It has been almost six months since I have written and I feel that I ought to give an explanation. My wife was diagnosed with cancer and we spent these last months working through radiation and chemotherapy and there is more treatment to come. We still don’t know how effective the treatment has been, but we take each day at a time.
Of course, it is my wife who did and will do the heavy lifting – it is she who got the radiation and the chemo, – but it did affect me as well. Not only did I worry (and still do) about her health, but also this crisis brought a stark reminder of what is important in life and what can take – at best – a second place. Worrying about SBG is one of those second place things. So is school and educational policy, even more so when educational policy and politics in the US is enough to make a healthy person sick.
However, since this is a blog about teaching, I feel I should summarize some of the main activities and insights I gathered as a teacher in these last months. The first insight is how difficult it is to make a difference as a teacher. I do not mean that a teacher can not make a difference in the individual lives of his/her students – I am glad and proud that I have done so for some of my students; there is nothing more heart warming than a note from a former student saying that you really impacted their life. What I do mean is how difficult it is to make a systemic difference.
Take for example SBG which I tried in my Algebra courses. It lasted from September until late November. Parents started to complain that the reporting was too hard to understand. They were used to the school’s grading/communication system (School LoopÔ) and the Excel sheets I created with SBG were too complicated for most parents to understand. I tried to hold the line, but the parents went to the principal and… you can imagine the rest. In our district, parents have way too much power – most often to the detriment of education. Sometimes – from talking to some of the parents – I get the impression that they consider high school courses as “stamps of completion” so their child can get into college. What the kids learn or do not learn does not seem to matter so much as the course grade and how that grade affects the GPA the colleges will see on the kids’ applications.
Since September, I have been teaching four classes of Algebra II – three of freshmen and one of sophomores and juniors. I found my freshmen so poorly prepared – even though most of them came from Algebra I Honors in middle school – that my predominant grades at the end of the first semester were D’s and F’s. Again, parents were unhappy and they went in droves to counselors to have their kids classes changed to “easier teachers”. It got me curious as to why these kids (a) knew very little algebra (Algebra I) and (b) why they were so antagonistic to thinking problems.
I took it upon myself to try to build performance based predictive models and do a statistical analysis of past and current performance. Major conclusion: grade inflation in middle school leads to improper placement and sub par performance in high school. Secondary, but still important conclusions: (a) the state exam has very poor class-grade and mathematical ability predictive effects and (b) middle school education is geared towards a repetitive, algorithmic way of teaching and does not prepare students for any kind of critical thinking.
Coming out of middle school our students seem to see math as a series of various types of problems, each with a well defined set of rules (and somewhat arbitrary ones at that) for solving each type of problem. Start combining problems, or even worse put them in front of word problems and our students melt. If the problems I see at my school are true for the general, average high school in the US – we are in deep trouble.