Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart.

Our national education policy has led to an absurd paradox: colleges charge students full freight tuition for a suite of remedial classes that high schools are effectively banned from offering for free.

The ban is most noticeable in math. Some examples: In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped., giving students and their counsellors no other options. A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult. Many state diploma requirements specify three years of math ending in algebra 2, which means the student must get a passing grade in algebra 1 by sophomore year. Some states just indicate “3 years of math” but a close read of the fine print shows that pre-algebra doesn’t count as a credit, but only as an elective (e.g., NYC, Ohio)

It’s less discussed, but English, history, and science have few differentiators other than Advanced Placement classes, and occasionally honors. This story on Madison’s attempt to detrack their English (and eventually science) classes based on reading scores is so completely typical it’s practically a template of the process of course restriction–just change the locations. All students reading at 9th grade level (which was questionably set at the 40th percentile of 8th grade reading scores) were put in “advanced” classes. Those below the 40th percentile were put in “regular” classes, and 8% of that group were given remedial reading. In other words, all but the genuinely illiterate were expected to understand 9th grade material.

The rationale for this wholesale purging of high school course catalogues is well-documented. States or districts are faced with a dramatic racial gap in test scores, which everyone attributes to the equally dramatic imbalance in high school college track course enrollment. Federal mandates, as well as civil rights organizations armed with class action lawsuits, demand the end to imbalance in enrollment, the better to end the gap in test scores . Unlike other education reforms that take money, training, and buy-in to implement, course catalogs and transcripts are entirely under administrative control. Shazam! The courses many students need disappear, leaving only the college track option.

So students who enter high school with elementary reading skills and no basic math facts are put in exactly the same classes as students with college level reading skills and impatient algebra readiness. Schools are given no ability to offer alternate easier courses except by going the extreme route of declaring the students incapable of participating (that is, putting them in special ed). Students have no choice in their education.

Sadly, the problem was misdiagnosed, in large part because many people want to ignore primer rules 1, 2, and 4. Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged. The data on this approach shows failure that’s not only discouraging but depressingly consistent: But then, as Tom Loveless has observed, the “push … is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence”.

Most people address this issue from the other end, complaining that inclusion of weak students damages the education of stronger students. I agree, and see the results of this every day. Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students. Maintaining rigor requires failure for those who can’t achieve it.

Unfortunately, failure requires blame these days. To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Alas, many students still fail these classes, even given our dedication to keeping them on track despite content that is beyond their capabilities and/or interest. But remember, the schools offer no courses to fall back to after failure. Kids just have to take the subject again.  America spends millions teaching the same kids the same course twice, or even three times, both during the school year and in summer school and other credit recovery programs. Many of them don’t learn much the second time or third time through, of course, but teachers and administrators are fully aware of primer rule #3, which is why we pass them anyway, eventually. That way, at least, they can go to college and get the remedial classes we can’t offer, even if the poor kids will have to pay for them.

Those of you who focus on lost opportunities for the high achievers, I ask you to take a moment and ask yourself what it’s like for kids at the other end, to constantly fail courses that they have no choice in taking, no interest in, and no ability to genuinely understand. And to make it worse, once students are identified as strugglers whose test scores will hurt the school, they’re shoved into “support” classes for math and/or English, stuck for twice as long in classes they already despised. Why even try, when they know that if they stick it out eventually they’ll get a passing grade? And who can blame them?

This must change. High schools need to be able to teach all students at the appropriate pace and content level, which for many doesn’t begin to approach the expectations of our absurd national education policies. Pre-algebra, arithmetic and basic math literacy and general purpose reading and composition are necessary to allow students who needs those skills to acquire them without having to go to college to pay for them. Science and history need to be appropriately gauged as well, so that students can learn basic information at the pace they need.

The many students challenged by these simpler topics will be unlikely to progress to college level work. Ever. Algebra during senior year might often be a worthwhile goal. However, all students, regardless of underlying ability and interest, can learn to use the knowledge and skills they have and we can, indeed must, learn to build curriculum to challenge and extend their capacity. But schools can’t do this while lying about student capacity, which is what schools are forced to do when policies prohibit them from offering a full range of courses that meet student interests at the appropriate cognitive level.

So what can a presidential candidate do? Well, since the states have made these changes in response to federal pressure, a good place to start is get rid of the pressure. Praise the new ESEA bill for returning accountability back to the states. Promise to collect data, but accept that student learning is a complex mix and leave it at that.

Then promise to fund efforts to research and develop challenging yet accessible high school curriculum and course sequences to assist in educating the students who weren’t able to absorb the information from the prior eight years of schooling. Everyone fears that putting students into remedial classes will involve thought-obliterating worksheets piled on one after the other. I’ve taught remedial classes, and have been able to develop or borrow engaging curriculum. But the risk is legitimate.

A presidential candidate can also address the most compelling objection to this proposal: fear that schools will just place black and Hispanic kids into the lowest level classes by default. I think that fear is overrated; I once went looking for the bad old days and couldn’t find many (if any) cases of schools deliberately, systematically putting high-scoring black students into low ability classes. Many schools used test scores, which created the imbalance, as test scores by race always will. However, there’s still a messy middle in which white parents and black parents make different demands for kids with identical test scores, or badly behaved low income students who are nonetheless quite bright are failed by teachers who confuse behavior with ability.. Testing and required placement will help mitigate that risk. The federal government can certainly require proof that schools and districts are appropriately placing students with strong test scores, regardless of race. (States, schools, and districts will need that data to avoid lawsuits.)

But here’s the real education policy proposal for the candidates of 2016: Stop pretending education is the answer to poverty. Many kids who don’t care for school are galvanized by the possibility of a job. Stop offloading national responsibilities onto the schools. Schools can’t give students jobs with good wages. The economy can. Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels, by squashing requests for more H1B visas, scrutinizing citizen layoffs for cheap Indian labor, and enforcing our immigration laws. You build an economy with the workers you have, not the workers you can import at the price you want.

To say this proposal is at odds with the zeitgeist is to reveal how thoroughly at odds the public is with the “white professional ghetto”, as Harold Myerson describes the intelligentsia. The public doesn’t believe that everyone can achieve equally; that’s a delusion reserved for people who’ve never spent time in the schools they want to “fix”.

Next up: Repeal IDEA–leave special education to the states.


About educationrealist

26 responses to “Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

  • Roger Sweeny

    Wow. I don’t agree with everything but that’s probably the most sensible thing I’ve ever read about high school.

  • educationrealist

    Thanks! What don’t you agree with? Did I get something wrong?

  • Roger Sweeny

    I didn’t think “squashing requests for more H1B visas” was relevant to a post about high school, though I can see how it fits with “Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels.” Also not sure how much that policy will motivate HS students (especially if that flow of cheap labor includes relatives or friends or co-ethnics).

    Otherwise, really really good. So much of educational rhetoric is about helping poor kids. But because the proposed remedies are based in fantasy rather than reality, they often wind up harming the people they are intended to help. I really appreciate that you care about those kids but are not willing to live in fantasyland.

    Repeating the catechism, “all children can learn [a rigorous college prep curriculum]” doesn’t just hurt the strivers by dumbing down courses. Perhaps more important, it hurts the slower and less interested, causing failure and psychological distress.

    I thought of the Reality Primer when I came upon this story on the Yahoo news feed. Most of the front page of the Sunday NY Post was covered by a picture of a recent NYC high school grad and the text, “She skipped class, didn’t take the final–yet a Queens high school let her graduate. One student’s stunning plea to the New York City education system that let her down: FAIL ME!”

    From the inside story: The Queens teacher who passed a high school student practically begging to be failed made a stunning admission Sunday — she did it because of the “tremendous amount of pressure” to just graduate kids. …

    “It was not an ideal situation,” McHale acknowledged to The Post at her Queens home. “If we don’t meet our academic goals, we are deemed failures as teachers. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on us as teachers.”

    “I thought it was in her best interest and the school’s best interest to pass her.” …

    The teacher said she believes that her student spoke out because “I think she felt a sense of, ‘Why isn’t the standard higher?’ But if we set the bar higher, we would be a failing school.”

    • educationrealist

      Oh, so just that one thing. I wanted to keep it away from just “stop illegal immigration” because immigrants have kids, they burden the schools, and so on.

      That article is so on point it may well have taken ballet.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Oops. I just found out that article is from the Monday NY Post. Sunday was the original student “plea” and the Sunday front page. The Monday article is promoted on the front page as, “Teacher: It’s just about schools looking good PASS ‘EM ALL” Which I thought was not a fair summary of the article.

    • Roger Sweeny

      For the second straight day, Yahoo brought me a “didn’t do assignments, skipped the final and passed anyway” story. A different fact situation with some different issues (and this time it’s the mother saying the kid shouldn’t pass).

    • jkoury

      I am concerned about H1Bs on behalf of those students who will have done everything right, only to be told after they have gotten that spiffy STEM degree that everyone said was their ticket to success, that they still don’t have job security in the slightest or even middle class wages with a bachelors. The idea of expanding skills-based immigration made sense when populations would be declining and boomers retiring, but this century so far hasn’t met expectation in the ways that require such immigration.

  • Jim

    We set unrealistic educational goals and then search for scapegoats -bad teachers, bad parents – when our goals are not met. But we can’t seem to break out of this insanity.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Saying the goals are unrealistic is like telling your girlfriend, “Yes, your ass looks big in those pants.”

      • vijay

        Not the same. Here , in Montgomery county, they have set some impossible goals for all children, including Algebra 1 by MS. If you say your pant does not fit you, at the most the girl friend is angry at you for a few days. Here, the school system is going through convolutions and increasing $/student continuously without ever attaining any goals. And, this is faor one of the best performing school districts.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I agree; it’s not exactly the same. The similarities I was going for were 1) people don’t want to hear it; they prefer a pleasant lie to this unpleasant truth, 2) they will feel you are a mean uncaring person for saying it, 3) they will get emotional, and thus 4) you open yourself up to (deliberate?) misinterpretation: “So you think I’m fat?” “So you think those kids don’t deserve an education?” “So you think we should give up?”

        Which brings me to similarity 5) most people think it’s better to lie and avoid unpleasantness. However, as you imply, ugly pants won’t ruin anyone’s life. But years of inappropriate schooling …

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  • vijay

    I have a comment on “Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged.” Although not relevant to the argument “stop kneecapping schools”, the two outcomes, “Schools have dramatically increased access to AP” and “Test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged.” are not related. Between 1990 and 2010,

    (1) high school population increased dramatically
    2013 16,601
    2012 17,047
    2011 16,613
    2010 16,574
    2009 16,445
    2008 16,715
    2007 17,082
    2006 17,149
    2005 17,354
    2004 16,791
    2003 17,062
    2002 16,374
    2001 16,059
    2000 15,770
    1999 15,916
    1998 15,584
    1997 15,793
    1996 15,309
    1995 14,963
    1994 14,616
    1993 13,522
    1992 13,219
    1991 13,010
    1990 12,719
    1989 12,786
    1988 13,093
    1987 13,647
    1986 13,912
    1985 13,979
    1984 13,777
    (2) the population became diverse compared to say 1977, when the previous peak was attained. Nearly 46% of the population became minority.

    The increase in availability of college level AP courses, and their impact on student scores is masked by the differences in population distribution; an increase in Non-Asian minority means average scores should have gone down; the fact that it stayed the same is, in some sense, a reflection on increased availability of college level classes. Hence, if they kneecap schools, average scores will go down.

    • anonymousskimmer

      I’m really curious if anyone can say how school districts adapt their budgets for population shifts shown in charts like this. Aren’t particular parts of funding based on the number of students? The base fluctuation in number of students seems to be 2-3% per year, and it seems not uncommon for up to 10% over 2-4 year period.

      I guess that the districts usually get a 5-7 year lead time in knowing the approximate number of students that they’ll get in kindergarten and 1st grade, and even more of a lead time for middle school and high school, but it still seems very difficult to adapt to a 10% shift over two years even if you know it’s coming (and this is averaged over all districts, the outliers have it even harder).

      And then what happens when an unexpected population shift occurs? Especially if, like earthquakes, the timing is unexpected but not the event? How much money can districts typically save for “rainy days”? Do teachers get temporarily laid off or made part time and then rehired later?

  • RationalExpressions

    As a fellow math teacher, at a Title I school to boot, all I can say is Amen!

    Alas, I and my colleagues can never share these views – we need our jobs. But we’re the ones who have to be with the sad souls who hate math, don’t understand math, but have half their day filled with math classes where they get to learn over and over that the state considers them deficient (my state has a 4 year math requirement, with the last class required to be at a level PAST algebra 2).

    A typical sophomore will be retaking algebra, taking geometry, and taking a math support class all at the same time. Half their day is math class! It is sad.

    And what really burns me is that those of us who know, those of us who care about the kids, are considered bad guys when we propose common sense proposals like yours to help them.

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  • collin237

    You’re saying to limit immigration because the immigrants are cheap? No, their employers are cheap! In today’s post-Capitalist world, there’s no more excuse for allowing employers to sort jobs and wages according to nationality!

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