As promised, Friday was a good day! I was sent by my principal to observe other teachers in action at the high school where he was resident principal last year. I got a lot of great ideas that I want to try to put into practice.
Having seen each of them in action, I can tell that they are excellent teachers, and I can see why. Each of them had clear control of their classroom. They also had ways of engaging off-task students without eliciting the negative reactions I get so frequently. I also got a lot of insight into “the System” and the city culture from some math teachers that all came up in Baltimore and who are all veteran teachers. They told me about the ebb and flow of public schooling. It was almost kind of funny; all 3 had started off in middle school, which all 3 agreed is generally a mess, city-wide. All 3 lasted less than a year, but eventually came back to the System.
One particularly interesting topic that came up was the major emerging crisis across the district concerning the high-stakes tests for graduation. The students have been taking exit exams for years, but until this year, they have only been required to sit the exams. Now they must pass all 4 exams in order to graduate. The problem isn’t actually that the System is unprepared for the fact that Baltimore City students are not going to pass in high numbers. This is well-known, and the state has contingency plans for that, in the form of alternative tests and projects, and across the city, an enormous amount of resources has been directed toward ensuring that the students have access to all the preparation they need. The problem is that students are still not taking advantage of those resources. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, come graduation time, there’s going to be a catastrophe in the graduation rate, even by Baltimore City standards. As far as I can tell, there’s no concrete plan for what can be done to prevent this, or what happens to the students who don’t pass the test.
The teacher I was speaking to doesn’t blame the System—-after all, this situation is unprecedented, and who knew that even with all hands on deck to get the students up to speed that we’d still be coming up way short. I responded that it still was important that the students know this stuff. After all, the exit exams test only subjects from freshman and sophomore year, albeit pretty rigorously.
She replied, “See I disagree. It used to be we tested the kids on functional math. Can you go to the store and find a discount? You go to work at 7:00 and leave at 3:45, how many hours and minutes is that? Can you do your taxes?
“This algebra I stuff doesn’t mean anything to these kids. They’re not walking around thinking, ‘what’s the mean of that?’ They’re not looking for box patterns. We need to be teaching them stuff they can use.
“When I was in middle school, they taught us how to do taxes. We were filling out the 1040EZ. I didn’t plan on going to college when I was in high school, but when I decided to go, there were placement tests to see what math class I belonged in.
“What if a kid wants to be an artist? What kind of math is he going to take in college? Probably not higher-level math–probably whatever the easiest class that’ll give him that college math credit. He doesn’t need to know this stuff”
She’s got a point, especially since she teaches at a neighborhood school, not a college prep school like mine aspires to be. Rigor is important, that’s for sure, but maybe we’re fighting a losing battle if it’s just rigor for rigor’s sake. Although, the one thing I would say is that nowadays, opportunities for people with a high school education are drying up. So I don’t know what the answer is. I suppose if there were an easy answer, we’d already have figured it all out.