Common sense to deal with poorly performing students

I blogged the other day about a brave educator’s claim that cultural differences (which he mistakenly described as “race”) affect the education gap between whites and Asians on the one hand, and Hispanics and blacks on the other hand. At a conference that this educator organized to deal with these vexing issues, another speaker stepped up to the plate and announced that he had solutions. I expected to read in the next paragraph some touchy-feely, feel-good approach to the problem but, instead, read common sense ideas familiar to all of us who attended schools more than 20 years ago:

[Douglas] Reeves, the founder of a Colorado consulting firm called the Center for Performance Assessment and an award-winning author on student achievement, stood before the crowd as one of the conferences’ keynote speakers and said he had the answer to closing the gap.

Even the best known, most effective strategies go nowhere in schools because too few teachers and principals implement them consistently, he said.

“It’s only going to help us if 90 percent of teachers are doing it,” Reeves said. He called for “deep implementation” of the strategies.

In the vast auditorium at the Sacramento Convention Center, the strategies that Reeves posted on big TV screens for all to see seemed simple. They included:

— Explicitly teaching students how to take notes, so what they learn in class isn’t wasted.

— Testing what has been taught.

— Assigning teachers based on students’ needs rather than by teachers’ seniority.

— Posting clear objectives for every classroom lesson.

— Posting students’ work on walls, not just in elementary school but through high school, to foster pride and encourage high achievement.

What’s fascinating is that, one of the hallmark items “assigning teachers based on students’ needs rather than by teachers’ seniority,” which falls into the “well, that’s obvious” category, is pretty much un-doable because of the union’s stranglehold on public schools:

Many teachers say they already do these things – except for assigning teachers based on students’ needs, a sticky issue involving labor contracts between teachers and school districts.

It’s not just the unions, though, that are making it difficult to implement these changes. It’s government, too:

Sam Neustadt, an assistant superintendent for Solano County, agreed that deep implementation of good basic strategies makes sense – “if we were allowed to do it.”

The problem, Neustadt said, is that a vast set of education laws, including federal No Child Left Behind rules and the state’s own requirements, keep educators doing so much paperwork and data collection that they have little chance to spend extra time on instruction.

“It’s possible,” he said, “but not under the current circumstances.”

I’ve heard that from the teacher’s too. They don’t complain so much about the paperwork as they do about the fact that they’re so constrained by a rigid, politically driven curriculum, they do not have time to teach the basics and then make sure that they stick.

One teacher quoted in the article couldn’t see these simple rules work because they seem like a band aid to the endemic problem of social promotion:

But for at least one high school teacher at the conference, Debra Craig of Riverside County, Reeves’ straightforward way of solving the achievement gap was far too complicated.

Craig teaches at Vista del Lago High School, where 85 percent of students are black or Latino.

“I have high school kids who can’t do fifth-grade math,” she said. “They can’t do fractions. Can’t multiply by decimals. But we stick them in algebra class.”

“It’s totally crazy,” Craig said. “It’s because of the practice of promoting kids without their having the skills to move on to a higher level.

“And then we have a big conference to find out why there’s an achievement gap. Gee!”

Sadly, the students Craig describes, who have been pushed through a school system without having learned anything are a lost educational generation. That does not mean, however, that these common sense steps should be abandoned. You’ve got to start somewhere, and these fairly straightforward fixes, put into place when kids are very little, may go quite some way to keeping another generation from having public education pass them by.

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  • Mike Devx

    When I taught high school math, every student got a unique id that they could share or not share, and every Monday, I posted the current total grade in a spreadsheet on the wall. (1988-1990).

    Nearly every student who was doing reasonably well was HIGHLY motivated and very interested in the results. They were often competitive with their circle of friends. It was fascinating. It was worth it.

    “reasonably well” would mean, anything above a 75. Anything measuring some sort of success.

    We included the chance to take one or two retests for a failing grade, which also helped a great deal.

    But what struck me the most, in those days, is how competitive they were. AMERICA is not dead!