Make it really hard for kids to fail in school

To prepare “difficult” students for the real world, make it “really hard to fail,” argues Dr. Allen Mendler, an education consultant, on Edutopia’s blog.

An effective practice is to “appreciate and focus on the student’s strengths rather than emphasizing and punishing shortcomings such as lateness, lack of productivity, and disruptive behavior,” Mendler writes.

But critics say that’s preparing students to be fired.

Grading for progress rather than achieving a “group-based standard” also doesn’t work in the real world, critics say.

School isn’t like the workplace, Mendler argues. Students have to go to school and take courses in subjects they may not like or be any good at. In the real world, workers can specialize.

“Make it really hard for students to fail school,” he writes. “Not impossible, just really hard!”

Do what you can to impart important life skills such as a solid work ethic, promptness, patience, and getting along with others. Have rules and, as much as possible, “logical” consequences for unacceptable behavior. (For example: “Work needs to be completed. You can do it in class with others, at home, or during recess.”)

. . . I am far more likely to motivate an uninterested student with poor attendance to show up, and therefore make it more likely that she will pass my class and graduate, by telling how much we missed her during her absence rather than by giving her a zero on missed assignments.

School success doesn’t always predict success in life, he concludes. Of course, school failure usually does predict future failure.

More teens drop out, take GED

Letting high-school-age teens take the GED encourages dropouts, some economists and educators fear. A quarter of GED test-takers are 16 to 18 years old, reports the Washington Post. They’re passing up a high school diploma for a much less valuable credential: GED holders earn as little as dropouts who didn’t pass the test and very few go on to earn a higher degree.

“We are making it easy for them to make a mistake,” said James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago.

If cognitive skills were enough, people who demonstrate high school equivalence by passing the GED would perform equally well in the workplace or in college, he said. Instead, dropping out of high school usually portends a lifelong pattern of dropping out, he said. Studies shows high school dropouts have higher rates of job turnover, college attrition, turnover in the military and even divorce, compared with those who stuck it out in high school.

“Sitting in school and showing up on time and doing in school what people ask you to do — those are useful, if dull, tedious traits to have,” Heckman said.

The GED isn’t easy: To pass, test takers must outperform about 40 percent of graduating seniors. It’s being revised to conform to Common Core Standards, which is expected to make it harder.

Tech college adds work ethic to transcripts

A Missouri technical college evaluates job readiness, work ethic and attendance, in addition to academic performance to help graduates find jobs. Employers had complained that many new hires lack a strong work ethic.

The auto industry is hiring again, but only wants workers with high-tech “cross skills” and “soft skills,” says an industry analyst.

College will evaluate ‘soft skills’

“Soft skills,” such as punctuality and teamwork, will be factored into grades and “work readiness” certificates at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina. Employers have complained that graduates have technical skills but lack knowledge of workplace norms.

That reminds me of yesterday’s post on a McKinsey report that found a mismatch between teachers’ estimation of their students’ skills and employers’ expectations. (No, that doesn’t mean teachers are “stupid,” as one comment writer insists. It means teachers  and employers aren’t communicating.)

Measuring 'soft skills'

How do we tell if students are learning “soft skills,”  such as “the ability to work with others, process information from disparate sources, communicate persuasively, or work reliably?”  On Taking Note, John Merrow and Arnold Packer look at the challenge of creating valid, reliable assessments.

With a Kellogg Foundation grant, they’re asking mentors at 28 community-based organizations to assess high and middle school students on “responsibility, work ethic, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.”

We ask the mentors to write a two -sentence description of the context in which each of the traits was demonstrated.  Was the teenager responsible about picking up trash in the park or helping out on the surgical ward?  Communicating to a friend about the homework assignment requires a different skill level than communicating about obesity to a large community audience.  There is no reasonable rubric that will cover this amount of variation.

Finally, mentors also grade the students’ performance on a scale of one (“cannot do it”) to five (“does it well enough teach others”).

This produces a Verified Resume of performance that could be used for job applications and college admissions.

The pilot project will survey employers to see if  the mentors’ evaluations match the new hire’s performance.

We got into this because we believe performance traits like responsibility, tolerance for diversity, ability to communicate and work ethic matter.. Because they matter, we must also figure out how to measure them reliably.

Recommendations are supposed to fill this purpose, but it’s difficult to judge whether the recommenders are setting the bar high or low. And many people are afraid to be honest in recommendations.