One of the current buzzwords in education is 'backward design'. The concept means you begin with the end in mind. Using it, a teacher plans a unit beginning with the final evaluation (and the skills / steps therein) and working backward. If it's a paper, you teach everything with that paper in mind. Basically, you know what you're going to do before you start and break the lessons down accordingly. Another name for this is: good teaching.
The odd thing about backward design - a principle I am a fan of - is that the system as a whole doesn't do this at all. In fact, if you were to ask me the biggest flaw in the current system it is: that no discussion centers around the end goal of / for students.
All districts have a mission statement, and they all sound great. They're created by corporate people that know the game and corporate speak, but when it comes to making sure the mission is met, there is no talk or followthrough. No honest reflection and meaningful change.
For example, a study that came out in 2010 showed that in the Chicago Public Schools, only 6% of students graduated from a 4-year college within 6 years of graduating from high school. (According to this article, it's slightly on the rise). But if the goal is college success (which many districts would claim), it obviously failed.
Obviously, college graduation should not be the goal of K-12 education, but there certainly must be some measure. If there isn't, we fail all students. (This is a case where private schools may have an advantage over public. Most private schools have a goal to have their students be knowledgeable of their God and subject matter, with the former being the most important. Thus, having 12-years of biblical studies and service projects accomplishes some of this.) When public schools do not address the question, of course they fail.
Just as importantly, when the goal is tied to something measurable, but that measured thing isn't actually important, they also fail. For example, when the goal is based upon numbers, such as ACT score or score raise, this goal is accomplished when a district raises composite scores by .2, from a 15.9 to a 16.1. The accomplishment of the goal overlooks the fact that a 16.1 average is terrible. It hits the lowest possible score of 'college ready', but takes away the addition of a valuable skill, like welding or mechanics. Thus, the same students that 'improved' scores are not equipped to do well at the next level, be that college or job.
Education, and the system as a whole, needs to have an end goal that drives all subjects and levels of schooling. I think this end goal should be: knowledgeable, responsible citizens*. The next post (The Cost of the F&%k Up) will speak to this goal specifically, but for our purposes here, we need a focus. As a society, we have deemed the importance of K-12 education to be worth the cost for every student. We've decided we're willing to pay nearly $10,000 p/student, p/year toward this education. Thus, a taxpayer has a realistic expectation that their tax dollars should produce - at least mostly - students that are knowledgeable and responsible. But year after year we fail. How is that? Why is that? These two questions do not get asked, let alone answered.
When the questions of how and why are even sort of mentioned, the typical response is that of excuse. The most common excuse is something like, 'The kids come to us below grade level'. I have heard this one way more times than I care to mention, and all except for the first few times I heard this excuse, I called bullshit. The worst I heard it was at a school that had students from 6-12th grade. When the scores came back for the 11th grade, several teachers and administrators said, "Well, these kids came to us below grade level" and "they weren't the best students to begin with".
What? Really? You had these same students for 6 school years and still make that excuse? Appalling and preposterous.
Until the 2015/16 school year, I'd always taught high school. In high school, we'd blame middle school. But when I was made a sub and got to see all grade levels first-hand, I discovered that middle school teachers blame elementary school teachers, and elementary school teachers blame parents. No one takes responsibility.
It's also true that it isn't a school district's fault if students come to them well behind where they should be. This falls on the parents. But blaming parents for the next 12 years, while the student is in your classes and buildings also does not help. Rather, a focused mission and the questions How? and Why? need to drive all curricula and social decisions.
One specific way to combat excuses, while allowing a mission to shape all decisions is to: 1. Lower your starting point while at the same time 2. Not inflating grades.
What I mean by lowering your starting point is that all the standards that schools are judged upon have an assumption written in that students will begin at a certain level. But when they don' begin at the assumed level, the standard cannot be approached as if they had. Below is a longer explanation of what this looks like.
Further explanations: 1. If the 'content' of a given grade level has a standard to read and analyze complex text, but students cannot read or analyze any text, this standard is unachievable. Thus, the focus should be turned (read: lowered) toward reading and analyzing. Entire classes should be devoted to reading; entire days and weeks should be devoted to analyzing. And it doesn't even have to be books. Here's an example, and where The Real Tom Bratt veers from many others: not all kids can read, but they can all watch. Reading takes a lot of skills, and reading well takes even more. When kids equate reading with getting through words on a page, and then get through them without understanding those words, all that has happened is wasted time (and, really, money). Instead, what if they watched a 20-minute television program. After watching, they could discuss rather than write the analysis. Doing this for weeks, with several different shows, could teach the process of analyzing. Then, after doing this successfully (which would certainly have an affect upon how students watch and view in their home lives, changing their inner narrative as well), have them begin writing their analysis, naturally going from verbal analysis to written analysis. From there, introduce reading and transfer the skill. Start small. And then introduce the vast array of interesting books. When this transfer happens, the goal is achieved. Students are (probably) more interested, and they are empowered.
The key, though, is that while you do this, you must also not sacrifice the integrity of achievement; as in: 2. you cannot inflate grades. If an A is an A when a student is successfully able to read and analyze complex text, they cannot earn an A for analyzing a television show. Nor can they earn an A for discussing it. Doing so takes away the accomplishment when they are able to do both to the standards of the course. I would propose throwing grades (and grade levels) out during the training process. Not doing so causes more problems. For if you throw out 'encouragement A's' while students are training, then they falsely think they're masters before they even start. (This will come in a future post: The Point is Not the Worksheet).
An A must be earned.
I'll use a few personal examples here, both good and bad. The bad happened at a school in Grand Rapids. When students enter the Grand Rapids Public Schools, often they are 'behind' where they should be. This leads to discipline problems and added 'classroom management'. When managing a classroom is the only job of a teacher, they turn from educator to babysitter, often assigning busy work in the form of worksheets. When this happens, completion of the worksheet is seen as the point of a lesson, and a student receives a 'completion grade' for simply filling out the sheet. (Sometimes without the teacher even looking at answers, so answers like "this sucks" can be graded at 100%. I've even seen it where students write things like, "Our teacher is really stupid" or "You'll never actually read this" and they get an A because the teacher didn't ever see it, didn't read it, and was, in fact, kind of stupid. Side note: having these students in summer school and catching this type of thing is very fun, and very shocking to students.) But more importantly, inflated (or completion for encouragement grades) become a problem when you introduce actual grading. Kids feel tricked when they find out what an actual A is; in their mind, as given from the teacher, they'd been doing A work all along. So how is it that now, once they think they've learned something and are doing more and better work, they are actually receiving worse grades. Or, if don't ever correct inflated grades, they find out when they apply to college and their 3.9 GPA and 14 ACT score is not good enough to get into any school.
I realize that you also cannot penalize entire districts with .3 GPA's (D- average). There are things you can do, though. I faced this situation in my first year of teaching. I was assigned a Creative Writing class for highly motivated upperclassman. The problem wasn't them, it was the prior teacher. That teacher liked to talk, and loved Christian Fiction**. The problem for my students was that tangental discussions and Christian Fiction didn't lead to good writing. So I had these students that were planning on going to college, but couldn't write a paper. Fresh out of college and extensive writing training, I set it up so that retakes were available all throughout the semester. If a student provided every draft, including feedback and revisions, they could keep (read: earn) the highest final grade. There were unlimited redo's, as long as they followed the process of editing and revising. If they simply turned in a different draft, or if they didn't make changes, they (obviously) would't get a higher grade. I faced a lot of pushback, but it worked. The first paper I assigned, the highest grade was a C, with mostly D's and F's. New to the school and young, I got a lot of pushback from both students and parents. "I'm a good writer," I was told by several students. "My child is a good writer," I was told by several parents. "According to who?" I responded. The answers were either, "My old teacher", "their old teacher", or "me". My response was: Fine. You can think you're a good writer, but if you want to do well in college, you should follow my advice.
The students eventually fell in line, and became a class of great writers. (A class I'm still proud of). In the process, and through revisions, students learned what writing is: editing and revising. When they got that, they got good grades. Until then, they didn't. The important thing was that there was never a penalty when they were trying, and they were never falsely told they were good when they weren't.
I know this post is getting long, but I'll bring it back to the beginning: I was able to get those students to be good writers because I began with the end in mind. The end goal, the entire time was this: all students will be good writers in all genres. It drove every lesson, and it was achieved. The same must happen in our schools. I propose the national goal be: knowledgable, responsible citizens. Benchmarks and standards need to (and can) be tweaked so that we're not simply pushing students further and further without actually progressing. To do so inflates hope and sets them behind. Doing so also has a cost, a major cost, to all of us.
*I'm not going to touch immigration in this post, and therefore 'citizen' should refer to any student that goes through a U.S. K-12 education, regardless of legal terminology.
**Which I also like