Articles like in this week’s New York Times, which talks about how less and less students are truly prepared for college level coursework, are old news for those of us in education. From New York to California, it is now undeniable that our schools are pumping out more and more kids every year who have to be remediated before they can take their first college class—that is, their entire high school career did not qualify them for the lowest math and/or English class our universities offer, so they need to go to an extension to pass a prerequisite instead. So even if our students get into college, half of them can’t even take college classes.
I recently wrote an article for New America Media in which I talk about how, even at the high school level, we are finding our kids further and further behind when they enter our classrooms in September. We are filling up more sheltered classes, and even our grade-level, Proficient students are struggling. Let me give you a troubling statistic. I teach two regular, college-prep 9th grade English classes. All told there are 64 students (32 per class). Their test scores say they are proficient in English, and don’t need to be in Sheltered classes, (well, not all of them—probably a third of them are in a second English class that supports them in my class). Our Semester grades came out, and this is what happened: 27 of them received a D or an F—43 percent of the students.
How can this happen, you may ask? I ask myself the same question. If these students are scoring near proficient, why is it they cannot pass 9th grade English?
Of course, first in your mind as well as mine is instruction. Is my class too hard? Am I a horrible, horrible teacher? Well, looking at the grades of other teachers, this kind of grading is across the board. I think of myself as a moderately rigorous teacher. My class is very, very passable. There are kids who have a 99 percent. Really, I try and make it as easy as possible to pass with one exception—you must do the work!
The biggest problem I’m finding is that the kids are smart, engaged, can speak and write at grade level, but the reason they are failing is one thing I have almost no control over—what they do at home.
The 27 kids who failed my class failed for one simple reason: They are incapable of doing homework.
Now I’ve been engaged in recent conversations about giving too much homework, and how we are stressing our kids out by making their lives too busy at such a young age. This problem is best captured in the recent documentary Race to Nowhere by director Vicki Abeles.
I agree with many of the talking points. These kids have six classes, and if every teacher gives them homework, that is a lot to accomplish. Of course in my school, you add a little more on top of that recipe: walking home through gang territory to an apartment you share with eight family members. I don’t think any teacher should give homework every single day. In fact, one amazing idea from “Race to Nowhere” is how much more successful one school’s AP Biology class became on the AP Test once they got rid of homework altogether.
I’ve also written about the idea of not giving homework at all—which I do in my sheltered classes. But with my 9P classes, the “P” is there to mean “College-Prep.” As a teacher, I can’t honestly sign off that a kid is college ready if they cannot do 1-2 homework assignments a week.
Of course, it also depends on how you give homework. Are we just handing out busy work? Has the instructor prepared them to be successful with the homework in class so they know what they are supposed to accomplish when they get home? These are legitimate questions teachers should all ask themselves. I know I do.
Let me tell you what I do, and you can decide for yourself.
In class we read Act I, scene i of Romeo and Juliet. We do a lot of stuff as we read—we stop and discuss, we read the footnotes, I define terms for them before we even begin. We go over Shakespeare’s language. There’s a lot of preparation, so just know that when I say we read Act I, Scene i, know that we spent a week preparing for it before we even cracked the book.
Anyways, we get to the end, and here is the name of the assignment: Romeo’s Woes. They need to find 5 quotes from Romeo that show how melancholy he is about Rosaline not loving him, and include an explanation explaining what each line means. I have a transparency that gives them this prompt. Then I provide them with the first one. I give them a quote, and have two sentences explaining it. In essence, they only need to do four more.
I give them the rest of the class period (15 minutes) to complete this assignment, (which the A students do in about 5 minutes), and tell them the rest is homework. I then go around the room and help them each individually. Yes, I get to all 32 students. I grab their paper, help them out, clarify things individually, give them answers, help them elaborate—all that good stuff. I give them so much time to do it in class, almost all of them, even the really bad students, have at least four quotes and four explanations. Most of them are done before the bell rings.
Just before the bell rings I say this: “Okay guys, now, once again I am trying to make each and every one of you successful in this class. Can we agree that everyone understands tonight’s homework assignment?” They agree it is clear. “And just out of curiousity, how many of you are already done, or only have one more quote left to find?” The entire class raises their hands. “So really, you just need to take the piece of paper you have on your desk right now and bring it to class tomorrow. Even if you don’t finish it at home, almost all of you have done enough to get 8 points out of ten. Can we call that fair?” They agree it is a fair assignment. They understand what is expected of them, I have started the homework assignment in class, and I have individually helped any student who needs clarification. The bell rings.
The next day 25 kids out of 64 don’t have it.
That is the story of my college prep classes. Of course, you could assume I don’t have buy-in. My kids are phoning it in; they aren’t engaged. But come into my classroom and all the kids are participating. We are acting out every scene. They are reading the lines of the characters and laughing and joking. They get the play. They are translating lines in class. They are proficient students not proficient in work ethic. They can’t finish anything, and they can’t do anything at home.
This is a trend I am seeing that seems to be societal. Our kids are smart and savvy, but they are also selfish. They are plugged into their iPods, their fingers are glued to the keyboards of their cell phones. They are smart and they know it, but they also don’t think they have to work hard. In fact, they don’t think they have to work at all.
So when kids graduate high school and find their smarts aren’t smart enough to get into the most basic class on a college campus, I wonder whether we are preparing kids to be life-long learners, or are we simply trying to bolster their college applications, so that even if they’re not ready, they still get in?
I also wonder this: Who is signing off on these grades?
I wonder this because I am holding my students to a certain level of accountability, and they do not pass if they do not work. But by doing so am I relegating them to missing out on college altogether? Am I doing them a disservice when others out there are signing off on “As” and “Bs”—and even if the students are not ready, they are helping them get into college? Are we teaching, or are we playing the transcript game?
Unfortunately, this again hurts our public school students even more. Private schools and charter schools have a stake in claiming college going rates—public schools don’t. Public schools don’t have a reputation to lose, charter schools need reputations to live. Does the rise in students unprepared for college coincide with this new direction we’re taking toward charter schools? Are they more willing to sign off on grades to survive?
I don’t know. But I bet a lot of the kids being remediated as college freshmen are from public schools too.
Either way, this trend in college freshmen goes back to a recurring issue I see every day, and is one of the big reasons our kids are getting into colleges they aren’t prepared for. Where has the work ethic gone?