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April 09, 2008

Want Higher Test Scores? Put Down the Sign and Pick Up a Book

In an era of falling test scores and persistently uneven educational outcomes, we naturally reach for simple answers and one size fits all solutions. It is unsatisfying to be told such a large scale problem requires a bottoms up solution when institutions can neither exert control over, nor impose accountability upon, individual families and students unless we are willing to stand aside and watch some children fail.

Intuitively we know failure is normal, but this knowledge doesn't prevent us from cringing at the sight of it. The Bell curve represents a broad spectrum of ability ranging from the nearly nonexistent (which, in these politically correct times, we call exceptional) to the richly abundant, which we are glad to call gifted. Humans are no different from any other population; whether one looks at intelligence, talent, drive, or simply the ability to memorize and retain facts for short time periods. Yet when children fail to learn, we struggle to accept the intuitively obvious. Not all children begin with equal ability and not all devote equal effort to their studies. The problem is only compounded when the educational system refuses to face unacceptable educational outcomes squarely:

College seniors know astoundingly little about America’s history, political thought, market economy and international relations.

The overall average score for the approximately 7,000 seniors who took the American civic literacy exam was 54.2%, an “F.” That is consistent with the overall average of 53.2% posted by seniors last year. Not one college surveyed can boast that its seniors scored, on average, even a “C” in American civic knowledge.

Oddly, when children fail to learn most parents immediately blame the school. But one fairly simple solution seems to elude the legions of education experts deployed to help our children learn how to learn: the novel idea that students can't learn effectively unless they devote sufficient time to their studies. To today's educators (and all too many of their cheated charges) true effort is anathema and a sullen sense of entitlement has replaced the notion that rewards are not a gift, but the product of perseverance and hard work.

It is harmful enough when mere academic standards are allowed to lapse. But when standards of civil discourse and behavior are not upheld, relatively small groups of students are encouraged to bully both the faculty and their fellow students, making petty and capricious demands and harassing all who fail to show the proper degree of revolutionary ardor. The result is the very hostile and oppressive educational climate these students are ostensibly protesting, flipped on its belly:

Hampshire College, Bastion of Oppression

Students at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., walked out of class this morning to protest what they saw as administrators’ insufficient commitment to fighting racism, the Associated Press reported.

As part of a series of events called Action Awareness Week — featuring a teach-in, a speak-out, and a writing workshop on oppression — a group of students had presented a list of 17 diversity-related demands (also posted on Facebook) to Hampshire’s president, Ralph J. Hexter.

Among other things, the students were calling for additional faculty and staff positions in multicultural affairs, mandatory “anti-oppression training” for all employees, and residence halls exclusively for students of color and for “queer-identified” students. A few hundred students staged the walkout, an organizer told the AP, when the college’s president did not immediately agree to their demands.

As this student's comment demonstrates, the very students who demanded safe spaces where they wouldn't feel 'targeted' showed no compunction about targeting their fellow students and making them feel profoundly unsafe. Her comment was lengthy so only part of it is excerpted here. It is well worth reading in its entirety, however (comment #69):

When Ralph Hexter, our openly gay College President who is the only openly gay AND legally married college president in the country held a campus event in celebration of his union with his partner, a number of the students in the queer student group that is closely affiliated with the organizers of the walkout last week defaced the area that he chose to held his reception in, touting his white, male, upper-class status as making his status as an openly gay, married man (and college president) invalid. They targeted his ‘white privilege’ and effectively said that his minority status in his profession and his life as an openly gay man was invalid.

-We have permanent identity based housing on campus. We also continually have issues filling this housing. Our “queer/queer friendly” hall is routinely under-filled, despite preferential housing being given to self-identified queer students who request it. In addition (and this is an entirely different issue) in our relatively small entering classes, we rarely have enough students of color to fill a hall, let alone enough students of color who request this living space. The only way we can fill a “students of color” hall every year is to house EVERY incoming student of color in this hall. This becomes segregation, not a safe space.

At Hampshire we do not have the luxury of a 900 million dollar endowment, and we cannot afford empty beds. Our racial policies are perhaps underdeveloped, but much discrimination on campus is imagined. In a faculty meeting on Tuesday, a group of the organizers of the demands walked in and requested a guarantee of safety – both personal and academic – from the faculty and administration because they felt targeted. As was later revealed, this feeling of targeting was based on two things: the first being that these students were not completing their academics and felt as if they were in danger of not completing their classes this semester – at Hampshire, this puts your future enrollment in potential jeopardy. The second source of the feeling of targeting was that our public safety department responded to a noise complaint, at 2 am, in a public space and told the students to disperse. The organizers felt as if public safety responded faster than normal and that this was because they were under surveillance.

... Most students, staff, faculty, and administrators support and understand the underlying message – that students of color want to feel safe, valued, and integral to our community. However, the majority of students, at least, feel as if the demands are too personal, ridiculous, or unrelated to racial policy/racism on campus.

Some examples of ridiculous demands:

-Financial aid for students of color is guaranteed to not decrease during their time here, provided there is no significant change in financial status.

-That students of color with financial holds on their accounts (ie outstanding balances in excess of 1000$) be allowed to register for courses and for the next semester without first consulting with financial services.

-That 4 new faculty in Color/Queer studies be hired (it should be noted that Social Science is very highly staffed, where as other aspects of the school such as theater, science, computer science, writing, photography, and video are all chronically understaffed)

-That we specifically hire a woman of color for our health services department (this is illegal).

-Financial Divestment from Israel (sounds like racism/nationalism to me!).

There are a number of other unrealistic demands or demands that promote racism or give students of color preferential treatment to the rest of – indeed the majority of – the student body.

...The outcome of the Action Awareness Week Demands have been as follows:

...[Students not involved in Action Awareness Week protests] ... have been harassed, harangued, and generally heckled as we walk across campus to attend the classes we AREN’T skipping and to use campus resources in pursuit of our education.

...I’ve heard a lot of talk about the fact that reverse racism does not exist, however the blatant hostility and anger towards anyone who is white and not visibly involved in the anti-racist movement on campus is clear and palatable from many individuals on campus. We are being labeled as racist simply for focusing on our studies and refusing to walk out of classes that cost us, per meeting, approximately $200. I for one do not have an extra $1600 dollars with which to replace a weeks worth of my skipped classes and lost education.

If that rage and labeling is not racism, or at the least racial profiling of white students, I don’t know what else to call it.

In the name of sensitivity, inclusivity, and tolerance the administration of Hampshire College have allowed a small number of students of cholor to disrupt the campus, inconvenience and harass their fellow students, and divert a disproportionate share of time, attention, and funding to their largely nonsensical and redundant demands.

It is not surprising when college students act childishly. This is, after all, their first time away from home and the restraining influence of parents, grandparents, and older siblings. But colleges, to some extent, act in loco parentis to young men and women who have yet to reach the age of majority. College administrators take steps to prevent underaged students from drinking. They assign dormitory residents to watch over such students and have counselors and other programs aimed at easing the often rocky transition from childhood to adult life. And these students, though they dislike admitting it, expect the adults in their lives to uphold the prevailing standards of the community they will one day join as adults.

When adults treat their own standards - whether academic or moral - with contempt, should we be surprised when children fail to live up to them?

Every year, hundreds of would-be classroom teachers fail the MTEL, the Massachusetts Test for Education Licensure. According to Charles Glenn at the Boston University School of Education, independent evaluations of teacher tests like the MTEL put the skills required at the eighth- to 10th-grade level.

Unfortunately, this is still too high for about 40 percent of the test takers each year. So last week, the Democrats of the Massachusetts Senate voted unanimously for a waiver program covering wannabe teachers who fail the test at least three times. Many of them would be allowed to teach ninth-grade English, for example, even after demonstrating that they couldn’t actually pass it.

By the way, if you’re going to just give them waivers, why make the teachers take the test at all? Why humiliate these “education professionals” by forcing them to take - and fail - the test three times?

Is this what liberal legislators consider “getting tough?” What message are Democrats trying to send would-be educators?

“Hey, we’ve still got standards, you know! Massachusetts isn’t going to make you a teacher by just failing the test just once. Who do ya think we are - Rhode Island?”

This isn’t the first time Massachusetts pols have rushed to the rescue of, ahem, “academically-challenged” educators. Everyone knows the Lawrence Superintendent of Schools Wilfredo T. Laboy who, after putting two dozen teachers on unpaid leave for failing a basic English test, had to ‘fess up to flunking it three times himself. He blamed it on his “lack of preparation and concentration.”

At least, that’s what I think he said. It was hard to tell.

And in 1998, the state Department of Education solved the problem of a 60 percent MTEL failure rate by simply lowering the passing score to a “D.” Voila!

After two weeks of national media mockery, the standards were raised from “non-existent” and back to “mediocre.” In a classic Massachusetts moment, the then-commissioner of education resigned, not over the standards being lowered, but because they were raised again.

Who says bureaucrats don’t have principles?

Of course in world where rules have ceased to mean anything, standing on principle can be hazardous to your career:

UNM's director of creative writing said she will resign because her colleague has not been punished for posing in sexually explicit photos with students.

Sharon Warner submitted a letter of resignation March 23 to University administrators. She will step down April 15.

Warner, director of the program for the past 10 years, said she is frustrated UNM's administration has yet to punish Lisa Chavez, who appeared in sexually explicit photos with three graduate students on a sadomasochism Web site.

... Warner's resignation comes two weeks after Deputy Provost Richard Holder decided not to turn over the issue to the Faculty Senate Ethics Committee.

In his findings, Holder stated that Chavez "used poor judgment in participating in the Web site activities with one of her students," and "in (his) mind, this participation did not rise to the level of calling into question her 'unfitness for duty.'"

Holder also said the graduate students involved "reported their activities were consensual, and all disclaimed any recruitment, solicitation or coercion."

Warner said she suggested the issue be turned over to the ethics committee, but she was "harassed, ridiculed and even threatened" for her involvement.

"Mainly, what it amounts to is the chair, the dean and UNM legal counsel have all told me on multiple occasions that I was - and to quote them - 'perilously close to being sued by Chavez's attorney,' and that I would have to pay for my own counsel," she said in a phone interview. "I was told that they would take my house, and that I may be sued down to my grandchildren."

High school and college are a bridge between the cocoon of home and family and the outside world. Little by little, young adults begin to detach from their parents and move into society, testing the values they were taught (or not taught) during their formative years. If there is no societal safety net to reinforce good child rearing, much less make up for those children who had a poor example (or none at all) we can hardly expect moral, disciplined adults to spring full-formed from their own backpacks like Venus from a clamshell. In this, Hillary Clinton was dead on: society - and schools - must reinforce the standards they wish young men and women to rise to meet.

If children's test scores are failing, if many aren't bothering to learn, why then, are we so surprised? With our every act, with our own failure to hold both ourselves and them accountable, we are telling them the game is no longer worth the candle. Real learning and academic achievement are not cost free. They require a significant investment of time, effort, and hard work. Many students will not put in the time and effort needed to excel if they see students who are barely trying being rewarded with inflated grades. Such well intentioned but ultimately misguided intervention blurs the relationship between cause and effect and embitters those who do place a high value on achievement.

If we don't care enough to uphold our own standards, why should they?

Posted by Cassandra at April 9, 2008 05:11 PM

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Comments

From my perspective as a long-time faculty member in a very good public university, I am happy to say that there are limits to such foolishness as you have described. We have departments where this nonsense exists; ultimately, the Provost can starve them into submission. We just don't put resources into programs with low standards and a taste for this nonsense. More troublesome are the (apparently) well-meaning staff who push this sort of nonsense. Thankfully, there are senior administrators who push back on this foolishness.

I am about to take a baker's dozen of undergraduates to Europe for a 10-day perspective class. What they will hear from me is that I will send them home in a heartbeat if they embarrass the university with their behavior. Other faculty who run classes of this sort lay down the same rules, and we just don't have problems.

The good news is that we very, very rarely have any difficulties in these settings, there is substantial evidence of great value-added, and, as far as I can tell, no one's civil rights have been abridged along the way. There are places where the adults refuse to own up to their obligations, but it doesn't have to work that way. Thank you for helping us to see that our small dust ups with 20-year olds are just that: small dust ups.

Oh, and the best of the best have often already worn the uniform in harm's way or are in ROTC. Imagine!

Posted by: Bob at April 9, 2008 07:30 PM

Nice post Cass. You definately "get it". In my school there is a lot of talk about kids meeting standards, and there is an awful lot of unwritten pressure not to fail too many, nudge nudge, wink wink. It is hard to resist this pressure when you are on a one year contract too.

Posted by: Pile On at April 9, 2008 08:12 PM

"I’ve heard a lot of talk about the fact that reverse racism does not exist, however the blatant hostility and anger towards anyone who is white and not visibly involved in the anti-racist movement on campus is clear and palatable from many individuals on campus."

What's wrong with this sentence?

Posted by: John Grammar at April 9, 2008 09:56 PM

it should be "palpable" not "palatable". I didn't know one could eat/taste "the anti-racist movement"... ;-)

Cass, again, I think you are spot-on. Pile makes a point, too. When I did my student teaching the fall of '06, my cooperating teacher commented about how she couldn't fail too many of her students because it could affect how she was evaluated. No matter that a lot of these kids weren't really making ANY sort of effort (these were 3rd graders), and weren't getting any help/encouragement to achieve academically at home. Since it was a low-SES school, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why good teachers don't want to deal with that sort of environment... For any new teacher, for several years, you'll work on a one-year contract. That will be a first for me when I get my own classroom. I just hope I end up at a good school with supportive and involved parents where even "bad" teachers don't "have too many kids failing". It would make my life easier.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at April 10, 2008 01:00 AM

Reading lots of books really helped on that SAT test.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 10, 2008 01:07 AM

Reading is fundamental. Good slogan...

Posted by: camojack at April 10, 2008 03:35 AM

"Nice post Cass. You definately "get it". In my school there is a lot of talk about kids meeting standards, and there is an awful lot of unwritten pressure not to fail too many, nudge nudge, wink wink. It is hard to resist this pressure when you are on a one year contract too."

Absolutely on point Milady and summarized nicely when you say,

"society - and schools - must reinforce the standards they wish young men and women to rise to meet.
...
Many students will not put in the time and effort needed to excel if they see students who are barely trying being rewarded with inflated grades...."
Then Miss LB cites another example of an unintended consequence of allowing the federal government to usurp more power and assert more control over our lives with a feel good solution to the challenge of educating all children. That consequence being the universal expectation of parents and bureaucrats that there can be and should be a uniform outcome for all those children. A Lake Woebegone standard of all children being above average... which must mean that my slide rule is broken!

"When I did my student teaching the fall of '06, my cooperating teacher commented about how she couldn't fail too many of her students because it could affect how she was evaluated."

And within this monkey house of content-free, positioned on a guaranteed outcome curve, this trendy notion of education, the poor teacher in the class room must remember that it's just not fair if some children are smarter, or harder working, or just more capable than others. There will be allowed no state sponsored wounds to self-esteem resulting from the expectation of work, study, high standards nor proof of such by way of testing to standards, or even disciplined, orderly conduct while in class and/or on the school grounds, etc...


The common thread running through this is the pressure on teachers to pass every child along - up and out- with grade inflation. This is the result of NCLB. Yet another federal tax money redistribution scheme... Money honey... It always comes down to money and what bureaucrats are willing to do with it and for it.


The shame of being relegated to the corner with a pointy hat and/or the guilt of not having put forth the effort to succeed used to be motivators. Now it seems that they are badges of honor.

Posted by: bt_curmudgeon_hun at April 10, 2008 07:55 AM

I think the grade inflation problem is worse in math and the sciences because they are harder to pass. It bothered me a lot when I went back to school as a returning adult to see teachers being graded on the basis of the pass/fail rate in their classes, or the student evaluations. Some of my best teachers were also the most difficult ones.

That was no coincidence: they also made me think and gave challenging lectures full of material that wasn't easily assimilated unless one had read the accompanying text. So if students fell behind, was that the teacher's fault? Almost to a man (woman?) these profs held liberal office hours. They bent over backwards to help any student who sincerely wanted to pass.

My Calc teacher was one I actually hated after only three classes. Several students walked out of his class. But he made me so angry that I marched right into his office, and when I talked to him I realized I was the only person who could ensure I learned the material. He was more than willing to help. Ironically, that was exactly what I'd just finished telling two female students who were planning on dropping the class, except I'd framed it rather differently (more as "no one is going to keep me from passing this class... not even this jerk of a teacher"). Can't say I ever got where I particularly liked the man, but he taught me a valuable lesson: no one "owes" you an education.

You "owe" it to yourself, however, to do everything in your power to learn and you're a damned fool if you don't take advantage of every opportunity to do so.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 10, 2008 08:03 AM

.

========================================================
> to the richly abundant, which we are glad to call gifted.

Actually, I believe the modern Lefty term for it is "lucky" and "a winner of life's lottery". That way, the other end can be Victims Of The Universe, and you can't get more innocent and deserving than that, can you?

The good thing about Civilization is it is a normalizing process -- it allows the weak to not be the prey of the strong, which allows for a diversity of True Gifts to be asserted for the benefit of all.

The bad thing about Civilization is it is a normalizing process -- it keeps the stupid from becoming tiger food, and thus equates all their flaws as no worse for society than the best that the best have to offer.

I therefore assert: We Need More Tigers.

========================================================

.

Posted by: obloodyhell at April 10, 2008 08:04 AM

> he taught me a valuable lesson: no one "owes" you an education.

A good lesson. Society owes you a *chance*. It's up to you to *take it*.

This is from whence the twin phrases "All men are created equal" and "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" derive their powers. Not in results, but in opportunity. Certainly America has failed in its ideals at times in the past. It isn't doing so now.

Posted by: obloodyhell at April 10, 2008 08:08 AM

> here is an awful lot of unwritten pressure not to fail too many, nudge nudge, wink wink.

There's also an equally ludicrous flip side to this -- I once took a class in Archery, just of r the heck of it. It was winter (in FL, not so bad), and only six people were signed up. For whatever reason, they did not drop the section, and the class continued. With only six people, we got lots of shooting time and lots of individual attention. By the objective criteria, we all got "A"s. I had the lowest of the grades, however, so I got a "B", because the teacher would have been read the riot act if the entire class had gotten "A"s.

Assinine.

Posted by: obloodyhell at April 10, 2008 08:12 AM

"Actually, I believe the modern Lefty term for it is "lucky" and "a winner of life's lottery". That way, the other end can be Victims Of The Universe, and you can't get more innocent and deserving than that, can you?"
Heheh... and that brings to mind the words of a departed philosopher who once observed, Who you jivin' with that cosmic debris?

Posted by: bt_liberals-ripped-my-flesh_hun at April 10, 2008 08:26 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 04/10/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at April 10, 2008 10:48 AM

This is the vicious circle closing in on itself. I would be willing to bet that these kids (the rabble rousers) are studying subjects that have no skills that someone else is willing to pay for. They will then be further embittered and will move farther to the left. It's a classic cycle.

Posted by: Allen at April 10, 2008 12:59 PM

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