Sunday, June 21, 2015

Systemic failure of education

My first year as a teacher is now over, and I learned a lot about the things that are happening in our schools. It was an eye opening experience, to say the least. For years, I had thought that the problem was incompetent teachers, and I was wrong. That isn't to say that all of the teachers are brilliant and hard working. No, there are good teachers and bad, hard working teachers and lazy ones, just like any other profession. The problems in our education system are widespread and systemic. I am not sure if the system is fixable. Let me explain where I saw the problems:

The parents:
Each and every parent has an outcome that they want for their kids. That desired outcome has NOTHING to do with educating their child. What they want is for their child to receive good grades, so that child can "get into a good college." The parents don't care if the child actually learns anything. The goal is good grades. If their child doesn't receive high marks, then they blame the teacher for picking on the child, claiming favoritism. Even when you show them that the exams are all multiple choice, and the correct answer was not selected by the child, the parent continues blaming the teacher. I even had one parent accuse me of substituting an incorrectly marked test for their child's test, so I could make her look bad.

The State legislature and State Department of Education:
The state continuously changes the standards that each course must meet, and the tests that the students must take at the end of the course in order for the child to demonstrate that he or she has met that standard. These benchmarks mirror common core. I don't necessarily have a problem with common core itself. As I have blogged in the past, the benchmarks make sense, it's just that there are so many things that the students must learn in only 189 days of class.

That brings me to my next point: There are 189 days of school. In those 189 days, the students spend 36 of them taking standardized tests that are required by the state. That does't count my tests, nor does it count other things like pep rallies and other school events. That leaves only about 140 days for actual learning to take place, and there were 83 benchmarks for the students in Biology last year. Benchmarks like:

  • Analyze strategies for prevention, detection, and treatment of communicable and chronic diseases.
  • Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text.
  • Analyze the movement of matter and energy through the different biogeochemical cycles, including water and carbon.
  • Identify the reactants, products, and basic functions of aerobic and anaerobic cellular respiration.
and so on. This coming school year, that has been expanded to 85 benchmarks. 

The school administration:
The schools take the upper half of the students who are doing well, and put them in an 'honors' course. This means that the kids who are below average in learning are segregated into 'regular' classes. At the end of the year, the students for honors and regular classes take the same state exam, so the honors classes have much higher test scores than the regular classes, and they get a bonus point towards their GPA ( an A gets you 5 points on a 4 point scale, instead of 4 points.)
This has the effect of making the regular kids look even more under performing than the honors kids.

The Federal government:
The Feds have a law which says that kids with a learning disability get 'accommodations' to helping them take exams. They are allowed to have extra study guides, extended time on tests, and other perks, but that the student's school transcripts and diplomas will not reflect the extra help. Granted, many of the students who receive them are truly in need of the extra help. The problem is that there are parents who are gaming the system, and in my opinion, these parents are not only hurting their own children, but are placing the children who are truly in need of these services at a disadvantage. 

The students:
Students have always tried to game the system, and get away with doing little. The students don't do their assignments. The problem is even worse. Things have gotten to the point where they will physically attack staff and teachers. Kids are doing and selling drugs on campus. Because of the threats of lawsuits, the achool administrators are afraid to do anything about it.

The teachers
There are teachers who, in response to the above, have simply given up. They give all of the kids at least a C. They don't enforce rules, and do all in their power to ensure that students and parents like them. Of course, there is standardized testing to worry about, but they do their best to feed students the answers to the tests at the end of the year, so they do well enough that the teacher keeps their job. Since there are no raises for teachers based on performance, there is no real incentive to excel. In fact, the only incentive is not to get hassled and to keep your job, and that only ensures that some work just hard enough not to get fired.

This year, I had the under performing half of the students. The state testing at the end of the year is graded on a scale of 1-5. A three indicates that the student was on grade level in the subject. A one indicates that they are significantly below grade level, and a five indicates that they are significantly above. The honors kids averaged a 3.82. My under performing students averaged a 2.73. Not bad, considering that many of those kids have not done well on state testing in previous years. I only had three kids score a 1: two of them failed the final exams in two other classes, and the third of them doesn't really speak English all that well. 54% of my kids scored a 3 or higher on the exam, and that makes me happy. 
I have been hired for next year to teach Biology to tenth graders, and Chemistry to the Eleventh graders. I will again be teaching the under performing kids, and  did so well that I am losing five of them to the honors track.I wish them well.

As for the system, it is broken, but I will refuse to hand out passing grades just to keep everyone happy. 

1 comment:

Graybeard said...

Thanks for the insights. It agrees with what I've heard elsewhere.