Friday, February 15, 2013

Everyone Must Agree on This First

As the school semester winds down, this time of year always brings out the same kinds of reflections for teachers.

1) Why do some kids fail, or underachieve?
2) Why don’t all of them reach their potential?
3) How much of this could I have prevented by doing more or doing better?

When I ask myself these questions, I always seem to end up arriving at the same place. And the place I end up is a place that few in the education “reform” movement seem willing to go.

They need to.

This is a principal stumbling block that inhibits the conversation about education between educators and everyone else. Many of the people in ‘everyone else’ think the answers to the three questions above are:

1) We need better teachers
2) Teachers aren’t good enough
3) All of it

Unlike the “reformers,” I end up at a simple realization: Some students will simply not take advantage of what education offers them, and will not benefit from it no matter how much work we put into it.

I can imagine reformers, meddlers, PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), and perhaps some parents, cringing at the heresy bubbling over in this statement. But their cringing is in ignorance. I am starting to wonder if people who can’t agree with this statement understand human nature.

Human nature is about choice. We get to choose what we will do with our lives, day to day, hour to hour. Even in a society where government imposes strict control, people still choose whether or not to brush their teeth, to floss, and what to eat for breakfast. They still choose which way to go to work or to school.

Hypotheticals aside, the point is that students must choose to do their work. I have examples every year, in every class, that bear this out. They are so numerous they all blend together, and I forget about them by next year.

Exhibit A: Bill
This year, I have a student in my chemistry class. We’ll call him Bill. Bill likes to be in class. He participates verbally, works well in groups, enjoys the idea of learning. Bill generally has a good attitude, though he is addicted to electronic toys (cell phones and iPods), which could lead to his undoing. Bill also catches on fairly well, even to the challenging concepts of chemistry.  But Bill is failing. He wasn’t failing in September, or in October. But as time passed, his grade plummeted.

How could a student with several very positive qualities not pass?

Even if you asked Bill this question, the answer would be the same: “I don’t do my work.”

I noticed this early on, because Bill is the kind of student teachers like. He brings a positive energy to the classroom, and makes class discussions and participation more accessible. Students such as Bill tend to elevate the discourse and the learning of other students. They aren’t afraid to answer questions or ask them. They aren’t afraid to give wrong answers. This makes it easier for other students to do the same.

After a few assignments, I noticed Bill was either not turning them in, or turning them in incomplete. I tried to help Bill realize that early on, even though he could do well just by participating in class, it would continually increase in difficulty, pacing, and amount. Chemistry builds on itself. If you don’t master the early concepts, you are doomed by January.

In my class, I work very hard to make sure every student–and I mean every student–masters the early concepts. I take time to allow for this. It pays off later.

An Admirable But Elusive Goal
But what is mastery? Mastery means you know it, really well. It means you can wake up on Saturday morning, and if someone asked you questions about the topic, you’d still get them right. You just know it. You don’t need notes. You don’t need to ask for help. You just understand it. Most people don’t need a calculator (we hope!) to know that 2+2 is 4. We’ve mastered simple stuff like that.

Mastery is impossible to teach. Impossible. Why?

Because mastery is only possible when the student makes it so. The student must pursue it. The student must work the problems, write the essays, solve the math problems, spell the words, learn the definitions, figure out the program–only the student can achieve a level of mastery that is so great they could teach it to anyone who asked them.

What does the teacher do?

The teacher provides the framework to allow for mastery. We structure curriculum such that concepts and skills intermingle and relate in a way students can grasp, and see the connections. We have a balance of new material and application of that material to other situations. We provide opportunities to practice, and opportunities to demonstrate understanding. We give all this and more to students. We say things like, “Do this by tomorrow, because tomorrow you will use it to do something else.”

So, what happens to students who don’t do it by tomorrow? Pretty simple...they fall behind. (That must be why attendance matters...).

A good teacher knows the appropriate amount of work to give, and knows how to spread it out over weeks, months, and semesters. We understand some students will finish in microseconds, but that most will need more time.  We revisit things and link them together so students don’t just see them once and never again. I personally make extensive use of class time. I do very little lecturing, because it’s passive for the student. Passivity doesn’t breed understanding, nor is it engaging enough to build on the next day. No, students must be active to learn best. And they must be active in class and active outside of class.

So what happens when students aren’t active outside of class?

That’s Bill’s problem. All the things I did in class, he benefitted from, and even learned. He learned well enough to do well on some early tests, and well enough to discuss it with other students.

Lessons From Bill
What was Bill’s situation when January rolled around, and he hadn’t done more than a smidgen of homework in four months? He sat in the back (not his assigned seat), talked to another student most of the period, and tried to play with his iPhone crap without me noticing. One day I confiscated it, for all the good it will do.

So, this is kind of tragic, isn’t it? It’s just one person, but in a way, this is as epic as a Greek tragedy.

Now, realize that Bill is in a small minority in my three chemistry classes. The vast majority of my students are working, engaged, and learning. There is a small percentage that is not. I have few discipline problems, good attendance, and solid achievement. Most students are having positive experiences in class, and grow a little more each day.

Bill used to be doing that. But he fell off pace, never worked, and didn’t make the effort to catch up.

The point of going in to this much detail is simply this: Bill failed because Bill didn’t want to do what it takes to succeed. I intervened early and often, trying to persuade him to start doing work outside of class. It is the only way to master difficult concepts, or even to learn them well enough to build on them later.

But he didn’t want this, for whatever reason. Perhaps when he’s 25, he’ll decide he wants to do something more with his life, and will sign up for community college, and end up with a decent job. It’s entirely possible. Some people don’t realize how much their life matters, how much they are capable of, until later. Some realize it when they’re 5.

And maybe that’s okay. I don’t buy into the “college for everyone” religion. I’ve written about that before. But some jobs, and some lives, just don’t need college to do what they want to do, and it can still work out great. Vocational education is vastly underrated, and would actually make a positive difference for some students who just don’t enjoy sitting in classrooms or don’t want to be in school until they’re 25. Some people are ready to go out and start something earlier, even if it might pay a little less. So what?

Still though, to see someone with potential fail to live up to it brings regret. But it must never lead us to guilt. And more important, it must never, ever, ever lead us to change our entire educational system under the delusion that we can “fix” students like this.

Reformers”: Pay Attention!
This is why the reformers must absolutely and unequivocally agree to my underlined statement in the introduction. If 25 out of 30 students succeed in a class, that’s a good percentage. If the other five didn’t do any work, and didn’t take ownership of their own education, that is their choice. By high school, a student can and will make this choice. And we cannot stop them.

I cannot go to Bill and force him to do his work. I simply can’t do that. Furthermore, it is not my job to do so. My job is to help the students who want to learn. My job is not to convince students who don’t want to learn that learning is cool and you should try it.

It takes me a few months to realize who those students are. But every year, every class, they surface eventually.

Reformers need to accept this because if we want to improve education, the focus needs to be on how to improve it for the students who want to succeed at it. Putting it another way, Bill likes to learn, but he doesn’t like to work. Learning is fun. He’s internalized that. All those public service announcements made a difference, perhaps. But work is very, very unappealing. And he’s internalized that too. Until he finally perceives that this belief of his will cause him to miss out on things he may want (like a new iPhone, or maybe something else with real value), he will not change, and will be limited in what he can do in school and as an adult.

You can’t teach a kid to write if the kid don’t write nothing. You can’t teach a kid to read if the kid got no books. I mean, isn’t this obvious?

We do SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) twice a week for 15 minutes at our school. That’s 30 minutes of reading every week. Over time, this would make a very significant difference in reading skills. If.

If what?

Are you getting my point? This should be obvious. But the fact that we have testing being shoved down our throats, cries for teachers to be “held accountable” even for students who do no work (or don’t even show up!), movements for charter schools, for merit pay, for more testing, and for myriads of other fads–the current trend is to blame me for Bill’s refusal to do his own work.

And this is flat out wrong. More than wrong, it is unproductive and foolish. Why? Because none of those ideas–not one iota–will make any difference for students like Bill.

The SSR Example
Let me describe what happens when I do SSR. It’s not my chemistry class, and it’s a more challenging group of kids. At the start of the year, I knew not every student would have books to read yet. So I have a book shelf I told them they could use until they get their own books. Some of these books are substandard science books, kind of childish ones with lots of pictures. Others are biographies about various scientists. Others are old yearbooks, not mine, but left on the shelf.

After a semester, what’s SSR look like? Some students have used the yearbooks and the childish science books the entire semester. Some students sit there, pretending to read. Some students take five minutes to settle down before being quiet, intermittently getting up to throw something away (how is there that much stuff to throw away, especially when you aren’t doing anything?), or bug another student, or just to get up. Some students try to sneak food, sneak electronics, or put their heads down without me noticing (important note–our school is trying to create a “culture” of reading, so teachers are supposed to read during this time too. Well, if I’m reading, I’m not watching them as much. It’s a tradeoff of instilling a culture verses policing students who don’t want to read...I opt for the former).

Some students do bring actual books, and read them. Shockingly, most of this last group includes the students doing best in my class.

Is any of this really surprising? It shouldn’t be. Because you can’t force anyone to do anything. You just can’t. It’s not human nature. A student determined to not read isn’t going to read.

Before progress can be made in any reformation of education, everyone needs to agree on this. Because, how many students who fail fall into what I’m describing here? Honestly, how much of it really is up to us, within our control? Some people have never even thought of this question.

The teacher’s job is to instruct and foster a learning environment so the students who want to take advantage of it are able to do so such that they grow and learn whatever the particular class is meant to teach.

The teacher’s job is not to convince students to work who do not want to. It is not my job, and after I identify students like this after a few months, I put almost zero effort into it. Because I’m working with the other 135 students who want what I’m giving them.

“Dropouts? You Kidding Me? Dropouts?”
This is why I get so upset when people blame the dropout rate on schools. It’s such a stupid notion. It contradicts the core of what I’ve described here. It defies human nature. How many kids who want to learn, who want to get a good job or go to college, who care about their future a lot, decide to quit school? None!!!

No one with that attitude and perspective would quit school to go smoke pot or to merge with their couch while zonking out on death-obsessed video games. Actions reveal true motives and desires. No one who desires a good life quits the institution that makes it most likely they can have one.

I’m not trying to oversimplify dropping out. I know there are complications to it sometimes. But again, when there are other factors involved, if the student wants to make something of her life, she will find a way to get back into school as soon as possible. She will find a way to make it work.

Blaming schools for dropouts is like blaming the sports team for athletes quitting.

Unless the coach is a nut, athletes quit because they don’t want to play anymore, for whatever reason. And quitting might not even be a bad choice. But it’s not the team’s fault the athlete quits. 

I once joined a summer basketball program. I aggravated a calf muscle during a drill one of the first days. My heart wasn’t in it anyway, so I never came back. I quit. I made that decision.

So imagine the program administrators up there crunching numbers, and they see a certain percentage of kids not finishing. What can we do to help more kids finish? They agonize over it. They start wondering what the coaches did to drive the kids away? They install systems where the coaches have to keep track of each kid, and what kind of progress they’re making. The coaches get annoyed, because most kids are doing fine, and all this extra work isn’t going to affect any of them. It’s just making our jobs harder, they complain. But the administrators, the sponsors, and the fundraisers are very concerned after learning over 20% of participants leave before the program is finished.  So pretty soon, coaches start quitting and starting their own leagues. But they cost more and allow fewer kids in. They call them “charter basketball programs.” And they’re “unequal” (the greatest sin of our time), so the public demands vouchers for poor kids who can’t afford the higher fees. I could go on...

Now, there may be some value to this. Some. Maybe some kids do need more personal attention. But at what cost? And, how many of those who would have quit will stay in the program because of all these efforts and expenses?

But before having that discussion, everyone involved ought to be able to accept the simple truth: Some kids leave because they just don’t want to play basketball. When they realize that before they play basketball, they have to run across the gym five hundred times, learn how to pass, pivot, and dribble, learn proper defense techniques, and learn the rules of the game, some of them decide they would rather just go shoot hoops at the park.

The Main Point, Again
This is human nature. Sports, car engines, story-writing, computers, music, school. There is nothing worth learning that doesn’t take tons of initial effort and investment. Nothing worth learning that does not involve a large skill set that must be mastered before real accomplishments happen.

Those who want to do it take the time to master the basics. Those who don’t, won’t. It’s life. It’s not the teacher’s job to change human nature. Agree on this, and then I’ll talk with you about your ideas for changing teacher evaluations.


Ms. Keogh said...

Hi Dan - I love your blog! I heard about it from a student who attended the Michelle Rhee lecture last night. I also write a blog which is about my journey into politics - but I always come back to teaching and the issues in education. Check it out:
Sounds like we have a lot in common!

Seattle Teacher said...

Thanks. I attended the Rhee event as well, and will be posting about it soon.

The Times story on it didn't cover nearly all the pertinent stuff. They did hit on her "my kids suck at soccer" bit, but didn't capitalize on the huge contradiction it revealed.

I'll cover all that and more very soon.

AM said...

I watched over the years that my daughter went to school, I would see the same parents show up to the various events. Both teachers and principles said the same thing, it would be our kids that would do well later in life and the other 90 percent, iffy.
Parents do not like to hear it though.