Sunday, October 21, 2007

Diluting Rigor with "Positive Energy"

There are two board seats up for election for the Rochester Community School district, and there are seven candidates for those seats.

Here is what one of them had to say in the local paper today:

Rochester Eccentric: Talbert focused on student success (10/21/07)

I know candidate Beth Talbert. She's an intelligent, nice person who has been involved in the district for some time. I served with her on a committee, and in that particular setting I felt she truly wanted to improve rigor in the district. I like her. But outside of that setting I continue to hear this same alarming message over and over, which suggests that there is some "status quo" thinking swirling around in her:

"Clearly college success and employment success has a lot more to do with other factors than just whether or not you took AP exams," she said. "In no way do I want to minimize that; I absolutely think we should be encouraging that. But that's a very small segment of our school population. So what I personally would like to do is just broaden this dialogue. What about the other 90 percent of our students?"

That might be fine if the district were too focused on AP, but it's not. Michigan is in the bottom half of states when ranked by AP exams taken per thousand upperclassmen, and Rochester ranks below it's peer groups by almost any measure. And there is no official board-level effort whatsoever to change that. None. Zero. Zip.

But the larger problem I see with this kind of thinking is that it's the same kind of "positive energy -- no meat" thinking that has been used to dilute academics in this district for years.

I've got to wonder how that statement would play in Grosse Pointe, Okemos, Troy, Bloomfield, Jenison, Forest Hills, East Lansing, Birmingham, East Grand Rapids, or any of the other districts that are helping lead their children in great numbers to high levels achievement.

But let me be clear: This posting here is not about this particular candidate, but instead is meant
to focus on the underlying philosophy I find so harmful to public education. I've been battling it for my three years with sitting Rochester board members and some district administrators.

For years, the unwritten philosophy in Rochester -- and many other districts -- has been that AP is only for the "top students." The district didn't allow sophomores to take AP classes. The high school course catalogue is chocked-full of electives designed to provide "choice" for students who are not "AP Caliber"; classes like "Wilderness Survival" and "Guitar", and classes that teach "checkbook math" and cooking.

While the article contains the obligatory, "In no way do I want to minimize that (AP Participation); I absolutely think we should be encouraging that" comment, there seems to be a very clear effort to divert attention from AP.

In fact, the very next statement again reinforces the misconception that AP is for the elite, "But that's a very small segment of our school population... What about the other 90 percent of our students?"

Good question. What ABOUT the other 90 percent? Why aren't they being directed to the type of rigorous work that will prepare them to compete with other students for seats at selective universities?

The article goes on with the kinds of statements that are common in education:

"What if your student is a C student? Wouldn't it be great if our emphasis was on helping that student become a B student," she says. "Or the B-minus student becoming an A-minus student. Or the student who has no interest in college - hates coming to school - what are we doing to make sure in this economy they can get a job right after high school? ... I don't feel that we are focusing enough on the big picture."

Aside from the very last sentence, who on earth would be opposed to any of what was said? Shouldn't the school already be doing that? And who can tell what that means? Is that a proposal to design some sort of intervention strategy?

No, it's simply "feel good" stuff.

In fact, I'd bet that statement could be used by any candidate in any district in any of the past 10 years, and it would fit just fine.

This approach really concerns me because it's based on the appearance that the district needs to stop focusing on these elite "high achievers" and get back to the basics. That concern is completely unfounded, and there is no evidence that the Rochester school board has been focusing on AP (despite my efforts to change that!) In fact, if anything, the board has been too preoccupied with this "big picture" thing instead of focusing on anything in particular, and does far too little to focus on challenging all students.

The effort to "focus on the big picture" diverts attention from the small, measurable, attainable goals, that can be used to improve a school. See my previous blog posting on "The Great MEAP Disconnect" to see how "the big picture" is applied in Rochester.

Increasing student achievement at all levels is a philosophy, not a goal.

Public education will continue to flounder until it starts setting small, defined, meaningful and measurable goals, which target BOTH at-risk students and talented learners.


Anonymous said...

So rather than see Beth as a positive and sincere candidate you blast her with the all too tacky "status quo" paint ball gun.

She at least is open to support expansion of AP rather than block.

So rather than celebrate someone who the "insiders" like and will truly be independant you cast out the doubt.

I see new faces on this board as a necessity.

I see two who have been around a while and have no axe to grind. (unlike me)

I see people out there that will SHOW UP and vote at meetings.

I guess all you see is the BIG Party line.

Not the big picture.

You have great potential here Mike to build new alliances with new members.

Don't blow this opportunity!

Martina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

FYI: this MEAtloaf has an honor student and a "normal 90%" student.

My concern is for both! And even your kids.

More FYI. The MEA does not like me since I asked their local president 6 years ago to accept smaller raises and NOT lay off teachers.

They chose larger raises and compensation for larger class sizes.

So while some of you new carpet-baggers whine about "insiders", some of us are working behing the scene for change.

The difference is that we won't throw our babies out with the political bath water.

By the way, name calling is so inspirational isn't it?

Clay Hufnagel said...

Unfortunately, too many parents (who then become board members or administrators) don't understand that kids will live UP to your expectations for them (perhaps with some griping, but so be it) or DOWN to whatever you're willing to accept (with sure knowledge of what they're being allowed to get away with).

So expect the most and the best, and don't let kids get away with the least and poorest. If that were the mantra of boards and administrators for ALL students, they'd be amazed at what ALL students are capable of accomplishing.

Martina said...

"The MEA does not like me since I asked their local president 6 years ago to accept smaller raises and NOT lay off teachers."

Big deal. The MEA doesn't like anyone who challenges their argument that MEA dues-payers (including the local president) are entitled to limitless wage & benefit hikes.

Which is why you ought to ask yourself why the MEA is spending generously to mail encouraging words to their rank & file to elect the Twoberts.

The MEA could care less about students - honors or "normal 90%".

Anonymous said...

Martina: Your hatred of the MEA is getting in the way of any logical thought here.

They are doing what they (unions) do. They seek to extract the most by whatever mechanism they can. I don't fault them for that. That's what they do.

So would the world be better off without unions or just the MEA?

You paint me and others (Berts) as stooges or lackies of the union and you are flat wrong.

You throw all your support behind Mr. Kovacs and yet you don't seem to care that he only shows up to vote (on your behalf) when HE wants to.

The union can and will be dealt with in the long run. Most individual members are reasonable people. Most members do see that benefit cost must be brought under control.

However this will take a total team effort, time, and their buy in.

If you keep up the bashing and bullying, they will of-course fight back. Anyone will defend their position if provoked and their mind will close.

When you speak to individual teachers they know that the gravy train has to end. They're not as stupid or stubborn as you might think.

Their leaders might be.

I suggest that you get inside and work (slowly) to fix this. I'm FRUSTRATED that is has taken two contracts just to get them (REA) to consider talking about benefit cost reduction. But this is how a collective bargaining system works.

They know the train has to stop!

So keep up the combative rhetoric and they will keep the status quo by fighting you and me.

Or get "inside" and work with them.

Your choice.

And Clay is Sooooo Right!

Martina said...

You're right about one thing Anon:

The MEA seeks "to extract the most by whatever mechanism they can".

I fault them for this & believe they do irreparable harm to Michigan teachers, students and schools in their scheme of pitting "us" (students, teachers, schools) against "them" (those who pay the bills) to win their battles at all costs.

I have no idea if you or the Twoberts are union "stooges" or "lackies", but it's worth knowing whether Talbert (whoworks for OU) is a dues-paying union member as some have suggested.

Do you know?