Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The System Is Down

One of the things about suddenly having a teenager in our care is that we have been given new insight into her education.  One of our biggest focuses since becoming fake parents has been her academic performance and getting her accepted to college.  In general, this is easy.  She's a good student, she's responsible, and she wants to go to college as much as we want her to go to college, so it's not like we're sitting around pushing her like crazy to do the things she's supposed to do.  What isn't easy is hearing about the state of the education she's currently receiving.  After seeing some of the assignments she brings home, and hearing about what goes on in her classrooms, I'm suddenly not surprised that her school is on a list of Persistently Low Achieving schools in the state.  We have a kid who is considered high achieving.  She doesn't pad her schedule with a lot of blow off classes.  She loaded her senior year with chemistry, calculus, a fourth year of French, and what is supposed to be a "college level" English class.  She's trying to push herself in difficult subjects, but what I'm observing is that her subjects aren't difficult.  As far as I can tell, her calculus class is the only one that involves comprehensive teaching.  Her assignments are challenging, her teacher is dedicated and each lesson takes up the entire class period.  He stays after to tutor students, and has been known to show up to study sessions the students have planned together in the evenings at the library.  Beyond that, I'm not sure what the rest of the classes are teaching her.  While her chemistry class is nowhere near the challenge I got when I took chemistry in high school from a teacher who was tapped to teach nuclear chemistry for the Navy and turned it down, there at least seems to be a lesson system in place.  I do think the teacher is more focused on making sure all the kids pass her class rather than putting an actual challenge in front of them, so the assignments are soft balled, but maybe that's the environment we have created in this world where teachers may be evaluated based on the success of students.

When talking to Jasmine about her previous history classes, she has openly admitted that she doesn't really remember much of her US or World history lessons, because they were handed a bunch of work sheets and told to fill them out, turn them in, and that was pretty much it.  Busy work that required absolutely no critical thought at all.  It's possible that she's learned more history from talking to Jason about world events than she ever did in her classroom.  Same with her health and sex ed classes.  When I found out how those were taught, I was horrified.  I'm suddenly no longer shocked by the teen pregnancy rate.  Then there are her English and Literature classes.  This year she is preparing for college, and her English class is being taught in a way that makes me wonder if I should bother sending her to sixth hour or if I should just write lessons at home and teach her myself.  She said that on a day to day basis, they do worksheets, and they take quizzes that test nothing of their reading comprehension.  They are asked questions like "What color shirt was Harvey wearing in chapter 3?"  That tests nothing aside from whether they read the chapter.  Right now they are reading "All Quiet on the Western Front" and I asked if they discussed the part where the Paul goes home on leave from his time on the front, and he has a hard time re-acclimating to the world he once knew, because the war has already changed him.  Her response was "We don't talk about the book.  We just do worksheets".  WHAT IS SHE LEARNING?!  Nothing!  She's learning nothing.  This is supposed to be a college level course, but answers to quizzes are only considered "complete" if they contain 5 sentences, and the teacher counts the number of periods in each answer.  If you can give a comprehensive and well thought out answer in 3 complete sentences, you have not followed the directions and will be marked down.  Additionally, when the kids are given writing assignments, they are not given a page limit, or a word count limit, they are told that their paper must be 8 paragraphs consisting of at least 5 sentences each.  Again, periods will be counted.  So, you might be able to write a really good paper in 6 or 7 paragraphs, but you have to throw in a BS paragraph to meet the requirements.  Plus, I'm not sure what the heck they've got to write about since there is nothing discussed in class.  No themes, no comparisons made, nothing.  Just worksheet testing basic low level knowledge, and nothing else.  Why should she even go to class?  All she's being taught is to read at the surface level so she can answer stupid questions about the color of a person's shirt, not to actually understand the book, or understand the importance of the literature.  This is doing her no favors, since in college she will be expected to be able to make these connections and she's had no teaching on how to do it.  I'm appalled, just as I was appalled at how little she retained from her history classes since they were never expected to discuss any of what they learned.  There's no scaffolding, there's no building on earlier lessons.  There's just a day in, day out routine of "Did you read this?" that they follow.  It's a waste of time.  It's not an education.  There is nothing that challenges any of the students and then the teacher is blown away that they have no dedication to class, or any interest in what they're supposed to be learning.

Then she tells me that he hands out assignments with comments like "Most of you might want to consider taking credit recovery while taking this class, since you have no hope of passing", or makes allusions to how stupid all of the students are while he's giving directions.  Things like "You have to laminate your poster.  I'm sure most of you won't because you can't understand or follow directions".  What is that teaching these kids?  For kids who are already struggling, it teaches them that there's no reason for them to continue trying.  For kids who are generally good students, it leaves them bored and uninterested in class.  But to demean students openly in front of their peers as a way of shaming them into motivation, that's just unacceptable.  It's a horrible practice, and it accomplishes nothing.  It's amazing that he's been teaching for 15+ years and he's never discovered that this tactic does nothing to improve student performance.  What has me more upset is that HE HAS BEEN TEACHING FOR 15+ YEARS AND NO ONE HAS STOPPED THIS BEHAVIOR.  I understand that it's a challenging district to teach in, but for goodness sakes, someone needs to do better.  I'm just so disgusted.

Then I start thinking about whether we should tie teacher pay to student achievement, and while I am against that practice in general, I wonder if these teachers my kid is suffering under would step it up if it meant they might lose pay.  Or maybe her school is just fundamentally damaged, and they need to purge and start over.  I just find myself worrying about what college will look like for her, since high school is literally teaching her nothing.  I also wonder if the principal, superintendent and school board know this is what's going on in her classroom.  Having dealt with this particular school a lot in recent years, the frightening thing is that I'm not sure they care.  I think they protect their own at all costs, even when the teachers clearly do not deserve protection.  And where are the parents?  Why aren't they beating down the doors to the superintendent's office and demanding better for their kids?  How is this allowed to continue, year after year, without someone saying that there has to be a change?  Shouldn't the school care that their students are getting more comprehensive lessons on literature from Youtube than they are from their teachers?  I know they are, because I've heard what's happening in their classes and pointed them to full lessons on Youtube for the books they are reading, and I've had students tell me they wrote papers based on that Youtube lesson because it taught more in 5 minutes than their class did in 3 weeks.  I feel like someone at the top should care, and should be removing people who can't teach a better lesson than Youtube could.  The whole thing makes me sick.


Stephen B. said...

I had very similar experiences. In my four years, I can only point to Ms. Anuskiewicz, Ms. Maxwell, Mr. Baird, and Mrs. Bertsos as teachers that left any lasting impact on my thought process that helped me in college, and I know at least three of them have left and last I heard, the fourth had too. Mr. Stern, the calculus teacher, tried his best but rarely had the classroom's attention or respect.

LHS targets only their lowest-achieving students and stigmatizes them instead of trying to raise them up. Going to a top-tier school, I was surrounded by students who busted their butts in high school, taking umpteen AP classes and actually feeling challenged. I realize now that I wasn't necessarily a standout student in general, I was a good student at a high school not known for producing those. Had I taken the same classload at Pioneer, I'm not sure I would have been admitted to NYU because my outstanding-by-Lincoln record was the norm for many at better schools.

When I went to freshman orientation in the summer following eighth grade, then-principal Ms. Cleary told us, "Look next to you on both sides. One of those students will not graduate with you." And she wasn't lying. Nearly 100 students from my entering freshman class either dropped out or took an extra year in high school. LHS teachers are instructed to get their students to pass, not to teach them critical thinking skills, drum up passion in different subjects, or challenge them in preparation for much less hand-holding college futures. After years of instilling this directive in teachers, hammering down new hires into seasoned, jaded, and complacent old-timers, what hope is there for change?

Becky said...

I fully agree with you Stephen. When I think back to the few truly good and dedicated teachers I had, I realize they have all left or retired. Interestingly enough, the ones I think back on and remember having any impact are some of the ones you listed yourself. Others, sadly, retired before your time.

I think what has me most angry is the level of helplessness I feel in all of it. I want to make things better for all of the kids who deserve more, but there is literally nothing I can do. It's just watching teachers piss away the potential of really bright students. I can't even say that some of the "underachievers" wouldn't have been inspired to be better students if the "you might as well not try anymore" message hadn't started as early as it seems to start in that district.

amanda jo said...

I know I'm a little behind on this post, but this is why I'm sad I'm still in this school district. I was an average (at best) student. Had I tried harder, I could have been far better I'm sure. However I didn't have to try, because skating by was good enough. Had some teacher cared and been like hey, you have more potential, would that have made a difference? Possibly. I still feel bad that you got stuck with me as a partner on a chemistry project. :-) What you have written is a HUGE part of why I send my son to a charter school. It's also why I left the "Kindergarten roundup" almost in tears two years ago because I wasn't sure if he was getting into the charter, and I was appalled that the majority of what they talked about at roundup was stuff he had been doing for almost 2 years!! My parents still can't understand how it has gone so far downhill since they were students there. It is very sad.