Friday, May 31, 2013

The Wrath of Ptolemy: Why "A" is the New "C" in American Schools

We have all heard people complain about American schools. A little too much, I think. In general, we do a pretty good job. I do, however, believe we often go about it in silly ways. If you ever want your confidence shaken, though, you should do something that I just did: do level-placement of high school freshmen for the upcoming year.

What we use are three things: middle school grades, previous standardized testing and our own placement test (standardized, as well).

On the application information form for some of the area schools, there is also a spot in which the teachers can say whether they think the student is on a "high" level, a "middle" level or a "low" level, in a particular subject. (This will be important later.) Here is the worst case scenario that I have to deal with -- and it happens quite a bit:

A student (we'll call him Copernicus) shows testing that puts him in the twentieth percentile (very low). His teacher rates him as "low." His grades? As and Bs, even from that very teacher.

Now, if I take the evidence of the testing and place Copernicus in the regular level classes, Copernicus's dad (we'll call him Ptolemy -- just because I like silent Ps) calls me up and says he wants Copernicus in honors classes because the kid has all As in middle school. I mention the testing. Ptolemy tells me Copernicus is just a bad test-taker. He has anxiety issues. His performance in class is a clearly successful track record.

I am, at this point, officially, shut-down. I argue a little, but, in the end it is, as they say, six and a half dozen. We each have an equally good case, me and Ptolemy. Stalemate.

I put Copernicus in "honors." Copernicus gets a C in the first marking period. Enraged, Ptolemy calls the guidance office to complain about Copernicus's teacher. There must be something wrong with his or her teaching style, after all, because Copernicus has never gotten a grade lower than a B in his academic life.

Whom do we blame? We blame the lower level teacher who didn't "have the guts" to give anyone lower than a B. Why didn't that teacher have the guts? Not because he or she is a weak person, but because parents have been telling their kids, for years, that "nothing lower than a B is acceptable." Because a C in a class is now considered a failure when it originally was considered a pretty good job.

This all came out of good intentions. Parents wanted to encourage their kids to stand out -- to out-perform
...and son.
their classmates and to do well in life. The unfortunate result of this good intention is that "all As and Bs" is an unfair demand to put on a kid, especially when the academic challenge is high. (If everyone gets As and Bs, everyone is the best. But, how can everyone be the best?)

Sadly, instead of realizing this is an unfair demand to put on a kid and instead of backing off of the kid, the parents then decided to start putting an unfair demand on the shoulders of the teacher. Now, "nothing lower than a B is acceptable" is sort of a burden put on the teachers. And, with the backing of the American Federal government, when a student under-performs, it is, exclusively, the fault of the teacher. When it is the fault of the teacher, heads roll.

(I once heard a distinguished and seasoned colleague refer to Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy as "No School Left Standing." Alas.)

The consequence of our overburdened teacher dolling out As and Bs? An A is now a grade given to students who do everything the teacher asks, even if the tasks are completed without distinction. An A is the new C.

What I then see is the little note on the admissions packet. I hear a whisper in the form of a check mark in a box -- the note from the teacher that, in spite of the good grades, Copernicus is "low" level. It says (by implication):
Psst. Copernicus gets all As, but, he really isn't anything special, academically. I know it from what I see in class; you know it because of the testing results. You can correct this problem if you listen to me, by placing him in a regular level class, but I'm not sticking my neck out and facing the wrath of Ptolemy the day I give Copernicus a C. Good luck with him, Mac. Both of them are all yours now.

Indeed. And a new crop of teachers is invited into the arena. Sadly, we have no one on our staff under the name of Spartacus; for, what school does?


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  2. Thanks be to GOD that THIS WAS FINALLY SAID!

    1. It's a sad state. Worse, it feels like a trap to educators around the country.

  3. I taught with someone in another state, in a Catholic school, where mostly well-to-do students attended. This man taught AP sciences--hard sciences like chem and physics. As a scientist accustomed to maintaining the integrity of data, he graded the students fairly and honestly.

    For his trouble, he was non-renewed because of low enrollment in his classes. So the honest, scholarly, low-earning person was punished for telling the truth about grades.

    He told me as he packed up his boxes that he'd not make the same mistake again--of being honest about grades.

    I weep for America sometimes.

    1. Sad. But I guess we need to give teachers a little tough love here, too. Someone needs to stand up to the pressure, or nothing will change. It is annoying, too, to see As and hear the "whisper" above, too. It's just a hard tangle to untangle...

  4. As an adjunct for a decade, I've seen how high this extrude-the-student-through-the-system approach can go. A few years ago, I sat across from a tough guy in his twenties who began crying. "Am I really that bad?" he asked. " I get A's in my other classes. When my friends make movies, I write the scripts!" Despite years of supposed oversight by relatives, teachers, football coaches, and even college professors, this young man was hearing for the first time, from me, that he read and wrote at a level years below his actual age.

    (One quibble: You refer to "Bush's NCLB." Bush proposed it, but it was written by two Republicans and two Democrats. I mention that not to absolve Bush of blame for his role in shaky legislation, but to make sure Ted Kennedy, John Boehner, George Miller, and Judd Gregg bear their share of the blame. Many people complain that the parties should stop bickering and work together; NCLB is what we get when that actually happens.)

    1. Jeff -- I have sat in that very chair, across from that very student. So true.

      Your point is well taken on the NCLB issue. True, as well. In fact, it's amusing to note that Obama pretty much just went in and changed its name to turn down the heat, but he didn't really change much about the situation.