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.