On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

An Open Letter to High School Teachers

During Saturday morning’s 16-mile run, the high school princiPAL asked me to write his faculty about what they can do to increase the odds that their college-bound students are successful once at their universities of choice. Happy to, but I should note from the outset that I’ve massaged the request by focusing more exclusively on how to help the college bound improve as writers—a critical component to succeeding in college.

A confession. The following typology of first year students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing is an exercise in pre-writing, an incomplete, initial draft. Consider this a sneak-peak at my process. In the final draft, which needs to be framed positively, I’ll focus on what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Some background. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years—four in Los Angeles and one in Ethiopia. I teach graduate pre-service teachers and first year writing seminars. It’s my Writing 101 teaching that informs what follows. More specifically, I’ve taught first year writing seminars at two liberal arts colleges over the last two decades on changing themes of my choosing including: Globalization; Reinventing the American High School; The Challenges and Rewards of Teaching; and currently, The Art of Living.

Here are five first year college student types that often struggle with the transition to college writing:

1) “Inflated Sense of Skills” student—This predicament is most common among students who graduated from high schools marked by serial absenteeism; unfinished, late student work; and missing assignments. Quite often, given the informal “not everyone can fail” grading curve at work in these schools, students who complete their work on time end up receiving very good marks without much attention to the quality of the work. These students develop identities as “A” students; consequently, it’s disorienting when they receive lower grades on their initial college papers. It’s difficult for these students to quickly adjust from being ahead of their high school peers to being behind their university ones who attended more rigorous high schools.

2) “Five Paragraph, Standardized Essay Exam” student—These students, who tend towards concrete-sequential thinking, have committed the standard five paragraph essay form to heart. They have become so adept at the five-paragraph essay—a thesis, three main points, three supporting details—that they think of writing as a “fill in the blanks” activity. As a result, their writing lacks voice and fails to engage readers.

3) “Grade Fixation” student—These students view writing like everything else school-related, as a no holds barred competition. The single-minded goal is to earn the highest possible grade on each individual paper. They resist the notion that writing is a process requiring continuous editing and they have an aversion to feedback. Continuous improvement is less important than earning “A’s”. These students tend to dislike writing.

4) “Narrow Repertoire” student—These students let it be known early on that they “love creative writing” and “dislike doing research papers”. Or less often, “love doing research papers” and “dislike creative writing”. Preferred forms are completely understandable, but these students’ sensibilities about their writing strengths and next steps are far too fixed.

5) “Interpersonally Challenged” student—These students struggle to interact thoughtfully with their classmates. They don’t listen attentively to others and/or maintain consistent eye-contact with whomever is speaking. Sometimes they talk over others and dominate discussions to the point that the other students eventually tune them out. As a result, these students fail to earn the respect of their classmates and don’t fully benefit from peer editing.

Stay tuned. By reflecting on this typology I’ll come up with what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

In Praise of Meghan Vogel

All the news isn’t bad. And maybe today’s youth aren’t a lost cause after all.

Sick and tired of big time college and professional sports? Knuckleheads running afoul of the law, the commercialism, the cheating, the excesses of competition. Then take a few minutes and read about how Ohio high school trackster Meghan Vogel (on the right below) recently stopped to help a fallen competitor across the finish line near the very end of the 3,200 meter final.

Maybe it’s an especially touching story because we mistakenly think competition is an elixir for all that ails us. Vogel’s decision highlights the power of cooperation. Her compassion and humble response to her fifteen minutes of fame inspire me. And the surprising decision by the meet officials not to apply the letter of the law and disqualify the two student-athletes warrants praise.

[But of course, all the news isn't good on the adolescent front.]

Vogel, “I just did what I knew was right.” Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

How To Lose Your Principal’s Job

Tired of recalcitrant faculty, entitled students, absentee or helicopter parents, and after school sports supervision? Want to shift gears, go in a different direction? I’m here to help.

First decide whether you want to go “old school” or “new school”. If you want to go “old school”, like a Washington State principal a few months ago, follow these steps. First, drink yourself silly. Second, be a bad enough husband/wife that your spouse feels they have to file for divorce. Third, come completely unhinged at the dissolution of your marriage. Fourth, get arrested for Driving Under the Influence. And fifth, for good measure, buy a gun and threaten your spouse with violence. That should do it.

If that seems a little messy and you fancy yourself more modern, go “new school” like Louis Losos, former principal at Clayton High School in St. Louis. All you need is an internet connection and a fake Facebook account. Wired Magazine fills in the details:

A high school principal in Missouri has resigned after she was accused of impersonating a student on Facebook in order to spy on students and their parents, according to a news report.

Louise Losos, the principal of Clayton High School in St. Louis, is suspected of having created a fake Facebook account under the alias Suzy Harriston and “friending” hundreds of students, presumably in order to monitor their communications through their Facebook postings.

The account, whose profile picture depicted a group of penguins, was set up last year. More than 300 students accepted the “friend” request from “Harriston,” many of them Clayton High School students, before a student who received one of the requests posted a note warning others to stay away from the account because he believed the principal was behind it, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Whether you go out old school or new, know that legions of hopeful school administrators thank you.

Notes from the College Search

Spent Friday with the Good Wife and Sixteen visiting a private liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington—not the one with the very good Division 1 basketball team. The one with a very good Division 3 basketball team.

My main objective was not to embarrass Second Born by not saying or doing anything to bring myself attention. I was doing really well until mid-day. Early on we learned about the “Three Littles” that every student strives to accomplish. . . 1) get hit by a frisbee; 2) accidentally break a dish in the cafeteria; and 3) catch a “virgin” pine cone—meaning one that hasn’t hit the ground. In the middle of the campus tour, I faked catching a pine cone by droping to the rear, picking one up of the ground, then exclaiming to a few peeps around me, “Look, I did it. I caught a virgin pine cone.” Turned out more than a few people heard. Everyone liked my head fake except Golden Locks.

Thought one. A prediction. Higher education, like every other institution, is changing and will continue to change. However, the pace of change will be slower than the “experts” anticipate. Online “education”, or the cynic in me prefers, “internet coursework”, will continue to challenge the traditional “brick and mortar” model of schooling. Hybrid programs will become more common. But based on Friday’s sample of one, private, read pricey, residential liberal arts education is alive and well. “Spokane” University is thriving despite a relatively small endowment. It’s becoming more selective, it’s improving its already nice facilities, and it feels like there is a lot of positive momentum.

Thought two. A paradox. Many private liberal arts colleges offer financial aid packages that average 30-40% of the tuition and room and board “list price”. This coupled with Washington State’s public universities having to increase tuition 15% annually into the foreseeable future, means many families of high achieving students will find privates more affordable going forward. “Spokane” University has four merit-based scholarship tiers. The higher your grade point average and SAT or ACT score, the greater your financial aid. The second tier is a 3.7 and 1880 on the SAT if I remember correctly. That’s worth something like $15,000 each year. Any high schooler planning on going to college should think long and hard about taking any part-time job that might negatively impact their grades. You’d have to scoop ice-cream part-time at Baskin Robins for five years to make $15,000.

Thought three. Confirmation of a core belief. I believe economic anxiety explains most behavior these days. Especially, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class parents of K-12 students. One of the day’s events was a panel discussion with four “Spokane” University students answering questions. Of the dozen or so questions asked during the hour, eleven were asked by parents. The only explanation I could think of for that was deep seated anxiety about their children’s futures. I wanted to tell the lady with red hair, who asked a few different questions, to “shut the hell up,” but I had already embarrassed TSwift once. Incredibly aggravating. Free parenting advice—at least try letting your son, who looked like a grown man to me, find his own way.

I took one picture. No, not of the beavers I saw on my run along the edge of the over flowing Spokane River, not of the baby ducklings, and not of the loquacious woman with red hair.

Dig the smart mix-use design

Finally, most importantly, make sure whatever college you decide to attend has plexiglass backboards.

An Open Letter to College Admissions Committees

From Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School–originally published here. See my response at the bottom.

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

• They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

• They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

• They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

• They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

• They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching. [end of letter]

Props to Mr. Knight for having the courage to point out the emperor has no clothes on. However, he doesn’t go far enough. Denise Clark Pope illustrates the problem in gory detail in her 2003 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Knight’s solution to the problem of grade engineering, introduce high stakes Advanced Placement-like end of course exams, is an unsatisfying fix.

We must dig deeper. We have to not only acknowledge the detrimental effects of academic competition, but experiment with narrative forms of assessment and learning structures where students are expected to work together in substantive ways, like most of us do in our families, in our civic organizations, in our workplaces. Myopic, “grades as an end-all, be-all parenting” and intense individualism endemic to the U.S. are the greatest impediments to change. When honest, many “A” students say what they like most about getting “A’s” is knowing their classmates don’t receive them. I don’t see how A.P.-like exams will do anything to dent the zero-sumness that explains most of the behavior Knight laments.

Adolescents are the most social of animals, yet in school, we almost always require them to work individually and we assess their work individually. And of course, college admissions offices assess them individually too. But talk to eighteen and nineteen year olds about what they most value from their high school experience and almost to a person they’ll say the groups they were apart of—band, drill team, service clubs, student government, choir, orchestra, drama, athletic teams. Why? Because in contrast to third period physics, they develop collective identities in those activities and enjoy the community that results from them.

What do you think about Knights’ description of the problem and proposed fix?

Extra Circular Activities

I’m working on a paper on why students cheat so much in high school, how they rationalize it, and what it means for improving high schools. I’m in the pre-writing stage, re-reading and coding some of my first year college students’ papers on their high school experience. Here’s an excerpt from one of them. The humor lies in the typo and unintended pun:

On top of being a straight A student, my parents also expected me to participate in extra circular activities. By being involved I as able to show colleges I was a very well rounded individual who could balance the demands of school and extra circular activities.

Extra circular activities, the mind whirls. Could it be crew? Could this particular crew row in a giant circle in a large roundish lake? A donut eating club? A cross country team that runs in large circles around the city, school, track? A student government that sits in a circle? A folk dance club?

Friends don’t let friends develop spell-checker dependency.

Here’s another decidedly less funny excerpt from another student’s paper:

There was one word to describe my math teacher junior year: Exacting. This teacher had his class curriculum sealed tight.  He knew every part of his Power Point slides and what he was going to write on the board. He always followed the book closely and I was seriously struggling.  In his class, I was like a fish out of water, desperately trying to grasp the concepts of pre-calculus. I spent a majority of my time trying to slack my way to a good grade and not actually take the time to learn the concepts and functions taught.  I frantically tried to find loop holes and backdoors around assignments and test but had no luck.  I gave up, trying to find my way around the assignment and started to read the book and try and learn the curriculum.  However, while I was flipping through the pages of my book a short sentence in the bottom left hand corner of the page caught my eye, it read, “See teacher’s edition”.  Suddenly a light went off.  I went straight home after school ended, turned on my computer and proceeded to find a teacher’s edition book of high school pre-calculus.  I found it and purchased it.  I felt relieved that I had mastered the impossible and found a backdoor to success in my math class.    The teacher’s edition book had everything I needed, from test answers to assignments.  After that I never ran into a bump in the road and coasted through the rest of my junior year.

And finally, this sixth-grader has the makings of an excellent Donut Club prez. His paragraph is titled “The Fake Doughnut”.