Are We Too Soft on Our Students?

The Corps has…” This lesser known phrase, uttered frequently by members of the Long Gray Line, graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, reminisces about the perceived softness present at the Academy in the eyes of the beholder.  Ironically, the phrase expressed by the Old Grad as they witness some difference in standards, behavior, or environment is time invariant.  Ulysses S. Grant surely heard it when he was a cadet in 1840, as did the following more famous graduates: John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

The more well known phrases, to anyone born before Watergate, “Back in my day…” or “When I was your age…” convey similar meaning.

As a semi-centenarian, these sayings are all too familiar.  As a parent and teacher, they frequently flash through my mind.  Am I an old fuddy-duddy since I view my world through the lens of my past experiences, some of these decades ago?  I like to think not. Over the years I continue to adapt to my environment and, now, as a high school teacher, I adopt many new(er) sayings, “that’s dope,” “fo shizzle,” and “know what I’m saying,” into my teacher vernacular: in essence, I don different lens situationally, which keeps me on my toes for sure.

Color Me Purple

As a recent ed school grad, 2011, I agree with many progressive views about education, but none in a dogmatic sense.  Likewise, as someone raised in a military family, I carry many traditional, conservative views, some of which are non-negotiable, such as respecting your elders, and superiors.  The latter view started dying out in the late 1950’s and 1960’s; I missed the memo while growing up on military bases around the country.

Which brings me to the point of this post, are we too soft on our students today?  Surely, times are different academically and behaviorally from the early to mid 20th century.  However, are we holding students to high enough expectations in these arenas?  More importantly, are students learning content at more than a basic level of understanding so that they are truly prepared for their subsequent course, and ultimately college or career?

Lowered Expectations

Our rate of technical innovation does not seem to have diminished of late.  However, the spike in the unemployment rate in 2009 and its perceived lowering since then due to many dropping out of the job search process (high school- and college graduates alike), coupled with the upward shift in wealth belie good times.  Could the softening of our treatment of, and expectations for, 50 million children each year over the past two to five decades have taken a toll on the level of academic preparedness?  I think so, at least for those in certain public education settings where a quiescent level of mediocrity is perceived as the hallmark of excellence. While this may sound harsh, as a new entrant to education from a quarter of a century in high-tech, I am consistently stunned at what I see deemed as acceptable levels of student work. Many of my students have difficulty showing their work on assessments. No teacher required them to write their work following any accepted mathematical conventions. It as if the Wild West or the Serengeti reigns supreme as destinations versus higher education or careers in any field requiring precision, clear communications, or standards.

I believe this holds true especially for those whose children attend schools that cater to the whims of the students and parents without consideration for their chilling effects on achievement and preparedness.  It is difficult to measure this effect in any rigorous manner; however, my sense is students of all socioeconomic levels could be challenged to attain at levels far higher than they are in today’s typical classroom.  Yet, doing so would raise many alarm bells for any individual teacher, as I learned this school year; hence, we celebrate mediocrity as a proxy for true achievement.

As an example, in certain high schools, nearly two-thirds of students receive A or B letter grades while one seventh receive C letter grades.  While it is great that nearly eighty-percent of students receive passing grades of a C or higher in their coursework, one might ask if those grades truly reflect understanding, especially when compared to the same students’ results on various standardized tests where an A corresponds to “an advanced understanding of the content,” a B to “a proficient understanding,” and a C to ‘a basic understanding.”  It seems there is a significant bias upwards on grades when the centroid of the distribution on standardized tests shifts far to the left of that for letter grades.  Given this, one must ask how reliable letter grades are as true indicators of achievement and understanding. Many college admissions officers account for this uncertainty using multiple factors to represent student academic readiness, such as letter grade, rigor of coursework, class rank, SAT/ACT score, and the track record of prior admitted students from a specific high school.

Raising the Bar

Do not get me wrong.  I believe students require copious amount of unconditional love, support, and guidance.  Our roles as educators, as oft noted by eminent education historian Larry Cuban are diverse given the varied expectations for our public system of education.  Cuban (2015) notes that, in order of importance, the top five purposes for public education are as follows:

  1. Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;
  2. Help young people become economically sufficient;
  3. Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;
  4. Promote cultural unity among all Americans; and
  5. Improve social conditions for people.

Educational psychologists frequently mention the need for caring, supportive relationships as a primary determinant in positive student outcomes and the attainment of societal expectations for public schools.  I could not agree more with this necessity, for teaching is a field for ardent compassion.  Yet, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to your health. In other words, take all things in moderation. Just ask grandma or grandpa.

Hence, while I am not advocating ruler wielding sisters of faith rapping the knuckles of students who misspell vocabulary words, or jumble their times tables, I do believe we need to toughen up, somewhat, on how we raise our nation’s future citizens.  Study after study indicates that high-expectations from supportive teachers tend to bring out the best in students.  I like to call it “tough love,” however, that is often misconstrued.  A more apt term could be authoritative teaching versus the more domineering authoritarian model; these are derivatives of their use to describe parenting styles.

Unfortunately, many students, parents, teachers, and administrators confuse the two, especially when the school environment does not incorporate much of either style. Authoritative is viewed as authoritarian, with dire consequences for the person viewed as such.

For clarity, a brief overview of these differing styles follows.

Authoritative Teaching

  • I am concerned about both what my students learn and how they learn.
  • I always try to explain the reasons behind my rules and decisions.
  • My students understand that they can interrupt my lecture if they have a relevant question.

Authoritarian Teaching

  • If a student is disruptive during class, I assign him/her to detention, without further
    discussion.
  • The classroom must be quiet in order for students to learn.
  • I will not accept excuses from a student who is tardy.

[See: What Is Your Classroom Management Profile?]

From the few observations I’ve made in my short time teaching, it appears that many teachers prefer neither of these. Rather, they employ what is called democratic teaching or laissez-faire teaching. In my view, aspects of these are valid on occasion. However, as modal methods, they are abysmal as one abdicates the teacher’s responsibility to lead their class while the other abandons students almost entirely to their own hands. Neither serves students well. However, these are infinitely easier methods of management as the burden rests with the student behaviorally, which as adolescents may not be even close to the disciplined effort required to reach the goals set out for them via educational standards, such as The Common Core. On the other hand, academically, these same teachers rarely push or press their students beyond the average expected outcome.

Resilience and Grit

Lastly, the student bears significant responsibility in their academic outcomes.   To this end, resilience and grit are used together quite often of late as factors for student success.  Angela Duckworth uses the term grit as encompassing “the various skills and traits other than intelligence that contribute to human development and success.”

“…as educators and parents, we should encourage children to work not only with intensity but also with stamina. In particular, we should prepare youth to anticipate failures and misfortunes and point out that excellence in any discipline requires years and years of time on task.”

Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007)

In some ways, the storied playwright George Bernard Shaw captures the essence of grit and resilience in one of his many quotes:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Benard (2004) writes “resilience research clearly reveals to all who work with youth the following key points:

  1. Most youth “make it”
  2. All individuals have the power to transform and change
  3. Teachers and schools have the power to transform lives
  4. It’s how we do what we do that counts
  5. Teachers’ beliefs in innate capacity start the change process”

My present thesis relies heavily on Benard’s points, specifically the interaction of points three and four:

Teachers and schools have the power to transform lives

and

It’s how we do what we do that counts.

Conclusion

What do you think about the level of challenge we present to students? Are students prepared adequately for college and career? Are they prepared equally well across all ability levels? What do you see and recommend?

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Pedagogical Praise for Mr. Math Teacher

The recent vernal equinox brings not only more sunshine to my day outside of my classroom, but to the time I spend within.  The week after I set my clocks forward an hour, former students of mine started to descend upon our high school campus released from their college studies for spring break.  Their unexpected visits provide me with moments of sheer joy as several of them validate the hypothesis embedded in my pedagogy: students will succeed better in college if, in college-level courses in high school, they are treated as if they were in college.  In essence, the student is held responsible for his / her learning.  Few students appreciate my approach initially, and many still do not throughout the duration of the course; a few may still carry resentment, sadly.  However, those who pursue a science, technical, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree in college resoundingly report positive benefits to the “training” they received subliminally, and sometimes not so subtly, embedded in my pedagogy.

Six students reported back to me in the past two weeks.  One via email, one via snail mail, and four in person, two of whom spoke to one of my classes.  All of them thanked me for being their teacher.  Most of them explicitly stated that I was one of the few teachers that truly prepared them for college.  One of them agreed to draft a message for all of my classes as well as speak to my sixth period honors precalculus students, one of them spoke to my AP Calculus AB while the other drafted a message for me to read to my classes, as he needed to head back to college.

The latter student sent the following email to introduce his message.  When speaking with him on campus, he introduced me to his girlfriend stating I was one of the only teachers who truly prepared him for college.  Reading his email and message this evening reminded me of his statement and made me proud to be a teacher.

“I am sorry that these kids just do not understand how beneficial your course is.  You were one of my favorite teachers in high school for the exact reason that these kids and parents are frustrated.  I have never really been able to thank you for making us think about the concepts and not just memorize steps.

College has been super hard recently but definitely would have been much more difficult had I not taken your course.  Hopefully these kids figure out that calculus is the basics [sic] of everything and working hard in your class is essential.  I wish I was able to speak to one of your classes while I was home but my available time was very short.  Thank you again for everything you taught me.”

Here are the two written messages to my students.  It is an honor and a privilege to have served these students.  I hope someday the majority of my students, their parents, and the admins recognize the value I strive to deliver in spite of the difficulty of my advanced courses.

Betsy, Oak Field High School 2014 graduate

As a freshman in UC Davis and veteran Oak Field Ram (Go Rams!), I would like to say that I honestly do not regret taking Mr. Math Teacher’s Calculus AB class.  The style of self-teaching that most freshmen have difficulties coping with closely simulates that of Mr. Math Teacher’s manner of teaching his students.

I admit that I initially was scared to take his class because I realized that I would be teaching myself most of the material and there weren’t many Latinos in the class that I could feel comfortable working with. However, his class has been, thus far, the most rigorous class I have had to take in all my academic experience; but thanks to his high expectations of me, I was able to earn a passing score of a 4 in the AP exam.

Also, I am the most grateful for what Mr. Math Teacher instilled in me as one of his students because I have been earning mostly B’s and A’s on my tests and exams for my Calculus for Biology and Medicine class. Since I had already taken the class, I did not have to dedicate as much time on math as compared to my other more difficult classes.  Without exaggeration, I can say that anyone who takes this class will benefit from it, regardless of their future intended career, if they truly desire.

Jonathan, 2013 Oak Field High High School graduate

My name is Jonathan and I graduated from Oak Field in 2013.  My senior year I took Mr. Math Teacher’s AP calculus course.  I finished this course with a B and a 4 on the AP exam.

I go to the University of Arizona and am studying aerospace engineering.  I just want to outline a few reasons why the teacher that many of you have trouble with is, in my opinion, one of the only teachers at that school that properly prepared me for college.

His course was the hardest class I took in high school because he teaches unlike many of the teachers at that school.  I am sure that the majority of you have been spoon-fed formulas and methods of solving problems and now that Mr. Math Teacher is not doing that, you blame him for your struggles.   Every equation has a back-story and every back-story has a reason.  Knowing these “back-stories” is the key to college math.  For those who want to pursue math in any way, everything is conceptual, no single equation works for a problem.  Many problems I deal with involve numerous equations that cannot be solved if you do not know what they mean.

As a former student and former complainer, I urge you guys to really dive in the concepts he is teaching you. These formulas and theorems are the basics [sic] for literally everything and anything you can think of.  Besides Gen Eds, there is not one class I have taken that does not involve calculus in some way.  This math needs to become a second language to you guys if you want to survive in college.

Professors could not care less if you know the material or not.  If you do not know it, you fail.  Everything is put on your shoulders to learn the material and understand how to solve every problem.  The main point I wanted to get across is that you are in a college level math course and should be treated as such.  Mr. Math Teacher is a fantastic teacher and without his course I would not be where I am now with my studies.

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Breakfast Club 2.0 Postscript

After serving an additional morning of Saturday school, I received an encouraging email from a parent of one of the students I supervised.  The email thanked me for engaging the young man in a serious discussion about his essay on the facts and fiction involved in the decisions that led to the Iraq war.  I enjoyed our discussion.  Apparently, given his mom’s thoughtful note, the feeling was mutual.

++++++++++++++++++++++

Mr. Math Teacher:

My son, Will*, was in your session for Saturday school this past weekend.

First of all, I’d just like to thank you.

You took time to read his essay and engage him in a conversation. It has been awhile since he has made a connection with a teacher.

Will, like so many young men his age, is going through a process of perspective transformation. He has never thought of himself as an accomplished student, so your positive comments on his essay and this thought processes were very meaningful. You know how it is, no matter how many times his mother says something, the words of a third party are often more powerful.  

Again, thank you.
++++++++++++++++++++++

My response to the mom’s email follows.

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Hi Ms. Mom.

I enjoyed discussing Will’s essay with him Saturday.  His was one of the few essays I read where a student expressed their point of view with support.  It was a pleasure.

Thanks for your note, too.  I rarely receive any positive emails from parents.  In fact, I was concerned, initially, when I saw his name listed in the subject line.  Sadly, I’ve been conditioned with that reaction in a Pavlovian way.  :(

However, it is a bright moment when the email turns out to be a supportive one!!

Thanks, again!

Take care,
Mr. Math Teacher

++++++++++++++++++++++

* pseudonym

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