Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?

A teacher in virtual charter hell

After 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell, Darcy Bedortha quit her job as a high school English teacher for K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual education company. She couldn’t meet students’ learning needs, she writes in Education Week Teacher.

K12 pays full-time teachers $42,000 a year to teach a minimum of 226 students, writes Bedortha. Some full-timers have more than 300 students.

Students can enroll at any time.

In a given day in mid-November I would grade introductory assignments, diagnostic essays and end-of-semester projects, and everything in between, for each course (this month I had 30 separate courses). I found it to be impossible to meet the learning needs of my students in that situation.

Many students are phantoms, Bedortha writes. Fewer than 10 percent of students “attended” the weekly 30-minute “class,” which used an interactive blackboard. Only a small percentage communicated by email.

Most were behind in high school credits and “could not afford another failure.”

. . .  as I wrote this in early December, nearly 80 percent of our students were failing their classes.  At that time there were 303 students (12 percent of the school) enrolled in special education programs – and 259 of them were failing while 17 had no grade at all. Eighty-two percent of the 9th graders were failing. 

Other virtual schools face similar failure rates, writes Bedortha. Only 37.6 percent of students at full-time virtual schools graduate on time, compared to 79.4 percent of all public high school students according to a July 2012 National Education Policy Center report.

Virtual schools do best for mature, self-directed learners or for students with a homeschooling parent. Most students who’ve failed in schools with in-person teachers won’t succeed with less personal contact with a teacher. But they need an alternative to traditional schooling.

Virtual schools are bound to attract transient students. We need a way to fund virtual charters so they’re not compensated for students who aren’t using the school’s services.

Teaching the physics of ‘Angry Birds’

Video games have become teaching tools, reports the Wall Street Journal.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

Teachers are using games such as “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach “math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion,” reports the Journal.

In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

Video games let students try, fail, reassess and try again, says Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

Games “provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies,” advocates say.


Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, uses “Minecraft” to build virtual cities. He learned the game in an after-school club but it’s now used in his architecture class. The game lets his “imagination run wild,” says Villasenor.

Not everyone is happy to see video games in the classroom. “Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning,” reports the Journal.

The newest games are “aligned” with Common Core standards — or so the makers claim.

Don’t follow your passion

Don’t Follow Your Passion, advises Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. Try things and get passionate about what works. He’s got a new book out, How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

MOOCs are hot, but do they work?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning?

Community college students are more likely to drop out of online classes and earn lower grades, a new study finds.

More flipping, less failing

“Flipping the classroom” — students watch video lessons at home and practice skills in class — has cut the failure rate at Clintondale High near Detroit, reports Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times.

Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Principal Greg Green had been using videos to demonstrate baseball techniques to his son’s team, leaving “more time for hands-on work at practices,” Rosenberg writes.

In spring of 2010, he asked a social studies teachers to flip one of his classes. The flipped class had more students who’d failed before, but after 20 weeks, they were outperforming the traditional class.

In the fall, Green flipped all ninth-grade classes.

The results were dramatic: the failure rate in English dropped from 52 percent to 19 percent; in math, it dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent; in science, from 41 percent to 19 percent; and in social studies, from 28 percent to 9 percent.

The next year, the fall of 2011, Clintondale became the first high school in the U.S. to flip every class in every grade.

“On average we approximated a 30 percent failure rate,” said Green. “With flipping, it dropped to under 10 percent.” Graduation rates rose dramatically, and are now over 90 percent. College attendance went from 63 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2012.

Test scores went up in 2012 and then dropped. But state education officials say Clintondale added many more low-income, low-scoring students from Detroit.

At first, teachers assigned 20-minute videos, but now they run three to six minutes long to encourage rewatching. Teachers record bite-sized lessons or use videos from the Khan Academy, TED and other sources.

Robert Townsend, who teaches ninth-grade physical science, said only half of his students did traditional homework, but 75 to 80 percent watch the videos.

Flipping has helped failing students the most, teachers say. “It’s tough to fail a flipped class, because you’re doing the stuff in here,” said Rob Dameron, the head of the English department. “I used to have about a 30 percent failure rate in English – these kids come in a lot at third-grade, fourth-grade reading levels. Now, out of 130 kids, I have three who are failing — mostly due to attendance problems.”

Townsend said he feels like an “educational artist” who doesn’t just talk and hand out sheets. “I can create interactive lessons and exciting content. There’s so much more time to educate!”

But “flipped classrooms require more creativity and energy from the teacher,” said Dameron.

Slow isn’t the same as stupid

Stupid is not the same thing as slow, writes Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher, in Slate. When a teacher describes a student as “slow” or “weak” or “struggling” or “behind” or “low,” each word “embodies different assumptions about the engines of success, the nature of failure, and how students’ minds operate.”

Orlin prefers to see students as “struggling,” swimming valiantly against the current.

Every night of ninth grade, (Monica) slaved over her homework, barely sleeping, fighting against the rapids, straining to tread water. I admired her tenacity, and did my best to throw her life preservers—test corrections, tutoring sessions, extra credit. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. She failed my geometry class, and the rest of her subjects, too. (She passed freshman year the second time around.)

. . . But some students just don’t care. Math strikes them as pointless, or impossible, and they’re perfectly content to surrender to the river without a fight. David, for example, didn’t struggle at all. He eyed trigonometry, decided it wasn’t for him, and promptly failed . . .

Students know when teachers think they’re too stupid to learn, Orlin writes. “Even if we limit our usage of words like dumb to the conspiratorial privacy of the faculty lounge, kids can tell. Such judgments seep into our interactions with them.”

D.C. plans ‘9th-grade academies’

District of Columbia plans “ninth-grade academies” to separate new ninth-graders from repeaters with bad attitudes, reports the Washington Post. First-time high school students will get extra support in small schools within the school while repeaters may go to after-school “twilight academies,” evening credit-recovery programs or alternative schools.

(Chancellor Kaya) Henderson  says she will be more aggressive about removing overage, credit-short students from neighborhood schools and assigning them to programs, such as the city’s two STAY schools for adult learners, that can provide a different and perhaps more successful path to graduation.

In short, triage.

D.C. elementary and middle schools promote students who lack grade-level skills in reading and math, reports the Post. Then they hit high school: 40 percent of first-time ninth graders have to repeat the grade because they’ve failed English, algebra or more.

The result is a history of freshman classes that bulge with challenged students. There were nearly 4,000 ninth-graders in the city’s traditional schools in fall 2012, compared with just 2,200 eighth-graders and fewer than 2,600 10th-graders.

Dunbar High used a grant to lengthen the school day by an hour and a half for freshmen.  Ninth-grade teachers work with a counselor and social workers to help struggling students. The promotion rate for first-time ninth-graders jumped from 47 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2012 and could hit 90 percent this year. Truancies and suspensions are down too.

Repeaters go to a four-hour “twilight” (afternoon) program. They can’t return to day classes till they make up their missing credits. Dunbar officials couldn’t give the Post information on how many caught up, dropped out or transferred.

Ninth grade is a make-or-break year for many students, reports Ed Week. Many districts are trying academies or other ways to focus attention and support on new high school students.

Creating ninth-grade academies proved to be a challenge in Florida’s Broward County, according to an MRDC study. Only 3 of 18 schools implemented the program strongly, MRDC concluded.

In a 2005 study, MDRC found “significant and substantial academic and attendance gains during students’ first year of high school,” reports Ed Week.

Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.

“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

What it feels like to be bad at math

Every math teacher should understand What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math, writes Ben Orlin on Math with Bad Drawings.

As a math teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate. When you take away their calculators, they moan like children who’ve lost their teddy bears. (Admittedly, a trauma.)

Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?

Because of his experience with mathematical failure, Orlin understands why his students don’t ask for help. “Math makes people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.”

7 - Symptoms (smaller)

Orlin excelled as a math major at Yale –until he took topology in his senior year.

My failure began as most do: gradually, quietly. I took dutiful notes from my classmates’ lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key phrases, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.

But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I never asked for help. (Too scared of looking stupid.)

He copied his girlfriend’s homework. He procrastinated. He blamed others. He panicked. He exhibited “every symptom that I now see in my own students,” he writes. He managed to pass the course, but recalling the experience is still painful.