10 June 2008

Shattering (My) Pre-Conceived Notions

In reading the comments generated by my Carnival article when it was posted on En Tequila Es Verdad, I feel the need to write a follow-up article to clarify some of my points, and perhaps give commenters a better idea of my intentions with said article.

Let me begin by making something very clear: I'm a bit of a language snob. I shudder when I see poor, abused apostrophes (particularly on store signs or in movie titles), and roll my eyes at misuses of their, there, and/or they're. I am not claiming to be a perfect linguist by any means, but I do pride myself on having what I consider to be a good grasp of the English language.

That said, I should probably also make you aware of the fact that my article was less an assault on the changing English language constructs and more expressing my frustration at a failing education system. So in this follow-up article, I would like to explain that frustration with American education (or lack thereof) through the lens of English classes, since that seems to be what the administrators at my school do. (More on that later, though.)

At the school from which I recently resigned, I was told many things about how the school curriculum is run. I was warned that Honors classes are "watered down," and that a good portion of my time as a teacher of English would be spent helping my junior students prepare for their science standardized test in the spring. I was also told the curriculum for sophomore English students focused around taking and passing the English writing standardized test. And in the time left, teachers split their time between teaching literature and grammar and taking students to registrations, passing out report cards, and going to assemblies.

I expected the standardized tests. After all, how else can the government decide that a school is doing its job and worthy of receiving any kind of funding except to give every student, regardless of situation, the same test and compare the scores to some national average? I mean, that's the most objective way to evaluate humans, right? Particularly in such objective subject areas as English and social studies?

So teachers, expecting the standardized tests, realize how important the scores are to their jobs, office supplies, and curriculum materials, and not only take the time to explain the test process to their students, but perhaps give them practice tests in preparation, and devote time away from the general curriculum to ensure the students are well prepared to make the school look good, regardless of how the students are actually able to perform.

And as these teachers are spending their time preparing students for the standardized tests, the rest of the curriculum gets sort of lost in the shuffle, and students leave high school able to answer objective questions about reading comprehension, but are unable to tell the difference between their, there, and they're.

Of course, when approached by parents and community members, schools make sure that everyone knows that they do not actually teach to standardized tests, but teach their curriculum, and if it happens to include making sure students are prepared for the tests, well, there you have it.

I expected all this. I did not, however, expect the attitude toward Honors classes I encountered.

I was hired to level classes. That is, I was hired to help offset the overcrowding of some classes. I was fortunate enough (or so I thought at the beginning) to have a full load of Honors classes. And most of the students in my classes were not new to Honors classes. And yet, they were appalled when I told them they'd be expected to read novels outside of our regular reading assignments. In fact, some of the junior students frequently and sullenly informed me that even the AP classes didn't "do so much work." (My response: "Wow. Really? Can you imagine what my AP classes would be like, then?")

These students were encouraged to push themselves academically by enrolling in Honors classes, but once there, they weren't pushed.

I have to be honest with you: this perplexed me. In his piece, "Academia: Grade Inflation," Kaden says:

Now, not too long ago, straight-A students were part of the rare elite, the best-of-the-best valedictorians who seemed to know everything anyone could ever need to. This is because C was actually considered "average". It was the baseline, the starting point. A C was what you used to get when you did an okay job - something that every student should, with only a little effort, be able to achieve. B was above-average. They tried a little bit harder, they studied longer, but a B was a good grade. Bright students were B averages. An A was "exceeding expectations". "A" students went the extra mile. They aced most of the tests, they turned in all the homework, they were early to class every day. It took effort to get an A....

It makes sense to me. When I graduated high school, I was a B student, and I was in the top 20% of my graduating class. I was a good student. And yet, I didn't take Honors classes because I wasn't able to handle the workload on top of my extra-curricular activities. The teachers of those Honors classes expected their students to receive Cs and Bs in the class because the material was more advanced. That was the point of the classes.

At the end of May, one of my students came to me nearly devastated she had a B in my class. She asked me about extra credit. "I have to get an A," she said. Things have changed.

And perhaps it's that change that has been part of why Honors classes aren't what they used to be. With more students taking Honors classes, and higher grades being demanded by parents and students, perhaps teachers are compensating for the gap by meeting the students somewhere in the middle. I myself offered extra credit in my classes for struggling students. The final grades within one class period ranged from 56% to over 100%.

There is a contradiction, however, to the parents who demand more-than-excellence in their students' academic achievement. In his most recent post, Academia: Age of Intelligence, Kaden wrote:

How are we to be expected to value our education, our intelligence, if adults don't take us seriously? Sure, our teachers and principals expect us to learn and to thrive in an academic environment, and our parents certainly demand high performance, but when you are taken out of a strictly educational environment, we're just those damned skateboarders again.

I agree, Kaden. There is certainly a conflict between what is expected of students within the walls of a classroom, and what is expected of those same students once the bell rings in the afternoons.

And this, too, is one of the problems that arises in education. Just as I have students who are unable to separate the style of writing they use in their notes from formal paper style, some of my students were unable to separate what is expected of them inside the classroom from what is expected of them outside the school. As a result, many students decide they simply don't care about their academics. Why should they when, as Kaden points out, adults don't care about whether or not they're intelligent or successful?

Sadly, I don't know what to suggest to make changes in the education system. There are so many things that come to mind, and it seems that even if those things are somehow implemented into a good number of schools across the country, it is the mindset of Americans that really needs to be changed. Unfortunately, that's significantly harder to do unless we take notes from Vonnegut.

Of course, with the way the country is headed with watering down Honors classes, adjusting testing, grading, and classrooms to the lowest denominator and not offering anything higher for other students...perhaps we're not far off.


  1. Great stuff! Well - horrible stuff, actually, but it's the subject matter, not the writing, that deflated my mood like a cheap balloon.

    No wonder you gave it up as a bad job.

  2. This is a topic that has been on my mind for the last few years. I don't work as a teacher, but I work at the University training future teachers. Grade inflation is a huge problem.

    The biggest misconception is that people don't realize that in everyone is going to be average at best in most of they things that they do. It's truly rare to have someone that is good at multiple things and even rarer to have people who just gets nearly everything they try.

    As a society we have polluted what it means to be good at something, not just in academia, but in the job market afterwards as well.

  3. You cover a lot of ground. As the parent of a child who is about to start high school, I would be very interested in a 'primer' of sorts on what parents should expect from their children and what are realistic expectations.

    Perhaps I misunderstood some of what you said, but are you indicating we should lower our expectations for children? The standard in our home is the honor roll. That's a minimum of all A's and B's. Is that expecting too much? I'm not asking this to be antagonistic. but out of genuine curiosity and interest as a parent.

    I certainly think the 'teach-for-the-test' attitude created by NCLB is a bad, bad thing. If a school simply quit worrying about test scores and implemented a program of their own design, do you think students could still do well on the test? My gut tells me that well-educated students will perform well on any test they take, regardless of whether they prepared or not.

    Very thought-provoking piece.

  4. For the record, the 'Teach for the test' attitude has existed for much longer than NCLB at least here in Missouri where I went to school

  5. @all: Thanks for the comments!

    @PC: I'm not suggesting we lower our expectations. I'm expecting we tailor our expectations on a student-by-student basis. In one of my classes I had two best friends. They did their homework together, they studied together, they both participated in discussions together. One received an A and the other, even after seeking my help to study with her, received a low C. Both are smart, and when it comes to math the C student owns, but getting a C in my class was her best. And I was proud ofher--she worked for it and earned it! I don't think it's too much for you to ask for As and Bs from your students, but just remember that (as Kaden pointed out) a C is supposed to be average, and Bs and As are above average.

  6. We have one child that is an A student and one that is certainly going to challenge us with her academic performance. My wife seems tempted to lower the bar so she can get A's in easier classes and 'feel more confident'. I feel like the better approach is to keep the bar high and, as you say, be proud of her hard work even if that is a C. Like you I am more interested in the work than the score. We use grades to gauge my oldest because when she drops below a B we generally find it is from slacking and not lack of ability.

  7. PC, keep the bar high and be proud of her effort. I was raised to believe that the important thing was that you earned the grade on your report card, and even if you feel you should work harder next time, that you learned something about the material.

    Tests are not always a good measure of knowledge. Some students don't test well, some get thrown off by test question wording, maybe one student didn't sleep well the night before and is too tired to concentrate. That student still understands the material, but didn't do well on the test.

    I'm a huge advocate for education on a student-by-student basis, but I know in today's society that's virtually impossible to do on a large scale.

    When Dana starts her island nation, you better believe her students will be learning a their own paces, on a student-by-student basis, and the result will be extremely intelligent, well rounded adults.

    P.S. Loved your Part 1!

  8. Home schooling, that's the answer. And get rid of every school board while you're at it.

  9. @brian

    Home schooling, that's the answer. And get rid of every school board while you're at it.

    You will get little arguement from me on the school board part.

    On home-schooling, it's really a mixed bag. When I was doing archaeology we had a lot of home-schooled kids come out to the site to visit us. They were all incredibly bright, but often very introverted socially. Attending a school is as much a lesson in socialization as it is a way to learn. I'm sure there are groups for home-schooled kids to get together and socialize, but most of the kids I saw seemed like they were more content being close to their mothers.

  10. @np

    I'm a huge advocate for education on a student-by-student basis, but I know in today's society that's virtually impossible to do on a large scale.

    The public school system in general has been interesting for me to see as a parent. I came from a Catholic school background. We have our oldest in a 'traditional program' and I have loved it. She has done well but I fear next year will be rough. She will be one of over 700 incoming freshman. Just one little fish in a very large pond. Luckily we can help her at home but I feel sorry for the kids that don't have a support structure outside of this very crowded school.

  11. Heh. Last week I was going to bring in my six year old's spelling homework and type it in, but I didn't get time.

    I think you guys would be... surprised.

    If I can get hold of it tonight or on Monday, I'll put some up somewhere.

  12. Here we go:

    (She's not halfway through grade 1 yet.)

  13. Arthur C. Clarke said the ideal classroom is a log, with a teacher at one end and a student at the other. Very inefficient. But the influence of Taylorism in industry spilled over into education (and - I swear - homemaking!) in the first part of the 20th century. And hasn't let up since then.

    It has really become all about the test. NCLB is just the latest echo from a guy who made "high speed steel" and "time studies" famous. I didn't realize that's the heart of the beast until my kids were out of school. But like any echo, the signal-to-noise ratio has degraded it. Some bright mind figured out that simply reducing the yard could make every bolt of cloth "longer".


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