Many, many irritating things happened during the omicron phase, things that sent me into a mild depressive episode. One happy note, however, was that the union obsessive pretense that covid19 is dangerous meant we could have staff and department meetings on Zoom.
Our staff meetings occur before school, so we start the actual school day late. But the meeting start time is half an hour earlier than the normal school day beginning. So I have to get to school half an hour earlier on a day when school starts half an hour late. This induces a cognitive dissonance that eleven years at the same school has never entirely resolved, and every week, I’m at best five minutes late. Zoom meetings allows me to actually leave later in the day and listen to the meeting in my car. On time. Given that two years of school insanity has never once played in my favor, this feels like win.
Our department chair, Benny, was explaining….wait. Before I begin this story, I want to be clear that I’m not really criticizing anyone involved, including Benny. I should also mention, as I have before, that our school is blissfully indifferent to test scores. Admins really don’t care. This exercise I’m about to describe is about as far as we get to caring. Also relevant: since Common Core, juniors take a test that has multiple levels but from a practical standpoint is binary. Students are either “college ready” or they aren’t.
So Benny was asking for volunteers to run brief 30-minute math tutorials designed to help students review topics. We have an intervention time after lunch that can be used for this purpose. Nothing new; we’d done this for the two years pre-pandemic. Except.
“So we’ve identified the kids who failed algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2 and give them the opportunity to come to tutoring.”
Wait, what? Kids who failed what?
In years past, we had all agreed that kids who failed algebra I and geometry had not a single chance in hell of testing as college ready. I had argued, unsuccessfully, that we should still tutor those kids and bump their failing grade if they got….better. To use SAT terms: “college ready” is around 600 Math (top 30%). Any junior who was still working on algebra 1 or geometry would be rocking that test at 450.
I know kids in our school who made it to precalc and got a 500 on the SAT math section and did not pass the college readiness standard.
So Benny was suggesting that kids who’d had multiple shots at algebra 1 and geometry would somehow be able to pick up all they’d failed to understand the first time as well as all the topics they needed in algebra 2 in ten 30 minute sessions.
He’s also suggesting we give this tutoring to the kids who failed algebra 2. But in a good year, pre-pandemic, 60-70% of the kids taking and succeeding at algebra 2 don’t test as college-ready. Kids who failed algebra 2 were not good candidates for passing the college readiness marker. And tell them that if they succeed at an impossible task, we’ll change their grade but only if. Not just for trying.
I said nothing. All hail Zoom.
“If they go to all the tutoring sessions and make college-ready on the test, we’ll change their F to Pass.”
“What about the students that are marginal but passed algebra 2, trig, or pre-calc? We should give them the same tutoring. And kids who flunked pre-calc or calculus, they’d be eager for that deal.” suggested Pete.
In a good year, pre-pandemic, these were the kids we tutored. We spent time identifying the students who had it together enough to pass three or four years of math with a C+, a B, or even a shaky A, and gave them support. That’s what you always do, if you’re looking to get maximize kids across a finish line. These were the kids who had a shot at passing the test.
“No,” responded Benny. “The test only goes through algebra 2 material. Kids who’ve passed algebra 2 should be able to pass this test without tutoring or an incentive.”
I said nothing. I didn’t volunteer, either. All hail Zoom.
In the early days of my blog I would have immediately documented this craziness to provide some insight into how things work. Benny is, like all my colleagues, a progressive Democrat. But in math teacher typology, I’m the woke-conversant social justice warrior. Benny’s the traditionalist (check out our pass rates in this algebra 2 article). I know for a fact Benny doesn’t think his target group is up to the task he’s set. I know this because four years ago, we all agreed that the tutoring pool should be comprised of strong, motivated juniors taking algebra 2 or trig, along with any pre-calc students with Cs. This was the group whose pass rate we might be able to move from 0-10% to 30-50%.
Even more notably, in years past, I would have spoken up to make this very observation. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. Yet no one spoke up.
I’m not sure which is more worthy of comment: I’ve stopped bothering to write about the crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life, or I’ve stopped pushing back on crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life.
The first is easier to explain: events, dear boy, events. Both progressives and education reformers upped the nuttiness. The SAT changed to be a much harder test, then became irrelevant. Common Core spent billions on nothing. Two of education reform’s three legs got chopped off. There was a pandemic and most of the craziness in that era I couldn’t bitch about because it was more central to my location than I usually allow online. Moreover, I try to say it once or maybe twice and then move on, linking to the original article to say “still this.”
The second question is more interesting because it’s not the usual answer. I’m not burnt out. I’ve not given up. I still care. I gritted my teeth and actually picked up my phone to put an observation in the chat yes, while driving, but Benny had set “Chat to Host Only” and so I didn’t end up driving into a ditch while typing a carefully worded but cynical comment.
If I have one Big Idea on high school math instruction*, it’s this: teach less and learn more. Find your comfort limit and develop your skills. Move on if you’re interested.
Kids who struggle with math could productively learn to apply arithmetic, geometry, and a little bit of algebra. The next group, the bulk of high school students, could do a huge amount of math with all that plus second year algebra, basic trig, and some stats. Top tier really should stop at analytic geometry, functions, and more trig. We could teach so much math that calculus could wait until college.
We will never be able to do this, because everything in education is about race. Astonishing, really, why more people can’t grasp that basic reality. Pick any education proposal you like, apply race, and you’ll realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
But individual schools like mine can still focus on helping kids at every point of the spectrum, even if we have to work through the state mandated structures for class sequencing. In terms of test prep, state tests might only focus on how many students were “college ready”, but we could focus on our average score. Maximize everyone’s score and celebrate that our lowest achievers worked hard to get every question right. This is, in fact, what we did the year before the pandemic. Absent that, we could focus solely on the students who are near the line and increase their pass rates, as I mentioned above.
My first five years at this school, I spent hours advocating for my vision. Chuck, the math coach, and I did our best to find a math path in our existing curriculum to route weaker students through. We differed on end goals–Chuck felt students should fall out by failing, I thought any plan that had students getting Fs by design was absurd–but we both shared the goal of homogenizing our classes so we could teach more content to those who were able and willing. In 2019, we took the top half of algebra 2 juniors, along with the non-honors precalc students and gave them prep sessions. This *dramatically* increased our college ready numbers to nearly half, when in prior years, before and after Common Core, we were happy with low 30%.
In early 2020 we had just started our tutoring groups for the state tests. Juniors still in A1, geo, and bottom half of A2 got skill review on the basics, to raise their confidence and willingness to try on the test. We also prepped the A2/Precalc students as described above.
Then the pandemic shut everything down. No tests in 2020, no prep in 2021 because of a different schedule. We get back in 2022, and the policy is now back to “let’s only give tutoring to kids who have no prayer of passing the test and promise them something they really need but only if they pass the test.”
And only as I wrote this did I realize that Chuck retired at the end of 2019.
Chuck, who endlessly advocated and presented at the district and administrative level. Chuck, whose emails reminding me to be sure to fail more kids annoyed me, but who was at least on the same page. Chuck, who was far more successful than I understood until he left.
That’s not the reason I originally began writing this, but once again, writing things down helps me find insight. Need to keep that in mind.
A couple other points.
When I mention events in the title, I wasn’t thinking of Chuck’s retirement but two other major ground shifts. For four years or more, major state university systems and their community colleges have completely abandoned remediation (See “Corrupted College” for details). In all the coverage, left and right, approving and disapproving, of the wholesale abandonment of SAT/ACT requirements in college admissions, no one mentions an obvious fact: grades are worthless. If grades are worthless, then schools up and down the selectivity food chain are going to acquire thousands of students whose transcripts say 4.0 but whose abilities are at the ninth grade or lower level. It seems to me that this will necessarily lower standards dramatically for college diplomas.
While improving math achievement for all students is a worthwhile goal and one I sign on to, my original advocacy for tutoring on state standardized tests was sourced in my desire to help students avoid expensive college remediation and for those of those who needed it, give them a better leg up to pass those remediation classes.
That’s pretty clearly no longer going to be an issue. Thus, while I still think this approach is crazy and cruel, my concerns about their future in a degraded college system is less acute.
The second shift comes in answer to a question some might be wondering about: Why not Ed for Chuck? Why don’t I volunteer for Chuck’s work?
My first response is hahahahahaha. Chuck’s job not only needed diplomacy and adminspeak, but also organization and focus. I’m 0 for 4. Moreover, Chuck had spent years teaching at an elite local (public) high school and had transferred here specifically to take on this task. He cared about teaching, but wanted to run a program, and taught less as a result. I care about teaching, and don’t like teaching less.
But the second response came a bit more slowly. Over the past five years, I’ve also undergone a shift in teaching topics, one that utterly gobsmacked me. If you’d asked me a decade ago how I would branch out, I’d have said my druthers were to still teach math, but up my quota of history and English. Ideally, say, in an AP Lang/Lit/US History class designed for bright kids who can read well but hate homework. I also predicted I’d be doing more mentoring.
None of that came true. Instead, I’m teaching with no prep (yay! more money, more variety, less boredom!) and running a program that I don’t talk about because it’s too specific**. But I am making a difference at the individual student level (from remedial to excellent) and the school-wide level with tons of money (which I need***) and visibility (which I don’t).
Now, we can all agree that I’m an ornery cuss who seeks out the hard way every time. But surely, if I’m not looking for something that falls into my lap, I should take it and run with it rather than beat my head against a wall on an issue that is contrary to stated policy, requires endless handling and maintenance, and gives me no visibility except as a troublemaker?
Don’t worry, though. After I began this piece our district ended staff and department zoom meetings. Back to in-person, where I will inevitably mouth off.
*Actually, all subject instruction.
**Please don’t speculate, particularly to others. Remember how I wear anonymity.
***Not me personally. For the program.