Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sorry, DISD, I'm Flunking You On Your Second Effort As Well

Yesterday, I took the Dallas ISD to task for its ridiculous new policy of allowing students who flunk tests, miss deadlines and neglect to turn in their homework the chance to make up the work without penalty. In this morning's paper, superintendent Michael Hinojosa, quoted in a front-page article, defends the policy:
Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa and two trustees defended new classroom grading rules Friday, and urged teachers and parents to learn more about the requirements before dismissing them as misguided.

Teachers have derided the new rules as being too lenient on lazy students by requiring teachers to accept late work, give retests to students who fail and force teachers to drop homework grades that would drag down a student's class average.

But Dr. Hinojosa asked teachers and parents to consider that in the long run the rules will help more students succeed.

"We want to make sure that students are mastering the content [of their classes] and not just failing busy work," he said.

"We want students to get it right, and we want to make sure that they do get it right."

If that means teachers will be required to extend an assignment deadline, or let students retake exams, so be it, he said.
Isn't it great to see that the district's top dog is on board with this nonsense?

Sorry, Dr. H., but I'm afraid you guys have failed this test again. You have to have standards and stick to them; giving someone another chance on one or two occasions might be OK, but to continue to allow students to flout the rules (or what's left of them) won't really produce the outcome you desire in the long run. And as I said yesterday, the real world doesn't work that way. How many times can someone blow off assignments at their job before they get fired?

I will concede one point to Hinojosa: If homework is being given in an excessive amount, to the point that it really is nothing more than busy work, then yes, a change needs to be made. But that change should be a regulation on the amount of homework given, not an undue relaxation of the deadline therefor. And if the homework in question really is necessary for the mastery of the material, then there's no reason to undercut the teacher in this manner.

I'm trying not to read too hard between the lines here, but this paragraph in this morning's article stands out to me:
Dr. Hinojosa said the new rules are aimed, in part, at helping curb the district's alarming ninth-grade failure rate. Each year, roughly 20 percent of the district's high school freshmen fail to advance to the 10th grade. Many eventually drop out.

Dr. Hinojosa cited new research that determined ninth-graders who are flunking two or more classes in their first six weeks of high school are almost doomed to become dropouts.
Maybe I'm too cynical, but I'm hard pressed not to think that he's more concerned with the fact that, for every kid that drops out, the district loses state money (and, since dropout rates are published in lots of places, it makes him "look bad" among his peers). Am I accusing him of acting more like a businessman (whose primary objective is to have warm bodies in seats) than an educator? Maybe. I hope I'm wrong, but it sounds like the idea of keeping the numbers up is what's driving the bus here. Hinojosa continues:
"Our mission is not to fail kids," he said. "Our mission is to make sure they get it, and we believe that effort creates ability."
No district has a mission to fail kids. But sometimes, kids will fail anyway. If the school has given its best effort (and especially if the kids in question have given little to no effort in return), then it's not the district's fault. (You can lead a horse to water, etc.)

The problem with this policy is not that the really good students will start blowing off their homework or turning things in late; they won't. And the really bad students who didn't do those things in the first place certainly won't start doing so now! But there will be plenty of marginal students (the "big middle," if you wish) who might have followed the rules, but now have even less incentive to do so.

A big part of this problem is caused by parents who have abdicated their parental responsibilities and expect the schools to raise their kids. It's a noble effort to require a parent conference before issuing a failing grade for missed work, but if the parents don't care--if they don't even return the teacher's call or email--it's going to be very hard for the kid to improve. It all begins in the home, folks, and if the home is deficient, the kid will find it difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to rise above the situation. And if neither the parents nor the student care, then the district will be hard-pressed to improve the situation. It's too bad that there can't be a way to remove these kids from the general school population and let the ones who want to learn, do so.

But I digress. This is a bad idea, and I still don't think it will achieve the desired outcome. It's too bad that so many innocent students will have to suffer at the hands of this misguided social engineering experiment.

As noted yesterday, teachers have come down in opposition to this policy, as well they should. No active teacher would ever have made this proposal. And since the DISD board of trustees seems to have a hand in this inedible casserole, I need to amend my earlier statements: Not only do administrators need to remain teachers, but school board members should be required to substitute for one week every year. (I realize that many board members aren't certified teachers, so there would still need to be one in the classroom to satisfy legal requirements. But the teacher could sit in the back of the room and only intervene if a situation got out of control.) Decisions like the new DISD policy would be less likely to be made if everyone involved was an active participant in a classroom--and I mean now, not 20 or 30 years ago. Which district will be innovative and courageous enough to be the first one to take this step?

(More reaction to this idea can be found on the DMN's DISD blog.)

UPDATE: After reading these two posts from the DISD blog, it appears there are even more problems with this policy than I had realized: One, that allowing students to retake tests will also require teachers to spend even more time grading those tests; two, people teaching AP classes couldn't do "effort-based" grading even if they wanted to (which they probably don't), because those classes aren't structured that way, and the College Board wouldn't sign off on such a dilution. Also, the teachers who have tried to call parents tend to get unworking numbers over half of the time. What a mess...

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: On Sunday, DMN columnist Jacquielynn Floyd contributes a bitingly satirical column, written in very overdone teenspeak, about the reaction of some (stereo)typical slacker students to the new policy. (See how many times the words "dude" and "like" are used in the column.)

AND ONE MORE UPDATE: Welcome Dallas ISD Blog readers, and thanks to Kent Fischer for the link. (I was wondering why my traffic was up all of a sudden.) I don't always blog about education, but, as a teacher, it's one of my favorite areas. Just click the "education" tag at the bottom of this post to read other posts on the subject.

This situation is also likely to be "packed" with emotion: A small Texas school district near the Oklahoma border--located 30 minutes away from the nearest county sheriff's office--will allow teachers and staff with the appropriate permits to pack heat at school.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my youngest nephew, Micah, who's two today.

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