Low academic expectations at far too many schools

By Ruth Mitchell Guest columnist
Special to The Washington Post

The Seattle Times


WASHINGTON In a high-school science class, students are learning the metric system to measure parts of a diagram. In a high-school English class, students are coloring shields that represent a Greek god or goddess. A 10th-grade biology class is cutting out labels to be glued on paper in the correct order of photosynthesis.

If you visited these classes and didn't look at the sign over the door of the school, you might think you were in an elementary school, or a middle school at best. But such classes are not atypical in large urban high schools, where, except for the Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes, much of the classroom work is below grade level.

On one trip to a Midwestern city, I found one out of eight assignments at grade level in two high schools. A colleague popped in on about 40 English classes in the course of a day at a West Coast high school and found one just one class where real learning was going on.

This is the dirty secret in the wars over teacher quality: the low level of academic work at all levels in far too many schools. The consequences of low-level work are seen in poor test results: Students given only work that is below their grade level cannot pass standardized tests about material they have never seen.

No Molly today

Molly Ivins has been on vacation. Her syndicated column will return next Monday.

I'm not alone in trying to focus attention on the low level of teaching. A West Coast group called DataWorks has been analyzing the work given to students since the late 1990s. In one California elementary school, DataWorks found that 2 percent of the work in the fifth grade was on grade. That's not a misprint: 98 percent of the work that students were doing was at the level of the fourth, third, second and even first grades. In South Carolina, DataWorks looked at work assigned in 14 high schools and found that most of the 12th-grade work was just below 10th-grade level.

The public is largely unaware of the problem. Those who follow education, write editorials and commentaries and make policy were themselves successful students who were in the highest tracks at their high schools, and their children are also successful students enjoying the best and most experienced teachers, because they're in the AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Legislators and policymakers tend to come from a social class in which people not only have benefited from good teachers but also have fond memories of a particular teacher or teachers who turned them on to the pleasures of poetry or the intricacies of DNA.

Students in the schools we visit are not turned on. Black, brown, speaking broken or accented English, with cultural values clashing with those of the white middle class, they are seen as needing elementary instruction in secondary school; as capable only of drawing and coloring; as in need of discipline rather than encouragement. They are asked to make acrostics in middle-school social studies; to write eight sentences in high school English class; and to fill out endless worksheets in math class.

Teachers say they have to teach the students where they are, which means at sixth-grade level in high school if they can't read well. Their attitude may be compassionate, but it is misguided. There's ample evidence that accelerating instruction works better than retarding it in the name of remediation. Observations made in the Dallas Unified School District show that students who score well have teachers who cover the curriculum appropriate to the grade level. These teachers spend little time on drill and practice, and don't remediate in the classroom but rather get help for students outside of class.

Too often, however, policymakers accept the teaching profession's excuses students' background and lack of parental support for student failure. Policymakers don't visit classrooms or, as we do, sit in on teacher meetings designed to help teachers reflect on their work. The experience can be profoundly depressing: In the West Coast high school, students in English classes were sleeping through movies, even in AP classes. And four of the teachers were late for class themselves.

Teachers have themselves been badly served by the educational system. Poorly trained for the most part and without subject-matter degrees at the elementary level, they are now being faced with requirements that students learn material at certain grade levels material that in some cases, such as elementary mathematics and science, teachers don't know themselves. Teachers have been trained to think their work is done if they have delivered the material in the textbook, kept the class from bothering the principal and assigned grades that don't fail too many students.

Their training was simply not adequate to the new demands of standards-based accountability. No wonder there's such an outcry against the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But no matter how much we may sympathize with the teachers, our concern must be with the children. The most pressing need in education for kindergarten through 12th grade today is massive teacher retraining. School boards and administrators who do not act to provide it are betraying the public trust.

Ruth Mitchell is an educational consultant.



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