If You Build a Better Crutch, We’ll Make a Lazier Student

Isn’t that the truth?

I was talking to a friend from my old school the other day. They had to read the article from the last post about the kid who went to DC public charter schools and then was unprepared for his freshman year at Georgetown.

Surprise!

You weren’t prepared because your teachers had to spend most of their time coddling and cajoling the way-behind, the lazy and the disruptive in your midst. (If you are poor and your mom is a drunk, that’s sad. But it is secondary. The teacher still has to deal with way-behind, lazy, and disruptive.) This takes a great deal of time and effort. In DC, public education is all about creating the appearance that the bottom is being brought up. Increasingly we see that this is a poorly executed illusion.

Here is how it works at my old school, the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), where I taught U.S. Government and DC History for three years. In short, the teachers do everything for the students, provide multiple opportunities to do the same thing, and just plain make things up to move kids out. And then we all pretend that the students did the work after all. It is simply a lie.

It all amounts to taking responsibility away from students and leaving them almost entirely unaccountable. In the name of “providing supports for struggling students”, we give students an excuse to not struggle at all. If you build a better crutch, we’ll create a lazier student. I have never seen such an intellectually helpless and self-deluded group of tree sloths in my life. And we have helped that to happen in the name of keeping the assembly line running.

For example, as a history teacher, I required students to write papers. As per the regulations of the school, every student writes the same paper. It comes to them in the form of a GRASPS. (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Product, Standards.) This must all be specified clearly and be uniform for all students. If I simply said “write a 5-page essay predicting the outcome of a pending Supreme Court case using precedents studied in class”, 9 out of 10 heads would explode right there and then. Exploding heads would also be brought on by allowing students to pick their own topics. They can’t do it.

So everybody gets the exact same assignment, spelled out in excruciating detail, which is never quite enough. There is also a ridiculously detailed rubric which, in many cases, ends up being longer than student papers. These materials are read in groups, discussed in class. Sometimes more than once. Along with this material is an exemplar, also required. This is a full sample paper, written by me, that fulfills everything on the rubric, has a kick-ass introduction and conclusion, cites materials properly, etc. It’s the shit. We read the exemplar in class and highlight the places in the paper where different parts of the rubric are satisfied. We discuss, ask questions (or not), etc.

So, each student has a painfully detailed assignment sheet and rubric, along with the entire paper written for them. This is all required and given at the beginning of the unit. During the unit, I speak extra loudly and clearly, with lots of pointing and any other signaling I can think of when we come to something relevant to the paper. We also have a word wall and preview “difficult” vocabulary because you know damn well only 20 percent would even think of looking up a word they don’t know and only 8 percent would actually do it. So I tell them and we draw pictures like stroke victims and first graders. I chew everything up and regurgitate it back into their mouths.

Time is given to write in class and this is mostly wasted. Time is allotted to peer review rough drafts and this is mostly wasted. Points and praise are provided for anything that might be reasonably construed as effort or thought toward completing the project. On or around the due date I might get 15 or 20 percent. The rest trickle in, or not. They are mostly very, very bad pieces of writing; betraying little effort and almost no thought.

Raising the bar, indeed.

I threaten to take points off for late work, but there is no way I can afford to do that. Production cannot be halted. Since there is no quality control on the final product (a DC high school graduate), and I am not going to be the bottleneck, we roll on and the grads roll out.

I don’t care if it’s 7 weeks late. Just turn something in so you don’t get a zero.

How about some extra credit?

Maybe you’d like to retake that test. You betcha! The very same one. I bet you’ll still fail it, but if we move up a click or two…

Now, behold the magic of denominators. Fs into Ds just as fast as you please!

The fraud at my school, in which I partook fully, is rampant and comes straight from the top. The administration has many creative and creepy ways of letting teachers know that when a student fails it is almost invariably the teacher’s fault for not providing enough “support”. Until somebody finds a way to hold students accountable for their own learning, the incentives to continue participating in The Great Lie will remain.

Mr. Teachbad

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