New Math

A few weeks ago I was summoned to the principal’s office to discuss my failure rate.

I knew it was high. When the first grading period ended, of 22 my students were failing English. Things got better, though. By the end of the fourth quarter, only 13 were failing — still too high, but only unreasonable in the fantasy land where we achieve 100% proficiency by the year 2012 — right before the apocalypse takes place.

But the conversation we had was a wake-up call for me. I explained what I had done to improve things – calling parents, cutting deals with students, etc. I didn’t explain how ridiculously easy it is to pass my class; that would have been defensive. But you can be sure that anyone who is failing my class has exerted very little effort.

The awakening happened about three minutes into the interview. I noticed that his data did not include all my classes. My total failure rate is not 36%, as he said, but 31%, because the class he overlooked had only two students failing, a 10% failure rate for that class. 31% is nothing to brag about, but I pointed out the omission.

“Hmm,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, if we add in the 10%, that gives you 46%. Nearly half of your students are failing.”

I was stunned. Was this some kind of New Math? The same kind of math, perhaps, used to calculate other things – graduation rate, adequate yearly progress, proficiency test scores?

Before I could think of anything to say in reply, he stumbled on. “Well, make sure that you’re calling home, etc., etc…”

This was the moment when I knew that all was lost. If my job had depended on it, I would have shown him how to calculate percentages. It didn’t; clearly he was just doing what his superiors had told him to do. Blah, blah.

But I began to wonder. Do his superiors know how to calculate percentages? Do any of the people determining educational policies understand how math actually works?

On the one hand, we are being advised to make our instruction “rigorous,” i.e. stop giving out worksheets and make these kids do some real thinking. We are told that we need to set the bar higher, that students will stretch as high as we expect them to reach.

On the other hand, we are warned that too many failures shows that we’re doing something wrong. Students shouldn’t be failing — not if we’re doing all that rigorous, relevant instruction.

My expectations are much lower than when I first began teaching – not because my kids are not smart enough, but because my superiors have policies that compete with the rigor I try to maintain.

Attendance, for example. We have students who have missed more days than they have attended, students who are tardy every day, students who regularly cut class – with impunity. Why does this happen? The system permits it. There are no real consequences for missing days. In the real world, they would be fired. In the fantasy world of school, I am required to re-teach every lesson two or three times, just to keep my missing students up to speed. I feel like a street-corner evangelist, preaching to whatever crowd shows up, starting over when it looks like there are a few new faces out there.

That makes no sense, you will say. You are correct.

But think of it this way: a school district is responsible for specific things – mostly for improving test scores and graduation rates. Our attendance figures are part of the equation, but a small one. We do everything in our power to make sure these things happen, but nothing more. We must not let tardiness or truancy impact our numbers, even if it means teaching students that tardiness and truancy are acceptable. All the talk of preparing students for the world outside has no meaning to us. We’re not responsible. If our graduates drop out of college or can’t hold a job, those numbers will never haunt us.

This is the crux of the issue: it is human nature to do only that for which we are held accountable.

Students will cut class, come tardy, and hand in as little work as possible because they know they can still pass. If homework counts for little, they won’t do it; if it counts a lot, they will copy from someone else. They don’t care about standards or the real world. In School World, they know exactly what they can get away with.

Teachers will push rigor only until we are held responsible for our failure rates. Then we will teach only to the multiple-choice test. We won’t do much higher-order thinking with our students because it would interfere with the goal: pass the test, graduate, be gone. The test doesn’t care if they can think; it only cares about the right answer.

School districts will never prepare students for the world after graduation until they are held accountable for what happens to those students. And tests can’t guarantee success out there.

There is a sweet spot in teaching – the narrow place where a student is challenged, but not discouraged, where the tasks we assign are relevant to their lives, but also pull them beyond those lives. That spot is where we should be.

If those who make decisions about attendance and test scores were to look for that place, aim all their efforts at it, teachers would be able to do their jobs, students would learn that they can’t get away with being late or absent or doing no work. They even might even be in class often enough to think critically every now and then.

If that day ever comes, I hope that I will still be teaching.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. ED Martin
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 01:21:25

    I know exactly how you feel. I felt like I bent over backwards to help my students pass, yet my HS English classes still had a 50% failure rate. Other teachers had kids with mostly B’s and C’s – hardly anyone failed. What was I doing wrong?

    But then I had students that weren’t mine coming into my classroom. Their friends, the ones who’d failed, recommended that they try to get into my classes. They would rather learn something with my curriculum (we learned about propaganda by studying modern-day genocides; found archetypes in everything, even their crappy music; found universal themes they could relate to in the works of Dante, Machiavelli, Baudelaire), knowing there was a good chance they would fail, than take an easy class from another teacher. They’d rather have that teacher who held them responsible, who made good on her threat to fail them if they wouldn’t do their best, than an easy pass. They wanted a challenge.

    So while the system is failing, the kids aren’t. They want to be pushed, don’t want you to give up, even if the system says that it’s easier to do it their way.


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