Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why schools are hurting our children

School is not just about the grades:  

Grades are supposed to be the result of hard work, sweat and tears; yet, again and again, schools are perpetuating the myth that grades are all that matter while, ironically enough, squandering the importance of independent study or, as everyone knows it, homework.  Because of “educational experts” like Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli, coupled with the band wagon mentality of so many school districts nationwide, school districts are continuing to hold onto the idea that teaching students to be truly ready for the real-world, for college, for jobs, for life is not the public school’s job.  Instead, public schooling is living in the “now” and only focusing on the data students provide to justify their jobs.  Needless to say, we have lost our way and we have lost what is best for our children in an attempt to reform schools. 

Let me explain...

“Homework is now considered practice for tests. Assignments that are half done, handed in late or missing all together will be noted, but will not hurt a student’s grade. Nor will showing up late for class, forgetting to bring your pencil, failing to raise your hand before shouting out an answer or forgetting to bring in a permission slip for the class trip…” 
As an old journalism adviser and current high school English instructor, it is hard not to cringe, even scoff at the date of the article; however, I did this purposely.  We are now nearly to the end of 2014 and scores are stagnant despite “educational reform” attempts as described in Tyre’s article, which is dated 2010.  Take special notice of the first sentence, “Homework is now considered practice for tests.”  Unfortunately, for many administrators, not all, that translates into a one-size-fits all curriculum that consists of the same assessments that ultimately “prepare” students for state and even national assessments, not for life outside of high school.  So, students are already unintentionally being conditioned to focus on the end product rather than on the process of learning, which is a destructive, fixed mindset. 

Standardized testing and grade weighting that places the majority of a class’ credit on summative tests are examples of what is fueling grading debates nationwide.  It is also something that continues to shake me to my philosophical core.  The whole student counts. Teachers, administrators, even O’Connor and Wormeli agree. What is ironic is how that translates into our classrooms.   According to O’Connor, students should not be punished for their behaviors and that all students should be given as many attempts as they want when “mastering” a subject, assignment or even a test.  For example, if a student chooses not to turn in a homework assignment when it is assigned, it would be considered wrong to deduct points from their grade because the teacher is penalizing a student for her behavior rather than focusing on what she actually knows.  This notion is absolutely absurd.  It is impossible to separate behaviors from learning, because how a student behaves forms his or her learning experience.

New trends in grading sabotage our children: 

As a sophomore English teacher, my primary job is to teach critical thinking skills and to teach such skills, students have to be patient with unpacking text.  Finding symbolism, understanding author’s purpose and relating their discoveries in the text to everyday life are the focus of everything we do in my classroom. They need to be able to analyze their own worlds to be able to purposely live in it as adolescents and as adults.  However, none of this can happen if students do not read the assigned literature. 

Seminars cannot happen, discussion cannot take place and learning is stalled because, under the philosophy above, students cannot be punished, because the actual choice not to read is a behavior, not an academic concern.  Well, if they do not read, they cannot learn and that “behavior” impacts the student and everyone else in the classroom, because that is one more perspective that would not be added to the discussion.  And, unfortunately, our students are human, which means if they know they cannot be penalized for not doing their work and redos are always a possibility, there is no impetus to do it in a timely manner.  Then teachers are forced to focus their energy on chasing students down for missing work, and learning gets lost because the class is unable to move forward as expected, because student apathy reigns. Why read, why study, why work hard when there is no penalty for asking to redo everything for a better grade?  Could you even begin to imagine how this would translate into the adult world? Additionally, the cognitive load alone associated with trying to keep up in this kind of environment devalues the process of learning altogether.  Like teachers, students need to be invested in the process of learning to truly learn. They also need to see their teachers are invested, but all of that gets lost when eyes are only on the end result.  While my experience is solely in the Language Arts, the Nation’s report echoes the same grim picture I painted above.

Big business and "educational reform" do not mix:

Here is where it gets really troubling. According to The Nation’s Report Card for 2013, we have had some gains in math between 2005 and 2009; however, the scores have been stagnant since.    

What is more troubling is that reading has decreased since 1992, with no changes since 2009.  Schools are still holding onto “experts” like Wormeli and O’Connor despite the fact that we are failing our students on a national level.  In the meantime Wormeli and O’Connor line their pockets with our nation’s ignorance.  For example, Ken O’Connor is making millions because Pearson Prentice Hall has partnered with him. What does that mean?  Big business is controlling our educational trends. Changing our mindset as a nation would mean saying big companies like Pearson Prentice Hall were and are wrong.  That means massive economic losses for corporate America. Also, Pearson is the parent company of smaller companies that author standardized tests internationally, so it is easy to see why Pearson is so invested in maintaining the culture of standardized testing.  As a result, our students, our children are just money-makers for big business and public schools are being manipulated.

Also, please take notice that “educational experts” like Wormeli and O’Connor are still making their rounds, being paid millions of tax-payer dollars.  The question lingers, “Why?” Even O’Connor struggles with teacher and parental concerns on his Ask the Grade Doctor website. For example, he says, “I have responded to Joe Killoron articles before and he is still wrong on so many levels and in so many ways it is hard to know where to start to respond” and he continues to ramble on without offering any solid evidence, just emotion and “practical” knowledge.  

Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset:

Despite more timely, more thoughtful insights and research like what has been offered by Carol Dweck on the fixed vs. growth mindset, schools continue to put their blinders on and ignore new evidence that disproves the very grading initiatives they are pushing forward.  Dweck highlights how important it is to experience failure, to learn from failure and to praise effort rather than praising intelligence.  She emphasizes how it is imperative to not praise grades, but to push children to figure out what they can do better.  She focuses on the importance of the process, not the end result. The process of learning is much more valuable than the end result, because the learning process never ends.  So, why then would we have a student’s grade be something like 80% summative and 20% formative? Does that not in its very nature bastardize the growth mindset Dweck explains is necessary to be a successful, resilient adult? Instead, educational institutions insist on riding the coat tails of an outdated, ineffective fixed mindset that claims students should primarily, if not only, be graded on summative assessments, because formative assessments are merely practice and, as a result, should not be used to “penalize” students.

Yet, teachers are supposed to carry on class discussion or instruction without being able to hold students accountable for doing their work?  Without homework or, shall I say, Practice (as defined by Wormeli, because homework is apparently a dirty word), learning does not happen.  Without true learning, there is no motivation to continue the process at all.  Then what do we have?  We have stagnant scores, just like the ones displayed above.  But that is merely what is above the water.  What is below the water is the future of our country.  Could you imagine living in a world where our leaders always expect redos, who disregard deadlines, who live day-to-day with little reflection only to lose it emotionally and mentally when faced with convoluted issues that require even more complex solutions?

There is hope, but we need to do it together: 

We have to first undo the damage that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did by making high-stakes testing the primary means of assessment and funding. Then we need to address the serious flaws that revolve around grading students primarily on final assessments.  However, we cannot do any of this without addressing the fixed mindset that rules so many policy decisions.  Common sense and teacher experience need to be utilized, and their voices need to be heard when it comes to student achievement. 

In Mickey Goodman’s article, “Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?” she explains, “When a college freshman received a C- on her first test, she literally had a meltdown in class. Sobbing, she texted her mother who called back, demanding to talk to the professor immediately (he, of course, declined).” She continues to explain how Generation “Y” kids have shorter attention spans and rely heavily on external motivation rather than finding intrinsic motivation. The reason? The current educational climate gives students a way out of failure.  With failure comes the greatest learning and our educational system is taking that away from our students. Rather than being inspired to work harder, students simply give up because they do not have the emotional skill set to handle life, which is precisely why separating academics and behavior sabotages our children’s futures. 

Because students are lacking a growth mindset, they also lack resiliency because they are often not allowed to experience getting in trouble and having consequences without parental and/or teacher intervention. In our schools’ attempts to help students under the “no failure” and “redo” policies, they are actually crippling them intellectually, emotionally and socially. Knowing this, how can we expect students to access their intrinsic motivation when they know they can fail a test or homework again and again without any consequences?

In fact, students are rewarded for NOT doing their homework because they know they can simply continue to redo the assignment or test until they get their desired grade, which means there is no focus or emphasis placed on actually learning the material.  Instead, their attention is focused on manipulating the system, wearing teachers out with inordinate amounts of grading, unleashing helicopter parents and questioning teacher efficacy without even addressing the actual content. Rather than teaching students the importance of resiliency through deadlines, consequences and scaffolding, we sabotage them by not teaching them boundary setting, and the joy and the subsequent intrinsic motivation that comes from overcoming something difficult all by themselves.  It is time to take back our children’s right to learn and affect change.

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