A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shortcut to a dead end street

One of my favorite sci-fi authors was Robert A. Heinlein, who used the following acronym in his masterpiece The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress:TANSTAAFL, which stands for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." After reading the following article, one wonders if he was right.
By the time Spencer Taiti graduates from [Salt Lake City's] Woods Cross High School, he will have spent hours of school time doing everything but learning. An inveterate class-skipper, the junior guesses he has failed or will fail as many as 10 classes, often because he didn't bother to show up.

But he will graduate, the teen says. If he has his way, Taiti will make up all those failed classes by completing packets provided by private companies such as Layton's Northridge Learning Center. The course packet his friend Meleana Otukolo completed in about five hours earned her the credit she should have gotten attending nine weeks of class for about 90 minutes every other day. At Northridge, that "quarter" credit costs $45.

"I want to get done with school the easiest way possible," he says.

At a time of increasing academic standards in Utah, teachers report an epidemic of students making up classes they couldn't bother to attend by buying course packets or going to workshops offered by private educators. Students say cheating is simple and happens frequently. It's easy to copy a buddy's packet, and not all students have to take a final test, they say.

Many educators have long-standing doubts about the quality of education provided in these programs. Dixie Evans runs one of the schools that provides credit packets described in this article, and defends the service she provides as necessary:
Evans said the school can show how it has met all the requirements of accreditation. Programs like hers fill a need, she says.

"What about students who aren't successful in a classroom situation? What do you do with those?" she asks. "Public education is mandatory in our country. We have to find some way to help these people succeed."

I imagine young people like the young man at the start of this article would have been able to succeed if he's been able to bestir himself into actually showing up and paying attention. One Utah high school counselor in the article states that he thinks the programs are a good thing:
"If a kid can get out with a diploma, the rest of their life is better for them," said Orin Johanson, a West counselor. "If we have to send them to some less-than-appropriate make-up [program], I, for one, think it's OK if a kid is dealing with certain circumstances."

He points to major life crises and changes such as pregnancy, death and divorce. Some kids work and are unable to attend an after-school make-up credit option.

Though he doesn't want to see the system abused, Johanson remains practical.

"Until we as a school system set up a larger variety of school-sponsored options, then we should be open, in the best interest of kids, to other options to help kids get diplomas," the counselor said.

I highly recommend reading the entire article.

Here's what troubles me about the whole thing: Apparently people have forgotten why we go to school, and what an education actually is. Schools are not merely places to pick up credentials. Pell-mell granting of diplomas which are hollow and representative of no actual knowledge in recent years is what has gotten us into the current mess we are in in education.

I have had students plead for extra credit so that they could raise their grades at the very last minute. I do offer extra credit projects which require a lot of thought and effort to complete, and only to students who have done all of their regularly assigned work. The purpose of this extra credit is to increase the student's understanding of the subject, not merely to plump up a lackluster grade. But basically, as much as I can establish a system within the parameters of school policy, grades in my classes are evaluations of the level of understanding students demonstrate. I require that students who are dissatisfied with their grade come for extra help outside of class time or during some other time when I can give them some one-on-one attention. But the time to get concerned about your grade is when you see those low quiz or essay grades and realize that you are not demonstrating "A" level work, or whatever grade it is you wish to receive.

There's a mistaken notion in the situation described in the article that if a kid has a paper labelled "Diploma" in their hand, they can know absolutely nothing, but having that paper will still open all kinds of doors for them. And the impression of public schools as failing to accomplish what should be their only goal-- to help create an educated populace-- will be further enhanced.

To me it's not about the grade, it's not about the credential-- it's about the learning. Otherwise, why are we here? I know this sounds somewhat naive-- to many parents, students, and, sadly, some teachers and administrators, it's the grade or the diploma that matters. I have told my own children that I would rather see them get a C in a difficult class that challenged them than an A in a class that did nothing to further their education.

The door may initially open for these ersatz high school graduates, but as soon as it becomes obvious that the "graduate" does not possess basic skills, unless their family owns the company, they will be shown that very door out in the real world. And besides content knowledge, there are other skills that are valued in the real world, like: showing up on time, showing up regularly, being willing to do mundane tasks in the achievement of a greater goal, and being able to sustain effort for longer than a session of DOOM on the ol' Playstation.

Many schools have turned to contracting with these easy credit factories in a frantic attempt to lower their drop-out rate so that their accreditation may not suffer. Generally, I think we can agree that there's a delicate equilibrium between drop-out rates and academic standards in a school. Make earning credit too hard, and kids will drop out. Make earning credit too easy, and you will produce graduates who are ignorant of even the most rudimentary knowledge, and even honors classes will be watered down as a result. God knows we've all known people with graduate degrees like MBAs from Harvard who didn't seem to know what a civil war is.

Is the system a game or are the students gaming the system? Ultimately, an education is only as good as the real work each of us puts into creating it for ourselves.


At 12/24/06, 9:27 PM, Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I have had several students over the years who told me that they should get credit just for showing up. This idea was provided to them by their parents. Seat time = diploma. This is just as misguided as credits = learning.

In spite of the flaws with NCLB, it's hard to argue with the goal of having every student leave school after proving they have mastered a core set of skills and knowledge. It's true that some will drop out before they get there...but how many will achieve this goal who might not have been supported to do so in the past?

At 12/25/06, 12:27 AM, Blogger Deb S. said...

Wishing you joy this holiday season!

At 12/25/06, 10:03 AM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

One of my proudest accomplishments in my academic career is having passed college trigonometry with a C--after having been told by the math department that I didn't have sufficient background in math to take the course. However, I insisted on taking it, so the department chair wrote "taken against the advice of the department" on my registration form. I worked my butt off for that C. It's worth more to me than any A on my transcript.

At 12/25/06, 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Ms. C.

I can see that attending class in your classroom would be far superior to these packets. But consider a bright kid having to attend, say, a math class where the inexperienced teacher spends 90% of her time just trying to keep some kind of order. Warming the chair with his butt is doing nothing for him. He might actually learn more in such a focused, intense course.

At 12/26/06, 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We fight a similar problem in our school. Few things frustrate me more as a teacher to have a student who spent an entire quarter/semester/year taking up space basically thumb his/her nose at me by doing something like this. I agree with The Science Goddess--NCLB has numerous inherent flaws, but requiring students to prove mastery over certain skills should be worked in somehow, because I see more and more of these kids every year.

In other news, I thought I'd forward this on to you for comment. I'd call it "A Tale of Two Cities" but it's supposedly one (albeit divided) city. I'd call it "A Series of Unfortunate Events" but even that had an end and I don't see one for this. I'd call it "A Comedy of Errors" but there's not much in the way of humor. So all I can really call it is tragic, on many levels.


At 12/26/06, 4:05 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

Good grief, don't get me started on this one! Too late!

In Texas, each school district is funded primarily on "ass in the class." For each kid enrolled, X amount of dollars are paid by the state. At the same time, if enrollment falls below X% or the drop out rate raises above X%, there are severe real and potential penalties.

Concurrent with all of this is mandatory high stakes testing in a growing number of disciplines. If a student doesn't pass them all, they don't graduate. If X% of a district's students don't pass them all, there are severe real and potential penalties.

Alongs comes NCLB which artificially increases "accountability" while providing no means for its attainment. Combine this with absolutely no requirement that students assume any resposibility for their own educations, or that their parents assume any responsibility for student's lack of responsibility, and we have, to paraphrase Laural and Hardy, put ourselves in one fine mess.

In my district, students earn 50% credit for a given semester by doing nothing at all other than attending at least X% of a given class. Even if their actual average at the end of a semester is only 8%, say, they actually receive 50%. This is done so that they will not be too discouraged by their utter lack of effort and responsibility.

If a students fails a course, they have the option of a variety of methods of regaining full credit, including computer "packets," summer school, even an alternative high school.

In short, we not only encourage utter lack of effort and complete irresponsibility, we virtually demand it. Even the best kids know that all they need do to pass a semester is maintain an 80% average for two out of three six week grading periods, and then they can do nothing at all, receive 50% for the final six weeks and still receive full credit with a minium 70% passing grade for the semester. More than a few opt for this option.

Despite our alleged zeal for accountabililty and excellence, we have no overriding principles that would cause us to reject policies that not only encourage mediocrity but virtually mandate it. Every year we graduate kids who have never known genuine success because we have made it possible for them to suceed through consistent failure. Not only do we give them second, third, fourth and more chances, we ultimately teach them that one gets by in the world through manipulation, sloth and whining. But, By God, we're accountable, and our high stakes test scores continue to rise! Excellence indeed.

At 12/29/06, 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We ultimately teach them that one gets by in the world through manipulation, sloth and whining." Good one, I love that!

I spent a lot of time in my career hiring software developers. It didn't take long to realize that the diploma meant nothing. One candidate in particular stands out. A freshly minted PhD from a well-known university, he couldn't do even the simplest kind of computer programing.

At 12/30/06, 5:52 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I agree with Richard. That phrase was genius!


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