Getting Rid of Gym Class

In 2006, Michigan established a ‘merit curriculum’—a set of HS graduation requirements for every student in MI. There was a lot of fanfare around this standardizing and toughening up, with everyone from the governor to local representatives crowing about rigor and high expectations. Here’s the official blurb:

A high school diploma in Michigan will soon say a lot more about the graduate whose name it bears. It will tell employers that our students have mastered the reading, writing, and math skills required for success in the workplace. It will tell college and university admissions officers and career and technical schools the student is ready for the rigors of post-secondary education. It will tell the world — Michigan is committed to having the best-educated workforce.

Many large, suburban high schools in Michigan already had similar graduation requirements—four math credits, four ELA credits, three science and three specific social studies credits, plus two credits in a foreign language and one apiece in the arts, physical education and health, plus an online or technology class. Other schools, especially smaller and rural schools, were compelled to re-jigger their master schedules, course sequences and staffing.

When state legislatures start tinkering with professional work that used to be the strict purview of school districts and their on-site leadership, weird things happen. One of the big shockwaves of the Merit Curriculum was: Everybody takes algebra! Not only regular old, used-to-be-9th-grade algebra, but also Algebra II. Because that was the ticket to the best-educated workforce, evidently.

Schools pointed out that there was a stratum of students who might benefit from math courses other than algebra—personal finance, practical statistics or career-focused math—but the legislature responded with snotty remarks about teachers not believing their students could do higher math, soft bigotry, low expectations, weak math teaching and so on.

Other districts sighed and divided their Algebra I content into two-year sequences (same stuff, just slower) for kids who would have otherwise been scheduled into Practical Math. Some shifted from semesters to trimesters, so if a freshman failed the first trimester of Algebra, they could take it again in the same year.

And—needless to say—teachers rolled their eyes and did what they always do: adjusted. The Merit Curriculum was just another Big Education Idea that sounded good—success in the workplace!—and it was their job to move kids forward.

Because the Merit Curriculum has now been around for 14 years, it has been tweaked, amended and fine-tuned by districts and the Department of Ed. Now, the legislature wants to have another go; they’re suggesting that maybe Physical Education is negotiable.

The proposed bill also eliminates the arts credit requirement, the foreign language requirements, and Algebra II. The bill’s sponsor—a Republican—sounds just like the educators who warned, back in 2006, that the MC was going to overturn a lot of carefully calibrated, school-based curriculum development and, you know, meeting of student needs. Here’s what Jon Bumstead, the bill’s principal sponsor said:

“Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” adding that Lansing laws take away local control of education and “micromanage” districts. 

“Michigan does not trust our teachers, principals and superintendents to use their knowledge and expertise to teach our children,” he said. 

Bingo.

But the education community pointed all that out fourteen years ago, and the legislature decided they knew better.

Most of the linked article discusses the benefits of the Physical Education and Health requirement—fitness and weight control, knowledge about opioid abuse, depression and suicide prevention. Advocates make the strongest possible case for retaining the P.E. requirements—life and death.

The article’s headline calls physical education ‘gym’—but I know P.E. teachers have worked hard to get past a ‘throw out the balls’ stereotype and focus on personal fitness and critical health issues. What they do is very important.

But pitting disciplines against each other is an old education policy trick. The more requirements imposed, the less freedom students have to select courses that interest them–and the fewer electives offered.

It’s a delicate balance—adding a two-year foreign language requirement meant an immediate shortage of those teachers, while adding any new requirements made it increasingly difficult for kids to take choir or orchestra or a visual arts sequence for four years. Students with high-speed internet connections at home could knock off their tech requirement in the summer; students without tech capacity lost another hour of electives at school, using the computers there. Career and vocational classes suffered—and soon, there were shortages of entry-level technical and industrial workers.

This core argument—how to best prepare students for the future, given the resources available—is evergreen. The Committee of Ten (ten men, of course) sketched it out in 1892, and 25 years later, the Commission on Reorganizing Secondary Education found it necessary to develop new seven Cardinal Principles.

And we’ve been fighting about these questions ever since.

At the heart of the issue are our longstanding mental models of educational scarcity and standardization. We don’t have enough hours in the day, or the resources to offer all that students might find interesting or important, once they get to high school. We are more than wiling to take choice out of teenagers’ hands or demand a ‘higher bar’ so ‘diplomas mean something’—a rhetorical statement if there ever was one. We’re also worried about our personal educational turf.

Should HS students be required to take Physical Education? Don’t ask me. My opinion is biased.

Maybe we should ask students what they think they need, and let them refine their personal education plans, year by year. It’s another planning nightmare, but it might tell us something about what our students find worthwhile.

At the very least, this is work that belongs to a school and its professional staff. Not the legislature.

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The Effective Classroom. Do You Know It When You See It?

Over the past couple of days, there’s been a flurry of pushback against this tweet from Tom Rath: Classrooms are such an overlooked part of the sitting epidemic. We need to blow up our thinking about the best ways for kids and adults to learn in groups. We simply learn better when we move more.

Daniel Pink responded: Offices are adopting standing desks & walking meetings. But classrooms still make students sit all day. To improve, consider:

  • Regular breaks to stand & stretch
  • Small-group activities that require moving to switch desks
  • More open space & adjustable desks.

Most of the tweetback looks like this: Obviously, these guys have never seen MY tiny classroom and/or the crappy 1960s-style desks that my students are compelled to use, let alone the crumbling concrete square that we call the playground. Some teacher feedback is defensive: MY students take brain breaks every 45 minutes, to stretch and oxygenate! There’s a lot of cynicism: More open space! Adjustable desks! As if! Hahahahahhaha!

There’s an underlying sense that once again, schools and teachers are being painted as 19th century anachronisms, unwilling to change in response to new ‘thinking’ (whose thinking?) about learning. It’s our fault, somehow, that education is ‘stuck’ in an ‘industrial model’ of straight rows and straight content delivery, and could really benefit by…I don’t know? Switching desks every 20 minutes? Walkabout lessons?

What’s missing from this discussion is a clear idea of what it is, exactly, that teachers are trying to do. If the ultimate goal is keeping kids continuously bubbling and bursting with creativity, well then it really might be a good idea (if we could afford it, which we can’t) to seat each 7-yr old on a bouncy ball and let ‘er rip. As any parent who’s ever hosted a birthday party knows, lots of movement is just the ticket for creative thinking and youthful innovation.

What drives me nuts is anybody’s blanket assumption that they can look at a classroom and evaluate what’s happening there on the basis of how adjustable the desks are or how often the students get out of them. It’s amazingly difficult to assess lesson effectiveness or the quality of student learning just by mere observation. Here’s an example.

When I was in graduate school, in Dr. Mary Kennedy’s seminar on teaching practice at Michigan State University, she showed us three unedited videos of teaching from a long-term research project she’d conducted, then turned into a book, Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform.

The first video was a young woman teaching a small group of high school boys wearing navy blazers and ties. She was conducting a Q & A session, reading questions from a prepared list, about a novel that the whole class read. She stood at the front of the room, calling on boys seated in semi-circle around her, one at a time. Most of their answers were a phrase or sentence. There were no disagreements, and no interaction between students, all of whom seemed prepared for the lesson, if not excited about it.

The second video featured a male teacher with a big mustache in a Hawaiian shirt. The students were middle schoolers, and were working in clusters of 5-6 on some kind of science investigation, using a single microscope per group. He was circulating, pointing at their lab reports—you sure about the answer on number five?—and occasionally snapping his fingers at an off-task student or pulling kids who had left their tables back to work. The room was noisy, because the groups were close together, and there were bursts of laughter. At one point, the teacher clapped his hands, which caused the room to settle. He asked them to reconsider one of the slides they were looking at, with new information he provided, asking “Does that change your conclusion?”. The noise level to rose again, as they turned back to re-examine their work.

In the third video, the students were upper elementary age, seated at tables, and were following set routines.  Class! the teacher called out. Yes? they responded. The routines were repeated, with the teacher calling explicit directions: Turn to your right-side partner! Talk about the definition! Write your answer! Class! Yes? Eyes up here! Raise your hand if you chose A! Turn to your left-side partner! Read your answers! Use the word in a sentence. Eyes up here! Say the word! Say it again!

After watching all three videos, Kennedy asked us: Who’s the best teacher? Who’s the worst?

It was an interesting discussion. The seminar was composed of graduate-level folks with different work experiences in education, and from different nations. When Kennedy asked to identify the best teacher, best learning, in our humble opinions, there was a completely mixed response.

Many of the foreign students found the second video appalling. (Note to the anti-sitting crowd: it was the only video where students were on their feet or moving or speaking their own thoughts.) Some found the third video, where students repeated chants and actions led by a teacher, to be rote and mechanical, while others found it intriguing—could you really get kids to behave in lockstep like that? There was mixed opinion on the first video—lots of classroom teachers finding it ‘unrealistic’ and ‘flat’ while others thought it an ideal model.

The correct answer to the question is, of course: We have no idea which video snippet represents the ‘best’ (or worst) teaching or classroom model, or whether students in that classroom learned anything worthwhile, or applicable to their lives.

We don’t know what the teachers were hoping to accomplish, either: What were their learning goals? Why were those goals relevant and critical in the learning cycle? Why did they choose that particular delivery model, and how was it appropriate for those learning goals?

Maybe the most important missing piece of information: We don’t know the students. We don’t know what they brought to the lesson, what it’s like to teach them, day in and day out, what their prospects and potential look like. Only someone who’s spent some time with them and cares about their learning is able to assess their growth and needs. Someone who knows the context and can exercise judgment.

So maybe it’s not really ‘time to blow up our thinking about the best way for kids and adults to learn in groups.’ Maybe adjustable desks or strolling lessons won’t change anything.

But don’t expect non-educators to stop tweeting about it.

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The Soft Bigotry of Hard Grading

Whoever wrote the phrase ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ back in the early days of the Bush (W) administration, was a genius. In one nifty sound bite, the blame for the so-called achievement gap was placed squarely on the shoulders of educators, those barrel-bottom, unimaginative civil servants slogging along in low-paying careers.

Not only were veteran teachers unable to conceive of their students’ success (presumably, getting into a competitive-admissions college)—they were also bigots, kind of. Perhaps they hadn’t read 25 books on racism, been hooked on The Wire, or stayed for two grueling years in a no-excuses charter before heading off to Goldman Sachs. They were just stuck in those dead-end teaching jobs.

Early in the ‘reform’ days—a couple decades ago—Disruptor types were prone to proclaiming that high expectations for all students were, in fact, a positive disruption to what they assumed was the low and unimaginative level of teaching practice endemic in public education. Especially in schools filled with kids who took home backpacks full of peanut butter and whole wheat crackers every Friday.

If only teachers had faith in their students, cracking the academic whip and believing they could someday rise above their circumstances and excel—well, then things would be different. What we needed was new—high and rigorous—standards, better aligned curricula, more sorting-out data. We needed ‘choice’ to remove kids from low-expectations government schools.

And of course, better teachers, teachers who embodied these great expectations and were willing to rip up unacceptable assignments. Even if it made kids cry.

The ‘low expectations’ trope became a thing. The 74 was still printing pieces about it, 18 years later, using phrases like ‘complacency is also still alive and well’ and ‘having teachers who were confident that their students would complete college made a real difference in their college attainment.’

The 74’s suggestions for improvement? You won’t be surprised: higher standards, more testing and raising the cutoff scores, rigorous curriculum—and better teachers, the kind who expected more. Nary a mention of better health care, better jobs with higher wages, better childcare options, better support networks for people in poverty. Or less racism.

When I read that Fordham was releasing a new report entitled Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement, I assumed it would be more of the same: a screed against ‘grade inflation’ that urged teachers to use the threat of bad grades as ‘motivator’ in getting kids to Learn More (and score better on high-stakes tests, quantitative ‘proof’ of learning).

Turns out I was right.  Here’s the first paragraph of the introductory summary:
We know from previous survey research that teachers who hold high expectations for all of their students significantly increase the odds that those young people will go on to complete high school and college. One indicator of teachers’ expectations is their approach to grading—specifically, whether they subject students to more or less rigorous grading practices. Unfortunately, “grade inflation” is pervasive in U.S. high schools, as evidenced by rising GPAs even as SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. The result is that a “good” grade is no longer a clear marker of knowledge and skills.

Here’s how my 30-odd years’ worth of grading some 5000 students (at least 35K individual grades) squares with the statement above:

  • High expectations are a good thing, all right—but they are not commensurate with giving more unsatisfactory marks. In fact, being a ‘tough grader’ often means that the teacher is not meeting a substantial chunk of kids where they are, then moving them forward. The easiest thing in the world is giving a low or failing grade and blaming it on the student. The hard thing is figuring out how to help that child achieve at the level he’s capable of.
  • The longer I taught, the higher my expectations were, as I learned what students at different developmental levels were able to do—but that was not reflected in the grades I gave. I assumed it was because I had become a better teacher and was getting better results as my teacher tool bag filled. I could see with my own eyes that I had underestimated what my students could learn and apply, if they chose to work at it.
  • I seriously doubt that teachers’ expectations—as defined here by more rigorous grading– have much, if any, impact on kids’ completing college, or even high school. A teacher who encourages a student to think big, to push herself, to reach for the stars and so on, may indeed have a long-term positive effect on a student, especially one with self-doubts. Setting students on a path to higher education and life success is a long-term, K-12 project, one that can’t be accomplished by teachers alone and certainly not by dropping the grading scale a few points to teach them a lesson.
  • Grades aren’t real, although the argument can be made that they’re more real than a standardized test score (which the report also uses to make the claim that ‘raising the bar’ has a salutary effect on student outcomes). No matter how schools try to standardize grading, the human judgment factor creeps in. As it should. Students see their grades as something ‘given’ by the teacher, no matter how many times teachers insist that grades are ‘earned’ and can be accurately, precisely, mathematically granted.*
  • Grade inflation isn’t real either. I am always amused by disgruntled edu-grouches who insist that Harvard, say, is awash in grade inflation. When an institution turns away 94.6% of the students who have the temerity to apply, why are we shocked when the crème de la crème who are admitted get all A’s?
  • If we were doing our jobs better, by Fordham’s metrics—following rigorous standards, choosing engaging and challenging curricula, assessing frequently—wouldn’t the desired outcome be better grades?
  • The worst kind of grading practice is the bell curve. Curving grades has gone out of fashion, but you still see its aftereffects in reports like this that bemoan the overly high percentage of students whose work is deemed good or superior. If you’ve ever had a class filled with go-getters (and I’ve had many), you’ll know it’s possible to teach to the highest standards and have every child in the class performing at a high level. Someone does NOT have to fail. What the researchers here seem to be endorsing is a curve where students in high-poverty schools are not compared with their peers, but with kids in advantaged schools—then taking the top-scoring kids down a peg or two, for their own good.
  • Bad grades don’t motivate most kids to try harder, although this seems to be the sweeping conclusion of the report, which studied 8th and 9th Algebra students in North Carolina. The researchers noted that students in advantaged schools were more likely to make gains when receiving a lower grade. There are lots of charts and graphs showing how teachers who give lower grades initially cause an uptick in standardized assessment scores eventually. This is more likely to happen if that teacher went to a ‘selective’ college or is an experienced veteran teacher, by the way. As for the poor students who go to rural or urban schools—well, they get good grades that don’t reflect what they’ve really learned. Therefore, maybe we should give them lower grades, too, as an early reality check.
  • I repeat: bad grades don’t usually motivate kids, unless there’s someone at home checking up on them, they plan on going to college and care about their GPA. In that case, a lower grade may serve as a heads-up that more effort may be necessary. Do 8th grade Algebra students and students in advantaged schools where most kids are college bound fit into that category? Yes.

Students who do well in school also know how to study effectively– or seek extra help when something is difficult for them. They’re not as likely to think that the tough-grading Algebra teacher doesn’t like them, or that they’ve finally found a subject they can’t successfully master. Lots of previous successes have given them the confidence to pursue a challenging subject.

What struck me about the report was the facile conclusion that a subset of (higher-achieving) students was motivated by a lower-than-expected grade into learning more.

Extrapolating that into a declaration that tougher grading would lead to higher achievement is giving way to much credence to a cranky-pants theory, the one where a kick in the pants is what kids these days really need.

 

*In my 30+ year career, I taught math for two years. Prior to that, I collected various data to develop and tweak a defensible grading process for teaching instrumental and vocal music. Music is a challenging discipline in which to assess using hard numbers, trust me; I envied my math teacher friends whose grades were always clean, clear percentages. Then I taught math and discovered—eh, you can juke the stats in math, too, through assignment weighting, partner quizzes (recommended by our math series), late assignment policies, re-takes, homework evaluation policies—and so much more. Grading—in any subject or level– is not science. Never has been.

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