Friday, May 23, 2008

How Do We Improve High School?

Bob Herbert, a columnist for the NY Times, had a column about the decided lack of progress in American education. He wrote a column about it, Hard Times Ahead. From the column,

"Mr. Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy group committed to improving the high schools. The following lamentable passage is from his book, “Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation”:

“International comparisons rank the United States a stunningly unimpressive eighteenth for high school graduation rates, a lackluster ranking of fifteenth for high school reading assessments among 15-year-olds in developed countries, and an embarrassing 25th for high school math.”

Those are not the marks of a society with a blissful future. Four years of college is becoming a prerequisite for a middle-class quality of life and we’re having trouble graduating kids from high school.

Mr. Wise believes (as does Bill Gates) that America’s high schools are for the most part obsolete, inherently ill equipped to meet the needs of 21st-century students. The system needs to be remade, reinvented.

“It’s not that our system is getting worse,” he said. “It’s that other countries are coming on harder and faster.”

More than ever, high schools need to be a conveyor belt to college. In 1995, the United States was second in the world (behind New Zealand) in its four-year college graduation rate. “We’ve actually increased the percentage from that time,” said Mr. Wise. “The difference is we’ve gone from being second in the world to 15th because others have come on so strong.”

There were several interesting letters to the editor based on this column. One teacher said,

"I am a seasoned high school history teacher who has long wondered why some students from similar backgrounds and incomes success in school and others drop out. I have concluded that it is innate motivation that is the causative factor. We are asking the wrong questions in education today. Rather than focusing on what is wrong with our schools, we need to do research on what motivates children to value education." She goes on, "Many of my students have reached high school without any idea of how to study, how to sit still in a quiet room without electronics blaring, and no realistic picture of the future that awaits them without a college degree."

Another teacher, "Numerous studies and my own experience as a teacher have demonstrated that for our children to be truly successful in high school, they need to have been well-fed, safe, secure and loved for the 14 years before they get to high school."

Again, in the one teacher's letter she says that students don't know how to sit still (I'm thinking she may mean pay attention because I know few teens who can sit still) and be attentive without electronics. It would help if that was expected in middle school. I don't know many elementary teachers who don't have control over their rooms but I have found it gets a lot more lax in middle school and then people wonder why kids can't pay attention in high school.

(And, as an aside, we had an Italian exchange student this past week from a group of 23 visiting Roosevelt. Most of them were boys. I was talking to some of the boys and asked how they liked RHS girls and the answer was "bellissima" or beautiful. But I also asked them if girls at their school dressed like RHS girls and they all shook their heads no. They said many of the things that the American girls wore would not be allowed at their school.)

I am particularly interested in the motivation issue. I've always thought a lot about how some people particularly children are able to rise above difficult circumstances or abuse and move ahead in life. This extends in the other direction as well; how is it that some kids who are well supported by parents still have a lack of motivation despite the support?


dan dempsey said...

I believe very firmly that the current trouble with high school in Seattle is that the majority of entering ninth graders are not prepared to be in high school. The SPS have a graduation rate according to OSPI of 44.7% in 2006. Then MG-J's report tells us that 17% of graduates have a transcript that indicates they have the credits in the courses to go to a four year college.

The obvious question is how did things get this bad?

Social Promotion and no accountability which has continued right through MG-J's first year. Hopefully we will see a change in this next year.

No change so far in continued ignoring D44.00 and D45.00. There is no policy like a neglected policy. These require skills to be known and taught and tested and non-promotion if the effective interventions are not successful for particular students. Interesting that MG-J is going to have a big math science focus. Can we be expecting the actual defining of the skills that should be learned at each grade level in Math? Clearly the SPS has not even reached squared one in math.

Mr Gates.... the students have been neglected by the system, do not blame just the high schools. The High Schools could be doing much better if the SPS stopped the non-accountability of social promotion K-8.

It would be wonderful if the decision makers in the SPS actually used logical thought in making decisions -- perhaps next year.

Extremely poor math curricula in use k-8. Without texts and practices based on Example Based Instruction the floundering will continue.

The best gap closer in the SPS WSHS is forced into a pointless 6 period day victim of an MG-J mandate that contradicted all the data.

If the SPS would read Project Follow Through, then use it as a guide perhaps making k-3 worthwhile. Then MR Gates could wait for students that actually knew their stuff to get to High School.

To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data.

Mr Gates small schools needed more than small size to be successful and the data shows this well funded initiative accomplished little.

dan dempsey said...

"Mr. Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy group committed to improving the high schools. The following passage is from his book, “Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation”:......

It’s not that our system is getting worse,” he said. “It’s that other countries are coming on harder and faster.”

Perhaps the problem is that Mr Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and he is unaware of the data. USA math is in a virtual free fall on the PISA test of 15 year olds.

I think we should all begin reading Don Orlich's book:
School Reform: The Great American Brain Robbery

Don Orlich seems to have a better grasp of the data that Mr Wise.

Consider that Mr Wise may be a part of the problem rather than a part of a viable solution.

Maureen said...

Melissa, this is a huge issue for me. I started out worrying about the 'achievement gap,' but ended up with the more general problem of kids who don't seem to have any motivation to succeed at learning.

I don't quite know how to put this, but I think part of the problem is that we don't help the young kids enough and we help the older kids too much.

Many kids come into school far behind, they need extra attention and to have their self esteem built up. They need encouragement and praise from adults for mastering basic skills. They need to spend time catching up.

BUT too many older kids can't seem to accomplish anything unless their hands are held. They have no self direction, sense of responsibility or motivation.

Is the help we give the younger kids creating this situation? Is the missing link Middle School?

Kids who end up being successful make the transition from self absorbed blob to self reliant and responsible adult. Most of them are led through this process at home. Some don't live with adults who can lead them through this. Can schools/society fill this gap?

I have a middle schooler right now. He grows (physically, emotionally, socially) every day. In some ways he is like a toddler (all of those uninsulated neurons firing). It freaks me out to think what could be happening to him if he didn't have positive influences at home and at school to help form him.

Is middle school the missing link? Could we design programs that create responsible, self motivated adults? I feel like the current MS system generally just functions like a holding tank. Should we channel at risk kids to special middle schools to help smooth their transition to responsible adulthood? What would they look like? Is this a classist (racist?) point of view?

I just see so many kids who are headed to a bad end, not because they are bad kids, just because they don't seem to have absorbed a sense of self discipline or responsibility. I understand that many of them are dealing with issues that kids should never have to, that school/learning is the least of their worries. BUT. How can they ever escape their issues without school/learning? How can we convince them that this is true? Is it middle school? What would it look like?

dan dempsey said...


It is likely everything. I still think that k-3 is the key but you are certainly correct that the pitfalls are everywhere and Middle School is a big one.

We have a culture completely out of touch with the reality of what is taking place on an international scale in Education.

The motivational difference portrayed in 2 Million Minutes between two top kids in the USA and four in Asia, was amazing.

I am reminded of a Doctor I met in Canada who was from an extremely poor family in Tanzania. The description of his boy-hood life and the effort he spent in daily study that eventually produced a chance to study in India was amazing.

I get people on this blog telling me that these countries do not educate everyone, these folks miss the point.

The point is that these countries are producing an educated work force that will blow ours into the weeds. Singapore is mobilized to become the richest nation among those that have few natural resources. Think Japan, Switzerland, and Singapore. Barclay's of London sees Singapore ascending to the #1 status of 42% millionaire households in ten years.
Singapore is currently #2 just a percentage point behind Hong Kong for millionaires per capita households among international cities. Singapore is a city state.

The USA can not even come up with an energy policy much less an education policy.

It seems that Every president since Nixon has had an energy policy - they just neglected to share it with anyone after being elected.

The US department of Ed could save us a lot of $$$ by closing down. They would not be missed.

We are stuck with schools that make decisions that focus on something other than positive results and a decade may pass with pathetic results and no one seems to notice.

Look at those Education Statistics and then think about the people that wish for the return of Raj.

Can someone explain that one please?

Clearly politics trumps results and kids lose.

MathTeacher42 said...

Maureen -
I have a 1/2 century under my belt, so I grew up in an era where there weren't too many concerns about kids self esteem blah blah blah ---- there wasn't part of Oprah, Dr. Phil, Barney, TeleTubby 24*7*365.

BTW, it wasn't the good old days, it was just different.

While I understand the motivations of those who want to make a nicer world, I think a significant contributor to the seriously clueless components to their policies is affluence ---- too many of the policy makers are from relatively affluent backgrounds, and they really really have no clue what is needed to succeed out there in the mean ol nasty world.

So we have education policy makers creating endless Sesame Street jibberish instead of actually figuring out how to deal with middle schoolers - (work / connections in the community to the community, REAL consequences instead of instead of this behaviorist jabber-wockey of negative / positive reinforcement ... psychobabble) and they create this jibberish amoung the like minded in white collar jobs at school district headquarters and school of ed bureaucracies, after travel from their safe homes on Queen Anne and Laurelhurst and Newton and Wellesley.

These people are nice, hard working, concerned, honest, and clueless, hence their policies are clueless.

anon Sat.

Ad Hoc said...

I totally agree with mathteacher42. We are so concerned with kids feeling good that we have lost our focus in school. Have you looked in a MS or HS classroom lately? Kids talk while the teacher is talking, they throw paper at each other, they listen to their ipod instead of doing their work, they have their heads down on the desk, they challenge their teachers (in a disrespectful manner), they curse in front of teachers and even use profanity in their writing projects! The headlines of the Nathan Hale newspaper recently read "Legalize Marijuana" and an advertisement for a concert of an "electrosexuality" band - a form of music that appeals to the sexually deviant.

How can any learning go on in our over tolerant, have to make kids feel good at all costs, environment?

Seattle watches masses of people flee to private schools where behavior is still enforced and expectations are high. There are record numbers of home school families.

Many public schools in the southern states still use the paddle (corporal punishment). There are schools where boys can't have hair below their ears. OK, regulating hair length is extreme, and I certainly don't condone corporal punishment, but we are on the opposite end of that spectrum - we have no clear behavior expectations or consequences - which is just as disturbing.

We have to get control of our classrooms before any real progress in academics can be made - that's just my opinion

The English Teacher said...

I teach struggling readers at a local high school. I've gotten to the point that I mostly ignore what politicians, pundits and superintendents say because I don't find that their words help me to do my job.

Why do my students come to me 2-8 years behind in reading? There is no one reason. Over the past year, I've come to appreciate the complex challenge of teaching struggling readers, and I resist simple, easy answers about how to "solve" the "problems" of our schools.

Nonetheless, I offer some ideas about why my students are behind in reading:

1. Many students are relatively new to the country. For example, a student who arrives from China at age 17 is bound to be behind in reading.

2. Some students who've been in the country longer--say, five years--arrived with little education. Some students dropped out of school after the sixth grade and went to work. Some girls didn't get much of an education at all in their worn-torn country of origin.

3. Many students were not read to as children. My wife has students who didn't see a children's book until high school.

4. Many students don't see their elders or siblings reading at home. They don't have literate, adult conversations about books at home.

5. Many students stop learning during the summer. While high-achieving students may be reading, taking enriching vacations, and even taking classes during the summer, many of my students don't read. They may work full-time and relax in their off-hours, but they don't read.

6. Many students don't have the habit of going to the library. Some of my students didn't visit a library until they were teenagers. When I suggested that they should get involved in a summer reading program at the public library, you'd think I'd suggested they take up scuba diving. What we take for granted is foreign to some students.

My challenges as a teacher are multiple. I have to help my students with the mechanics of reading because it won't be pleasurable to them as long as it's tortuously slow and difficult. But I also have to help induct them into the culture of reading. This culture is even foreign to many of my US-born students.

With my students, my goals reach well beyond the WASL. In fifteen years, I want my students to read habitually for personal and professional reasons, and I want them to read regularly to their children. What helps me in my job are parental support; small class sizes; advice from experienced teachers; adequate funding for books, technical suppport, and equipment; good administrative planning; and a little wisdom on my part.

On the question of student motivation, I observe that some students believe that education will make their lives better and some don't. It makes a difference. The educational histories of my students are complex, and I resist simple answers to the question of motivation. I would need to understand more about my students, their families, and their experiences in school to say why some are very motivated and some less so.

Charlie Mas said...

There is no school so bad that a motivated student cannot wrestle an education away from it.

There is no school so good that it can educate a student who is unwilling to learn.

The root of the gap is not in the schools and the solution to the gap will not be found in the schools. While the schools can make some difference, they cannot fix this problem and it would be fruitless and wasteful for them to try.

Ponder this: two children go to the same school, they have the same teachers and attend the same classes. So why does one of them pass the WASL and the other does not? Did the school favor one over the other? Unlikely. Did the teachers teach only one of them? Unlikely. The difference does not lie in the school or the teachers but in the students. This is the same regardless of the school, the teacher, or the students. This is the same regardless of race, or class. The two students could be of the same race or different races, they could both come from plenty or from poverty or one from each.

What makes the difference is, more often than not, the active involvement in a child's education by an adult in the child's home.

If you want to close the gap, that's where you should focus your efforts: active involvement and support for education by an adult in the child's home.

Melissa Westbrook said...

First, I do think this country should be concentrating on middle school rather than high school. Elementary should be concentrating on reading, writing and math skills (not to say other subjects can't be included but we need these kids to exit elementary ready for middle school).

Middle school has got to be where a huge amount of focus should be. Students need to be watched, tracked and supported. They are in a twilight between being children and being youth. Behavior should be monitored and rules for behavior applied. This is how you will get the majority of kids on-board for good behavior. I'm no teacher but I can see from being in classrooms that one or two troublesome students are far less of a problem than 5 or 6 student who lead the whole class to believe nothing will happen. The Know 2 Go site I posted about previously should be the screen saver for every school. PTAs should set up mentorship programs to try to talk to every single student about their future plans (whether it includes college or not - starting thinking about it).

Last, someone's post contained this (and I've seen it before),

"...even use profanity in their writing projects! The headlines of the Nathan Hale newspaper recently read "Legalize Marijuana" and an advertisement for a concert of an "electrosexuality" band - a form of music that appeals to the sexually deviant."

Here's where I would give kids some leeway. If they are writing a story where a character swears, so be it. If they want to write about pot or sex in the school newspaper, so be it. Naturally, they need an advisor to keep within the bounds of legality.

I remember being asked what I thought about the "sex" issue of the student newspaper at Roosevelt.
Well, the entire paper wasn't about sex; just one section. The other sections were about activities, sports, movie reviews, etc. The sex articles talked about safety, going to talk to the nurse in the health center, and myths as well as behavior at RHS. Did I think they were trying to be titilating? Sure, they're teenagers trying to write about teenage sexual behavior. I only thought one article was off but it was more pathetic than offensive. I did tell the editor that I did think he had a responsibility to consider ALL the students' reactions (we have a number of Muslim students who I'm sure would be possibly offended if they read it). There was no outcry from parents at all (who likely didn't read it anyway).

dan dempsey said...

On the Motivation front:

From National Math Advisory Panelist Vern Williams...

The question for VW......I think when we talk about success in math, we talk about books, we talk about whether the books are the correct books, but the two elephants in the room, do we have a motivated student and family involvement. I just wanted you to comment on that from your honest feelings. "

Vern Williams responds-

"I think that in this day and age, we're giving students too much of an excuse not to be motivated. When I was in Elementary and Junior High, I was told by my parents and my teachers, that I had to work five times harder to get the same job as some other people were going to get and that part of your job was to go to school and learn. Whether it's fun, that is a bonus, but that's your job. The Asian students seem to do that and they go to our schools, they have the same teachers, they use the same textbooks, but somehow, that intrinsic motivation is there. And I always tell the Asian parents; it was like that for everyone here when I was growing up. And I think we need to get that back. I don't know exactly how to get it back but I can tell you with my students, I set an example myself; I'm excited about math. I'm motivated. I make sure I take care of them and I expect them to do their job. If you're going to have an exciting math course, part of it has to come from you...... [This is virtually impossible to do when school districts like Seattle use a pacing plan to force teachers through defective materials] ..... If I give you homework that is going to take an hour, you can't tell me about your soccer game. You have to actually buy into it. And I think if we do more of that instead of giving excuses about our horrible school system is causing you problems that the student has to be a part of buying into the system also."

Melissa Westbrook said...

I totally concur with the "elephant in the room" idea. We can blame teachers or curriculum or a strategic plan but it is impossible to blame parents. We all know can never criticize other people's parenting because we've all made mistakes. That said, there is a lot happening that parents could change, one family at a time, and it's not happening.

Ad Hoc said...

How about reducing the size of our high schools? And reducing class size.

Average National size for middle and high schools is much smaller than we have here in Seattle. Some of our middle schools are double the size of the national average, and many of our high schools are double the size of the national average. Yikes!


The national average for elementary schools is 445 students.

The national average for middle schools is 603 students.

The national average for high schools is 887 students.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Ad Hoc, that's a good point (although national average versus national urban average might be more fair for Seattle).

The district is very much going in the direction of larger elementaries. It's right there in the Facilities Master Plan. They say a "small" elementary is 380, middle sized is 445 and large is 535. For middle, it's between 600-800 (although you'd have to explain Eckstein, Whitman and Washington) and for high school it's between 1,000-1,600 (although we do have much smaller ones).

If we spend all the I-728 money on class size reduction, we likely would see smaller class sizes. But parents need to rise up, in large numbers, and tell the district to change how they are using that money.

Maureen said...

I wouldn't be surprised if some class sizes drop a bit now that schools don't receive more funding per child. I expect that principals who have a choice (i.e., at schools with wait lists) will surf as close to the boundary that determines their funding level without going below it. This may allow some of them (especially the ones who have had large class sizes) to reduce class size somewhat. Of course this may mean larger class sizes at the schools with out wait lists.

dan dempsey said...

I - 728 money et al.

Last year $4.2 million academic coaches for teachers. (k-12)

$3.1 million into Pathways math and Reading at the high school level.(mostly grade 11 centered-non WASL passers)
This was part of Promoting Academic Success from legislature ($19 million per year at state level).
This program was guided by OSPI and has been eliminated by the legislature) in favor of ($18 million Student Learning Opportunities).

The reason is PAS did not produce much improvement. Imagine that an OSPI plan that did not produce much improvement. SLO is district controlled not OSPI controlled.

At any rate $4.2 million for coaches + $3.1 million = $7.3 million.

If we look at the low end of the teacher salary schedule + benefits etc. we might be able to get by at $73,000 per teacher total district cost per teacher.

Means the $7.3 million buys 100 regular classroom teachers.

But Dr Goodloe-Johnson has stated that reducing class size is not a priority. She also is for larger schools rather than smaller schools I believe.

To really improve high schools improve k-8 education and require something in addition to the ability to breathe to advance from grade to grade.

Effective interventions and planning would be a really cool move.