoing strike in Chicago, that question takes on a new urgency.

Why should teachers get more money with scores like this?
I assert that very little of that drop in student performance is the responsibility of the teachers.  Yes, some teachers do some very dumb things, and yes, some teachers learn some very dumb things in ed school (and hopefully unlearn some of them when reality hits them in the classroom).  However--and some of you aren't going to like this--the largest reason student performance is dropping is because of parents.

Teachers are people, too.  We respond both to incentives and disincentives.  There are some very bad disincentives out in the world, and while I like to choose the harder right over the easier wrong, not everyone does.  Teachers who give out lots of high grades are popular with both students and parents.  If Tough Teacher holds the line, it's the parents who try to get their children into Easy Teacher's class.  It's the parents who harangue the principal.  It's the parents who want to penalize Tough Teacher for holding high standards.  It's the parents who try to lay a guilt trip that Baby will no longer be able to get into Stanford--all because of Tough Teacher!  It's the parents who try to convince the school board to order Baby's grade changed because Tough Teacher is just a meanie and doesn't have children's best interests at heart and probably isn't competent anyway and...well, you get the idea.  It's the parents who bring their attorneys to conferences to intimidate, and threaten lawsuits when they don't get their way--when a teacher insists on rigorous and defensible standards.

It's the parents who buy their kids smart phones instead of simple communication devices.  It's the parents who don't ensure their children get enough sleep--and in bed with the phone within reach doesn't count.  It's the parents who overschedule their children, or, as the children get older, allow the children to overschedule themselves.  It's the parents who put athletics and other extracurricular activities higher in the pecking order than academics--and expect teachers to accommodate that by making the courses easier.  It's the parents who seek out 504 Plans specifically so their children can get extra time on college entrance exams.  It's the parents who ratchet up this academic arms race.

I'll agree that, with very few exceptions, if Baby can't multiply by the time he/she gets to high school, there is a systemic issue involved--and teachers are a part of that problematic system.  But that isn't the majority of the drop in student performance.  Honestly, that drop in student performance comes from a lack of emphasis.  How long do students spend on assignments?  What fraction of assignments are never completed or turned in?  What excuses are offered?

It's the parents (and the rest of the community) that elect the school board that tells teachers what they're supposed to do.  Yes, school boards adopt horrible curricula and require teachers to do some things that are blatantly insane (Seattle's recent "math is racist" framework comes to mind).  I'd swear that each textbook adoption we go through in my district, both the process and the textbooks get worse and worse.  That's definitely a part of the issue.  But once the (crappy) curriculum is decided upon, teachers should teach and students should learn.  Grades and GPA's aren't going up because teachers think students are better and better prepared as the years go by, they go up because of the pressure parents put on schools--pressure to make Baby look better, not be better. 

And don't even get me started on Special Education, wherein teachers are required to give passing grades to students in some classes.  It's not because teachers want to give out grades like candy.

Sometimes the problems are bigger than the teacher, bigger than the parents, bigger than the school, bigger than the district:
For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a federally mandated test given every other year in reading and mathematics to students in grades four and eight. (Periodically it also tests other subjects and grade levels.) In the latest results, released Wednesday, American students slid yet again on nearly every measure.
The author of the first linked article suggests teachers don't deserve pay raises because student performance on standardized tests is dropping.  I'd suggest that the author is misunderstanding the problem, BIG TIME.

(P.S.  No, nothing happened today at school to set me off on this rant.  I merely saw the comment about pay and student performance and it hit a raw nerve.  Nothing more.)
(P.P.S.  If you're a parent and this post doesn't describe you, then don't take it personally--it's not directed to you.  If you see yourself in this post, though, perhaps you'll be open-minded enough to consider what I've said.)


Ellen K said...

All of this is true.
All of this is why I retired early.
The expectation of many parents that teachers can take a student who doesn't show up, doesn't care, doesn't do the work and turn them into a scholar is a a joke. I probably could have taken the interactions with lackadaisical students, but it was the parent meetings, with parents who wanted me to cut slack, to allow students to be "free" and to disregard the workplace that beat me down. Add to that administrators who didn't back me up.
Just like cops, teachers have huge targets on them. I don't know what to say when I see good teachers struggle economically while marginal teachers (and coaches)are paid so much more for playing the game.

lgm said...

Perhaps in your locale that's all true.

Here the drop in performance is due to admin decision on full inclusion. Parents 'interested in education' must purchase prep books for Regents classes, as the teachers are being honest up front that the entire course objectives will not be presented in class, as they must get the ENL and SN subgroup to pass -- so class time will be on core basic only. There are no textbooks, so students cannot read the missing material unless the parents buy it for them. Lets just say I love - those kind math teachers saved me a lot of time and allowed me to quickly flip thru my Dolciani texts and have my children do the missing material for each Regents math course. The rest of it is just reading, and there are plenty of used textbooks and SAT prep books available to fill in the science and English units that are omitted.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about other states, but here in Ohio, all and I mean ALL juniors take the ACT. If other states are requiring it, of course scores will go down.

guest said...

Harvey Mansfield at Harvard is famous for giving two sets of grades: the one that pleases the students when the see it on their transcript and the grade they actually earned.

Anonymous said...


This is a correct application of economic theory: Grades are a form of wealth, which is "spent" to buy better opportunities in the future. Stanford may--MAY--be willing to adjust for the average GPA at East High versus West High. But they are definitely not going to adjust for the average GPA between Ms. Brown and Mr. Green.

And many schools make no adjustment at all. My kid is applying to college right now and has qualified for many automatic scholarships based solely on her GPA and SAT. If she had the same top-10% rank and a 3.0 GPA, she would not qualify.

From an economic angle, teachers who give lower grades than their peers are economically disadvantaging their students. It's like being an employer who pays less: yes, the high pay creates inflation, but you're still worse than other folks. And all else being equal (or more accurately, "all else appearing equal to students who lack the information and knowledge to assess the true differences") it makes perfect sense to select the higher-grading teacher.

There's not much to be done about it, other than to accept that it will merely drive folks to rely more on quasi-neutral things like the SAT.

Personally, I think that all school districts should have, and enforce, explicit policies about grade distributions. As I'm sure you know, many teachers are clueless when it comes to stats, and there's no fairness in the "Mr. Green and Ms. White are randomly assigned" outcome.

Darren said...

This wasn't a post about which teachers grade easier, it's a post about why student achievement is dropping and why parents have a lot of responsibility for it.