Tag Archives: low ability students

What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

The Glenn Show, Glenn Loury’s semi-monthly discussion show on blogging heads, is always outstanding and I watch most of them if I don’t discuss it here. Happily, a good chunk of his recent discussion* with Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College involved vocational education and at-risk student populations.

I’m going to criticize some points below, but the conversation is excellent. Cherry speaks passionately about his topic, and  Loury comes through every so often to summarize with an elegant clarity that’s one of his great strengths. If you don’t have the time to listen, here’s a transcript of the vocational education section, which I created to be sure I didn’t misrepresent anything.

One small point regarding the section on at-risk youth: Cherry goes on at some length about how at risk kids coming from weak, dysfunctional families experience violence, hunger, lack of love. This disruption and chaos profoundly affects their ability to perform academically and increases the likelihood they’ll act out, even strike out. He thinks high schools should spend resources and time understanding and assisting the stressed, traumatized youth come from, give them support, help them work through their trauma instead of merely disciplining them.

On behalf of Title I schools everywhere:  Um, dude, what the hell do you think we’re about? High schools spend as much time as they can understanding and getting help for their kids. We have psychologists at our school. Kids who feel stressed can go see their counsellors.  Teachers often know what’s going on with their kids, and we email key info to colleagues with the same students. Administrators do a lot of listening, a lot of bringing families in to discuss issues, a lot of calling in secondary support services.  Could we use more resources?  Sure. Would more resources improve outcomes?  I don’t know. But Cherry seems utterly clueless as to the vast array of substantial support high schools give now, which calls into question his certainty that such services would help.

Cherry then argues that at-risk students who struggle in school should be given short-term career training to immediately prepare them for jobs and income that will alleviate their stress. In this section he makes three points:

  1. “High school jobs are a thing of the past.” Teenagers don’t work anymore: only one in seven black teens has a job, just 2 in 7 white teens do.
  2. The reason teens don’t work anymore is because of the view that everyone must go to college.
  3. Colleges are inundated with unqualified or remedial students, but they have thus far been more likely to lower standards than discourage people from going to college, thus further discouraging any other development paths.

The first is a fact. The third is also true,  as I wrote in my last piece. But the second point is way off, and in important ways.

Cherry doesn’t mention relevant research on teen unemployment, although he often supports his comments elsewhere in the discussion with studies or data. But the employment drop  has been discussed  at some length for a number of years, with debates on whether the primary cause is supply or demand. Supply: teens aren’t working because they are taking summer school enrichment classes, working at museum internships,  jaunting off to Europe or maybe just doing homework imposed by teachers trying to get them to college.  Demand: teens face competition from other workers. So Cherry’s only proffered reason is supply-related. He thinks teen employment is down because academic activities are becoming more important to high school students, thanks to societal demands and pressures to go to college.

I’m deeply skeptical. First, on a purely anecdotal basis, the teens I know are eager to work, whether it’s full-time over the summer or part-time during the year. But employment requires a work permit, and permits often require acceptable GPAs**. I have had more than one student beg me to boost their grade so they can keep a  job or get a permit for a job offer.

Of course, the same students ineligible to work during the school year are then stuck in  summer school, retaking courses they still don’t care about.  Summer employment is a particular challenge for the same students who can’t get work permits during the year, for the same reason.

As I wrote earlier, high school students are failing classes at epic rates, and graduate requirements have increased. In our district, I see a disproportionately black and Hispanic summer school population repeating geometry, algebra, US History, English–and every August, they have a summer school graduation ceremony for the seniors who couldn’t walk in June because they hadn’t passed all their required courses.(Remember Michael Brown of Ferguson had just graduated a day or two before he was shot in August? That’s why.)

Rich kids of all races might be going off to Haiti to build houses instead of working. Asian kids, particularly Chinese and Koreans, are almost certainly not working because their parents won’t allow it. The days of supporting mom and dad in the business are mostly over, at least where I live. Chinese and Korean parents, particularly those who just got here, go  into debt, borrow money from back home, and send their kids to hundreds of hours a year in private instruction. But it’s not schools pushing them into this activity. (Schools, if anything, try to discourage this obsessive devotion to academics.)

But rich kids and certain Asian demographics aside, the average teen, particularly those from disadvantaged families, cares considerably more about financial remuneration than academic enrichment.  If teen employment has decreased dramatically and academic activities are taking up any bit of that time, the first thought should not be “Oh, they’re just being encouraged to value academics so they can go to college” but “Oh, they aren’t being allowed to work because they’re failing required classes.”

Teen employment is not a “thing of the past” because teens have decided not to bother with it. They face significant, intentional policy barriers that preclude employment. Most students want jobs.  Cherry implied that teens considered employment passé. That’ s not my experience and the data doesn’t support that interpretation.

Surprisingly, Cherry doesn’t even mention the possibility of demand-related drops. If you could CTRL-F the conversation, as Steve Sailer says, “immigra” would return a “not found”.  Neither Loury or Cherry mention that constant increases in low-skilled immigration would present competition for teenage workers.***

Which is odd, because there’s all sorts of research on plummeting teen employment, and  immigration is often identified as the culprit.   Christopher Smith, on the Federal Reserve Board of Governers, has two papers precisely on point.

The first,  The Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Employment Market has this conclusion:

CSmithresearch1

The second, written a year later, examines the degree to which the decline might be to other factors–was it immigration, or the displacement of adults from better paying jobs, or is it the push for college? From Polarization, immigration, education:

teenempresearch
Notice it’s 3.5 or more for demand issues–immigration, increasing competition in low-skill market (which is just another way of saying increased  immigration)–and 3 at most for supply factors–things like summer school or other educational opportunities.

Remember, too, that if employers have a choice, they prefer adults devoted to working as many hours as possible with no parents or schools hovering in the background. So  teens  are competing against ever increasing supplies of low-skilled immigrants–and thus more adult low-skilled workers generally–and competing from the bottom of the desirability index, too.

Cherry talks about the “current push” to send everyone to college, suggesting the push is a recent development. As Kevin Carey pointed out a few years ago, people have been questioning the value of college since at least the seventies, when Richard Freeman wrote The Overeducated American. (If the Harvard Crimson isn’t pulling my chain, college journalists were complaining about wasted degrees back in 1883.)

But Freeman’s book didn’t have the impact of  A Nation at Risk. The 1983 education treatise didn’t list “Everyone must go to college” as a recommendation. It did suggest that if all high school kids didn’t take four years of English,  three years each of advanced math and science, and resolutely study a foreign language for two years, Japan would bomb us back into the Stone Age.

I’ve written before that Nation At Risk killed high school vocational education. In that same piece, I point out that  2001’s No Child Left Behind did much to redefine vocational ed as highly competitive career technical education (CTE). Both changes made non-college paths practically unreachable for the average schlub uninterested in college and belatedly trying to get some career options going.

Since the rise of education reform in the 1990s, low test scores have been the club used to beat up public schools in favor of charters using the  KIPP “no excuses” model.  Low test scores aren’t really important unless used as a club to argue that those scores keep students from college.

All of these things have increased the demands on high school. But it’s not new.  The first push to send everyone to college began back in the 70s, before escalating immigration and while teens were still working.  For many years, sending more students to college didn’t conflict with teenage employment. So I don’t see how it could suddenly be a big cause of the change now.

Cherry is dead on the money regarding public universities’ response to unqualified students. After decades of losing borderline or weaker students to the quagmire of remediation, colleges are simply ending the struggle by reducing already lowered standards even further.

Cherry: So CUNY is just dumbing down the assessment exam, the math assessment exam that has mostly arithmetic but some algebra. They’ve just decided they are taking out the algebra, make it just arithmetic. So at Brooklyn College we’re already seeing that, the provost has just sent out a notice that he’s worried, too many people are transfer students…that 500 people are going on probation, 200 are being expelled. He thinks it’s more tutoring, more support services, when we’re just taking in people who don’t have the skills….

Well, yeah.  That sounds familiar, as I just recently wrote that California’s largest university system, and the largest in the country  has gone even further, simply ending the remedial category altogether.

But  Cherry’s prescriptive tone has vanished. He certainly put the “everyone must go to college” rhetoric at high schools’ feet, and (wrongly) implied that high schools are more eager to discipline than support at risk students.  But here, when talking about colleges’ continual failure to enforce their own standards he merely sounds sad. Loury doesn’t follow up on the point, either.  The two men seem remarkably passive about post-secondary failings. I hope to say more about that in a subsequent piece.

My complaints notwithstanding, check out the conversation. I’m glad that our best intellectuals are seriously engaging with the problems presented by low-skilled students. But they still seem more likely to blame culture than look further afield–the culture not only of black families, but what they imagine to be the culture of high school education communities.

Our education policies certainly help to discourage low-achieving teens, making them feel like failures, taking up their spare time in joyless academics far beyond their capabilities and interests. I am certain we can do more to make education more accessible to this population, and believe the path involves more time to learn less demanding content. But ultimately, I continue to believe the most important factors affecting teen employment are demand-related. I hope Glenn Loury and Robert Cherry come down harder on this point in later discussions.

***************************************************
*Okay, a month ago. Hey, I have a day job.

**Work permits vary by state, but in most states the school, not the state, issues the permit. Age/Certification by State
*** Loury has previously acknowledged the impact of immigration on low-skilled employment.


Math fluency

My Math Support class, for students who haven’t yet passed the state graduation test, is the most challenging of my preps. In many ways, though, the class offers the dream scenario for any math teacher who longs to focus on fundamentals.

I owe no allegiance to a curriculum. I’m not teaching arithmetic in and around an algebra course; arithmetic and a tiptoe into algebra is all the test requires. I only have 18 students (16 boys) in a 90 minute class, so I have tons of time to work one on one. While the kids probably wouldn’t strike the average observer as motivated, they are juniors and seniors who want to pass the test, so by their internal standards, motivation is high. Many (but not all) of the kids are acknowledged classroom challenges at the school. However, this school’s notion of a serious classroom challenge is something around the 30% mark of the students I taught for the last two years, so my basement has moved way, way up the stairs.

So I have a small class, a meaningful curriculum, motivated kids with low abilities, and, for that population, no significant management challenges. I was, and am, enthusiastic about the opportunity. However, please take renewed notice of the blog name. I am not under the impression that these students have merely been waiting for The Messiah, after years of suffering through false prophets (aka bad teachers). I was eager to see which of my assumptions played out, and which didn’t, and I wanted to test, anecdotally at least, some commonly held wisdoms that hadn’t, in my limited experience, borne out.

For example, I have long suspected that the received wisdom about math fluency has holes in it:

Educators and cognitive scientists agree that the ability to recall basic math facts fluently is necessary for students to attain higher-order math skills. Grover Whitehurst, the Director of the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES), noted this research during the launch of the federal Math Summit in 2003: “Cognitive psychologists have discovered that humans have fixed limits on the attention and memory that can be used to solve problems. One way around these limits is to have certain components of a task become so routine and over-learned that they become automatic.”

The implication for mathematics is that some of the sub-processes, particularly basic facts, need to be developed to the point that they are done automatically. If this fluent retrieval does not develop then the development of higher-order mathematics skills — such as multiple-digit addition and subtraction, long division, and fractions — may be severely impaired. Indeed, studies have found that lack of math fact retrieval can impede participation in math class discussions, successful mathematics problem-solving, and even the development of everyday life skills. And rapid math-fact retrieval has been shown to be a strong predictor of performance on mathematics achievement tests.

I used to accept this as a given until seven years ago, when I ran into my first kid who knew his math facts cold but couldn’t solve 2x + 7 = 11, unless I asked him what number I could multiply by two and add seven in order to get 11 and got the correct response almost before I finished the sentence. By that time, I’d already met a few 600+ SAT students who growled in frustration and reached for the calculator when it came to knowing 6 x 9. I’ve also tutored a dozen or more ISEE/SSAT (private school test) fifth and sixth grade students who went to precious little snowflake schools and knew none of their math facts with any fluency yet easily mastered fractions, ratios, and solving for unknowns and scored in the top 90% of a highly skilled population.

I’ve long since abandoned the notion that fluency might be necessary, but not sufficient, given the last group. Kids who can abstract can cope without fluency. What’s troubling is that fluency might be irrelevant.

None of this means we shouldn’t emphasize fluency. But plenty of solid math students don’t have fluency and—here is the important part—many exceptionally weak math students have strong fact fluency.

Every week, I get an extra 20 minutes with each of my classes. In Math Support, I use this time for drill competitions. The kids pair up and get a selection of MDAS flash cards. I set the timer and holler “GO!” First kid holds up cards for the second kid and go through the cards as fast as they can—correct answers in one pile, missed in the other. I stress that the “miss” is determined in 2-3 seconds for most kids (more on that in a minute). If the kid hesitates, it’s a miss.

I originally set the timer for 2 minutes, but all but two of the kids get through a whole pile of 30 cards in one minute, so I dropped it down to a minute.

The kids’ fluency falls into one of these zones:

  • High: I mean, 7×12, 6×9, 7×8 high. 121/11, 96/12 high. 7+9 and 15-8 high. No hesitation, no pauses. The five students in this group all struggle with abstractions, although two of them have solid arithmetic competency and excellent estimation skills. The rest struggle in every area of math. All of them test poorly, all are seniors.
  • Solid: Fluent except the usual suspects: higher 12s, the cross sections of 7, 8, and 9 and a few hard to remember addition/subtraction facts. Many of these kids have told me that this activity is improving their recall of their problem facts. All of my overall strongest students are in this category, the rest are average. Seven in total.
  • Weak: Say about 50% mastery. Four students, not noticeably different otherwise from the “average” students in the solid category. I haven’t yet noticed any improvement, but they’d likely take longer.
  • Non-existent: I have two kids who can’t quickly recall their 2 multiplication facts, struggle with basic addition. Clearly some sort of memorization issues. These two are given 6 seconds per card before it’s counted as a miss.

One of the two students in the non-existent zone is, hands down, the strongest procedural algebra student in the class. She can solve multi-step equations and identify linear equations from a graph. I have explained fractions and ratios to her on several occasions, and it all escapes her instantly. So no fluency, no proportional thinking, but algebra procedures and linear equations. If she can operate by rote, she’s fine. I haven’t checked yet, but I’d bet she can master the quadratic formula (with a calculator) more easily than factoring binomials. My strongest overall students, while not as solid on algebra procedures, are much stronger at proportional thinking, more capable of thinking abstractly, and are all in either geometry or algebra II. (Why yes, you can get to algebra II without passing the state math graduation test. Happens constantly.)

All of my students easily manage multiple digit addition and subtraction. A few of them are completely unfamiliar with long division. Fractions are a struggle for most of them. All but a few understand and use distribution. Combination of like terms, not so much. They all do quite well simplifying exponential expressions and have a solid grasp of scientific notation.

What does this mean? Beats me.

Assertion: Students who are categorically failing in math are almost certainly not doing so because of math fluency. They may or may not be fluent, but fluency is not the condition holding them back.

Tentative hypothesis: The rationale for math fluency (quoted above) does hold for many students who are moving through the math curriculum without ever achieving genuine proficiency, who would certainly be able to learn and hold onto more information if they weren’t spending so much of their time trying to remember what 6 x 3 is, particularly in algebra.

So go ahead and drill. Just remember that the kids it will help the most aren’t the ones you’re worried about, and many of the ones you’re worried about won’t need the drill.