Parents Asking Teachers The Right Questions

In the quarterly Education Review edition of tomorrow’s Post Magazine, Jay Mathews has an column about how parents should interact with their child’s teachers when things are not going well.

I don’t often agree with Mathews but in this article he gets things mostly right.

We dazed and confused parents are often treated like coyotes who have wandered into the educators’ back yard. The message is: You don’t belong here. We are usually not yelled at or sprayed with the water hose or shot, but the reception in the principal’s office can be chilly, and we rarely get the information or action we seek.

Most schools welcome parents as volunteers to support teachers or to raise money, but that’s as far as it usually goes. There aren’t many school districts (or even private schools) that get “outsiders” involved with any of the fundamentals: curriculum development, teacher hiring and professional development.

However, that’s a subject for another day. Mathews’ concerns here about dealing with teachers who parents believe are behaving unprofessionally in their instruction.

He received some good advice from some “experienced parents” who recommend that “Whatever the resistance, do your best to talk the problem out with the people at the school.”. And then add some suggestions of his own.

I think gross injustices, however, require a confrontation, if only to build a record against a bad teacher and show your kid that bullies must be resisted.

The only disappointing part of this story – and the part where I disagree with Mathews – is that he never spoke to his daughter’s teacher about the situation that was the trigger for this article.

Take, for instance, my daughter’s math teacher. I did nothing about him. My wife had written a letter to our son’s high school principal about a struggling Spanish teacher a few years before, and that had prompted no action. We figured that this case was also hopeless.

That’s too bad. If more parents paid attention to what was going on in the classroom, and at least asked questions about instructional decisions they don’t understand, it would go along way to improving schools.

Academic Letters

In today’s Post Jay Mathews offers a short history of the practice of giving students letters to represent their level of achievement in a class. It’s interesting that the system of A, B, C, D, E (later F) we use is yet another relic of 19th century education.

Jay also discusses the controversy – or rather the lack of controversy – over this grading structure, which is almost universally accepted in this country. At least the letters are accepted.

How those letters are used and applied, however, varies tremendously.

Still, Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in the Colesville area, said schools have been inconsistent in their use of letter grades to determine class rank, valedictorian selection and athletic eligibility. “We are all over the landscape, and in my opinion, this causes the continued erosion of confidence in public schools.”

So, with all the emphasis on standardized testing, scored using a numeric scale, will the use of letter grades change? Not likely. Part of the reason is that the system is just too easy to use, even if the letters don’t have much meaning.

But at least one person sees standardized tests as another block.

That erratic letter grading system still gets less criticism than the standardized tests used to assess students and schools, mainly because the machine-scored exams lack the human touch. “The standardized tests present an impersonal but universally known target,” said Robert W. Snee, principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church. “A single teacher is only grading 125 students this year, and she has a personal relationship with each one of them.”

Letter grades associated with the “human touch”? Interesting connection.

A Very Weak Challenge

Since it’s summer and the education news is light, Jay Mathews resurrects his “challenge” index for his weekly Class Struggle column. Ostensibly he wants to update the list published in Newsweek a couple of months ago but most of the space is taken up with an FAQ promoting his system.

My question has always been how can you possibly judge a high school on such a narrow criteria? He doesn’t really answer that question, of course, so we’ll move on to question number 2: If you’re going to base your assessment on the AP and IB tests, why don’t you factor in the scores students earn on those tests?

I do not count passing rates because I found that most American high schools keep their passing rates artificially high by allowing only A students to take the courses. In some cases, they open the courses to all but wrongly encourage only the best students to take the tests.

Which is crap, of course. A few weeks back I remember reading a story about whether or not teachers should give students credit for effort in computing their grades. Mathew’s assessment is nothing but credit for effort.

A Very Weak Challenge

Look out! Jay Mathews, the intrepid education reporter for the Washington Post*, is doing to the rest of you what he does to the Washington area on a regular basis. Newsweek’s cover article this week promises to reveal the best high schools in America. It’s a very empty promise.

The story is entirely based on Mathews “challenge” index, an incredibly narrow measure of school quality, which ranks schools based on a ratio of the number of students who take AP or IB classes to the number of graduates. For example, 500 students enrolled in AP classes in a school where 400 students are in this year’s graduating class would give you a “challenge” score of 1.25 (which wouldn’t land you in the top 100).

Missing from the equation, of course, is that all the simplistic math does not take into account how many students actually passed the end-of-course test that go with the classes. Nor does the rankings take into account any other factor that goes into making a good school. By definition the list would exclude an excellent vocational school that concentrates on training students. However, just for good measure, Mathews throws the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch into the table but not into the formula.

Mathews is a big proponent of schools challenging students to study at higher academic levels – and that’s excellent. The AP and IB programs are two ways to do that, but not the only way and not the best way for every student. Pushing the concept that just taking the exams is enough to judge the quality of a school, while disregarding whether the students actually learned anything, is absurd. A little like judging the success of a diet plan by the number of people who are participating – and not weighing anyone at the end.

* Just for the record, the Post company owns Newsweek.

What Kind of Challenge?

Last week while I was among the missing, Jay Mathews unleashed the Challenge Index, his annual ranking of schools in the DC area (the national version will be published later in Newsweek). The Index is pretty simple, assigning a score based on the simple ratio of the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate given at a school to the number of graduating seniors.

I have no problem with Mathews (or anyone else) making a list and checking it twice. However, considering the amount of attention the ratings draw in this area, there’s a great deal about his system that doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the Index doesn’t take into account whether students actually do well on the tests. His theory is that a school giving lots of tests must be better than one that doesn’t.

A bigger problem is Mathews’ constant lauding of the AP program itself. The concept of this packaged curriculum is that students in high school who are capable of doing college-level work will get that chance in AP classes. It also says that scoring high enough on the end-of-class exam is supposed to lead to the student earning college credit.

However, as Mathews notes in this week’s Class Struggle column, that’s not necessarily happening. A growing number of universities are declining to accept AP scores or are bumping up the score need to earn the credit, a fact that outrages Mathews who is a vocal advocate of AP/IP classes.

In this last dispute, I can see the arguments on both sides. If students are doing college-level work, they should receive college credit. But who gets to say exactly what is “college-level” work? I agree with Mathews that, considering the poor undergraduate teaching that goes on at many universities, the ivory towers may not be the best place to go for that assessment.

On the other hand, the College Board, keeper of the AP flame, has a vested interest in spreading it’s franchise. And schools in this area have an interest in pushing more and more students into AP/IB classes, as much to improve their public relations as anything else. The result has been some watering down of the curriculum (remember, it’s only important to take the test, not pass it) to the point that some schools now offer regular AP and “light” versions of some popular classes.

In the end, however, the AP program is not worthy of an education writer’s unqualified adoration. It is only one tool in the process of school improvement – not the saviour of public high school.