‘Terrible’ is the new ‘Pretty Good’
Sometimes it is breathtaking how crappy student work can be. What’s even more breathtaking is how crappy something could be that I would still give a B or C to.
Teaching in achievement gap schools does this to you. It’s not that my expectations weren’t high enough. I must insist on that. Having low expectations has been one of the stock emotional blackmail boot-to-the-head teacher critiques and obfuscations on behalf of lazy kids. Every time I have started a new semester or taught a new class, I have had high expectations for what my students might do this term. I’ve been genuinely excited, like you’re supposed to be. A brand new class is motivating and exhilarating. But the expectations were always thwarted. The expectations turned to hopes, then dreams, then fantasy.
Real expectations are learned from experience. My students taught me that, by and large, they would not work hard in school. My hopes always remained high and I did my best to make those come true. But my expectations had become involuntarily lower over time as dictated by a natural process in my brain that I don’t control. Watch this car…it’s going to stop at the red light. I’ve seen it a million times. How can I not expect this? Sometimes they don’t stop, but they almost always do.
And thus the entire achievement gap school is enveloped in a world where most of the students aren’t going to do any work most of the time, for all the poverty risk factor reasons we know about. Regardless of whatever level this fact is known, felt or articulated, this fundamental lack of effort is what most defines the experience and is the most important single fact about that school in terms of understanding or predicting its learning outcomes. How could it be otherwise?
But somebody still has to get an A. And the Bs should be worse than the As; the Cs worse than the Bs, etc. The order is the same, but the entire hierarchy of grades has been transposed an octave or two or three lower. This becomes clear in achievement gap schools like mine when 1/2 of 1% of 11th graders score 1500 or better on the SAT, yet there is a fairly ‘normal’ looking distribution of grades within the school. The same is true of AP English classes, which all 11th and 12th graders are forced to take. Almost nobody passes the AP exam, but almost everybody passes the class. A lot of teachers put a lot of work into making outcomes like this possible.
That tells me that what my school has been doing all these years, firing teachers and generally pissing them off and embittering them, hasn’t been worth it. If we could all look back and see that something came of it, that would take the sting out a bit. And a jackass like me would feel ashamed and foolish rather than more correct than I have ever been about anything.
The whole reform movement is really about that one thing: Getting kids to work. Whether it’s differentiation, using data to target their needs, calling them scholars, structuring lesson plans just so, making everything relevant to their lives, or always striving for the perfect intervention or piece of encouragement at just the right time and documenting it properly; it’s all about one thing. We are trying to get them to respond and take some interest and ownership of their education.
The belief that teachers can be directed as to how to impact this for the better and that they will be able to do so consistently on a mass scale is the core belief that is beginning to cave in on itself. The SAT scores tell me so. As did the slimy feeling I would get every time I gave a passing grade to a piece of terrible, horrible student work.
It takes a village. And the village is lucky it has a school. But what’s everybody else doing?
p.s. – By the way, I hope you all had a great spring break. As a non-teacher now, spring break doesn’t provoke the same giddiness and longing in me that it once did. I just kept working at my regular job but, as I’ve noted before, it wasn’t that bad. My wife took the kids to Chicago for Easter and I stayed home. By myself for a week. That’s never happened before and I can tell you it was awesome. I forgot there was so much time in a day. I could wake up at 8:10 and be to work by 9:00. Normally I wake up at 6:15, rush around, yell and drive other people places for two hours before I’m even sure what day it is.
I love my family and everything, but it was really valuable to have such a special opportunity to miss them.