Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The children of the New Orleans reform movement

A colleague pointed out in a meeting that this year's students are the students of the post Katrina educational reform. They are our first wave of young students who are age-appropriate for their grade level and have spent at least four years in a reformed and/or chartered school. Yet, we high school teachers have a lot of discussions about the quality of education and preparation that these students have gotten in the new system.
One of our largest struggles this year is the students who are called "T9s", or "transitional ninth graders". These are students who did not pass all of their eighth grade LEAP but were allowed to attend high school anyway. Across the board these students perform far below grade level and many have 504 accommodations. In addition to academic short comings, many of them are emotionally immature and not able to keep up with the amount of work and responsibility that is needed in high school. Their teachers meet constantly about their progress, accommodations, ability and behavior in non-stop attempts to make them successful despite already showing that they have not mastered the skills that they need for high school. In our previous generation, if you did not pass your classes and/or did not pass your LEAP test you simply did not move on to the next grade. Instead, now we have 4.5, 8.5 or as they are now called, T9's. Almost 7% of the entire freshman class is a T9. If the reform was working, would we really have so many students that are not mastering content?
Despite a myriad of deficiencies in students in previous years, this year's students have come in with even lower reading scores than the last group of students. Our school uses the STAR Reading assessment in July and a post assessment in December and the average range of reader is approximately fifth to sixth grade. Many students are even farther below, and to reach these students four remedial English classes are offered this year but student placement is based upon LEAP scores, not this reading assessment. This means that students are placed in the standard English classes despite performing at the same or similar level to the T9s or, generally, elementary aged students who are AT grade level.
There have been HUGE amounts of testing infidelity (a quick Google search shows examples here, here and here with many more available. My own experiences will not be documented here, but it has happened quite a lot) along with the high numbers of new teachers and high teacher turn over in New Orleans. While cities such as Dallas and Atlanta look to make similar changes as the ones that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, what can really be said about the abilities of the children in this system?
My colleagues and I make informal but necessary observations about our students. Algebra classes are remediating basic skills, not to mention the absolute need for students to use calculators for even basic calculations and there is a shocking lack of understanding about mathematical processes; students exhibit an inability to visualize intangible objects and thus have a hard time using maps and constructing models- one teacher jokingly commented, "did no one let these kids cut and paste in elementary school? They have no spatial reasoning!". My year in kindergarten left me shaking my head at that comment because I knew that they had not been allowed to be creative.
Creative? By the way, that is a word that my ninth graders do not understand.
In an attempt to teach essay writing I told the students that I wanted them to break out of the middle school essay writing format of "firstly, secondly and lastly" (they don't even know to use "finally" instead of "lastly") and I encouraged them to write creatively. I was met with confused looks and weird speculations as to what that meant.
My students don't know words. Basic words. I have heard, this year more than any other, "stop using all them big words". My students do not understand that I do not speak formally with them but correctly; their language ability is hugely limited despite many of the charter schools using 90 minute reading blocks regardless of the schedule for other classes. What is really happening?
I wish I had a dollar for every time that a high school teacher asked "what are the middle school teachers teaching?".
More concerning than what the elementary teachers are teaching (or not teaching) is how they may be treating the students. This year's students are incapable of independent work. For every dollar that I'd receive for a teacher asking "what are the middle school teachers teaching?", I'd lose two dollars for every time that a child has declared, "you're not helping me!". I've gone so far as to have students define the word "help" in a general context then an academic one, and despite the fact that they could say that teachers are supposed to give new information they still expect their teachers to do the work for them or to explain it so much that the only word left is the answer. The idea that they are supposed to absorb the information presented to them, digest it then practice it themselves is lost. I spent the month of August teaching the students about Bloom's taxonomy and fostering independence and it has not changed even a bit by now.
What I do see, however, is that students are incredibly grade driven and want to be successful, but their esteem is deeply tied to correctness. Students yell "See! I'm smart!" when they get answers correct-they have no idea that they thought and worked hard to get their answer. They have no real idea of their abilities, and giving students their reading scores resulted in statements of denial and complaint. Early in the school year, a student was transferred from my class to the remedial English class. Every time I see him he tells me that he has an "A" in that class; completely unaware that he is working at the sixth grade level. An attempt to tell children that they have shortcomings and that we can work to fix them ends in anger and tension between the teacher and student. Students have actually told me NOT to grade on correctness because their other teachers didn't. This is a real issue.
Will this be the way future students function? When I think of the franchisation (yes, I made that a word) of the New Orleans schools and the KIPP style, Doug Lemov methods spread throughout most of the schools, I fear that subsequent classes of students will follow in this path. I love teaching ninth grade. I love teaching literature and thinking and analyzing the world around us, but if children continue to walk the halls of local high schools with the idea that they do not need to learn anything, has the reform really increased student knowledge and ability or are these students doomed leave their high schools and walk into a world that they have not the skills nor attitude to face?