Monday, September 19, 2022

What A Messed Up System

After school today I was talking to a couple of teachers and a counselor, and the counselor said that she'd really like to be a fly on the wall during one of our math department meetings.  I asked why she didn't just come, that we'd love to have a counselor there.  From there the conversation veered to why she would want to attend--so she could explain, for example, why the counselors sometimes put students who haven't yet passed Integrated Math 1 (the 9th grade level math class) into an Integrated Math 2 class.

Here's the logic:  California requires students to pass 2 years of math, including either Algebra 1 (traditional track) or Integrated 1 (integrated track), in order to graduate.  A few years ago our school board decided that for students to graduate from our district, they should pass 3 years of math including at least Integrated 2.  A student who has failed Integrated 1 multiple times, for example, could take Integrated 1 in a "credit recovery" course and, if they pass that and Integrated 2 (and another class), they could graduate on time.

Another math teacher and I scoffed at that logic, and the counselor replied, "What else are we supposed to do?"

A lengthy give and take ensued.  We math teachers explained how, in Integrated 2, we don't teach Integrated 1 topics, that we assume they've already been taught and move on and cover the Integrated 2 topics.  Sure, there might be a brief review sometimes, but the days of "spiraling back" are gone; now, we endeavor to teach to mastery and then move on.  A student who doesn't know Integrated 1 material will not be able to do Integrated 2 material simply because they don't have the background knowledge.

Math is not like history.  If a student learned nothing about the American Revolution, he or she can still learn about the American Civil War.  The former is not a prerequisite for learning the latter.  Math, however, is different, and prior skills and knowledge are necessary for learning and understanding later material.  

Thus, a student who has not passed Integrated 1 doesn't have the skills or knowledge to succeed in Integrated 2.  In fact, it's a horrible thing to do to a child, to put him or her in a class he or she is destined to fail.

We came back to the question, What else are we (counselors) supposed to do?  What interventions do we have?

Our answer was multi-faceted.  First, our counselors need to accept that they are not responsible for students' graduating.  A student who failed Integrated 1 multiple times, for example, most likely has several more failures on the transcript.  And even if they don't, it's the student's responsibility to pass a class, not the teacher's and certainly not a counselor's.  What is a counselor supposed to do in such a situation?  Ensure the student knows the requirements for graduation, and if they don't meet them, to let the student know about our district's Adult Education program.

It's a common refrain in education against strict lecturing--if you're doing most of the talking, the kids aren't learning.  The students need to be involved in their own learning.  I say the same thing for our counselors--if we adults care more about a student's graduating than the student does, if we adults are doing more to get a kid to graduate than the kid does, then that situation is out of whack.  But that's exactly what education is like today.  Kids aren't doing well--what are you going to do about that, teacher?  Around a decade ago, math scores in this country stopped going up--about the same time Common Core standards were adopted by most states.  We've changed how we teach--guide on the side, not sage on the stage; stop giving so much homework; change from traditional courses to integrated courses; focus on race; do group learning--and scores were flat.  They started dropping again after the 'rona shutdowns.  We kept focusing on the teacher input, to no avail.  Not focusing on the student side of the equation seems like a serious omission, doesn't it?

This brought us to the topic of what supports and/or interventions do we have?  In addition to before-school tutoring, lunchtime tutoring, and after-school tutoring, we also have a "credit recovery" program.  When it was asked why we didn't have other courses, we said flatly, "They haven't worked."  We used to have a Math Foundations (way below grade level) class, it wasn't shown to help students pass Integrated 1.  We used to have a Support class that students took concurrently with Integrated 1, it wasn't shown to help students pass Integrated 1.  Long before we switched to the integrated track we had a pre-algebra course, it wasn't shown to help students pass Algebra 1.  We split Algebra 1 into a 2-year course, Algebra 1a and 1b, and it wasn't shown to help students pass Algebra 1.  We adults made all these changes, as if we're the party responsible for getting students to pass.  In other words, we expected less and less of students, and we got less and less from them. 

What do we conclude from that?  That our math teachers are incompetent?  Or that some students won't help themselves?  Yes, it's kind of self-serving, but I lean towards Option B.  And our counselors should not shoulder the responsibility of getting a kid to graduate.  They need to keep students informed about the requirements, and help students navigate those requirements--but putting a kid in a class with no preparation, just so we can say "we gave them a change to graduate", is the lousiest of so-called solutions.  It does no service to the failing student.

It would be easy to read this post and conclude I want students to fail.  Anyone who's read more than a few of my posts knows I'm a conscientious teacher who takes my job seriously.  I'm reflective about the work I do and constantly seek out ways I can do my job better.  None of that, however, detracts from a student's responsibility to learn something and demonstrate that learning.  I'll be blunt--we don't expect much in the way of learning in order to get a diploma.  In fact, I'd say you have to try, hard, not to graduate.  Many students go that route, however, and at some point we have to accept that students have a "right" to fail.  And unless we're just going to pass out diplomas like candy, and take away what little meaning they have left, we have to accept that some will fail.  And we cannot wear that as a cross, it's not our burden.  In fact, constantly looking for new ways for adults to lower standards in order to get kids to pass and graduate merely makes it easier for kids to put in less effort and to learn less--and that should not be our goal in education.

Goodhart's Law is in play here.  The focus on graduation rates has made the statistic meaningless.

I don't know for sure how the counselor felt about our discussion at the end of it, but I am quite confident that the suggestions and advice we gave were correct.

Update, 9/20/22:  I failed to include my favorite "get kids to pass" requirement in some schools--the lowest grade you can give on an assignment, even if the student doesn't turn it in, is 50%.  Yes, seriously, that's a thing.


Anna A said...

I agree it is a very messed up situation, especially with what I have read about "credit recovery". I am just saddened by the effects on the students. They are being, sometimes, experimental subjects. And their failure hurts them. (even if part of the reason for failing is their choices)

In my line of work, failure is expected. If a mixture doesn't sometimes fail, you are either very, very lucky or aren't doing much. But I work with chemicals, not people.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Darren, you summed up the situation beautifully. I'm retired now, but the difference between the students and parents in 1971, the year I started to teach, and my second stretch when I returned after a few years out, in 2001, was as you describe. Students seemed to have no responsibility for their learning, everything was supposed to be about the teacher engaging(entertaining?). Don't expect them to read 20 pages of the book we were studying. Don't expect them to write more than a paragraph, and if you can't read their scribbles, it's on you; preposterous to expect them to proofread. Find a way to placate parents, they can't handle truthful assessments of their child's work or behaviors. I do not miss anything except those few students who worked and learned.

Kevin said...

we are having this conversation right now on our campus. Amazing how the same battles are being fought thousands of miles away. Crazy.

Randomizer said...

" First, our counselors need to accept that they are not responsible for students' graduating."

I can imagine the look on the counselor's face. For those who can't imagine, try telling a 6 year-old that there is no Santa Claus.

Any worthwhile accomplishment has to come with the possibility of failure. As a charitable people, we believe that there has to be the possibility of redemption.

Requiring three math classes in four years, leaves room for one failure. Summer school provides more opportunity. If those don't work, then the GED is an option. That was a legit system.

When the graduation rate became an important statistic, getting a student to graduate became the goal. The purposed of education is learning, not getting a diploma. Sometimes not getting a diploma is a learning opportunity.

Education Realist said...

You have correctly outlined the problem, but your solution is unworkable.

"And our counselors should not shoulder the responsibility of getting a kid to graduate. "

They have to. They, and the schools, are assessed and in part funded by graduation rates. You can't ignore this reality.

" It does no service to the failing student."

Yes, it does. There's lots of evidence that the kid who puts together the effort to do credit recovery does better than the dropout.

I don't like it either. But the solution is not to prevent kids from graduating, but to stop pretending that kids should be learning advanced topics.

Darren said...

Algebra 1 is not an advanced topic. I'm not even convinced Geometry is, either, and those are what's included in IM1 and IM2.

I don't think my solution is unworkable. It's politically unpalatable here in California, but only because education is so undervalued.

A "back to basics" approach is what California needs. I wonder if we'll see it in my lifetime. We certainly won't see it in the five or so years I have left in the classroom.

Education Realist said...

Yes, Algebra I and Geometry are advanced topics. Until the last 30 years, the majority of school kids only took those two classes, and many of them didn't take them until their senior year. Go back a hundred years and algebra I was college math. Just because we make more kids learn it doesn't mean they can.

And no, California is not an outlier. The feds penalize states if they have disparate racial outcomes in graduation rates or class transcripts.

I'm all in favor of "back to basics" but that's not what you are calling for. "Back to basics" would mean kids learn what they can and aren't forced into classes just because they are in high school. It would mean kids progress to the full extent of their ability and let them develop skills in, say, arithmetic applications and reading newspapers if that's all they were capable of.

What you're calling for is "flunk kids who can't learn material I think they should be able to learn" and regardless of the merits of your argument, that will never, ever happen.

Clemsondana said...

You have my sympathies. Among the biggest benefits of teaching where I do/have (homeschool co-op, community college class with transfer agreement to state U) is that I can assign the earned grade with no pushback. As to whose responsibility it is to pass, I'll repost this comment that I shared on JJ's blog in the thread about the K shaped curve. I think there is potential in intervening early, before kids get far behind, convince themselves that they are too stupid to do it, and give up. Even then, motiviation matters, but it's a bigger deal as students get older. You can teach them, but you can't learn them.

Every time I add something to my course in an effort to help struggling students, the more motivated students who already have As use it and the struggling students don't. I post video lessons that cover the same content as lecture so that students can rewatch anything that confuses them and also recommend other websites. My A students come in asking about small differences in terminology and end up with more advanced content. The struggling students don't take notes in class or watch the extra videos.

When I volunteer to help with homework at a local after-school program, most of the students who come in for 'help' are already doing well. The 2nd grader who can't read is too overwhelmed to do any more work after being frustrated all day at school. They are left with homework that they can't do and no time to focus on the CVC words that they might actually have success with.

Colin D said...

Have you read anything by Andrew Hacker, who argues that we don't need to teach as much math as we currently do? He is especially critical of requiring calculus to pass degrees such as biology or chemistry.

Darren said...

Colin D, I have not heard of Andrew Hacker. I'll have to look him up.

Education Realist, I dispute your characterization of my beliefs. You seem to like to stir the mud a bit in your comments, but I don't welcome it. If you want to challenge what I say, do so, but ascribing to me beliefs I don't have is *not* cool. I absolutely disagree with your characterization of "back to basics"--and indeed, I have some views about what "realist" could mean, but as those views are not germane to our discussion I keep to myself.

Plenty of states, and indeed other countries, expect more than just Algebra 1 to graduate. So no, I don't think Algebra 1 is an unreasonable requirement. My district's 3 years of math just to graduate seems excessive, as does 3 three years of science and two years of foreign language. By "back to basics" I mean that we should have *reasonable* standards and then expect students to reach them without our lowering them. In this post I talked about students who failed Algebra 1/Integrated 1 multiple times to the point where graduation is an impossibility absent the lowering of graduation standards by adults. While I disagree with my district's requirements, their reason for lowering them should be that they're not reasonable--NOT that they should temporarily lower them just so graduation rates won't look so bad.

Education Realist said...

I'm not being snarky. Every state that requires Algebra I is doing the same dance that is happening in your state. Your pushback confirms my characterization of your argument, that you think it's reasonable to require Algebra 1.

It is manifestly not reasonable. SO "back to basics" needs to be lower than Algebra I or we have to change the meaning of high school.

Darren said...

We'll disagree about Algebra 1. It is entirely reasonable as a high school graduation requirement.

My anecdotal experience is that students who don't pass *any* course multiple times usually have more failures than just that course on their transcripts. One individual course is seldom the problem.

What should a diploma signify? I would suggest that it should signify more than a knowledge of what was in my day considered elementary school math--fractions, decimals, percents, and knowledge of the multiplication tables. What do you think a high school graduate should know regarding math?

Ellen K said...

The last three years I taught, I came to dread the emails from counselors thee last three weeks of school asking what a student could do to pass the class. Quite often this request came after pressure from administrators to get more problem kids out the door to make room for the next set. In many cases these students had behavior problems, attendance problems and their parents were either unwilling to participate as meaningful partners or even respond until the last three weeks of school. I had one student in my class two years, he failed the first time, retook the course and was failing and I was told to make graduation happen for him. This was not a case of me wanting him to fail or even one of not offering help-he simply didn't want to do the work and didn't think he had to. At some point there has to be criteria for getting credit for a course. Sadly with our woke administrators and legislators running things, we are turning out a generation of functional illiterates and calling it good. BTW, did you see this story? Seems legit.

Darren said...

I'll look it up and get some independent verification--but it doesn't surprise me.