Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart: stop using the high school course catalog as a political document.
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”.