Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lunacy of High Expectations (part 2)

(Continuing from part 1, here are the 2nd and 3rd reasons why I groan whenever I hear the phrase "high expectations" spoken by people who have never taught in a classroom)

Reason #2: Special Education
Next time you hear someone tout the supreme virtue of high expectations, ask them this question: Can you list five of them for me?

One of two things will happen.  Either they’ll come up empty, because no one’s ever asked them that and they actually don’t know, or they’ll give a list of very general principles such as, “All students will be engaged,” or “Pass a standards-based test.”

‘High expectations’ is a buzzword, nothing more.  It gets thrown around just like ‘teacher accountability’ as if this vague concept, properly implemented (with the help of millions of dollars, of course, to pay all the PeWKoB), will drastically improve student achievement, reduce the dropout rate and close the achievement gap.

One common theme of the HEX crowd is that all students should be held to “high standards,” again consistently vaguely defined.  When pressed, they say it’s not fair for some kids to get more education than others, that all should have the same chance to excel.  What they don’t understand is that the opportunity to excel is different from the work required to actually do it.  Millions of students who have the opportunity toss it aside in favor of fun, living for the moment, drugs, recklessness, apathy, and an attitude of entitlement–that the world somehow must bend its will toward what I want and how I think.  (I know you’re tempted, you HEXers, to say, “they’re just teenagers,” but remember....most teens aren’t this way.  High behavioral expectations...go back and read part 1 again).  But even so, all students will never have the same chance to excel.

The truth is, this is a fairy tale.  I ask, can anyone operate under such a profound delusion, and in denial of the human variable in the learning process?  Does anyone really truly believe that all students are capable of the same accomplishments?  That anyone, with enough practice and work, can become Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet, or Jack Nicholson?  I mean, the cheesiest Lifetime movie wouldn’t say something so silly.

The truth is, no one actually believes this.  If they did, they would have to be opposed to the concept of special education.  “Special” education–possibly the worst label in the history of man–categorizes some students as being different than the mainstream population.  There are a variety of “disabilities” these students may have that will get them classified as such, and I’m not going to get into the mountain of issues that relate to this.

But the point is, anyone who really believes that all students should be held to the same standard will have to also say that the autistic kid who has to be taught how to brush his teeth, and how to not freak out when the door slams too loudly, will somehow be expected to pass the state tests in reading, writing, math and science.  Oh, and he has to do a senior project too.

So, now that we can allow for the special education exception, the HEX crowd will regroup and say, “Okay, fine, all students except special ed students should be held to the same high expectations.”

And this is borne out in the aftermath of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) fiasco.  Special ed students were initially–and I can still barely believe this–expected to pass the regular tests.  Obviously, just about all of them failed.  So the tests had to be redesigned, and those students had to pass modified versions of the tests, or take them using a modified procedure.  But there were schools, some of the highest scoring schools in our state–the kind who send students to top universities–that were initially classified as failing schools by NCLB.

How is this possible?  Because NCLB tracked about 35 different groups of students including black, white, Latino, male, female, and yes, special ed.  And initially, schools had to be improving in every single category to be considered a passing school.  High expectations apparently means perfection to some people.  (Except, how do you improve if your baseline scores are near 100%? Can a school improve forever?)

One such school saw every category of student meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress–you see why I mock the acronyms) except its special ed students.  So a school sending students to Harvard, Stanford, Harvey Mudd, and MIT was labeled as a failing school because its handful of special ed kids couldn’t pass a test that was way, way too difficult for their abilities.  One group of kids with unique needs causes an entire school to be labeled as a failure.

I’m not making this up.  But don’t be deceived, and don’t let this point be minimized–this is where the HEX crowd and the educational bureaucrats will take us when they get too much power to make important decisions.

And don’t let the revisionists come in and say that the initial problems with NCLB were fixed after getting “feedback” about its flaws (feedback is another edu buzzword).  Seriously?  You needed feedback to tell you this is a horrible way to classify schools?  No one, not one person, in the entire education department, all the lawyers, all the legislators, all the (I assume) teachers, administrators, and “experts” who crafted this law–none of these people could discern the blatantly obvious flaw in labeling an entire school a failure because of a handful of students?

And these people went to Harvard and Yale?  (Maybe those colleges aren’t all they’re cracked up to be...but that’s another post).

How can we trust an establishment that comes up with this law and doesn’t perceive such garishly absurd provisions like this?  How can any of their other ideas be trustworthy?  They clearly do not operate in the same world as the rest of us.  This isn’t an “oversight,” or “flaw.”  No, it’s an obvious sign that whoever wrote this law has no business influencing education.  You don’t modify a disaster.  You repeal it.  (And if you think Race to the Top is any better, go read my post about the PeWKoB).

But what about the regrouping comment I attributed to the HEX crowd a while back?  If we remove special ed students, don’t we now have the right and duty to hold all students to the same high expectations?

Reason #3: We’re Different
No, we don’t have the right or duty to do this.  In fact, to do so is to nullify the hopes, dreams, gifts, talents, and interests of a majority of our students.

The great line in Orwell’s Animal Farm is, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

To say that every student is capable of achieving the same thing given the right opportunities is more than just offensive.  It is flawed on so many levels, I could probably write a whole book about it. (I’ll try to keep it shorter here)

First of all, this assumes that all students want to achieve the same thing.  Now, I know my next statement is shocking, so prepare yourself, you HEXers. Ready?

Some students don’t want to go to college.

What?!

Ahhh!

I can’t take it!!?!

NOOOOOOOOO! My irrational worldivew is crashing!!! (crashing noises)

Breathe, it’s okay.  Breathe.  Take your time.  Okay, ready?

Alright, let’s say that again.  Everyone this time: Some students don’t want to go to college.  Got that? Say it again.

At the end of my semester-long chemistry course, I give students a little essay to write about what they plan to do after high school, and how they plan to accomplish it.  The answers sometimes really fascinate me.

Last semester, one kid said he wanted to be a barber.  And right when I read it, my first thought was this: He’d be a great barber!  He’s personable, has a fun conversational style, is respectful, and pays attention to detail.  I think he’s also responsible enough, with a little help someday, to pull it off.  He could succeed as a barber.  I was happy to read that, because a lot of students who have been classified like him (special ed) don’t have specific goals or ambitions for what to do with life.

Now, imagine the terror this student would face if a rabid group of HEXers got their hands on him.  You have to go to college, young man! The world needs more scientists!  High order math skills are vital in a 21st century economy!  Here, we’ll set up a scholarship for you to go to college, and you can major in something with a future, like aerospace engineering!

And after these HEXers finish “helping” this once-focused, now confused student, one of them will call home to tell his wife he’ll be late because he has to get a haircut.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but when you listen to these people talk, they espouse a view of the future that almost ignores jobs such as barbers, hairdressers, shoe salesmen, phone repairmen, locksmiths, and a host of other jobs that are always going to be there.  They talk like these jobs will stop existing.  Like everyone will someday be an engineer.  Look, someone has to drive the truck to get the parts to the plant so the engineer who designed them can inspect them.  Someone has to build the road and the bridge the truck will drive on.  Someone has to answer the phone when the engineer calls the manufacturer to tell them something’s wrong.

And you know what?  Some people want jobs like these!  And you know what even more?  That’s okay!  Not everyone has to be a techno wizard, and not everyone wants to be!  And thank God for that. We’ve got enough gadgets to ruin the world more than once as it is.

To deny that people have different hopes, ambitions, interests, and yes, abilities in certain areas of academics is to deny reality.  Not everyone has the same ability in all areas.  People are blessed, not cursed, with different talents and interests and abilities.  Do we really have to prove this?  Don’t we just already know it?  Some kids just understand certain things faster and more easily than others.  And that doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else.  Just different.

Some students instantly understand a certain math topic, while others have to grapple with it for days, even weeks. Does that mean the grappling student can’t learn math?  Of course not.  Does it mean they might not want to pursue a career as a chemical engineer?  Well, it might. And, most importantly, isn’t that okay?

This strikes at the heart of these Harvard-or-die parents I read about who think getting into Ivy schools is the only purpose of life, and that their child’s entire future, livelihood, purpose, meaning, and existence depend on it.  Never mind that billions of people live perfectly reasonable lives without that.

Some people love to read and write.  Some people don’t know it until someone challenges or inspires them in a fresh way.  Some people are this way with every subject.  I’m not saying you can point out the math, science, and writing wizards in first grade.  Hey, I myself had no interest in writing until late in high school.  And look at me now.  Well, maybe not...

The point is, what’s hard for one person is a piece of cake for another.  The classic Cycle of Foolishness (COF) goes something like this: First, raise standards, because obviously they’re too low.  Look at how much better the rest of the world is.  Second, get upset when too many students don’t meet the new standards.  Third through fifteenth, write new standards, re-make tests, write new standards, remake tests, get public input, get new books, re-test, write new standards...etc.  Sixteenth, and this is where it gets relevant to our topic, someone suggests “lowering” standards, because perhaps we’re expecting too much of some students.  And seventeenth, defend the new standards by asking, “How can you suggest lowering expectations? Do you want our children to fall behind?”

For example, there is this lunacy in our district to put every single ninth grader in algebra, at a minimum.  At least they still acknowledge that some students can be ahead of that (because we’re not all the same; see, everyone admits it at some point).  But to put every student in algebra is pure insanity.  We have students who, if you tell them to divide 21 by 7, ask for a calculator.  These are freshman in high school.  We have students who, if you ask them what happens if the temperature warms up from -50, they think it’s now -51.  Students who can’t solve a simple equation like x + 5 = 2, or solve simple ratios, or who add ½ to 1/4 and get 2/6.

And you want to put these students in algebra?

I like to ask people who consider this to be sound math policy this question: If we need to “challenge” our students and raise expectations, why don’t we just require them all to pass calculus?

Too hard, you say?  Come on.  What, are you against high expectations now?

What they do is they raise expectations for all students beyond what all students will be able to achieve.  Then, when failure happens for too many, they try to find alternative ways to get them to reach those standards, even though they aren’t really reaching them.  In our district, that means students who can’t pass the state math test have to take more math courses.  They have to pass three years instead of two.  But, if you force everyone to start in algebra, that means you’re requiring students who struggle in math to go even farther!  Into trigonometry!

But, try the harmless, sensible, plainly obvious suggestion to offer courses below algebra that will build skills in areas that need building, and then students can take algebra as sophomores or juniors, and what do you hear?  “Students need to meet standards, and be held to high expectations.  If we keep our students in remedial math, they’ll never reach the levels of math they need to be competitive in today’s global economy.”

I hear this all the time.  Yet, none of these people has ever actually taught math to students such as these.  They truly do not grasp the importance of pre-requisites.  Just as you can’t put everyone in calculus, you can’t put everyone in algebra.  Why would it be any different?

In fact, a recent story (Seattle Times, April 4th, 2011) featured schools in Arkansas that require all students to pass algebra 2, and a test based upon it, to graduate. Not to go to college, but to graduate.  How many students passed the test the first time?  Any guesses?  50 percent?  Maybe 40?  Come on, be an optimist. Say 60 percent. The real answer: 13 percent.

But here’s the key.  Listen to the response of the HEXers: “State officials said they were aiming to raise that figure rather than lower standards.” There it is.  Step 17 of the COF.  Lowering standards is never, ever, ever an acceptable idea (sounds kind of like some Republicans with regard to taxes...hmm).  Once a standard is proposed, anything lower than that becomes an object of scorn for its “low” expectations.  Read the whole article here: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2014685141_algebra05.html

(Among other things, the article says a group called Achieve is behind this effort in more than 20 states, and wants all students to have to pass algebra 2 to graduate.  Who is Achieve?  “A group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations.”  Or in my language, the PeWKoB-- people who have never taught and know little to nothing about how education actually happens, or the true challenges it faces, but have money and a microphone, and so people listen to them).

The article is fairly objective, however.  It goes on to question the causality between students taking algebra 2 and students who succeed in college.  Just because both things are true doesn’t mean one causes the other.  It’s the causation verses correlation error that is so prevalent in many misuses of statistics.

For example, one study showed that 99% of criminals ate bread within 24 hours of committing a crime.  Clearly, therefore, bread causes crime.  That’s correlation verses causation.

The article also quotes a young man who wants to be a firefighter talking about his math class, who said, "I'd enjoy it — if I ever knew what was going on."  Will they still have firefighters in a 21st century economy?  Is it still okay for kids to want to become one?  Does that kid need to pass algebra 2 first?

So you see, I hope, how all of this stems from this flawed central belief that all students are both capable of and interested in achieving the same levels of understanding in all subjects.  This denial that some people are just stronger than others in different areas has polluted the education world.  And when I say “stronger,” I’m not making a value judgment.  Perhaps a better word is “competent.”  Or “have a stronger aptitude for.”  And if we weren’t so darn insistent that everyone live up to the monotony of uniform expectations all across the nation, maybe we could actually rediscover some of the things these students are good at.

I’m not arguing for math illiteracy.  I’m arguing against the notion that students must master all the subjects at a higher level than all are capable of doing or even interested in.  Or, to put it differently, some students just take longer.  Maybe if they hit this course again in college, they’ll get it that time.  And that’s okay.  At a basic level, everyone needs to be able to read, write, think, and do basic math.  Trigonometry is not basic math.
Everyone should be able to do algebra before graduating.  But not as freshmen.

The more we try to put students in a box, the more boxes we’re going to keep breaking.

In Waiting for Superman, which I just saw for the first time, one charter school makes all its students take the same four classes all four years of high school.  So, according to this philosophy, age determines a student’s ability.  If you’re 16, you should be able to do this level of math, read at this level, think at this level, and have this level of maturity and self-discipline. All of you.  You’re all the same, and if every school did it our way, they’d all do just as well as our students.  No electives.  No variation.  Is this what anyone wants our society to look like?

Even parents who have more than one child will tell you how absurd this is.  Each of their children exhibits unique interests, preferences, and abilities.  Why would it be different in a school?  In fact, absurd doesn’t capture this.  It’s undeniably contradictory to the very essence of human diversity.  We aren’t all the same. 

One kid likes this subject more than that.  One kid wants to do this when she grows up; the other wants to do that.  And just as we aren’t all the same, we cannot–cannot–all be held to expectations that are too high.  You will never get all students to learn calculus.  Ever.  That’s not cynicism, or pessimism, or any negative view of anything.  It’s simple truth.  And in the same way, you will never ever get all students to all meet the same expectations if those expectations are too high.  And that includes going to college.

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