I went to the presentation on the new Washington State K-12 Math Standards last night at Roosevelt High School. The new standards are supposed to be more rigorous, more narrowly focused on core content priorities, they are supposed to require greater depth in those core content priorities, they are clearer and more detailed, and they are supposed to be pedagogically neutral - not preferring either reform math or traditional math.
In the end, however, the change in the Standards won't help the state improve the number of students meeting the Standards. The problem isn't that the old Standards were bad - they were bad, but that wasn't the problem. The problem is that the Standards - all of the Standards - are meaningless because neither the State nor the Districts have a "then what".
Education is a human endeavor. That means, among other things, that it is going to have a broad diversity of outcomes. Since there is only one outcome that we deem as positive (student meets standard), we should be ready for other outcomes. Particularly in the case of the Math Standards where about half of the students are not seeing the positive outcome. Astonishly, we have no contingency plan for such a result.
Let's say that a student in grades 3-8 doesn't meet the math standard - as is the case for about half of them - then what? Well, then nothing. There is no intervention. There is no package of services ready to deploy and no package of services that gets reliably deployed when a student doesn't meet the standard. We have no reaction. We take no action to address the situation. We simply pass the student along to the next grade level. Hey, if a child can't swim in a pool four feet deep, it doesn't help to toss that kid into a five-foot deep pool.
What happens for the student who doesn't pass the fourth grade WASL? Nothing. They are placed in a general education fifth grade class along with everyone else. Only that student isn't ready to do fifth grade work. The work doesn't make sense to the student. In the language of current education trends, the content isn't relevent for the student. So what happens? The student is not engaged. And what is the result? The student underperforms and commonly becomes a behavior problem.
So now, the failure to act on the part of the State, the District, and the school, grows from being a personal tragedy for the underperforming student to becoming an inhibitor on the academic progress of every other student in the class. The underperforming student with a behavior problem takes teacher time away from the grade level curriculum to address their remedial needs and takes teacher time away from instruction to address their behavior issues. It negatively impacts the education of every other student in the class. And it isn't just one underperforming student with a behavior problem in a class; there are lots of them.
Underperforming students with behavior problems don't just create negative impacts for individual classrooms, they negatively impact all of public K-12 education. Why do families feel they need to choose a private school? To escape underperforming students with behavior problems. Why do families want their children in Spectrum classes? To escape underperforming students with behavior problems. What is the big "kick me" sign on public education for critics - the people who are always saying "no more money for schools until they start showing better results" and "public schools are no good" and "we need charter schools"? Underperforming students with behavior problems. Let's strip away the varnish, the euphomisms, and the political correctness and be brutally honest about what is wrong with K-12 public education: underperforming students with behavior problems.
The school and the District must develop and implement some process for turning underperforming students with behavior problems into high performing motivated students. Put more nicely and positively, the State, the District, and the schools must provide underperforming students with behavior problems the support they need to become motivated high performing students. Can they? Well, it's a yes or no question. If the answer is "Yes", then they better start doing it. They certainly aren't doing it now. This should be their top priority. Seattle Public Schools has said, for years and years, that their top priority is to close the academic achievement gap by bringing every student up to Standards, yet the District has not developed or implemented any effort to achieve that goal. Isn't that odd? Can you imagine any other organization stating - so clearly and emphatically - a top priority and then not taking even the first step towards that goal? Weird. The solution is obvious: we need a package of services ready to deploy for underperforming students and we need to deploy those services reliably for every student identified as having that need.
Of course, it is possible that the answer is "No". Maybe there is nothing that the State, the District, or a school can do to turn underperforming students with behavior problems into high performing motivated students. In that case, the State, the District and the schools need a plan to separate those students from the others to reduce the negative impacts that underperforming students with behavior problems have on the academic progress of other students and on the effectiveness and reputation of public K-12 education. I know that's harsh, but what else can we do? I know that there are those who think some community goal (I'm not sure what goal it is in this case) takes precedence over the individual goals of academic achievement. But I must ask, should every student suffer because some students are intent on making them suffer? How is this any different from bullying?
Fortunately, I believe that there are steps that the State, the Districts, and the schools can take to support underperforming students with behavior problems and convert them to high performing motivated students. They just need to take those steps. Until they do, the Standards - whatever they are - will be meaningless. They will be meaningless because it will make no difference - there will be no consequences - whether a student meets the Standards or not.
What can be done to change underperforming students with behavior problems into high performing motivated students? I recommend diverting them - temporarily - into an extended, intensive, and enriched program designed to quickly bring them up to Standards and then return them to their general education classroom. It's got to work better than what we're doing now - which is nothing.