1/30/2009

THE COMING CRISIS

As a general rule, I don't get homework.

Oh, I assign it. I have readings from the textbook that I call, somewhat ham-fistedly, 'Required Assignments" (RA), which essentially just require them to answer questions at the end of that section of the textbook. There are typically 10-12 such questions. Students are graded on whether the work is complete, and whether they are using complete sentences that refer to the original question. Not much of an expectation.

I also have questions embedded in the Labs that typically require them to answer anywhere from 3-10 questions based upon the experience, in the same fashion. We typically use most of the classroom time for the experience of the lab ('gathering the data'), rather than answering questions, so the usual expectation is that they will answer them on their own time, effectively homework. Here I care about more than whether it's in the proper format, and I typically sprinkle a fairly challenging conceptual question in with the easier ones.

I also have Projects, both group and individual, and while I will typically have an 'in-class work day' for such as this, the expectation is that they will have to spend some time at home working on the things.

So, imagine my chagrin when on the most recent unit, I have the following tallies out of 174 students currently on my roster....

  • 25 of the students attempted at least one of the three RA in the unit. That means nearly five out of every six kids did none.


  • 77 of them (less than half) turned in a Project worth almost as much as a test. That means I have nearly one hundred students who haven't turned it in, and it's already one day past the due date.

  • 91 of them (slightly more than half) have turned in the first Lab, which is now two weeks past the due date . . . incredibly, this is true even though I have assigned select kids in each period lunch detention for failing to complete their work, with the threat of Saturday School if they should fail to show.

The level of non-performance is at an all-time low. I normally have between 20-23 percent kids flunk the course each semester. I've been teaching at this school for nine years, and I've come to expect that range of scores so much that if it's a few points high at mid-semester I get nervous and second-guess myself.

Last semester, however, I had 48 percent failure. More than twice as much as my average fail rate just two years ago. Analysis of scores showed that the biggest contributor to the rising tide of 'F' is the failure of students to submit work, especially homework. Nor am I the only one. My colleagues report declining work ethic almost across the board, and often are quick to point out that this seems to be a recent phenomenon. Our AP Bio instructor relayed the fact that in a list-serve nationally with other veteran AP Bio teachers, the hot topic is how the freshmen at their school (the future pool of AP Bio students) seems to have less desire to do higher-level work than in the past, not just leading to declining academic performance but perhaps posing a real threat to the enrollment levels needed at some school sites to justify sections of AP Bio.

What's going on? Is there a pattern here?

I can't prove it, of course, but anecdotally I feel this is the next wave in education: chronic underachievement by a class of young people who have developed differently than past cohorts. Their temptations are greater than when I was in high school, and by and large they are yielding to a mindset, promoted by a media-rich society always willing to take another quarter when they should say, in effect, 'game over.' Students (and to an increasing extent, their parents) really believe that they should always get a 'do-over'....like a video game where you 'die', but get to start over at a preset point where you can presumably immediately try something different other than what got you 'killed'.

Social promotion doubtless contributes to this attitude, as well as a permissive, 'let's-make-sure-we-don't-wreck-their-self-esteem' approach to accountability, but in my experience at least the number of teachers and administrators who model that for students is very small. Most of us are very big on accountability, completing what you start and so forth. So I don't think it's what we're doing at the school sites that is discouraging them from completing homework.

No, it's almost certainly what's going on outside of school that's having the biggest impact. Could one of those things in that regard be video games, computer games, any kind of instant gratification media in which they are encouraged to believe that there is no meaningful penalty for failing to do things right the first time? I am so persuaded.

5 comments:

R. Moore said...

Question:

When was the last time a tenured teacher in the school district was fired or laid off for bad teaching, bad preparation, bad class room management, etc?

We have dropped standards throughout society. I can't see blaming kids when I know very few adults who are much more than placeholders or get-rich-quick opportunists in their jobs.

I think we need to demand much more from children (for there own well being). We cannot do that until we demand much more from our adults. A majority voted for Bush twice?. It makes me think they were not too motivated about their own educations.

(Not talking about you of course, Scott, just making a general observation)

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Well, I certainly do agree that there is a problem when it comes to evaluating and motivating tenured teachers who are low-performing. I have often thought that what you need is a peer review system built into the contract.

But you know what? I vividly remember a teacher I had as a senior in high school more than 25 years ago, whose 'curriculum' consisted of assigning a section of the textbook to read, sitting back at his desk, and then getting up to talk about the reading in the last ten minutes of class. He would give a test about once a month, and that was about it. No homework, no projects, no class discussions, no nothing. He would often fall asleep in his last period of the day, to the point that it became a running joke with students. If he fell asleep, some of the more enterprising pupils would write elaborate messages on his blackboard. The only thing I remember learning in his class (he was a social studies teacher) was reading the issue of Newsweek when the Jonestown massacre occurred, and some of the hijinks that my fellow students perpetrated.

The next year, I heard he was transferred to the junior high school, which (based upon my recollection of his attitude in dealing with our immaturity) was probably like a trip to the gulag. There had been enough complaints that he had worn out his welcome at our small, close-knit high school. But he wasn't fired. He kept his job, as did the principals and vice-principals who never, never, EVER visited the classrooms. I can not recall a single visit by an administrator to a classroom in my entire high school career.

So, what I am saying is that the problem of the low-performing but tenured instructor is long-standing, but in my experience the plummeting work ethic is not. Five years ago I got a lot more homework than I do now, and that is the same thing I'm hearing from most of my fellow teachers. And so, I have to ask, what gives? What's happening, and why now?

RBH said...

R. Moore wrote

When was the last time a tenured teacher in the school district was fired or laid off for bad teaching, bad preparation, bad class room management, etc?

Scott pointed it out politely, but I'll be blunter: That wholly misses the point of the post.

Stan said...

In my limited experience as a substitute teacher, the high school students seem to have a sense of entitlement. They feel they are entitled to talk continuously, sit backwards, form into little gaggles and certainly not to be taking any guff from a teacher.

I know it is not just the "substitute teacher syndrome", where the sub is a target for misbehavior. This is because I have sat in on classes with other teachers in charge (math and science) and the behavior was the same. No one seems to assert any discipline despite behavior rules posted in each class. The teachers can hardly be heard over the constant uproar, and only a small minority of students even bother to appear to be listening. The rest chatter and giggle and flirt and jump up and down.

I have restricted my subbing to Junior High and below because of this. Even 8th graders are on the verge of chaos most of the time, but they can be corraled.

Entitlement is a cultural failing, where sex produces no real consequences, juvenile criminal records get erased, parents punish schools rather than their children, omnibenevolence is expected from the government which bails out corporate fools, after guaranteeing loans to bad risks. Entitlement defeats the feeling of a need to work for what you get.

Wandering Internet Commentator said...

Hi Mr. Hatfield,

If you would forgive the impertinence of a wandering Internet commentator/lurker for leaving his 2 cents, but when you say,

Could one of those things in that regard be video games, computer games, any kind of instant gratification media in which they are encouraged to believe that there is no meaningful penalty for failing to do things right the first time? I am so persuaded.

I'm not so sure. In nearly every form of interactive entertainment in human history, there's no real penalty for failure. Unless you are a professional football or basketball player, if you go out for a friendly game of pickup with your buddies, there's no real 'penalty' for losing except for perhaps mockery. Lose one game, that's okay, just play another one. Same with chess or other board games--checkmate? No big deal, reset the pieces and play again.

Now, whether or not sports, boardgames, or other pastimes consist of "instant gratification" may be debatable, but it seems obvious to me they usually imply no real penalties for failing the first, second, or even tenth time. Thus, it strikes me as odd to single out video/computer games in particular as agents of a 'failure is okay' ethic, given that many of children's favorite pasttimes from previous eras haven't punished failure very harshly either.