Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bad Threats

It's a lesson from Teacher Basics 101. Don't make a threat if you can't live with the consequences.

Do not tell your students that if they don't hand in the homework, you'll fail them for the year. Don't tell your students that everybody runs a four-minute mile or everybody's off the team. And never, ever tell an unruly class that if you hear "one more peep," everybody gets a detention.

The Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools have no teaching experience to their collective names, and so they've been breaking the Bad Threat rule with abandon, and children are paying the price.

There are two parts to a bad threat.

Part I is the expectation.

We've heard plenty about the "soft bigotry of low expectations." And Michael Gerson wasn't entirely wrong-- we have a history of all too often writing off students because of poverty or race or chaotic home life or not-so-brightness. Too often we really have held our most challenged students to no expectation at all.

But for the soft bigotry of low expectations, we have substituted the hard tyranny of ridiculous expectations. We have, for instance, substituted the expectation that every third grader will read at grade level no matter what. In some states (I'm looking at you, NY) we raised the standard for proficiency arbitrarily. And we have just generally pushed the idea that all students should be at grade level (as determined by anything from data averages to a politician's whim) all the time.

That seems like a swell expectation. It's not. It's stupid. Let's just apply that reasoning some more. Let's compute the average height for an eight-year-old and declare that all third graders must be that height. Let's require all children to be walking by their tenth month and potty trained by month thirteen. Let's require all seventeen-year-old males to be able to grow facial hair and all fifteen-year-old females to fill a B cup. And let's tell all young men and women that they must be engaged by age twenty-two.

Let's take every single human developmental milestone and set a point by which every human being must have achieved it. Because that is totally how human beings develop and learn and grow-- on exactly the same path, at exactly the same speed, at exactly the same time.

Then we get to Part II of a Bad Threat-- the "or else."

A bad "or else" creates a punishment that neither the Person In Charge or the person being punished can easily live with. If I give everybody in my class a detention because one kid said "peep" (and everyone laughed, because it is kind of funny, but now I look like a fool, so detentions for all of you rotten kids!!), my students have an hour of their lives wasted, and I have to sit in the principal's office and explain what they hell I was thinking.

But the "or else" under the current standards testing regime is far worse. We've said to students, "You are going to reach this level of development, or we'll flunk you, even if it's a ton of you." As noted by Carol Burris and Alan A. Aja, "ton" is an understatement. We've sold many communities on the idea that being subjected to the hard tyranny of ridiculous expectations is a good thing, and now the cost is becoming clear.

The achievement gap is widening. Students are falling below basic in staggering numbers (50% of third grade black students below basic on ELA tests, 84% ELL students below basic on ELA tests, and the list goes on).

The "promise of the common core" turns out to be nothing more than threatening students "You're going to pass this high stakes test or we're going to label you a failure, punish your teachers, and keep you from graduating." That's not the soft bigotry of low expectations, but the rather harsh bigotry of "Those damn lazy kids just aren't motivated enough. Threaten them." They don't need help, support, resources, economic relief, or anything else-- just threats.

The cost of this bad threat is more than the students should have to bear and certainly of no benefit to us as a society. And the test results recall one more lesson from Basic Teacher 101. If you have given a test to your class and a huge percentage of the students have failed it, it's a bad test.

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