Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Giving credit where credit is due

The latest Flavor-of-the-Month at the New York State Education Department is called "credit recovery."  Here's a quote from NYSED's proposal regarding this provision:

"Sometimes students may come close to passing a course and may have deficiencies only in certain clearly defined areas of knowledge and skill. In those cases, it may not be necessary for the student to retake the entire course. Instead, the student might be permitted to make up those deficiencies, master the appropriate standards, and receive credit. Of course, this should only be allowed under carefully controlled conditions to ensure that the student does receive the opportunity to learn and does meet the required standards...  In order to receive credit, the student must receive equivalent, intensive instruction in the deficiency areas of the course by a teacher certified in the subject area...  The provisions above do not require specific seat time requirements for the make-up opportunity since the opportunity must be tailored to the individual student’s need. There is precedent for allowing a reduced amount of seat time in the context of summer school."

I find this troubling.  The concept of credit recovery may be well-meaning -- although cynics, present company excepted of course, make a plausible case that the only impetus for this provision was to boost graduation rates.  But however well-intentioned the policy is, its implementation is considerably problematic.

Consider, for example, a student who is failing my Regents (Introductory) Biology class.  Let's say that this student has reached April, currently has an average of 31%, and suddenly has the realization that he's headed toward failing for the year.  Under the provisions of credit recovery, I could be required to give him an opportunity to make up the work that he'd failed, so that he'd have a chance of passing for the year.

While the provision as drafted by NYSED states that he should receive "equivalent, intensive instruction," practically speaking, there is no way to do that.  The school district has neither the funds nor the facilities to hire another teacher to go back and reteach this kid; the duties would necessarily fall on me, as the subject teacher.  During what time would I do this?  I already teach a full schedule - in fact, in my case, I am a section over the contractual limit.  Further, could this provision require that I put together activities that he'd missed, failed, or simply not turned in - including labs?  Lab activities almost always require the preparation of chemicals, equipment, and supplies, which would all have to be redone for the sake of a single kid.  I believe that under this provision, teachers could be required to do exactly that.

Of course, in practice, that's not what would happen.  Besides labs, what about activities that can't be replicated, such as in-class discussions, group activities, and so on?  Between the time constraints and the simple impossibility of recreating a curriculum, sometimes months after it was initially presented, teachers will inevitably be forced into developing worksheets, problem sets, and other "seat work."  In other words -- whether or not we feel it's justified or even educationally sound -- we'll be in the situation of being coerced by state mandate to provide inferior delivery of instruction just so students can receive credit.

Lest you think that this is just a case of yours truly being a hysterical alarmist, there are places in the state where this is already being done, and it's playing out exactly this way.  A teacher at Jamaica High School (New York City School District) quipped, "You shouldn't drive by our school with your window rolled down, because someone will toss a diploma in."  Students there were being awarded credit for an entire course they'd failed by showing up for nine hours, total, during winter and spring break.

It's a case where everyone loses; the school districts' feet are being held to the fire by NYSED to develop some kind of policy, but at the same time they have no money to hire additional staff, and the current staff are already stretched to the limit.  The kids figure out very quickly how to game the system -- you can take a whole year off, fail a course, and then get credit for putting in nine hours of busy work the following year.  Tell me that won't be taken advantage of.

Myself, I have a philosophical problem with this, and one that goes deeper than the practical issue of how to implement the policy fairly.  My feeling is that there's nothing inherently wrong with failing at something; it's a sign that you need to get your ass in gear and work harder the next time.  If you're learning to ride a horse, and you fall off, the only thing that can fix your problem is getting back up on the horse and figuring out what you did that led to your falling off, and making sure you don't do that again.  What credit recovery does is a little like your trainer saying, "Oh, you fell off?  Well, no problem.  Get up on this merry-go-round horse for a few minutes, and we'll all pretend that you can ride."

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