Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

5/17/2005

Quit while you’re ahead

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:43 am.

….even if that means quitting before you’ve even started. That’s what teacher-in-training Lauren is considering doing - finding another line of work before ever taking a regular teaching position. I can’t relate to everything in her post, especially the USA-specific parts, but boy do I feel this: Politicians, concerned with public sway, bloviate on education and educational policies that have no empirical bearing on scholastic research…In no way do I feel obligated to justify my pedagogy to a parade of political assholes who aren’t even familiar with the term.

Last week, I visited my old high school, an institution that I’d be content to relegate to the domain of the unpleasant memory were it not for the fact that the best damned high school math teacher in the western hemisphere still works there. I’ve known Mrs. C. for nearly half my life, and I’ve kept in touch over email and snail mail with Mrs. C. for the past decade. I owe much of my success as a mathematician to Mrs. C. I owe almost all of my successes as a teacher to her.

Mrs. C. has worked as a high school math teacher for over thirty years - half of that at my school. During my time at the high school, she was consistently the most popular teacher around - no mean feat for someone who taught math, of all subjects. She was loved by her strong students and her weak students alike; she was available for several hours of remedial and extra help every day - not just for her own students, but for other teachers’ students as well. She had stacks of enrichment material for anyone who asked for any. She was frequently solicited for letters of recommendation for graduating students; she mailed mine to me the month after I graduated. It was two pages long, and went into profound detail about my academic ability, my interests, my goals, and my character. And Mrs. C. imposed high standards, too: she prided herself on her classes’ low drop rate, and was known to retain near-failing students who could have easily gotten C’s or even B’s if they’d taken the easier night school classes.

She’s delighted that I’ve decided to teach math - albeit at the college level, rather than at the high school level - and when I dropped in during her lunch hour last week, she listened attentively to my adventures teaching math at Island U. She’d already heard of some of them; back in February, when I was at my most frustrated, I inflicted a tirade upon her inbox, begging for feedback. Last week, I elaborated, on my trials: students who couldn’t do elementary school-level math, building design that facilitated disruptions to classes, students who thought that the final exam was optional, a system that teaches students that “bad marks” translate naturally into “scaled grades”, a general expectation that good teaching is equivalent to spoonfeeding - I could go on. And have, in this space. And did, last week, to Mrs. C.

A few weeks ago, another blog I frequent was visited by a troll, supposedly a high school history teacher, who snootily informed us regulars that she could educate and inspire everyone - regardless of background or attitude; that she never had any of the problems we wrote about; and that every time a student of ours failed, it was our fault and our fault alone. This anonymous commenter was soundly eviscerated, as well she should have been; but I was hoping that Mrs. C.’s feedback to me would be similar. I’d been hoping that she’d sympathize with me and say, “Yes, I dealt with those things back in my first few years of teaching; but as I became more experienced, I learned how to create an environment in which I could teach effectively to receptive students.”

Instead, Mrs. C. nodded sadly and said, “You know, I never used to have those sorts of problems back in your year, or before. Now, I have them all the time. And I don’t know what I could do about them.”

Back when I was a student, she told me, she had a handful of students who didn’t do their homework. But they were a small minority. Students who didn’t do their homework and demanded high marks anyway were virtually nonexistent. Now, the latter group comprises the bulk of Mrs. C.’s class. Getting them to understand that they need to do their homework, she reported, is like pulling teeth. Every week she fields angry phone calls from parents who hold her singly responsible for their children’s poor performance. “And it never used to be like that,” she said. “Never. I don’t know what you can do,” she told me apologetically. “Me, I’m retiring next year.”

And Mrs. C., hardly a conspiracy theorist or superficial thinker, was quick to diagnose the problem: “I blame Mike Harris,” she said simply.

Mike Harris was the premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002. Harris had once been a teacher; he’d been fired from his job after very little time in the classroom. Many people speculated, only half-jokingly, that his stint as premier was little more than revenge. There was certainly plenty of evidence in that direction. Most egregiously, in 1996, Harris appointed a high school dropout, John Snobelen, as Minister of Education. Snobelen’s public statements on the importance of educational reform were fraught with more grammatical errors per capita than I’d ever seen before; nevertheless, a month into his job, he was awarded - I am not making this up - an honourary high school diploma from an Ontario school. (Aside: my own high school diploma was signed by Snobelen, something I found more than a little insulting.)

Harris ran on a platform of “teacher accountability”. Some of the reforms he proposed were long overdue: for instance, Ontario parents had long been complaining that their children’s report cards were unclear and unnecessarily laden with jargon. An illiterate fifth-grader, for instance, could bring home an evaluation that reported on his creativity, friendliness and enthusiasm but made no mention of his inability to read. That had to change. In addition, the previous government, in a misguided move to make the transition to high school kinder, gentler, and more colour-blind, had replaced the different levels of classes (advanced, general, and basic) with the lowest common denominator, teaching basic prerequisite material to all incoming students.

But, said Mrs. C., the language of “teacher accountability” fostered an adversarial relationship between teachers and parents. Previously, she reported, there was a sincerely held belief that teachers, parents, and students would work to master the subject. But with the calls for parents to “demand better”, teachers were pitted against parents and students. Previously, reported Mrs. C., some parents had expressed difficulty at motivating their children to do their homework; but they appreciated her talking to them about their children’s difficulties. Now, she said, she continues to talk to the parents of students who don’t do the required work - but more often than not, she is told that it’s her responsibility to get them to do their work. Last week, she said, a month before final exams, parents are asking her what she’s going to do about their failing children. “I’ve been talking to you all term about them not doing their work,” she said, “and keeping up with the homework throughout the year is important for this class. There’s not much that I can do at this point, especially if they haven’t started to catch up.” One parent had met with her during parent-teacher interviews to tell her that his daughter, always a C student in math, “needed an 80%” in calculus, “and it’s your responsibility to make sure that happens.” Meanwhile, the student in question never showed up for extra help, despite Mrs. C.’s own invitations. Parents are demanding better.

I’m loathe to chalk up social trends to single causes, but once a attitude has been sanctioned, it spreads quickly. And, at the college level, I’m seeing the effects. This past year, I’ve been astounded by the number of my students who openly express a belief that there is no correlation between their grades and their understanding of the material. If the class average is low, it’s my fault, and I should scale the grades. If I were any good at teaching, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time on homework; the least I could do is give them the grades they need to get to the next course - at which point we repeat the process with the next teacher for the next course.

A mere few weeks into my most recent teaching position, I commented to someone that I liked my job, but it was often exhausting and stressful and that I didn’t think I’d be able to teach math university students who couldn’t add fractions for more than another few years before burning out. Hopefully I can snag a position where my students will be at least vaguely proficient in the prerequisite material (I’m reminded of a former precalculus student who, when reminded by a subsequent teacher how to compute the equation of a straight line, objected: “but we did that LAST term, not this term”), but I’m not terribly optimistic. Maybe it’s time to start looking at other options now.

25 Comments

  1. I’ve got a radical idea — student accountability!

    Once they get to high school, it should be the kids who are accountable for getting their work done.

    Wow, I should charge.

    - meep — 5/17/2005 @ 11:22 am

  2. That’s interesting–the blame for an entire slew of problems being placed largely onto a single person’s actions, or a few people in positions of power.

    I do wonder if this person represents a general social trend, driven by forces that are much harder to identify. Or if this person was the active agent who helped introduce those trends.

    At any rate, I have run into many good products of the school systems down here in America. But I have also run into cases like you mentioned. I have also noticed an entitlement-mindset about education–many people opine as if the beneficial effects of education are a Divinely-given right, rather than a reward for studious labor.

    Worse, it seems that every reform effort for school systems involves more funding, which necessitates extra bureaucracy, more central control and less local control, and a paucity of results in changing the intellectual abilities of students.

    And reform efforts roll around every decade or so.

    - karrde — 5/17/2005 @ 11:26 am

  3. The U.S. has the same problems, so it’s not all Harris’ fault. I blame our overly-litigious age. Since it’s mc donald’s fault that that old lady burned herself with coffee, it’s the teachers’ faults that the kids are too lazy to study.

    - rosona — 5/17/2005 @ 11:37 am

  4. It wasn’t McDonalds’ fault that she spilled the coffee, it was McDonalds’ fault that they kept their coffee at temperatures that gave her third-degree burns, even after having been repeatedly told that it was unsafe.

    There are plenty of stupid and bad lawsuits out there, but everyone fixates on that one, which actually wasn’t that bad.

    - k — 5/17/2005 @ 11:44 am

  5. If I were any good at teaching, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time on homework

    I first heard this explicitly voiced by a calculus student who told me very seriously that it was my job to lecture so clearly that he would not have to do any homework. Any homework. I told him he wasn’t ready for calculus, but it took a few weeks before he went away. That was perhaps a dozen years ago. Now I hear it from beginning algebra students. They’re wrong, too.

    I intend to hang in there until the pendulum swings back. I hope I have the stamina.

    - TonyB — 5/17/2005 @ 11:44 am

  6. The thing is, in elementary school, kids spend *hours* on math homework, and it is almost entirely because their teachers are innumerate. (There was once homework which neither my mother — a math major — nor I — a math minor who did well on those invitational Waterloo exam things in high school could figure out how to do. It was given to my sister in grade 2. There was another she got wrong, because we all guessed wrong whether black pencils or white were adding or subtracting. This is in part a function of the govt, though.)

    So if you start with 6 years of having to do this much homework in huge part because the teachers are incompetent (you have maybe 10 minutes for other subjects, and competent teachers), you end up thinking this is a good correlation: good teacher = less homework needed.

    This can’t explain all of the problems, of course, but I think it’s a part.

    - wolfangel — 5/17/2005 @ 12:13 pm

  7. My father was a music teacher, and so his offspring were required to take music lessons and practice diligently! I spent hours each week practicing my music lesson “homework” so that I could be a better musician. I learned much more than how to sight read music as a result. I learned that practice makes perfect (or at least work will pay off). Having that discipline installed at a fairly young age paid off immensely when it came time to deal with high school and university *work* loads.
    So I wonder, if the same attitude problems that are in TD&H’s and her math teacher’s classes appear in music classes? I wonder that if parents are paying for music lessons with their own dime, whether their kids are more likely to do their homework and realize that success does not come without work/practice? (I would guess/hope so!)
    BTW, I lucked out and had two fabulous math teachers in high school. Thanks Mr. W and Miss C.

    - Gwen — 5/17/2005 @ 12:27 pm

  8. Also, I think people should be required to have worked in a job, for money, before they go to college.

    That might get the whining out of their system, because then you can remind them that the jobs that don’t require you to remember what you did the year before tend to be ill-paid. And that whining does not get you ahead.

    - meep — 5/17/2005 @ 12:56 pm

  9. Your story could have been taken from my own experiences in Calculus this semester. For the first time in my career I gave a test in which the class average was below passing (a 54%, where passing is 60%) — and this happened in TWO sections of calculus. The test wasn’t any worse than last year’s test over the same material; the students just didn’t prepare. No office hours visits, no consistent working of homework, very spotty class attendance, and so on. Cue the angry emails from parents who want me to spoon-feed their kids — just like they have always been spoon-fed — and demand to know just what the hell is going on my classroom. (Seriously, that’s what one email asked. Classy.)

    In the USA at least, the drive for “greater accountability” has translated itself into a fetish for standardized testing at all levels, all the time. Here in the state of Indiana, some kids end up taking a standardized HS graduation exam once every three years, starting in the first grade! What this has done for the current generation of college students is taught them that knowledge is disposable — the reason they need to learn material is because it’s required for the next standardized test; and once they pass the test, they don’t need it anymore. This approach is metastasizing into EVERY form of learning, so that students learn a topic in one week, have a quiz on it the next week, and five minutes later (if not sooner) they’ve completely forgotten it.

    And more seriously, it trains students to think that learning = testing. When your entire pre-college experience is geared toward passing a series of standardized tests that you gear up for once every 2-3 years, how can you not equate the two?

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m betting that if you look at the typical government approaches to solving the problem, and then do the opposite, you might be on to something.

    - Robert — 5/17/2005 @ 2:01 pm

  10. Wolfangel - point taken. I try to give guidelines to my students about how long they should spend on their homework. Some think that if they can’t do a question right away, they’ll never get it and there’s no point in trying (the test that half the students failed, and 2/3 left more than half an hour early, just about killed me); others (fewer, mind you) will stay up all night working a problem they don’t understand in the least. The ones who make the most progress are the students who put some serious thought into each of the problems, write down precisely where they got stuck, and then come to me or one of the undergrad tutors for help. (Last term, Needs-a-B reported that she spent four hours every. single. day. on statistics. Thing is, she’d work on a problem, plugging numbers into formulas in various permutations until her answers matched those in the back of the book, and then moved right on to the next one without having learned anything. Not a useful way to study, which I tried many times to tell her, but I digress.) And when I help them, I don’t just show them how to do the problems they’re stuck on - I spend a lot of time talking about how to set up equations, how to identify the concepts they used, how those concepts tie in to the homework, how they can recognize which ideas are important from the wording of the question…

    Robert - I can’t object to standardized testing as a concept. Sounds like your state’s students have been saturated with standardized tests, sure. But with students changing teachers every year, I can’t see a reasonable alternative - especially for a cumulative subject such as math - to ensure that the students entering my classroom have the background to deal with the material I teach.

    That said, I’m sensitive to the complaint that students store math facts in short-term memory, achieve decent results on the tests, and then forget everything they only dubiously learned. I see that all the time. I try to reinforce earlier concepts in my lessons (”now, we need to see when the function is above the x-axis, and when it’s below. This comes down to solving the inequalities f(x)>0 and f(x)reinforce the concepts. If we estimate, say, that three consecutive years in grade school only cover two years’ worth of new material, I’d wager that we’d be better off going more slowly over the new stuff, and emphasizing the connections it had to the old material - instead of what we usually do, which is speed through new content year after year.

    Also, Meep, some of my most obnoxious students are ten years my senior - they’ve been out in the workforce, and have gone back to school so that they can get more interesting jobs that pay more than the ones they hold. Somehow, though, they failed to make the connection that part of the reason their current jobs are dull and pay minimum wage, is that those jobs don’t require any skills or knowledge. If they could coast through my course without having to think or work, I’d hardly be preparing them for the better lives they seek. (Though whether I’m doing that anyway is up for debate.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/17/2005 @ 5:48 pm

  11. Unfortunately, many students have lost the concept of “mastery” (gaining proficiency over time by repeated application/practice). I find that I spend more and more time at the beginning of class stessing this concept, and more and more time designing “compensation” (i.e. grading) schemes that reward regular practice. It’s sad, because these things were largely understood in my generation.

    After all the frustration, I went to Beta Gamma Sigma’s induction ceremony this week (BGS is the Honor Society for Business Majors). I’d had about a third of the inductees in one or more classes. Almost to a one, they came up and thanked me for holding high standards. Then, at the college graduation ceremony, the student speaker said, “And one more thing I remember is that no one sleeps the night before one of Dr.—’s problem sets is due. That’s because they all call me for help”. So, it does get better. It helps a lot when at least the good students appreciate you.

    As for the rest,,,

    - Unknown Professor — 5/17/2005 @ 6:20 pm

  12. In my wonderful state in the USA, we get mandates from the State capitol along the lines of “each student graduating in each major must be certified as having certain skills” blah blah blah. Like we weren’t doing that already? So we spend endless hours (and dollars … you have to hire plenty of “assessment experts”) devising schemes and paperwork to throw at these politicians to convince them we are actually teaching something (and assessing it). And we’ll need to ensure that the data we report via these assessment measures improves every year to show how wonderful we are and to keep out funding (since 10% of our funding will be based on this nonsense) (and even though these scores are just numbers we make up … at some point, our students will be like Spinal Tap, an 11).

    As I told the president of my university, when you hear the word “assessment”, run the other way.

    - William — 5/17/2005 @ 6:41 pm

  13. It is not just Canada and the US that have this problem. I teach in Sweden and see the same trend here. I make sure that I have looked everyone of my students with this problem in the eye and told him/her “you are failing because you don’t do the work. It has very little to do with your ability to learn or mine to teach. It is mostly a function of how much effort you put into this and at the moment you don’t put in enough. When you understand this and are ready to do the work I will be here to help but until then you will keep failing”

    My students have good results and I am mostly liked and sometimes even loved by my students but my headmaster tells me that no other teachers are the reason for so many phone calls from angry parents as me.

    /P7

    - Per Sjunnesson — 5/17/2005 @ 11:15 pm

  14. The Carnival Of Education: Week 15

    Welcome to the fifteenth edition of The Carnival Of Education. Here we have assembled a variety of interesting and informative posts from around the EduSphere that have been submitted by various authors and readers. As with other editions, those entr…

    - The Education Wonks — 5/18/2005 @ 2:27 am

  15. MS - You are right that there’s a place for standardized testing. My point is that the state wants to elevate standardized testing from the role of one assessment tool among many to the Be-All/End-All of the educational process. And it’s not just Indiana, thanks to a little thing we call “No Child Left Behind”. As a result of this legislation, pretty soon every state in the US will have to have a similar exam in place.

    What’s interesting to see is that there are entire cottage industries arising as a result of the standardized testing craze. There are consultants to train teachers on how to train students to take the exams. There is even a company in Utah specializing in providing security for the exam itself.

    I’m now seeing for the first time on my evaluations significant numbers of students saying, flat out, that the purpose of the class is to prepare them to take the final exam. It’s the “culture of test preparation” at work.

    - Robert — 5/18/2005 @ 4:33 am

  16. Unknown Prof - re problem sets - that’s another problem. I don’t even give them, and neither do any of my colleagues in the first-year service courses they teach. I used to give problem sets, and what usually happened was this: class average on them would be in the 80’s or 90’s; then, on the test, one of the questions would be identical to a question on the problem set, and half the students wouldn’t come close to answering it correctly. It was pretty clear that assignments were group efforts - in the “copy of my smart friend” sense. I am fully aware that some students do not perform well under time pressure, but I can’t think of any alternative to evaluating them that doesn’t result in very inflated grades.

    Robert - damn, I’m definitely not endorsing that. I remember reading of some states that had required students to pass standardized tests in order to graduate. In order to pass, a student merely had to show basic proficiency at the grade ten level. That seems more than reasonable to me: grade 11/12/AP teachers aren’t going to need to spend much time teaching to that test, but it helps ensure that students learned something in high school.

    Come to think of it, something I’d really like to see is some communication between the high schools and the universities. I’ve talked to my department head about how unprepared my first-year students are (especially the precalc class) are when they come into my class, and how a placement exam might help. But I’d rather see such a “placement exam” given at the high school level, prefereably some time before graduation, so that if students planning to take university-level math don’t pass, they’re in a better position to learn the material. As it stands, I don’t know what to do with those students who can barely do junior-high-level math: if I don’t teach it to them, where will they learn it?

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/18/2005 @ 7:48 am

  17. I used to work on the legislative staff of the California state senate before getting my faculty appointment. In the days before terms limits, you could count on a cadre of career politicians who would take the long view on major issues like education standards. Today’s career politicians are too busy looking for the next office they can run for and prefer quick-fix solutions instead of more measured approaches that might not have an immediate payoff but make more sense in the long term. (There is no “long term” anymore.) Standardized testing is the panacea they have seized upon and I don’t see the trend ending soon. My own wish is that we could enforce a rule that our elected officials be required to take the standardized tests they impose on our students. I’d love to see those results!

    - TonyB — 5/18/2005 @ 10:13 am

  18. reason they need to learn material is because it’s required for the next standardized test; and once they pass the test, they don’t need it anymore

    There’s a book called “The Myth of Japanese Higher Education” that makes that very point about the Japanese education system, and how that is a byproduct of a system engineered to manufacture cogs for the Japanese economic machine, and how bad that system is for Japan’s social and economic future. The book quotes teachers over there making the same complaints that you all are. I don’t know what my point is, except maybe that this problem is everywhere, and humanity is appearently doomed.

    - K. — 5/18/2005 @ 12:56 pm

  19. I remember reading of some states that had required students to pass standardized tests in order to graduate.

    Ladies and Germs, I bring you the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — Math Exit info booklet.

    - Whatever — 5/18/2005 @ 3:55 pm

  20. I wouldn’t put the blame on the accountability people. Schools do need to be held accountable. Politicians need to understand that some schools will always be “better” than others, though.

    I think the problem is low standards by the parents themselves. I can’t count how many parents have emailed or called me asking for me to give their kids an “extra credit” assignment because their grades are well below their peers. Or how many have asked me to raise their kids grades because their kid struggles with . Or how I need to excuse their kids absenses because they decided to go to Mazatlan during the school year instead of spring break to save a few dollars, and then ask when I will be available to help their kid catch up.

    I think many (most?) parents would be happier with their kid earning an “A” in a class they learned nothing in than a “B” in a class where a significant amount was learned.

    - Bill — 5/18/2005 @ 9:20 pm

  21. Well, MS, I have a couple things to say.

    First, after reading for months now your wholly interesting, entertaining and sometimes fairly exasperated entries on teaching math at the university level, I have sensed that teaching math is not your ultimate destiny; at least, that’s the feeling I get from your entries. And, after all the trials and tribulations you’ve documented here in TD&M, who can really blame you for feeling that way?

    Secondly, at least as a university teacher you don’t have to talk to irate parents, eh? (That would truly drive me nuts.)

    - wes — 5/18/2005 @ 11:57 pm

  22. First of all: MS — maybe you should be a high school teacher? :) I mean, you wouldn’t be teaching as much interesting math, but the jobs are a lot easier to get… and they don’t pay great but you can live on it.

    But all this talk about standardized testing ruining education has gotten me thinking: I agree, but what kind of hard evidence do we have on our side? I think the issue of teaching to exams is a very important one in order for us to educate the best that we can. To a degree, having an exam to teach to is a good thing — first of all there’s a deadline, which ups the pressure, and there’s a minimum amount of material to cover.. and the more pressure the better (up to a point) because it keeps teachers and students working. Also, the test being standardized is a good way to make sure there’s some kind of consistency across different areas.

    On the other hand, we worry that students won’t be able to retain what they learn, and that they aren’t getting a deep understanding of it. How can we MEASURE that, though? Clearly, some kind of study would be helpful but there are very difficult issues, I think, in designing one that would work. I actually have a feeling that politicians would listen if we had data on our side, but it’s very hard to get that data…

    - Moses — 5/19/2005 @ 8:14 am

  23. Let me say a few words in defense of standardized testing in general, and NCLB (my apologies if this becomes too US-centric) in particular.

    1. One of the biggest frustrations MS has expressed here is that she’s getting students at the college level who can’t do 5th grade math. Regular standardized testing doesn’t solve this problem, but it does make it measurable - instead of a college Freshman who’s gotten straight A’s in math since kindergarten despite being unable to add fractions, you have an 10th grader with straight A’s who scores a 34% on the state exam. In both cases, the underlying problem is the same - poor math education compounded over the span of several years. But in the latter case, you would be able to identify the problem years earlier, and have a better chance of intervening to solve it. Regular testing at different grade levels allows us to track progress over time; standardized testing allows us to compare results across different demographics, diagnose problem areas, and commit resources to fix it.

    2. Exit Exams: just about every exit exam I’ve read about is a basic skills test set at the 10th grade level, with students allowed to take it multiple times. Most of the worries are about good students who fail the test and aren’t allowed to graduate. Now, assuming a fair test - is this really such a burden? I’ve lost the link, but I recall a story a year ago about a valedictorian in Louisiana who’d failed her exit exam because she was unable to do basic algebra, much less geometry or trig. Think about this - a valedictorian who couldn’t do basic algebra. Doesn’t this say more about her school than the exam? What do you think would have happened after graduating if she didn’t have the exam? She’d have become one of MS’s precalc students who couldn’t add fractions, and complained that the work was obviously too hard, because she’d always been good at math.

    3. Teaching to the Test: surely we can agree that this is not a problem if we have a good test? After all, we have no objections to teachers using their own tests to grade their students - that’s pretty fundamental. The problem comes with trying to come up with a fair way of assessing a large number of students dispersed across different regions. A standardized test implies, to a certain extent, standardized curriculum, which diminishes an individual teacher’s ability to adapt to local conditions. This is a tricky problem - it’s a balancing act between setting some minimal standard across the board, vs. micromanagement by inept, faceless bureaucrats. Personally, I tend to favor the local concerns, but I also think it’s fair to expect certain standards of education - being able to add/subtract by grade 4, manipulate fractions by grade 8, solve linear equations and basic geometry by grade 12. We can debate what those standards are (should trig be required for graduation? Do they really need to understand radians?), and we can debate the test format itself (word problems vs. computation, trig tables vs. calculators), but is it really unreasonable to expect certain levels of accomplishment, test for them, and hold schools accountable for attaining them? If the test holds reasonable expectations, is teaching to those expectations so bad? It might be boring for the good students who’ve already advanced beyond them, but they’re not the ones who’d be spending hours and hours on test prep anyway. But the ones who are behind, and might otherwise have been passed along to the next grade without learning anything - is it really so bad to test their skills and demand a certain level of accomplishment before being passed off as somebody else’s problem?

    I rambled for a bit longer than I expected, and my lunch hour’s over, so I’ll just cut myself off here. Flame on as necessary - I’ve got thick skin, so don’t hold anything back. Off to Florida for the weekend - I’ll be back to inspect the carnage on Monday.

    - Independent George — 5/19/2005 @ 10:46 am

  24. I’ve been venting on the same topic this week on my blog. I’ve been so frustrated that I have been summarizing the best of the worst whining for higher grades. My favorite i think was the ‘your tests don’t accurately reflect my knowledge of the material. I have an A understanding of the material so my grade should be raised accordingly.’ sigh.

    - jointhenoise — 5/19/2005 @ 1:36 pm

  25. Teaching to the Test: surely we can agree that this is not a problem if we have a good test?

    Surely nothing, if that test is designed in advance. I design my tests shortly before I administer them, because I am a spontaneous teacher. I always have some content that I insist on covering - but often, a student of mine will ask a question, or say something particularly incorrect/interesting/relevant that I feel it would be worthwhile to develop that topic further. If I have to adminsiter a test that I don’t write - and if that test is involved enough that I must spend a large majority of my time teaching to it -then I am not allowed to explore these side issues raised by students. If the test is very involved, then I must cut short “irrelevant” queries, and students learn that exploration has no role in education.

    Also, I’d like to nip the NCLB debate right here: there are n-dozen American edublogs out there that discuss it, and I don’t feel any particular obligation to up the American content of my blog, one of very few that discusses education in Canada. I don’t mind people comparing the issues I raise to experiences of theirs in the US, but I do grow sick of US news and issues being at the forefront of everything.

    Jointhenoise - oh, I’ve heard that one. I think we all have. I’m amazed by the extent to which innumerate students think that they, and now I, have the ability and expertise necessary to assess their knowledge.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/19/2005 @ 1:45 pm

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