For guest commentary this evening, we have someone new to offering his insight to the readers at SUFA. The next week or so will include a couple of different articles on education and the problems that we face in that arena here in the US. Tonight’s author is a regular commenter over at the Huffington Post, where he ran into SUFA regular Just A Citizen. A good conversation ensued and JAC convinced him to write a guest article for us to discuss here. As always, I am excited to have another voice offering their thoughts and insight into the mix for all of us to discuss. The author may not be able to check in and join the conversation as often as he would probably like. AS is the case with many of us, he does have to work for a living, and that gets in the way of checking in all throughout the day. I do believe that he will be checking in when he can though, so feel free to ask any questions in your comments about what he has offered. Rather than my introducing tonight’s guest author, I will allow JAC to do the honor, as he is responsible for GrafZeppelin being here…
Ladies and Gentlemen of SUFA, I would like to introduce Graf Zeppelin. I met Graf over at Huffington Post. As with many here, Graf and I don’t come from the same side of the political fence, but we have had some very good discussions. A couple of weeks ago I contacted Graf about some comments made on the problems with our education system. Graf agreed to put together some thoughts and allow USW to post them here for SUFA to kick around. Graf was a school teacher and is now an attorney. As you might expect from such a background, Graf is pretty sharp and I think will contribute immensely to our discussions of this issue. Graf has visited the site before and told me the civil discourse was refreshing but the site might be a little right wing. Sorry Graf, I just had to share that with everyone here. Right now the regulars are laughing.
Who’s on the right and left is a constant point of debate, but on this issue of education I saw the Graf’s experience and thoughts were not contained within the usual right/left, or democrat/republican paradigm. So without further adieu, I give you Graf Zeppelin’s views on issues detrimental to our education system.
RUMINATIONS ON EDUCATION
September 19, 2010
I was a high school English teacher for 13 years; from November 1997 until January 2010. After bouncing from school to school for a couple of years in the early 2000s (a story for another day), I decided that I had to do something else. I went to law school and became an attorney.
There are two questions that always come up at this point. One, why did you give up teaching to become a lawyer? Quite simply, I gave up teaching because I came to realize that I was never going to be happy as a teacher. I got sick of two things: (1) teenagers, and (2) fighting uphill battles in a system that seems purposefully designed to prevent kids from learning.
The second question, in one way or another, typically asks me to elaborate on that second item, since the first is so obvious. What is wrong with the school system? In what way is it “purposefully designed to prevent kids from learning”?
It’s important to note that I only write from the perspective of my own experience, as a high school teacher of English Language Arts. Also, I write in purely apolitical terms. I never thought of education as a political issue and nothing I’ve ever said, written or thought about it has anything at all to do with which political party I prefer, which one is presently in power, or what their respective policy prescriptions for education are. The problems with education as I see them are conceptual, not political.
The education system in the U.S. will never be fixed by politicians. Neither will it be fixed by either political party’s boilerplate prescriptions for it. It can only be fixed if there is a fundamental shift in just about everyone’s perception of what education, learning, and teaching actually are, what they’re supposed to look like, what everyone involved is supposed to do and should be expected to do.
There are four groups of stakeholders in education: Parents, students, teachers, and administrators. All four of them, in my view, fundamentally misunderstand what their role in school and in the learning process ought to be. The result is a system that does not function as it should because the wrong people have the wrong interest in, and the wrong accountability for, the wrong things. A system in which teachers are virtually powerless against the other three stakeholders, where parents send their kids to school not to learn but to be showered with praise and adulation for what they already know, where students’ grades and grade averages are completely disconnected from their actual ability and performance, where kids are not only enabled but actively encouraged to be selfish, narcissistic and dishonest, and where smart, dedicated, conscientious educators find themselves fed up with all of the arbitrary and counter- intuitive restraints on their ability to actually teach.
One thing about studying the law: it makes the world a heck of a lot easier to sort out. It also helps provide answers to those questions kids ask, to which one might normally answer, “Because I said so.” Why do I get to tell you what you can and can’t do in my classroom?
Because I can be held liable for anything that happens to you. I am legally responsible for everything that happens in that room. If I can be held liable, then I get to make the rules. But studying the law also makes it crystal clear that there are a lot of things that go on in schools, a lot of things that all four stakeholders believe and do, that simply don’t make any sense. They don’t make sense because they’re not reasonable, because they’re not efficient, because they don’t maximize available resources, and they don’t encourage productive behavior or good decision-making.
As I mentioned above, schools are no longer institutions of learning; they are institutions of validation. Parents and students don’t want to hear anything from teachers except how utterly magnificent they, everything they say and do, and every piece of work they submit, are. Heaven forbid you tell a student that he needs to write clearer sentences, or include more textual evidence in her discussion paragraphs. Before you know it, the parent will be on the phone with the principal, saying that the teacher told the child that she was stupid and that everything she does is wrong, and demanding that the child be placed in another teacher’s class or that the teacher be fired.
Most people who have studied child psychology know that adolescents typically do not remember things the way they actually happened. They remember them in a way that casts themselves as completely blameless, heroic, innocent victims of the arbitrary meanness of others, particularly adults. It’s not unusual for high school kids to think of their teachers as either objects of ridicule, or as nefariously evil Bond villains. But parents believe everything their kids tell them, as literal unembellished truth. And administrators tend to believe everything parents tell them, leaving teachers powerless to effect either learning or classroom discipline.
In ordinary disputes between students and teachers, parents and administrators always give the student the benefit of the doubt. As a result, the teacher always bears the burden of proof, which in many cases she can never satisfy. If a student fails or receives a low grade for not submitting a required assignment, all he needs to do is claim that he didn’t know about it, or that he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. The teacher then has to prove that she did everything she possibly could to make sure the child knew about the assignment and knew how to do it. When she inevitably cannot do so to the parent’s satisfaction, the parent demands that the child be given the grade that he would have received if he had done the assignment (which the parent, of course, assumes would have been an “A”); to substitute that made-up scenario for what actually happened. The child doesn’t have to demonstrate that he can even do the work, let alone do it well; it is presumed that he could have, and would have, if the obviously-incompetent teacher had done her job.
The result? Kids learn not only that they don’t have to pay attention to assignments and deadlines; they learn to actively avoid knowing what they are. The first three words out of any student’s mouth when confronted with the fact that they failed because of a missed assignment, 99% of the time, are “I didn’t know.” Parents do the same thing. Parents insist on being notified any time a child breathes the wrong way. If a child fails, the parent will protest that she was not told that the child was failing or was in danger of failing, therefore he must be given a passing grade. Never mind that my calling her up on the telephone to tell her that the child had missed the exam would not have changed that fact. I actually got to the point, my last few years teaching, that I actually sent a letter home every time a child did not hand in an assignment. Reams upon reams of paper, thousands of dollars in postage. The only alternative would have been hundreds of hours per month on the phone, hours that I simply did not have, especially during the four years I was in law school.
In the end, it wasn’t the letters or the phone calls or the complaints that bothered me. All of that goes with the territory of being a teacher. It was the staggering, mind-numbing illogic of the contention that a student must be given a passing grade, which he did not earn, and thereby be declared proficient in a subject area in which he has not demonstrated such proficiency, because his parent was not aware, or notified in advance, that there was a possibility that he might fail. “If I had known,” many parents would tell me, “I would have made sure he did his work.” I suppose it never occurred to them that they ought to be doing that anyway.
Of course, none of this would matter if teachers and administrators, by and large, were inclined to do the correct thing in these situations, which is to stand their ground, hold the students’ feet to the fire and require them to actually demonstrate actual learning and ability through actual academic performance, before they are praised and rewarded for doing so, and not cave in to the unreasonable and self-serving demands of narcissistic parents who can’t handle the truth. Instead, we have a system that enables and perpetuates these awful behaviors; where students, not teachers, decide what behaviors are appropriate and what can and should be expected of them academically; where parents, not teachers, decide what grades their children deserve and ultimately receive; and where administrators can substitute their own judgment (or political cowardice) for teachers’ experience and expertise.
Two specific things we do wrong in schools that, if done correctly, would go a long way toward repairing the damage: subjective standards and entitlement grading. I’ll address each separately, and briefly.
Subjective standards refers to the idea that academic standards and expectations should be adjusted to meet the individual ability level of each student. Using the six-level New York ELA Regents rubric as an example: if a student writes an essay that meets the criteria for level 4, he would normally receive a C; a 5 would be a B, a 6 would be an A, a 3 would be a D, a 1 or a 2 would be an F. This would be an objective standard. But if the child is not very bright or capable, and can’t do any better than a 4, we’ll lower the bar for him; if he produces a level-4 essay, we’ll give him an A, because that’s the best he can do, whereas the “smarter” student sitting next to him gets a C for an essay of the same objective quality, because we deem him capable of writing at level 6.
The rationale here is that we don’t want kids who are less capable to “feel bad about themselves” and “turn off to learning.” The obvious problem is that it eliminates any incentive for the student to learn and improve. If I get an A for writing a level-4 essay, what incentive do I have to learn to write a level-5 essay? We need to get rid of this misguided and completely counter-intuitive belief that it is somehow “unfair” for a student who is intelligent and capable to receive a higher grade than one who is less intelligent and less capable, to say nothing of one who consciously chooses not to do his work.
And this has led to the most ridiculous, illogical idea of all, maybe the one single idea that pervades the schools and prevents kids from learning more than any other: That a student who cannot do the required work, who is incapable of producing work product that meets grade-level standards and class requirements, should pass that class, BECAUSE she cannot do it. I’ve actually had kids and parents tell me this; that it was wrong for them to fail, because they could neither do the assigned writing nor “understand” the assigned literature (the latter being another topic for another day). My response to such claims was simple, and should always be the response in this situation: If you cannot do the work, expect to fail until you can. Otherwise, what’s the point?
How can anyone learn in an environment where one can pass one’s courses by virtue of being either ignorant or incompetent, or both?
Entitlement grading refers to the model of starting every student off in September with a 100 average, before any work has been assigned, submitted or evaluated. The idea here is that everyone is an A student by default; students therefore approach school from a defensive posture, trying to avoid losing points. I, on the other hand, always used what I call the economic grading model, wherein the student starts the school year with zero points, having yet to demonstrate learning or proficiency through work product. The student needs to focus on earning as many points as she can, rather than avoiding the loss thereof. Submitting work earns points; the higher the quality of the work, the more points it garners. Simple logic.
The problem I often had was that students had grown so accustomed to the illogical, counter- intuitive entitlement model that they failed to appreciate, or even perceive, the risk of choosing not to do their work or submit assignments, or to behave properly in class, when working under the economic model. They figured they might lose points, but not enough to fail the class. What they didn’t realize was, if their job was to earn points instead of to avoid losing them, doing and/or submitting nothing was the worst choice they could possibly make. For years I tried to convince kids that a “D” or even an “F” was better than a zero; something is always better than nothing. It was harder than you might imagine to convince them of that.
The entitlement model prevents kids from learning not only by making them think they are high achievers by default, but by turning “pass” and “fail” into transitive verbs; i.e., into laudatory or punitive action by the teacher instead of the result of the student’s ability and performance. Hence the ubiquitous question, “Why did you fail me?” instead of “Why did I fail?” Even if they don’t fail, under the entitlement model the grade is more the product of the teacher’s conscious and often subjective decision to “take points off” than the student’s actual, objectively- measurable performance; what the teacher gave him instead of what he earned. It takes both failure and achievement out of the student’s hands.
There is an obvious downside to objective standards and economic grading: A lot of students will fail. Both subjective standards and entitlement grading seem designed not to produce or even measure actual learning, but to arrive at a number, even if it’s entirely arbitrary, that will satisfy students, parents and administrators. The goal is that the students pass, not that they learn. The latter is no longer a prerequisite to the former. The subjective/entitlement model gives us the former without necessarily engendering the latter; the objective/economic model does the opposite. And we’ve decided, for the most part, that the former, not the latter, is what we really care about.
In the end, students don’t learn because they know they don’t have to. What’s worse, the adults in their lives, both in and out of school, actively see to it that they don’t have to. That’s the tragedy of the American educational system.
I did my best to go back and add the italics and bolding that GZ had put into his version of the article. I hope that I caught them all, as when I copied the article over, it was in PDF format which is difficult to do and doesn’t bring any formatting with it (just a small note to all who want to submit guest articles here, Word documents are far easier to use here). I want to thank GrafZeppelin for taking the time to write this article and share his thoughts and insight with us here at SUFA. And as always with these guest commentary articles, remember that if you don’t like the pictures and cartoons, blame me, not the author. I am the one that adds them!