The Unspoken Obstacle to Any Educational Reforms and the Common Core

PMDiconIt’s the most serious obstacle to real educational reform yet no one is talking about it.  It is the worst omission in the Common Core but no one is debating it.  It is absolutely crucial to any discussion of teacher evaluations yet everyone acts as if it doesn’t exist.  I’m an expert in the subject yet no one in my school district had the courage or the foresight to ask me (or any other expert on ‘at risk’ students) about it.

What is it?  It is de facto social promotion, the practice of promoting a student to the next subject level or grade level simply because of age or seat time.  Now don’t try to tell me your school district doesn’t do it.  We are told that such a policy does not exist and is not a part of district policy but in 20 years of dealing with the ‘at risk’ population of our school district I have witnessed it year after year as a reality of teaching at a CDS school.  And judging from the statistics of Algebra competence across the country, I feel safe in saying, de facto social promotion exists from coast to coast.

What does it look like and why is it an obstacle to real educational reform?  Simply stated, social promotion results in a student lacking the prerequisite skills necessary to succeed in achieving the basic goals of a course due to being ‘just passed along’.  It frequently results in the class content being watered down to accommodate a lower mean level of skills in a classroom or school.  Also being ‘just passed along’ creates a gap in learning which only widens as the years go by and becomes more of an obstacle since it is hard enough to acquire the new skills of of a class, let alone make up for years of missed learning.  Some of you may have taught for years and never encountered it so let me share.

We can learn from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina who tells us that: “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The same is true for student achievement.

In  general, in order to be successful, students must succeed in many different respects: they must posses a basic level of cognitive ability; they must possess an adequate level of prerequisite skills; they must have an adequate level of perseverance (work ethic); they will either have a supportive family or the personal strength to overcome family issues; and finally they must have competent teachers.  Lacking any one of these aspects can doom a child to failure.

Unsuccessful students are unsuccessful for a wide variety of reasons any one of which can derail their learning such as: they may suffer from a lack of cognitive ability that doesn’t get assessed or addressed; they have attendance issues which includes everything from illness, to family problems to gang problems; they may have attended an overcrowded school; they may have had an ineffective teacher (or a string of them); and finally they have usually been passed along without mastering the previous grade level standards – i.e. they are victims of social promotion.

The Common Core and every other reform movement I have ever encountered all start from the same false assumptions, namely: social promotion doesn’t exist; and although students may not be up to grade level they aren’t really that far behind; and if a student isn’t up to grade level it is only the teacher’s fault.  Nothing could be more damaging to raising standards of learning.  Let me show you.

No matter what you may think of the Common Core.  No matter what you may think of any one particular standard.  No matter what you may think about testing.  The whole thing suffers from the same glaring omission: There are no clear cut directives for what to do if a child doesn’t get it.  By this I mean, what do I do if little Seamus doesn’t know or hasn’t learned his multiplication facts (a 3rd grade standard) and I’m supposed to be teaching him Algebra 1B and the factoring of polynomials?  And don’t tell me it’s my job to ‘just bring him along’ (which has been said to me on a number of occasions).  I will teach any child who is ready and willing to learn.  But under the current and proposed mandates, when a majority of your class is dealing with different challenges to success, there just isn’t the time (or guidelines  or support) necessary to fill in what’s missing for each child and teach new material too.

A clear understanding of this problem (social promotion) is missing from all discussion of the Common Core because most of those writing either refuse to acknowledge it or have never taught and/or experienced it.

In my Algebra classes, I gave every student entering my class a 60 problem constructed response assessment so I  could obtain empirical data as to their baseline skill levels.  The standards covered in the assessment ranged from 2nd to 6th grade with little or no reading required – it was basic computation.  I also gave a 50 problem constructed response Algebra readiness test which included verbal problem solving as well as computation.  I did this because the standardized, multiple guess, test scores in student records did not give me enough reliable information to help my students.

In 20 years of teaching, the mean computational grade skill level of students entering my Algebra class (ages 14 to 17) was 3rd grade and the mode was 4th grade.  The mean and mode skill level of Algebra readiness (ages 14 to 17) was barely 2nd grade.  Yet I was required to call the class Algebra, and give every government mandated standardized test as if the students had entered my class at grade level!   As a result, despite turning their lives around, students who worked hard to make up for lost time, students who made up three or four or five years of missed learning might still test out as ‘below basic’ which was demoralizing to them.

Also there would be no way to show that I was doing a good job because there was no accommodation in teacher evaluations for teachers working with students entering class below grade level.

This is not a problem simply solved by teacher training.  No matter how good the teacher is, the empty chair doesn’t learn and if you aren’t taught, you don’t learn.  Two quick examples:

Sophie was a good girl and a good student.  Her family had moved a lot so she had to make up credits.  She had the cognitive ability and the work ethic to make up the work but she missed two months solid in the middle of the semester and wound up graduating late.  Why?  The gangsters had murdered her brother.  Then they showed up at the funeral and shot at the people at the grave site.  Then they told her that if they caught her or any of her family members on the street they would shoot them.  So naturally she was absent from school.  There is no teacher training to correct that.

Julio did not want to go to college and he told me so.  He was required to be enrolled in Algebra 1B but was absolutely lost with the standards of Algebra readiness let alone Algebra 1A.  I asked him where he passed Algebra 1A and he said he passed it ‘in camp’ (translation: kids jail).  I asked if he took any tests.  He said they didn’t take tests and he wasn’t even allowed to ask questions.  After the required 60 days of well behaved seat time he passed (was socially promoted).  I was required to give full faith and credit to that class and then the school district published test scores from my class and my school (as well as all schools) as if Julio (and others who scored ‘below basic’) had entered class at grade level.  Julio eventually dropped out in frustration.

For those who are struggling, setting higher standards, or raising expectations makes as much sense as saying, “Too few students can swim so let’s require water polo for graduation.”

If we are to combat the problems of social promotion, grade inflation and lack of readiness for college or the workforce, we must invest considerable thought, planning and time into helping those who lack the prerequisite skills for the classes in which they are enrolled.  Until we do that, pushing the bar higher will just be a waste of time and money and will drive many a good teacher from the profession.

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What Happened to David

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