Friday, June 24, 2016

Our Inflexible Standards Harm Students, Teachers, and Our Economy

We don't blame doctors and hospitals if they can't cure all their patients equally. We understand that when a patient comes to a hospital with lung cancer because he has chain smoked for 40 years, or a patient has diabetes because he is obese, doctors are limited in what they can do. Our medical professionals are especially limited if the cancer patient who has a lung removed continues smoking and the diabetes patient is not willing to change his diet.

In the field of education however, our professional educators are expected to produce certain prescribed results for each student no matter the background or life experiences of their students. This "no excuses" philosophy of our education policy makers has led to the labeling of almost all schools that serve high populations of at-risk students as "failing schools". The same policy makers also assume (without evidence) that simply closing down such schools and sending the students to private or charter schools will magically cure the problem. That would be like closing a trauma ward in a hospital because it is caring for too many hard to treat patients. Such a policy also stigmatizes the teachers that teach in high poverty schools as lazy or incompetent even though they may be working diligently to help students overcome their handicaps.

The success of our public schools has been made even more difficult by the adoption of uniform academic standards designed to make all students the same. That sameness is usually referred to as preparing students to be college and career ready. The use of the word "and" connecting these two outcomes assumes that students need to master exactly the same standards for many varied careers as they need for college prep careers. That would be as incorrect as assuming that all ill patients need chemotherapy or insulin therapy no mater what their ailment. But our lawmakers have decreed based on blind faith (not science) that all students should and can master a set of college prep standards even if some want to be welders, some want to be nurses, some want to be truck drivers and some want to be sales reps.  In Louisiana and many other states, all students are expected to become proficient according to the Common Core college prep standards. (Louisiana has only made minor changes in the standards) A recent poll of teachers by the pro Common Core Fordham Institute indicates that the 6-8 grade math standards may not be appropriate for most students. 61% of those teachers said the math standards were unrealistic for their students.

So the student who loves to work with her hands and who has demonstrated a talent for carpentry is forced to spend endless hours trying to master the proofs of theorems in Geometry such as the derivation of Pythagorean theorem using the area of triangles. If she really struggles with math and proofs, she may be denied a high school diploma and the opportunity to pursue her career goals may be limited.

Here is something I actually observed in my own neighborhood: A team of carpenters was busy one morning mapping out the foundation for a new house. They were outlining the corners of the new house using wooden stakes and string. As I approached, I noticed they were all speaking Spanish to each other.  Taking a chance, I introduced myself in English and asked them what method they were using to insure that the corners were square (90 degree angles). The foreman, who was the only one who could speak English, was friendly and told me they were using the 3, 4, 5 rule. That's where you set the stakes and the string to form a perfect 90 degree angle using a length of string 3 ft on one side and 4 ft on the other side so that the diagonal between them is exactly 5 ft long. This method works every time, and gives perfect square corners.

I said, "Oh I see, you are using the Pythagorean theorem."

The foreman who seemed to be reasonably intelligent said "What's that?"

I explained briefly that the 3, 4, 5 rule is an application of a geometry principle discovered by a Greek named Pythagoras. He was amused by my explanation and actually translated it for his crew. But very soon the crew was back to work and probably to this day would not be able to recall the name of Greek whose formula was used to design the method that helped them lay out a foundation.

My point is this: This skilled carpenter understands clearly that the 3, 4, 5 rule will give his house foundation perfectly square corners without knowing anything about the Pythagorean theorem. But if he had to meet the standards we now have for graduation, which includes an understanding of the Pythagorean theorem, he may not have received a Louisiana high school diploma. And if a diploma were a requirement for carpenter training, he may never have had a chance to make a good living as a skilled carpenter.

Of course I am guessing the construction company that hired this crew of carpenters does not require their employees to possess a high school diploma. The skills and motivation to do the difficult job of carpentry are probably more important than any sheepskin. This begs the question: "How many of our Louisiana high school graduates graduate with the minimum skills and motivation to enter an apprentice program to become a skilled carpenter?" I seriously doubt that our high school graduates who may have some knowledge of the Pythagorean are really career ready. I would not trust many of these graduates with a skill saw or even the ability to use a carpenter's level.

So our policy for K-12 education in Louisiana is to track all students into a college prep curriculum. How does that work? Here are the latest results: The average score for all students taking the PARCC tests in 2015 was 38%. The average passing scores on the new tests were set at approximately 30%. So even though the majority of students received a passing score, they actually knew only a small percentage of the material they are supposed to know for success in college. In addition, the passing scores on the end of course tests in high school have been set so low that even students with minimal knowledge can pass them and get a high school diploma.

So what we have done is required college prep standards which students do not actually have to master in order to receive a high school diploma. The majority of our students that graduate are not prepared for college or a career. I call that a failure! It is harmful to students and their teachers.

That's one of the many reasons I ask: "Why do we attempt to track all of our students into such a narrow and highly structured pathway to graduation?" Why do we refuse to understand that there are many differences in the natural abilities, talents and interests of our students? When we prescribe just one set of standards for all students we are denying the value of the wonderful diversity of human beings. This unproven policy is harmful to our students and to our state economy because we are not preparing workers for diverse careers.


7 comments:

Daniel Granfors said...

I must say that you’ve pegged it perfectly, Mr. Deshotels. I used a similar analogy ten years ago when VAM was gaining momentum, asking if the police should take a pay cut if crime goes up in their jurisdictions, or oncologists should lose their licenses if too many of their patients die of cancer.

Education did work at one time in our country. I know this because I am able to think. Policy makers were confident enough in experienced and seasoned educators to follow their advice in shaping legislation. But in these times, any EdD with clout has been able to have his/her pet ideas made policy virtually without review.

One example should be the disastrous Eureka Math Curriculum. After its dismal failure in NY, under the name of EngageNY, I guess that the suits in charge decided to rename it Eureka Math and to try to sell it to the hicks in the mildew belt. And guess what? THE HICKS BOUGHT IT! After two years of trying to implement this compost, which seemed like an incoherent and disconnected collection of plagiarized items from some precalculus textbook, I gave up and left public education. And from what I hear, most Louisiana parishes have carted it to the curb at this point after squandering how many thousands of taxpayers’ dollars
With greed driving so much of education policy now, it is hard to fight back the feeling of rage and futility at what has been done to an education system that was the envy of the world when I was a child.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of a huge problem. I love your carpenter/Pythagoras story. They proves that not everyone needs to go to college to be a success. I also would trust few graduates with a level and almost none with a skill saw. Who can't use a level?

I'm in Caddo Parish, and we used Eureka math for one year before we scrapped it. It was horrible. We have something new that's also standards based because we have to follow the state curriculum. Good teachers teach students the concepts that need to be taught regardless of the standards. That's what all teachers should do if they know how to teach.

Anonymous said...

You are quite right, Anonymous. The pity is that a climate exists, when a teacher does teach the concepts that need to be taught, where he or she must worry about adverse professional ramifications or even jeopardizing his/her livelihood. The fact that we both choose to sign this blog "anonymous" is revealing.

Michael Deshotels said...

One more example: I had a grandson who graduated high school with honors who came to me needing help in putting together a pre-fab greenhouse for his mother. The greenhouse had been partiallly erected from the floor up using parts that contained pre-drilled holes. When the construction reached the upper level panels, the drilled holes no longer lined up properly and the project was stalled. I was called in to try to correct the problem. I noticed at the beginning of the instructions, there was a directive that the floor must be built on level ground. I asked my grandson was he sure the ground was level. He said the found the most level ground possible. I asked if he had used a level. He said he did not think it was necessary. We put a level across the floor and found that the floor level was about half a bubble off in one direction. Based on this evidence, we disassembled the project and started over with a truly level floor. All the holes matched up to the top and the greenhouse worked fine. The point is that the human eye can't serve as a substitute for a simple instrument such as a carpenter's level.

I wonder if the common core standards include the importance of levels and squares in the construction of even the simplest structures? What about cooking skills, first aide, and everyday finance? What about the basic principles of nutrition and exercise? Are you aware that about a third of our students graduating from high school today are so obese as to be a serious insurance risk to potential employers? Are we really sure that the common core standards insure that our students know some of the most basic concepts of everyday life?

Anonymous said...

We took gym, recess and electives away. Then we got rid of Home Economics, sewing and personal finance. Then we cut the time between classes to 4 mind, good luck if you need to use the restroom! Vo-tech was not important, no woodshop, small engine repair or deer stands! Remember those? They would raffle one off, and a cute kids playhouse to pay to go to different Vo-tech competitions. No welding or car engine repair, and no auto body repair classes. I think it was easy to do because the people in our state legislature have no respect for "workers", and they never had to DIY, so they never felt the pride in a perfect weld, a beautiful handmade table, or a shed built to last. They have never felt the satisfaction of cooking for their family, fixing a mower or sewing something that makes their child gush with joy and say, "I LOVE IT!" They never had to budget and save to buy the best car they could or live paycheck to paycheck which requires all that Home Economics class experience to pull off! They are so out of touch with the way most of us live they have no idea that all these life skills are, sorry, were learned in school or from parents! Kids were proud of what they could build, make or weld! Girls sewed their prom dresses!!! Put all those folks with their college educations on an island and leave them there and come back in a week. Then ask them if life skills, votech and Home Ec is important! I have a master's degree and I took all these unnecessary classes in school, had a grandmother who raised me to be able to take care of myself AT college and beyond, learned what is important and how good it feels to be able to work as a team building or creating or surviving in the military. We need to have a "survivor: the legislature edition". Would be on the comedy channel.

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