Saturday, September 6, 2014

"I get in trouble for the B-plusses"

"I get in trouble for those," said Mr. Visco, pointing to the scant B-pluses sprinkled here and there in a sea of A's.

It was somewhere around 1980 and now a teacher myself I was back to visit my favorite teachers at my '69 alma mater high school in Tenafly, New Jersey, an upper middle class bedroom community for NYC feeding students into the Ivy League.

Not sure how grade inflation came up, but his remark came after I doubted some assertion of his that he, one of the toughest teachers in the school, could no longer grade honestly.  So he had pulled out his gradebook and showed me the sea of A's.

"But you have tenure," I floundered. "How can they control you?"

"There are things they can do," he said. I remember only one of several. "They can take away the honors class."

This is a very long story. It begins with the US high school class of 1971, the first year not subjected to the draft to go fight in Vietnam, the war we were supposed to learn from before...I digress.

Once the draft was no longer a threat to the middle class, we looked around and what did we see?

First, traditional authorities had lost all credibility. This mostly had to do with a federal government leading us into the hell of Vietnam, but along the way also the rejection of police and college authority. Folks dictating rigid sexual mores and drug abstinence were now scorned. Not only Vietnam was involved. A little thing known as the Civil Rights movement also knocked governments on their heels. We the People were no longer impressed by City Hall in any form, and we were indeed ready to fight.

Second, whoa. Look at us! We are prosperous! A population that had lived for twelve years with the depression starting in 1929 first had the economy stimulated by World War II and then, when that nightmare ended, saw a wonderful period of growth first forming a solid middle class and by the late sixties a solid upper middle class.

What do newly empowered prosperous people do with institutions they no longer revere, such as the school boards of upper middle class communities? School boards for which our affluent populations vote? Our affluent parents start dictating new standards guaranteed to get their children 4.0 averages and a shot at the Ivy League.

Back to my high school. Mr. Visco was tough but he was also a delightful flake (and future principal of the high school!!!). I still did not buy it, his gradebook evidence notwithstanding. My next stop was Mrs. Willens, my French teacher. I have heard about nuns in parochial school and I am pretty sure Mrs. Willens taught them tyranny. I was a great student and a favorite of hers and she absolutely terrorified me.

I asked her about the grading silliness Visco had described. Mrs. Willens without hesitation confirmed every word. If they had had video cameras everywhere back then you would have seen my jaw literally drop.

Need something more than anecdotal evidence from two great, tough teachers in a feeder high school for top colleges? Easy. Look at the surge from the mid-sixties on, especially leading up to the mid-70s. Notice also that it is much worse in private schools, where the tuition paid and unvarying Ivy goal brings even more pressure on schools and teachers to churn out 4.0 averages.

Google prize to the person who can find the NY Times 90s-ish story on the New England admissions officer who said they did not even look at grades any more, just SATs.

So what happened when parents started getting teachers in trouble for B-plusses? You might think kids would work less and learn less. You might be right. It was described beautifully in A Nation At Risk.

The funny thing is that the CCSS crowd says the problem is accountability. Ha! You want to talk about accountability? In small communities with local school boards and separate school budget votes we have nothing but accountability and what the parents have demanded and gotten is grade inflation. The parents have afflicted the teachers. Accountabilize that.

Sadly, history has been rewritten. Naughty, lazy, incompetent schools and teachers have been misleading the parents! By giving them the grades they demanded! Here is an otherwise solid story where the author is wholly oblivious to parental strong-arming of schools and teachers.

Losing this bit of history does more than cause us to misplace blame. It has also produced the motive force of CCSS: accountability of schools and teachers, complete with the threat of closings and terminations. The message of CCSS is, "Here are some great new standards, we are not going to tell you how to teach them we are going to fire you or close your school if you do poorly on the questionable tests we also did not specify."

Don't you just love it when government swings into action on something they know nothing about?

CCSS did not understand that parents had provoked the mess, so they took a threatening stance facing teachers using ominous terms like "high stakes testing" thinking they had the parents at their back. Yes, the parents at your back. With arrows strung and bows drawn. It is now late 2014 and after five long years the scores are coming in and CCSS -- surprise, surprise -- is under attack.

CCSS needs some Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The parents are getting what they demanded, and no one who does not understand that impetus has a prayer of turning things around.

I know what Arne Duncan means when he mocks upper middle-class white moms discovering their little darlings are not geniuses, but he is confusing two distinct upper middle-class phenomena. The first was not moms being deceived by schools who said their children were gifted, it was those moms and dads leaning on school boards shaking them down for the A's that would get their kids into Ivy League schools.

The second, unrelated phenomenon was the mistake of motivating folks with "My kid is an honor student" bumper stickers. One would rather face the mom of a starving tiger cub than tell a parent of a kid with a B-minus average they cannot have a bumper sticker.

It's a paper chase, right? We all want the best for our kids, perfectly natural. They do not need to know anything to get into Harvard, they need a 4.0 average! Grade by grade, paper by paper: "Why is this not an A? Show me what is wrong with this?". Of course A means "exceptional" and C means "nothing really wrong with it", but the standard had shifted. Everyone was now "A until proven unsatisfactory".

I saw this first-hand in 1973, years earlier, in one of my last undergraduate classes. A student-friendly, socially-correct, left-wing professor was spending class time on a defense. Of some new research result? No, of the scores he had given on our most recent test. I had not done very well, but I was from the outset appalled at the idea of him defending his scoring.

His process involved reading a question from the essay exam and then reading an answer to which he had given full credit. There was one question worth seven points, and when he read the answer I thought I was listening to a speech by Bill Clinton. Finally, it came to an end.

"That's an awful lot for a seven," said one of the leaders of the scoring rebellion.

"Isn't that what a seven is supposed to mean?" I asked from the back of the room, surprising even myself.

The rebel blustered, the professor retreated under cover of the fire I had unintentionally provided.

"I have nothing to add to your dialogue," he said.

But there it was. 1973 and the new standard for "full marks" was "I covered the minimum."

By the way, if upper middle class Ivy-seeking parents are not being misled, perhaps the inner city parents are? That was where I did the bulk of my teaching, and there the story was different. One of the greatest teachersI had ever known  (an African-American, FWIW) filled me in: no one failed. If they put in their time, they got their high school degree. Why?

Think Wizard of Oz. He gave Scarecrow a diploma, and explained rather accurately that that was the only thing he needed.  This teacher was explaining that, no matter what, the kids would get their high school diplomas, so they would have a shot in the job market.

The CCSS crowd is about to discover that standards and tests alone will not change the world, because tougher standards and tests will just fail lots of students.

Their premise is that schools and teachers will be able to get students up to the standards as long as they are threatened with closings and termination, that it is just a matter of will.

Nonsense, but that's another blog entry.

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