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Monday November 24th 2014

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Are We Value-Adding Non-Students?

With teacher evaluations being posted for the public to see, maybe we need to see some other things posted too. Below is a pretty common transcript of a Sophomore at my high school—this is not an actual student’s transcript, but looking at a bunch of my students’ transcripts, it could be any of theirs. It has Class, Grade, and Credits earned toward graduation. Take a look:

2012             10th grade            Semester 1

Algebra P 10                                     F                        0.0000

Mathematics

Algebra Support 10                         D                        10.0000

Science/Life

Biology P                                            F                        0.0000

English

English – Edge B                              F                        0.0000

Physical Education

Phys Ed                                               F                        0.0000

2011                         9th grade             Semester 1

Algebra

Algebra P 9                                        F                        0.0000

Mathematics

Algebra Readiness 9                       F                        0.0000

English

English – Edge A                              F                        0.0000

Physical Education

PE 9                                                     F                        0.0000

Science/Physical

Earth Science P                                F                        0.0000

Fine Arts

Art Exploration (1 sem)                F                        0.0000

Semester 2

Algebra

Algebra P 9                                     F                        0.0000

Mathematics

Algebra Readiness 9                    F                        0.0000

English

English – Edge A                         F                        0.0000

Health

Health (1 sem)                             F                        0.0000

Physical Education

PE 9                                              F                        0.0000

Science/Physical

Earth Science P                         F                        0.0000

This student isn’t doing so well. Over the last year and a half, they have only passed one class (with a D), every single other class they failed. Halfway through Sophomore year they have ten credits. You need 230 credits to graduate. Those of us in education look at this transcript and can make some guesses as to why the transcript is the way it is. First, this student is not showing up to school. They are chronically truant, and even though technically it is against the law and their parents could get in trouble, we know the system is broken, and our state governments are not very interested in incarcerating parents whose students refuse to go to school.

We can also guess that something is going on at what this student calls home. Maybe they are home-less. They probably don’t have two parents, or any. It is doubtful they have their own room to study in. They live in the ghetto, and are probably ghetto themselves.

Even so, we are beginning to post the test results of these students that result in teachers keeping their jobs, getting bonuses, and being mocked by the general public when the LA Times decides to show their score from the Value-Added model. So any teacher with this student just took a ding on their score, even though it is doubtful the student even showed up to their class more than a few times. The student might have even shown up to some of these classes for awhile, but clearly there was a lack of motivation and work being done to get a grade above an F. Most likely this student missed 20-30 days of each class.

And sometimes a transcript like this is from a student who never misses a day.

Either way, is it the teachers’ fault this student has low grades and low test scores? Can anyone honestly say the teachers on this transcript, all 16 of them, should go down a rung because of this student?

Okay, so you’re with me. Keep following—Now imagine in a class of 32, you have 12 of these students. But you also teach five classes, so out of 150 students, 60 of them don’t have a prayer of passing your class. That’s not to say all students have a transcript like this, but in our low-income public schools, maybe it is your subject they have no interest in passing (which is quite common in English and Math).

Let me tell you what I know. The best teachers out there, I’m talking bomb educators who get buy-in, are culturally sensitive, engaging, and have pedagogy like a mug—even those teachers fail a third of their 9th grade English classes in a low-income urban high school.

We even talk about it. We try and search for ways to help these students succeed. We try and give them credit for things they are good at, like participating. We do a lot of classwork and not as much homework, because we know they don’t have a home to go to. We collaborate on strategies to help them, and spend hours and hours calling home, talking to them personally, encouraging them.

I always tell this story: A couple years ago I had a 9th grade English class. We went over a worksheet that had 10 questions. We went over it in class, I led the activity, everyone was engaged and paying attention. As a class we got to number 8, which meant their homework that night was to just do the final two questions. I asked them if that was fair. They said yes. I asked them if they understood what was expected of them. They said yes. I told them that even if they didn’t do the next two questions, all they had to do was turn in what we’ve done as a class and they would get an 8 out of 10—a B.

The next day a third of the class didn’t even have the piece of paper.

A lot of the time these are kids who like and respect us. “This is my favorite class,” they tell me. “Really?” I say, “Then how do you have an eight percent?”

Others come back a year or two later and say, “Man, Mr.  Amaral, I really miss your class. I learned so much and you really taught me how to be a student.” And my reply is, “Seriously? I have no idea who you are. Are you sure you were in my class?”

The point isn’t that these kids are un-teachable. Evidently we teach them a lot. Many of their teachers are really good, and when they actually show up they learn things. They never do homework though. They are not un-teachable, they are simply non-students.

Non-students just aren’t ready to be students yet. They don’t have the motivation, the work ethic, the stable home environment, or anything else they need to succeed in high school. Some of them learn these things on the fly freshman year, more of them simply end up with a transcript like the one above.

This kid clearly isn’t going to score very well when it comes to test time. So tell me, should all 16 of those teachers on the transcript above have that score paraded around in public, as well as have their job hang in the balance?

I don’t think so. I think we need to be evaluated on the 70% of students who show up to class and do a tiny bit of work. I just don’t think my job should be affected by a student with a 20% F who shows up tardy and high once a week.

Is this part of the value-added equation?

Reader Feedback

3 Responses to “Are We Value-Adding Non-Students?”

  1. joan jones says:

    WOW!!! Kind of says it all.

  2. Hello Matt,

    I am a middle school teacher from the Sacramento area, working in a low-income school almost as heart-breaking as yours. I have been reading your blogs every month and find them refreshing as well as honest and forthright. This year especially, my Math department is going through alot of the frustrations you post in this piece. We are currently posting the most D’s and F’s at our site, with wonderfully tenured teachers who care about this population of kids.

    Our Mayor, Kevin Johnson, is married to Michelle Rhee, not a popular icon in this city. Both her and the Mayor would like to shut down every low-performing public school in multiple districts within the metropolitan area and create their own “miracle” education factories. She believes that the teachers are not performing to the best of their ability and that is why we continue to have low test scores every year.

    It is unfortunate that high profile local legislators, even district members, do not have the bandwidth to truly see what we’re up against. With state-wide budet cuts, districts hands are tied and continue to implement professional development strategies that we’ve all seen a dozen times, just titled differently. Currently, our union has been shot down through the first round of Fact Finding with district administrators to negotiate a smart health care system. We are being threatened with a health care cap. This happening after our last 2 years of concessions, given up 9 furlough days each year, lottery stipend gone, and salary movement classification.

    Thank you so much for your continued efforts and commitment. Looking forward to your next article.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I bet they aren’t shutting down the failing charter schools even though only 1 out of 5 is outperforming our public schools (which conversely means 4 out of 5 public schools are outperforming charters, right?). Your situation is sadly a very common one in these days of austerity. We continue to give and give when it comes to pensions, furlough days (which are essentially pay cuts), and loss of benefits. What no one ever mentions is that over the long run, union jobs with lower wages but good pensions even out with private sector higher salaries and 401ks. This entire time we could have just gotten paid more, but we agreed to be paid less in exchange for a stable retirement. Also, look at graphs that put the decline of unions side by side with the decline of the middle class and you find an identical downward line. Some of us feel there should be a middle class that makes good money and has a good retirement. Others want to blame our economic catastrophes that were caused in no way by pensions on unions and union workers. Anyone with an internet connection knows who is to blame (Wall Street, bankers), so don’t let them fool you. Keep up the good work and I appreciate the kind words.

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