Friday, August 3, 2007

Do We Set Students Up for Failure?

An interesting debate taking place between district administrators and high school teachers in my district is the effect of the system on student achievement. The primary topics are: how advanced learners are treated and the reasons for a high freshman failure rate.

A growing trend for Freshman Honors classes at the high school is the higher number of students in the D and F grade range. One teacher in my department recently had two of her children pass through the middle schools (one has graduated and one has entered her Sophomore year), and she constantly complains about the lack of rigor for advanced students in our middle schools. Her children were essentially segregated, along with two or three others, to work on independent projects for three years without any direct instruction in English. In her opinion, she believes her children lost English language and literary analysis instruction because no advanced program is provided and the amount of practice aimed at passing standardized tests is increasing.

During articulation meetings where English teachers from all grades gathered, teachers in the middle schools related that they spend approximately 20% of their time giving and grading assessment practices aimed at passing our state test, the WASL. Because of this enormous amount of time used for test prep, the students are losing time studying other content areas, especially the arts, and losing direct instruction in all content areas. Our district instructional leader wants WASL prep to be the curriculum and has created that structure in the middle schools. In fact, no novels or texts over twenty pages in length are used in the middle schools according to a middle school teacher. It's the district's dirty little secret, she says.

In addition to this inadequacy, teachers are beginning to see more students struggling as Freshmen. The reasons, according to many of the high school teachers, are:

1) too much time is used to prepare for the state test. Last year our high school English Department charted grades for freshmen and saw that more students were falling into the D/F range than ever before. 1.6 English teachers are needed just to teach students repeating a failed English course.

2) even though the district labels Freshmen as the "most at-risk" students in the district, Freshmen English and Math classes are maxed out at 32 per class. When my department raised this dilemma and reminded the assistant superintendent we were supposed to be the district's "number one priority" this year, he said there's no money to lower those numbers. He further stated that he did not feel that class size was a major factor in student success, even though he (and the others superintendents) mandated that remedial courses be capped at twenty students. Of course, he failed to mention that the district is front-loading money to special programs until a levy passes.

3) students are not held accountable for passing classes until high school (9th grade). Students have been socially promoted for eight or nine years, which creates a mentality that the work is not important and passing courses are not necessary to pass to graduate. Since the students don't understand how credits work, they often don't realize they must earn credits to graduate. Plus, students don't understand that courses at the high school are sequenced; the first must be passed to take the second.

4) systemic interventions for students are only really available after school. Many students help their families by working or babysitting and are unable to spend extra time at the high school, so interventions are needed during the normal school day, built into student schedules. This may be in the form of study halls, tutorial periods, writing and math labs, etc.

5) students are only required to pass the state test during 10th grade, not at the 4th or 7th grade testing years. Again, this creates a mental state which reinforces apathy about the test. "It doesn't count" is often heard by students because it never has counted for them.

Obviously, a better avenue of conversation is needed between the high school and the district office, but nothing indicates this will occur. We are typically told to go "teach" better and things will improve, despite some glaring unmet needs. I'm hopeful that this year will springboard a new working relationship with the district office, one that fosters collaboration and not just consternation.


Redkudu said...

" In fact, no novels or texts over twenty pages in length are used in the middle schools according to a middle school teacher. It's the district's dirty little secret, she says."

Dirty little secret indeed. That's got to be one of the most potentially damaging strategies I've ever heard of. I bet your teachers are frustrated and outraged that they are being brought to this.

What's the parent reaction to any and all of this? Do you have much parental involvement? If I were a parent, I think I'd especially question the social promotion in middle school.

DrPezz said...

The teachers, surprisingly enough, do not seem to be overly concerned about this. I personally think the woman in charge of learning and teaching (our district's state test guru) has convinced them this is the best path. I used to sit in on the meetings as a high school rep, but the frustration got to me and I needed a break. Everyone is so concerned about test scores that people have stopped thinking long-term about the effects on learning and intellectual curiosity.

The parents who are learned in education and literary studies, like the woman in my post whose kids went through the middle schools, are outraged; however, the community in general doesn't really know. Kids of higher abilities come home with A grades, so the parents assume all is well, and the lower end parents aren't involved much.

In regards to social promotion, the parents are a large part of the problem as well. Two years ago our three middle schools recommended (because parents can overrule the retention of a student until 9th grade) about 150 students be held back, but only two were because parents refused to allow it. These were not sincere recommendations though, since the m.s. principals claim they have no room anyway for extra students and would've pushed the kids through no matter what. This means, of course, that the high school--built for 1200 students--now has over 2100 students in it, some because of growth but many because no one wants to hold the kids accountable as well.

It's a tough situation. The community just wants the status quo to continue, in my opinion. They just don't want to have to get involved unless it's sports or band related (our community's two claims to fame).

Like I said in the post, I just hope more conversations begin or else the whole mess will worsen.

Redkudu said...

I've always thought the problem may be that parents aren't able to see what problems this really causes until way later in their child's life - when they struggle so desperately in college , or drop out, or even have difficulty in the job market or trade schools simply because they truly haven't learned any usable basic skills.

Up until then, though, everything seems to be going smoothly. Parents trust that an A is an indicator of proficiency - not an indicator of a teacher under pressure from an admin who might say "we don't have enough room to hold them back", from parents themselves, or from other factors.

I hope, for all our sakes', more conversations begin soon as well.

The Tour Marm said...

I know your district and I have seen a change in the quality of education over the past twenty-five years reflected in the students and teachers.

We're no longer challenging students, teaching self-discipline, or instilling a work ethic.

Students in my area hardly have homework! (See my post on homework.) And then, they are given worksheets instead of having to read and consult their textbooks.

Everything seems to be reduced to soundbytes.

These students do not know how to study, research, or even remain engaged for more than 15 minutes.

We have undercut our students by dumbing down the process. They are capable of so much more, and deserve better.

How is it that this district cannot give more than 20 pages to read, and yet, I bet all of these students have already read through Deathly Hollows, can retain everything they read, and debate it on their blogs?

If they can do that, they certainly can get through A Tale of Two Cities.

EHT said...

I agree that we are setting students up for failure. The very, very sad thing about this is when we object, when we create an outcry that we have severe problems we are told to hush and are accused of not having the best interest of all students in mind. So, we continue to remain focused on the test, the test, the test....

DrPezz said...

Is there anything on the horizon to suggest the testing era could be fading away?

happychyck said...

Wow! You have many things working against you. Here in NV, we have many of the same things working against us, such as the situations where students are not held accountable for their own learning until they are in 10th grade. It's interesting to see that other places are holding on to such ineffective practices, too.