Monthly Archives: March 2013

Disappointed in Teaching (VI) – What is to be Done?

In the past series of five posts, I described what caused me to be disillusioned with teaching. I mentioned what I perceived to be weaknesses in teachers, administrators and students. Now, a decent respect for those who have read these posts requires that I outline what – in my opinion – would make the system better.

I use the word system deliberately, because I think the problem with education in the United States is a systemic one, and is not limited to just one specific area or group.

I believe that the main problem with education in the US is that we infantilize our students. We have created an educational system that decouples performance and outcome – at least for the first eight years in the students’ career. We allow students to stay children in the sense of not inculcating into them that academics represent an intellectual challenge that demands rigor and sustained performance.

We do not convey the message that lack of performance has consequences – staying a year behind, not going to college, etc. We tend to emphasize, publicize and discuss ad nauseam the social circumstances that hurt performance – poverty, family problems, language barriers, race, etc. This over-emphasis transforms these circumstances into excuses for poor performance, to the point that we tend to ignore and then destroy self-reliance, hard work and persistence. We thus create a system where the students, just like in a video game, always get an “extra life” – there is always “extra credit” or “bonus points”. This is a children’s world, not real life.

When we no longer put our efforts into challenging our students in academics and behavior, we get – at best – a middling educational system. When you get the extra points needed for a passing grade by making a “colored book” where you write the formulas needed in the chapter instead of getting those points by solving 20 extra problems, then you create a world of lowered academic expectations.

The effects of treating our students as children are pervasive and they have ramifications for teachers as well. If teachers do not challenge students, teachers themselves are not intellectually challenged. If teachers are not challenged, then teaching as a profession acquires a reputation of not being intellectually demanding. If the profession has a reputation of not being intellectually demanding, then why should its practitioners be highly paid and/or respected?

Furthermore, a profession whose reputation is that of not intellectually demanding becomes a profession that is “easy”. A profession that is “easy” will not attract the best and the brightest, those that want challenge in their professional lives.

What can we do? We can create a system that sends strong signals that performance has very clear rewards.

For example, high stakes exams at the end of 5th and 8th grades can become gatekeepers in separating those serious about studying from those who are not. Those who do well in these exams will be on the “college path”, those who do not on a “vocational path”. I have heard the arguments that this system is elitist and those wealthy – those who can afford exam prep – will benefit most from such a system. I would suggest that if schools were to take a few bucks from their athletics programs and put them into a strong, free tutoring program, the elitist argument would lose its power.

Furthermore, the merit of such exams is that the message is clear and the consequences direct. This is in contrast to the current situation. For example, in California getting a far below basic score (the lowest category) on the California Standard Tests has no effect on the students’ grades – this is a high stakes test for the schools, not for the individual students who, after all, are the test-takers.

Another signal is the material that we teach. As an example, here is one of the more challenging problems in my Algebra 2 textbook, in the section on exponential functions:

10 x – 1 = 100 2x – 3 (Solve for x)

Here is a problem in the same area from an American textbook of 1960 (Smith and Fagan):

2 x + y= 16 and 2 xy = 4 (solve for x and y).

Finally, here is a problem in the same area for 10th graders from a 2005 European textbook:


(Solve for x).

Why are the last two problems more challenging than what is in our current textbooks? I think the reason is simple – the authors of our textbooks are aware that the preparation of our students is inferior and that our students could not solve the harder problems and many would not even try.

We have not challenged our students in elementary and middle schools and we now reap the results – students whose algebra fundamentals are shaky and therefore they are not ready for a solid algebra program in high school.

We need to get students used to challenging exercises early in their academic careers and in math we need to challenge them with both procedural and critical thinking problems. We also need to instill into these students the idea that a “hard” problem is a challenge to be overcome not something to serve as an excuse for giving up. In other words, our expectations need to be higher and – I can not overemphasize this – we must start with these expectations from elementary school and continue them all the way through high school.

Finally, we need alternatives to rigorous, demanding academic programs. We can not expect every student to succeed in such programs , we are not in Lake Woebegon. For these students, we need to create curriculums that– say starting in 10th grade – prepare the students for vocational careers. Right now I see in my classes students who wear sweat shirts with names like Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC. You ask them and they tell you this is where they want to go. These are the same students who have difficulties with fractions, simple equations, percentages or graphing a line. I don’t believe that we are “clipping the wings” of such students that their chances of getting into top level schools are of the order of ½%. Eventually, most of these students end at junior colleges where something like one in three need remedial work.

Why can’t we guide these students early into a vocational curriculum? A good vocational curriculum would be a blend of academics and practical experience and the academic part would be tailored to the specific needs of the respective profession. We don’t have that – we are not offering the kids a choice.

There you have it: high stakes exams that function as selection means for university bound students, a rigorous and challenging K-12 curriculum that puts a prize on persistence and hard work and a well thought out vocational track that produces well educated and trained professionals.

I am not holding the breath that this would happen. What I have proposed is not politically correct, goes against traditions and cultural norms and also needs resources to implement. Tough.

Disappointed in Teaching (V) – These guys are going to pay my Social Security?

I teach three classes of Algebra 1A – the kids who did not do well throughout middle school, but were pushed forward into a course beyond their level of incompetence. The middle schools did not hold these kids back because to do so would have damaged their self-esteem. Now, with their self-esteem intact, they are freshmen in high school and here they can and do fail.

When one teaches classes where the vast majority of students fail, if one is honest and conscientious, the first impulse may be to blame oneself for the results. Administrators will readily support you in that conclusion: you are just not teaching the “right way”.  Your pacing is not right, you are not checking for understanding enough, you are not making your lessons exciting enough, you are not using technology sufficiently. Administrators are nothing loath to reach conclusions why your teaching is below par and (with a smile) will say they are ready to help you.  This from people who have not been teaching in a classroom for a good number of years and who do not have the day-in-day-out interaction with your kids, the way you do.

I humbly acknowledge that I too have felt the pangs of doubt and guilt – so many F’s! So many parents calling! So many administrators visiting the classroom!  It must be me. Granted, math is one of the more challenging subjects, but still… it must be me.  Sure, most of the ones who are failing  spend their class time talking with their peers and do not do any work, but still…it must be me – at least in part.

One day, I began to wonder what other teachers who have my freshmen do. Are they better teachers and therefore do my kids earn better grades in their courses?  I decided to look at ALL the grades of my kids. I took one of my algebra classes as a sample and tabulated the kids’ grades for the last reporting period. I have 34 kids in that class and, between them, they have accumulated 65 F’s and 31 D’s in all the courses they are taking. That comes to an average of about 2 F’s and 1D per student! Only three of my students do not have either a D or an F. Most of the bad grades are in the core subjects, English, Math and Science, but when a kid has 5F’s and that includes PE, you begin to wonder where does all this come from?

Actually, it is very simple: these kids do not care about school- even the best teaching will not reach them. Some of them are honest enough to say it to your face in so many words: “I don’t care about school Mr. S.” School is to socialize, school is to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, to join a club or a team. Learning comes last and for some of my students, it does not even make the “top ten”.  I give them pep talks about what a hole they dig for themselves with these bad grades, how it may lead to not graduating or graduating late, but it does no good. I have a couple of TA’s who go to neighboring junior colleges and who tell them how hard it is to get from under the remedial program and start taking the courses that you need – no effect whatsoever. What, me worry?

Given that this year I have this population of students, I get dragged in the school’s intervention program. This means that at 7:30 in the morning we have meetings with some of these students, their parents, counselors and all the students’ teachers. We go around the room and each teacher says something about the behavior and academic progress (or lack thereof) of the student. The counselor takes it all down, tries to “engage” the student in a dialogue and then we, the teachers leave, and the counselor writes an action plan together with the parent and the student.

What strikes me about this process is how utterly futile it is.  (In private, the counselors acknowledge this). Like many procedures in education nowadays, these meetings are part of the school’s CYA policy – in case of legal action, the school can say that we have an intervention process in place and we implement it rigorously. Nobody seems to be interested in establishing and analyzing success metrics – does the process work? How do we measure success? For my part, I have very rarely seen a student behavior change following these meetings and this is also the conclusion of other teachers as well

The other theme that comes out from attending many of these meetings is the lack of authority many parents have over their children. These kids talk back to their parents, physically reject a parent’s arm around their shoulders and in general have a “there is nothing you can do to me” attitude. Many times parents try to be friends to their children and very often they will rather believe what their child tells them rather than the teacher.

So what happens to these kids after they fail 2 -3 courses in their freshman year? Many will go to summer school and the teachers in summer school seem to be easier on the kids than in the regular year. Some will get D’s and technically that is passing. Only the worst will go to a continuation school. Somehow, most of them will graduate. Schools are measured by their graduation rates, so we will push them out one way or another. After all, what happens to them after graduation is not our problem. So what if 40% of them have to take remedial math and/or English in junior college (our school’s numbers). So what if 25% of them do not graduate from college after six years? So what if these students have not learned the discipline of studying, and of performing a task well and in time? They are not in our school anymore.

I just hope these students can hold a job so that they can pay my Social Security.

Alfred E. Neuman




Disappointed in Teaching (IV) – Administrators and Lake Woebegone

During the last semester and continuing this one, I am teaching the only sections of the lowest Algebra course we offer. It is a course for those who did not make it through Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1 in middle school and took General Math there – or, as both students and teachers call it, “Math for Dummies”. These students for the most part did not do well in General Math either and their state scores are “Far Below Basic” – the lowest category there is.

Unsurprisingly I have problems with these students, but the problems have nothing to do with math skills or their lack thereof. They have to do with discipline, a general lack of interest in school and the attitude that the primary function of school is to socialize.

As a result of the discipline problems, I have had to send a number of perpetual recidivists to “in-school”, a room where these students are sent outside of class and where they (hopefully) do their work without disrupting their colleagues. Calling security to escort these students to in- school requires that a teacher fill out a form detailing the reasons for sending the student out. This form eventually lands on the desk of the Assistant Principal in charge of discipline – let’s call him/her the AP-D.

Recently the AP-D called me in and told me that I am sending too many students to in-school.  According to the AP-D, “we want all our students to be successful, and we will support you in maintaining discipline in the classroom, but you are sending too many students to in-school and thus depriving them of an hour of instruction”.

I have often wondered what planet do administrators come from. Do they really believe in Lake Woebegone where all children are above average? (Courtesy of Garrison Keillor). Mind you, the students that I send out are often suspended for egregious things they have done in other classes – so it is not that administrators question the fact that these students are disruptive. What is it then that makes them upset when I send out 4 or 5 students? Are they upset, because pretty much every day one or two students from my three sections get sent out? Do they think that I lack in class management skills.

Probably not the latter, because in the last 10 years I have not had this problem despite teaching other low level classes. As I said, the students I send out are often suspended (a more serious disciplinary action than in-school) for other incidents, in other classes. Basically, the administrators know that these students are a problem and that the problem has nothing to do with math or one particular teacher (me). What is it then

My theory is that there are perhaps three reasons at work here.  The first, is a feeling (perhaps subconscious) of failure. Certainly sending these students out – day in, day out – is a sign of failure, the failure of the slogan that all students are successful. Regardless of the fact that this is statistical nonsense, these administrators must believe it if they are upset that it ain’t so.

Perhaps this sense of failure is compounded by the fact that administrators themselves do not have the tools to change the behavior of these students. After all, for almost all my recidivists, we have had meetings with counselors, meetings with parents, conferences with other teachers and the administrators themselves – all that the book say we should do –and the results are nil; these students’ behavior is not changing. Therefore, a feeling (again perhaps subconscious) of powerlessness may also be a reason at work here. Do they want ME to accept that? Are they upset because I don’t take any c..p from these students and I am too “strict”?  Are they upset, because I don’t understand that these are freshmen, in the process of growing up? (Of course the logical answer would be – when can we expect them to grow up? (I believe the Romans declared maturity at 14)

The other potential reason is that somehow the numbers of students sent in for disciplinary action will eventually percolate to the district-superintendent level and then, perhaps indirectly, the competence of the high school administrators will be put into question.

As for me, the solution is pretty clear: tracking. It is obvious that we are dealing with a subset of students who are not ready for high school – either academically or emotionally. Unfortunately, this lack of readiness is expressed by disruptive behavior in class and therefore these disruptive students should be separated from the rest.

I actually offered this suggestion at a meeting I had with my administrators – I said pit the bad all in one section and I will be teaching both the sections of “want to learn” and the section of “losers”. I said that by sending the bad students out, they may lose an hour of instruction, but that I save at least three hours in teaching the three students that do want to learn, but are affected by the bad apples.  I was told no – creating a section like that would mean that all the teachers in other subjects taken by freshmen.

Well, I still send them out, I still refuse to take any c..p, and the administrators are still unhappy with me.