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Leadership's Future: We Need More Tom Dunns

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

knowledge-is-powerWhat do you do and where do you go when you leave a high-stress career that nearly kills you?

If your name is Tom Dunn and you spent 20 years, first as a defense counsel in the Army Trial Defense Service, then stints in Florida, New York State and most recently as head of the nonprofit Georgia Resource Center, you find a less stressful environment in which to indulge your passion.

You teach in a tough middle school in Atlanta, Georgia where “ninety-three percent of students are black and 5 percent Hispanic; some 97 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.”

Dunn’s prior experience made him a passionate believer in what Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

According to principal, Danielle S. Battle, middle school turns off many teachers because it’s where “students’ bodies and minds are changing, and disparities in learning abilities are playing out.”

Dunn found that amusing, “You can’t be a starry-eyed idealist and do defense work in capital cases for 20 years.”

Dunn is the type of teacher that every parent should want for their child, but, as proved in Dallas, teachers are fired for being good—good meaning tough enough to stick to their guns and require kids to learn.

We need more teachers like Dunn; teachers who care and environment that supports their efforts to educate.

But the kids complain to their parents, the parents complain to the school board and the teacher is out—no matter how good the test scores. So tying teacher pay to test scores may not help if the choice is between less money and no job.

What are line managers, AKA principals and teachers, supposed to do when the executive team, AKA, school district board, first gives tacit approval to shipping shoddy products and then formalizes the practice through its work rules and quality processes?

How stupid is it to tie funding to students staying in school and passing and then allow the bar to be lowered in order to achieve the goal?

Does the ability to pass tests accurately reflect an ability to think?

Kids are smart; they know when the system is gamed and how to leverage their power.

Who is in charge here?

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Leadership's Future: Entitled To Good Grades

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Can you imagine telling your boss that you deserve a raise because you come to work on time every day?

Or that she shouldn’t fire you for poor performance because you tried really, really hard?

Last week on Leadership’s Future a young man named Andrew started a conversation. During it he gave me a link to an article in the NY Times about student expectations.

Expectations based on that sense of entitlement which makes me nuts.

It seems that today’s students expect an A if they attend class and turn in assignments.

And it’s wrong for the professors to consider the quality of work, since a lower grade will affect their job opportunities and that’s not fair.

“A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading. … Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.”

It’s not surprising, since K-12 inflates grades, passes everyone in order to keep their funding, and fires teachers who cling to the out-moded idea that school is a place to actually learn.

Here are two student quotes that seem to sum up a majority viewpoint…

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.” –Jason Greenwood, senior, University of Maryland

“I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.” –Sarah Kinn, junior, University of Vermont

As hiring managers and potential colleagues I’m sure this attitude thrills you no end.

Do you find it terrifying that at some point in the future these same students may be your doctor or lawyer and that, reality forbid, these are the people who will teach the next generation? I do.

The story drew 131 comments; I didn’t read them all, but here are three that struck me.

“I think the disputes about grading also stem from students approaching education as consumers. Because they pay to attend school, they have an attitude of, “the customer is always right” and feel they should have their grades their way.” –Tiffany Mills, Detroit, MI

“Having been for a time peripherally associated with a Junior Year Abroad program in Paris, I was shocked to learn that certain parents of students whose grades were mediocre would actually telephone the program director and threaten her with various forms of retribution if the grades were not inflated. Apparently students are not the only ones with a sense of entitlement!!” — Jill Bourdais, Paris, France

I appreciated this one, since it sums up what should happen when grades are down…

“I received a D+ on my first paper for a history course in my freshman year of college. After the initial shock and indignation wore off…  That course was a turning point in my education. I wasn’t just regurgitating facts, but thinking about the source materials from the perspective of those who wrote it and really analyzing the content. It showed me a new way to read into materials in other courses and helped me earn better grades. I earned a B in the class and was delighted with the grade, considering how far I come. A bad grade isn’t always a bad thing. It can be an opportunity to improve.” – Maggi S, Chicago, IL

And finally, a comment that probably reflects what many of you are currently thinking.

“Students who think that just attending class and doing the reading is enough are in for a huge shock when (or if) they enter the world of work. I’m a writer. If I spend hours on a piece, but it doesn’t do what my client wants it to do, I’ve failed. I don’t get paid. Merely “doing the work” ain’t enough; it’s the QUALITY of the work that counts.” — JoMo, Minneapolis MN

On a practical note, hiring managers might find it of more value to look at grades a bit differently as I explain here.

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CandidProf: Students—one best vs. the rest

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university. He shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.

Today’s generation of college students grew up with things handed to them.  Granted, that is not true for all of them, but it seems to be true for the bulk of my students.

Parents don’t want things to be as tough on their kids as growing up was for themselves.  Schools don’t want parents complaining.  So, the kids get everything just handed to them.

If they don’t work hard, then that’s OK.  They’ll still pass classes.

Do bad grades make them feel bad?  Well, then the solution is to simply do away with bad grades. A local school district several years ago did away with the grade of D because it had negative connotations.  So, now the lowest grade that a student can get is a C.  Other school districts quickly followed suit, since they looked bad for having lower grade point averages.

The Dallas School District even went so far as to revamp its grading policies to make it practically impossible for students to fail or to get low grades.

So, it is no wonder that students come to college without any work ethic.

orion_crew_exploration_vehicle.jpgLast week, we had a speaker come to campus who works as an engineer designing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the spacecraft that is going to replace the Space Shuttle.  She was amazing.  She was energetic, enthusiastic, and was very excited to be working with real spacecraft.

She gave a presentation where she emphasized how important learning is to succeeding.  She pointed out that all those classes that you think that you will never use have a tendency to teach you things that eventually turn out to be useful.  She is quite young, only a few years older than most of my students.

She has two bachelors degrees, and she is working on two masters degrees.  She is working full time and going to school nearly full time.  She is excited about what she does. She absolutely loves the space program and finds working with NASA to be a dream job.  It is FUN for her.  As she sees it, she is getting paid to have fun. So, she doesn’t mind working extra hours, taking on extra tasks, and working weekends, evenings, holidays, etc., if needed.

I was hoping that her enthusiasm would rub off.  So, this week, I asked my students what they thought of her talk.

One student said that she sounds really boring. Huh?  Boring?  She gets to work with spacecraft.  She gets paid to do things that she finds exciting and fun.  She gets to watch Space Shuttles launch.  She gets to use the simulators that the astronauts use.  She travels all over the country for her job.  She’s boring?

Another student said that she didn’t seem to understand that some classes are hard. Huh?  She has degrees in aeronautical engineering and astronautics.  She is working on degrees in spacecraft systems and human physiology (she is interested in how the human body works in space).  Hey, those are not easy subjects.  She has taken classes far more difficult than anything that my students have ever taken.

Another person said that she can’t understand how anyone could stay in school for so long, commenting that the speaker would probably have six degrees by the time that she is thirty.  So?  What’s wrong with that?

You get ahead by hard work. Many of my students come from fairly affluent upper middle class families, and they have had life just handed to them.

The speaker came from a family where her parents had to work hard and she didn’t have things just handed to her.  She learned to work for things.  That is why she is where she is.  Not everyone is going to get a job working with spacecraft.  She is, indeed, quite young.  But she has a very important job, with lots of responsibility, because of her hard work.

Someone like my students would not get her job.

I told my students that they don’t really have to work as hard as the speaker.  After all, we need people to be assistant managers at fast food restaurants.  They will rise to the appropriate level.

If they work hard, they will become leaders.  If they refuse to work hard, they will be followers all of their lives. I don’t think that they were very happy with me or what I told them, but that’s OK.

If only one of them listens and decides to work hard to get ahead, then I’ve done my job.

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CandidProf: an educational shafting

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university. He shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every other Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.

piggybank.jpgCollege is expensive. Students have to pay for tuition, fees, books, school supplies, and all sorts of other expenses.  Many years ago, college was still expensive, but at least the average college student could afford to go to college.  But tuition, fees and textbooks have increased in price at far more than the inflation rate.  Students and parents are understandably upset over this.  At many institutions, the tuition goes up every year, sometimes at several times the inflation rate.  Many people think that the universities are just raising tuition to be greedy.  It isn’t that simple, though.

The average student’s tuition does not adequately cover the cost of education. College is not like high school.  College professors need to maintain expertise and remain current in their fields of study.  That means more than just reading about the subject on the internet.  Also, college professors need to be paid.  Libraries need to be current, and professional journals are not cheap.  Books are not cheap for libraries, either.

State colleges and universities are supposed to be supported by tax dollars.  However, state legislatures have cut funding to higher education, reasoning that colleges and universities can make up the difference through tuition.  That means that tuition goes up to cover inflation, and then goes up even more to cover the reduction in state funding.

Private institutions rely not only on tuition, but on investments from their endowments to generate operating funds.  In today’s economic climate, those endowments are not bringing in much money, so tuition has to rise to compensate.

Then, textbook companies keep coming up with new editions of textbooks.  They are pretty proactive killing the used book market, too.  I have on occasion tried to adopt an old edition of textbooks when the new editions come out, only to find that the bookstore could not get copies of the old edition.  We wound up using the new editions.  So much for trying to save my students some money.

As you can imagine, costs quickly spiral upwards too high for most students to be able to afford college.  There are some grants and scholarships, but most are for those who have very low incomes.

The wealthy can afford college.

The poor have it paid for them.

The middle class, the bulk of our students, don’t qualify for grants and can’t afford college themselves.

This is where student loans come in. All across the nation, college financial aid offices are advising students to secure student loads.  But most of these students are young and have not had any experience with loans.  They quickly get in over their heads.  Nearly 2/3 of students wind up graduating college in debt.  Most owe over $20,000 in loans.  Many owe over $50,000 and some students owe nearly $100,000 (if they go from undergraduate to graduate, law or medical school).

This is a serious problem.  Students are graduating deep in debt.

Worse, shortly after graduation they have to start paying back their loans, but this is when they are least able to do so. After all, your first job after college normally is not a high paying job (even for highly paid fields).  So students graduate with debt, just as they are trying to buy cars, buy houses, start families and do many other things that incur additional debt and expenses.

To add insult to injury, students often have to take more classes than they used to.  High schools are turning out students who are not at all prepared for college level work.  Close to half of our students require some remedial work in mathematics, reading, and writing.  Those remedial classes have tuition, but they do not count towards degrees.  This adds a year or more to an undergraduate program and it incurs more tuition, fees and textbook expenses.  That is a problem, however, that needs to be fixed at the high school level.

So, what are we to do at the college level?  The solution is not to simply force colleges to lower tuition.  After all, tuition was raised not out of greed, but as a way to fund the college after state funds and endowments dried up.  If states were to fund higher education at the rate that they used to, then tuition would drop. As for textbooks, I’ll leave that to a later post.

What is clear to me is that something needs to be done.  We are doing our students a disservice if they are graduating deep in debt.  Perhaps our financial aid offices should be working to help students find part-time jobs to fund their education.  Perhaps there needs to be more direct government assistance to students in the form of grants.

It is hard to say just what needs to be done.  But I see the cost of college getting higher and higher.   In fact, it is high enough now that I think that I’d have had trouble affording it and I seriously doubt that I’d have been able to afford graduate school.

There is not an easy fix to this problem.  Any fix would require a cohesive and comprehensive plan.

And I simply don’t see that happening.

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Funding numbers, not education

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university, shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.It’s all about the numbers.  Sadly, that is how many college administrators see the students: as numbers.

The college has an enrollment figure.  In my state, one of the key measures that they are now implementing to rate college performance is the increase in enrollment figures.

For a long time, as a public institution, we have been funded by how many students are enrolled, so the administration has been actively recruiting students.  It has not mattered whether or not the students are ready for college.  That was not important.  It did not matter if they had the skills to succeed.  That was not important.   Whether or not they enrolled was important, not whether or not they learned anything while here, nor even if they passed any of their classes.

Another key measure for the state is in access of college to minorities and Hispanics.  We are advertising in Spanish.  The college’s web site can be viewed in Spanish.  The registration can be done in Spanish.  But all of the classes are in English.

Students who don’t know English are up a creek.  They have little hope of passing the classes once they get here.  No matter.  They enrolled, they were counted by the state, and that was all that mattered.

Going hand-in-hand with enrollment is retention.  College administrators go to conferences with other college administrators, and they all talk about retention policies.

The idea is that getting students to enroll is not sufficient.  They want them to enroll again next semester.  So, if they flunk out, then they won’t be enrolling again.

The first strategy used by many colleges is to simply change the rules on what constitutes flunking out. When I was a student, a single F or D, or too many C’s, was sufficient to get a student put on academic probation.  If you repeated a bad semester, then you were placed on academic suspension.  That wasn’t meant so much as punishment, but rather to give you time to reassess your educational goals and strategies.  I never had to go through that, but I knew some students who did.

Now, you can fail a class every semester, and have a whole semester of D’s and C’s, and keep that up for semester after semester.  A depressing number of our students graduate with a GPA of less than 2.0.  But the students keep signing up for classes and that is all that counts.

The next step in retention is to put pressure on faculty to give higher grades.  After all, the administrators reason that if students get too many poor grades, they might get discouraged and drop out.  If they drop out, then they won’t be registering for classes and that means, of course, that there will be less state funding for the college.  So faculty are encouraged not to grade too harshly and to give higher grades.

This has been going on in the K-12 education for years, but it is now becoming more common in colleges. I have a number of colleagues who are teaching in a climate of that sort.  Many faculty just give up and quit upholding standards.  They just give out grades.  The students don’t learn. We have a few part time faculty here who do that, too, because that is expected at other places in the area where they teach part time.

But students who take the classes of a faculty member who just gives out grades without the students learning seldom do well in the follow-up classes.

Worse, this strategy makes a college degree pretty much worthless.down-arow.jpg

Holding to standards is hard, particularly when others don’t hold to those standards.

Holding to standards is hard when funding is tied to numbers that can be improved by relaxing those standards.

But an effective leader will hold standards, even if it is the hard thing to do.

I see this getting worse.  My state is now looking to change the funding formula for its public colleges and universities.  Rather than giving money for the number of students enrolled at the beginning of the semester, they are looking to fund the number of students enrolled at the end of the semester.

That changes things.  It means that simply getting students to sign up is not enough.  Now, we need to keep them in the class all semester. It is pretty obvious that there will be extreme pressure on faculty to limit the students dropping.

That means making the classes easier.

That means giving up on tough and difficult standards and setting the bar as low as possible to make it easy for students to pass without ever having to do anything.

That means giving up on teaching.

And this is what is coming down the pike from state legislatures all over the country.  They have done this sort of thing in K-12 education, making a high school diploma pretty much worthless.

Now they are working to make an undergraduate college degree worthless as well.

A lot of faculty are planning on retiring when these changes are made.  I have a few years to go until retirement, and I am not looking forward to what I see in our future.

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CandidProf: Are we parents, counselors, cops—or teachers?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university. He shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.

“If I don’t make a good grade on this test, I am going to hurt myself.  If you understood my background, you’d be worried about me.”

This is a statement made last week to one of my colleagues by a student who had already been identified as being unstable.

dice.jpgUnfortunately, this sort of thing is something that faculty face from time to time.  All sorts of people go to college and many are not mentally as stable as others.

Also, we have students come to college who have been coddled all their lives.  They’ve never been allowed to fail.  But, when they get to college, suddenly things change.  They are no longer the star student.  No one is there to make sure that they don’t fail.  They have to take responsibility for their missteps.  And for many that is hard to do.

For many students this is a very difficult time.  I feel that what we’ve done is, in part, move some of the awkwardness of growing up from the early to mid teenage years into the late teens early twenties.

The problem with that is that many of these students are no longer living at home, and parents can’t do as much to help (assuming that the parents are not too busy with their own lives to worry about the kids).

Now, the higher education doctrine of “in loco parentis” applies.  We wind up being the counselors and parents for these young adults.  The problem is that faculty are not trained for this.  Colleges have support staff for the students.  This includes counselors trained in dealing with these sorts of issues.

The student support service staff often have some training in how to look out for these problems.  Faculty, though, are trained primarily in only their fields.  Physics faculty learn about how to do physics.  History faculty learn all about history.  Psychology faculty may know what is going on, but not necessarily Business faculty.  We learn what we need to about how the college works, how to submit grades, etc.  Sometimes colleges offer seminars on effective teaching.  I never hear about seminars on dealing with suicidal students. Yet, I’ve had to deal with three of them in my years teaching, one being a quite serious case.

But this raises another question.  Was this student that I mentioned at the beginning of this post really suicidal or was this a very childish attempt to manipulate her professor into giving her a higher grade? Do we forward the matter on to higher ups?  Do we refer the student to the counseling center?  Do we need to call the police to report a possible suicidal student?  Or do we just tell the student to grow up?

If we refer the matter on to student services, then this incident becomes part of the student’s permanent record at the college.  If we notify the police, then it becomes a permanent police record, which are not as protected by confidentiality as student records.  How do we know what to do?  After all, faculty are not trained in dealing with these sorts of things.

The matter is not as easy as simply saying that it is better to be safe and report it than to be sorry and not report it.  Students have sued faculty for forwarding on disturbing papers and writings. Our campus attorneys have trouble keeping up with current legal interpretations.

  • Before Virginia Tech, we were advised not to report students who have disturbing writings.  After all, if we report a student for writing an essay about going around shooting people, the student can sue saying that the essay was nothing but his freedom of speech and artistic license.
  • Before Virginia Tech, that may have been upheld.  But the shooting incident at Virginia Tech changed things.  Faculty there got into trouble for not reporting the shooter’s troubling works.  Those faculty that did report it found that nothing was done because the administrators were afraid of doing something that would get them into trouble.

Now we can get in trouble for not reporting such things.  Unfortunately, we can still get in trouble for reporting things too quickly.  That puts us into a difficult position.  And, again, we are not trained to deal with these sorts of things.

Do you see a pattern?  We are continually put into positions of dealing with issues that we have never been trained to deal with.

That is not unique to college faculty, though.  Anyone in a leadership position will have to adapt to new situations that he or she has never seen before or even contemplated.  It is how we respond to these situations that separate good leaders from those who simply happen to have a supervisory job.

So what was our solution to the situation with this student?  (I say “our” since I am serving in a temporary administrative roll at the college.)  Since we already knew that this student has been seen at the counseling office, we called them to have an informal consultation.  They did not seem too concerned.  We also knew the department in which the student is actively pursuing a program of study (psychology!), so we called the department chair to inquire about the student.  It turns out that this particular student is seeing a psychologist, has done this sort of thing to instructors on a regular basis and the people with the training feel that the student is not really a risk for suicide, but rather has learned that some professors yield to this sort of pressure.

The head of the psychology department tells the student to simply grow up when the student does this sort of thing.  So that is what my colleague did when the student began crying after the test was passed back.  The student quit crying and began to pay attention for the rest of the class.

There have been times when we’ve had to deal with actual serious mental health issues.  And, of course, most of the time we don’t know whether or not a situation like this is serious.  In this case, the student was known, and the behavior had been identified by professionals in the mental health field as manipulative not suicidal, so we went on their recommendations.

But what would we have done in the event that this student were not already known to be one who pulls this sort of thing on a regular basis?  Well, at this point, we would have had to make a judgment call and either passed it on to the police if we deemed it an imminent threat of safety to the student or to the counseling center otherwise.

These are the things that make the job tough.

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Teaching accountability

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university. He shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.

Wes Ball, Tuesday’s regular guest, posted his response to my posting about the Dallas Independent School District grading policy.

He makes a point that a nurturing approach is a good one.  And I agree with him that giving students the opportunity to fix mistakes within defined boundaries is a good learning strategy, and one that I routinely use for my college students.

responsibility.jpgHowever, the key point is in the definition of those boundaries.

DISD has virtually removed boundaries. That is not acceptable.  If you go to a doctor for a serious illness, would you trust your doctor’s treatment if you knew that he or she virtually never got it right the first time?  Just what are the defined limits of acceptable shortfalls?  Sometimes, you just have to get it right.

Just look around and you will see the consequences of teaching people that they don’t have to be held responsible. If you teach students that sort of thing, then they will go into the workforce with that attitude.  And then you will have such things as lenders not thinking through who they lend money to, borrowers not thinking if they can repay loans, and top executives for major corporations not looking towards the future of their companies.  After all, if everything goes bust somebody will come along and bail them out and make everything OK, right?

But I think that the attitude that it is OK to set up policies that do not hold students responsible for their own misdoings is simply a carryover from the DISD’s top leaders’ own philosophies.

Now, it turns out that they don’t want to be held responsible for their own screw ups.  Apparently, DISD hired some new teachers last year, but forgot to think about how to pay for them.  This led to a $64,000,000 budget shortfall in 2007. That is expected to soar to nearly $84,000,000 this year.

How can top executives in charge of such a large district foul up enough to miss out on the fact that they were spending 64 million dollars more than they were taking in through taxes? This is not a small sum of money.  This is not simply a minor accounting error.  This is not just someone putting some expenditure in the wrong column of a data table or listing it under one account instead of another.  This is a major blunder.

But are the top school district executives held to account? Uh, no. The ones being held to account for this are the teachers who are facing losing their jobs.  Up to 700 teachers may be laid off in the middle of the school year.

What effect will that have on students who started learning from one teacher only to be shoved into another, over crowded, classroom with a different teacher?

And what of the teachers, themselves?  If they lose their jobs, they lose their way to make a living.  Teaching jobs don’t pay a lot to start with.  And teaching jobs are keyed to the academic year.  Teaching jobs begin at the start of the school year.  It is almost unheard of for a teacher to be hired in the middle of the year.  So, these teachers are out of a job until next August at the earliest.  Is that fair to them?

No, I think that accountability is important.  I think that standards need to be held fast.  I think that the bar needs to be set, and students, administrators, employees, and everyone needs to make it.  A good leader needs to encourage his followers to meet the challenge and to make the grade.

And if they don’t, then there must be consequences.  If the leader screws up, then he needs to face the consequences, too.

I’m including links to various news stories for more in depth information.

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/091708dnmetdisdcuts.1bd57b1.html

http://cbs11tv.com/business/education/disd.teacher.layoffs.2.819119.html

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/DN-disdbudget_23met.ART.State.Edition2.26b709a.html

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School sans learning

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

By CandidProf, our regular Thursday guest author. Read all of CandidProf here.

I have been teaching college students since 1984 (starting as a TA in graduate school).  I have been at my current institution since 1994.  In 24 years of dealing with students entering college, the quality of preparation for those students seems to fall every year.

school_bus.jpgI see parents and schools setting students up for failure in college, and this worries me.  Entering students do not know how to study.  They do not know how to do work outside of class.  They do not know how to use outside resources.  They have such a poor vocabulary that many words that are routinely used in technical fields go completely over their heads.  They have such poor math skills that nearly 75% of them are required to take remedial mathematics before they can even take their first college math class.  Worse, we now offer three math classes for college credit that are below the level of the lowest level math class (offered as a remedial class for no college credit) that was available when I began college.  And, students expect that they will pass a class by simply showing up for it.  How did this come to be?

Part of the problem is that parents and politicians put pressure on schools to make it easier on their little darlings. In a rather sad case, an unpopular math teacher was dismissed from a suburban high school where I live because parents complained that she was far too tough on her students.  She gave them way too much homework, and her tests were much tougher than the other math teachers’ tests, forcing her students to study for hours each week outside of class.  Interestingly, her students also scored the highest on state mandated standardized achievement tests as well as higher than other teachers’ students on the quantitative portion of the SAT and on the math AP exams.  Still, she was tough, so they fired her.

Recently, the Dallas school district implemented new policies aimed at preventing dropouts and making sure that students have a better education.  At least, that is what they said the new policies are for.  In my opinion, they are setting students up for failure.  The new policies require teachers to accept late work without penalizing students.

Does this teach the students that they have to meet deadlines?  When they get a job, will their boss allow them to complete jobs when they feel like it instead of meeting a deadline?  Homework can only be counted towards the students’ grades if it does not lower their grade.  So, there is no incentive to actually do homework.  There is no penalty for not doing it.  And teachers are not permitted to give a zero on any assignment or exam that is missed without personally speaking with parents and offering personal assistance to the students to assist them in doing the assignment.

Of course, teachers are not paid to provide assistance to students who don’t want to do the work, so how many are actually going to take time to do that?  They’ll just turn in something on the student’s behalf and get the whole matter behind them.

If students get a grade on an exam that they don’t like, they have the right to retake the exam and keep the higher grade.  A clarification to the rule that came out later indicates that the rule is meant to allow students to retake the same exam (with the same questions) as often as they wish and to keep the highest exam.

So, they can not study, take the exam, find out what questions are on it, go study them, retake the same exam (with the same questions), and then if they still didn’t get the answers right keep on taking the same exam.  And, according to district policy, no grade lower than a 50 is permitted.  After all, a failing grade harms the students self esteem.

This policy teaches students that they don’t need to work or study.  It teaches them that there is no penalty for not doing what you are assigned or for not doing it in an acceptable manner.  It teaches them that deadlines are optional.  It teaches them that learning is optional.  It teaches them that they have to take no responsibility at all for their learning. So, what are they learning that will help them when they get a job or go to college?  Basically, it is ingraining in them habits that doom them to failure.

There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know what to say.  It is defeating as an educator to see this sort of thing coming along.  Of course, some of these students may take my classes.  I maintain standards, so they will try to just show up and expect to pass the class.  They will fail.  It will make me look like a bad instructor to administrators and people outside the college who don’t know what is going on.

I can not teach an entire K – 12 curriculum and still cover college level material.  But if I lower my standards, then I am doing a disservice to those students who do want to learn.

If too many of us in college lower our standards, and I see college faculty all over the country lowering standards because that is the easy thing to do, then that will ultimately make a college degree as worthless as a high school diploma from one of these school districts that adopt these policies that are so counterproductive to learning.

It is no wonder that so many of the best and brightest teachers are leaving the profession.  It is simply too discouraging to know that what you are doing is pointless.

I guess, though, that holding your ground, even under outside pressure to do the wrong thing, is one of the things that separates a good leader from a bad one.

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Dealing with student disabilities

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

By CandidProf. This is the second part of a discussion about what today’s teachers face and the choices that they make. Read all of CandidProf here.question.jpg

There are some students who come along who are indeed beyond anything that we should realistically be expected to deal with.  Yet, all too often, we are expected to deal with those students.

Every semester I get a notice from the Disabled Students Office about several students who are taking my class who are registered as disabled.  We are expected to make “reasonable” accommodations.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what constitutes “reasonable.” Some students have hearing problems and need to record the lectures to play back later.  No problem.  Others need extra time on tests.  I can do that.  Some with visual difficulties need class handouts to be printed with extra large fonts.  OK, that is not such a big deal.

These all take extra time, but I put them in the category of students that I mentioned earlier that simply need more of your time.  But, of course, we have NO training in how to handle such cases.  Again, we are trained in our disciplines, not in how to deal with disabled persons.  We have people who have studied that, but they have not studied the individual academic disciplines, so they can’t help.

The real problem comes with those students who have major disabilities.  For example, students who are blind or have major motor impairments.

We have curricula set up that involves students doing certain things to learn; part of that is lecture, homework, and tests.  But in the sciences, there are also labs.

I have had students come along that simply could NOT do the regular laboratory work.  In some cases, safety is an issue.  How to you keep a blind student safe in a chemistry lab when there are open flames, beakers of dangerous chemicals, and fragile glassware?

What about a biology student whose hands shake and then tries to use a scalpel to dissect something?  This means that you have to stick with that student through the laboratory exercise to make sure that they are safe.  But you are also supposed to be watching out for other students.  It often isn’t possible.

One solution is to meet with the disabled student to do the lab at some other time with just them.  That means that you are effectively teaching an extra class, only not being paid for it.  Some institutions have TA’s to help, some don’t.  But, do you want to put the safety of this student in the hands of a TA even less trained to deal with them than you are?

I have had blind students before.  The Office of Disabled Students is supposed to have someone to read the textbook to them and to read the test questions to them.  Only for physics questions those people don’t understand the symbols that we use and they don’t want to come to class to learn the material, so they ask me to read the text and questions. Of course, that is extra, unpaid, work.

I have had other students with cognitive difficulties.  One in particular required me to sit with her for about 3 hours after each one hour lecture explaining things.  There are three of those per week.  I worked with her for about 9 hours per week doing each lab that the other students did in less than 3 hours.  That means that I was spending about 18 hours per week, extra, with just that one student. I still had a full teaching load, plus my other duties.  And, of course, I did not get paid one dime for that extra 18 hours per week.

There have been other times when I have had to write entirely new laboratory exercises for some students who could not do what the existing labs required because of some physical limitation.  That is even more work than teaching an extra section of the class because I was unable to use the existing lab manual.  I had to spend about 6 hours per week writing new labs and then 3 hours per week doing the lab with the student.

Naturally, I did not get paid for teaching a special section of the class for this student.  I don’t want to sound like all I’m after is money, but it really is not fair to expect me to put in all that extra time without ANY compensation other than that I feel good about helping someone.  At least they could cut back on my teaching load, or actually count these special circumstances as part of my regular teaching load, but they don’t.  I do it all on top of a full load.

Some might suggest simply not having the students do the exercises, but then that defeats the whole purpose.  Those are supposed to be teaching experiences that help them learn.

Besides, is it fair to give laboratory science credit to a student who does not do a lab of any kind?

Is it fair to the disabled student to just hand them a degree if they have not earned it?

Apparently we got in trouble some years ago for giving a student a degree in a field that required passing a state licensing requirement, only for said student to be unable to pass that state licensing exam and get a job in the field because of their disability.  The department in question had made many adjustments to its curriculum and requirements in order for the student to pass classes.  The problem was that the student was unprepared for what came later.

Would it be right to adjust the curriculum so that a student got an accounting degree even though they had a cognitive problem that prevented their understanding numbers?

There has to be a better way.

This quickly gets past where I feel like I have any experience or ability to truly help someone.  However, all too often, it falls on my shoulders to do the work.  Of course, I am not the only one.  This is happening in colleges and universities all over the nation.

Obviously disabled people can do quite well. I have met a blind astronomer and a blind computer scientist.  I know of a deaf news reporter.  Look at Stephen Hawking.

But these are people who did most of the work in overcoming their disabilities themselves.  They did not have their accomplishments handed to them.  They earned them, and they did so the hard way.

I know that I am probably going to upset a lot of people with these posts.  But I see this as a problem facing us in the colleges and universities.  I am not suggesting that we not work with disabled students.  My fiancée is disabled and I really appreciate all that was done for her in her education.  That is particularly true because I recognize that most of that was done by individuals who bent over backwards for her.

Until she met me and saw how much I have to do to help disabled students, she had been thinking that it was her university that had done all of that work.  Now, she realizes that the university probably didn’t do as much as she thought.  Rather, it was her professors who did most of the accommodating.

But I don’t want to leave her out.  She has worked hard to not let her disabilities disable her.  She often never asked for what would have been reasonable requests.  She worked to perform like everyone else and she still does.  To me, she seems to be quite a leader herself.

Readers of this site, I suppose, are looking for insights into leadership.  Well, as I see it, a leader’s role is often more than just directly job related.

We are all human beings and human beings interact in all sorts of complicated ways.

We cannot totally separate our individual beliefs, feelings, and emotions from our professional selves.  We bring all of these things into the job.  They are what build the framework of how we see things, both on and off the job.  So, when extraneous things are going on, they impact how we do our job.

Sometimes a leader needs to recognize that the people they are leading are people not robots.  They can’t totally forget whatever else is going on in their lives.  So, in order for them to be the best followers, their leader needs to help them address these outside influences.

Unfortunately, that takes time and it is often beyond what the leader is trained to do.  I think part of the innate “leadership potential” that some people have is in their ability to help people focus on the job at hand.

You also have to know your own limitations.  You need to know when dealing with these outside factors is over your head.  That is when you need to refer the problem on.

Leaders have limits, too, and the best ones know their limits.

What do you consider “reasonable accommodation” in a college setting? [Miki]

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CandidProf: Professors wear many hats

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

By CandidProf, who teaches physics and astronomy at a state university. He shares his thoughts and experiences teaching today’s students anonymously every Thursday—anonymously because that’s the only way he can be truly candid. Read all of CandidProf here.

Some students are just “needy.”  They want you to spoon feed them.  They don’t want to study and learn on their own. They would rather call you or email a question than to look it up on the textbook’s index.  They won’t go to the library to do research for a paper.  Instead, they’ll just do an internet search.  But they won’t do that to answer any of their questions.  If they hit a tough homework problem, they will come ask rather than try to puzzle it out for themselves.I don’t mind helping the ones that truly need it, but many of my students don’t even try on their own.  You can help too much.  Then the students don’t learn how to learn. But these are not the students that I really have a tough time with.  I can tell them to go work on it themselves for a while and then come back if they can’t figure it out after they try on their own.

However, some students have extracurricular life events impacting their studies.  Sometimes they tell me what is going on as a way to explain why they are not doing well.  Others try to turn to me for counsel.  Those students are tougher to deal with because my training is in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics—not in psychology.  In fact, I have never even taken a psychology class.

Students often look up to their professors, so that is why they come to me with all sorts of personal issues.  All I can do is listen sympathetically and be supportive, much as anyone else would do.  I can’t really advise them on anything.  I do tell them that perhaps they should talk to someone at the college’s counseling office, but often they are unwilling to admit that they need professional help.

Many students are dealing with difficult issues.  Most college students are young adults, and they are facing adult situations for the first time without parental support.  I also have many students returning to school after several years, and they face major life issues, too.  I have students come to my office to explain why they are not studying and doing well, only to break down in tears.

I have had students whose parents died; students going through a breakup with someone (including some students whose spouse left them midway through the semester); students losing their jobs; and even students diagnosed with cancer or other life threatening illness.

In most cases, there is nothing that I can really do.  I do listen and that is sometimes the best thing that I can do and sometimes that is all that they need.

I have spoken with faculty here and elsewhere, and we all agree that this is not something that we were prepared to deal with when we became college professors.

Our training is in our academic fields, but we are called upon to be teachers (most of us have never even had any training on how to teach), role models, mentors, counselors, friends, and even in-loco parents for our students.

A few universities offer support for faculty placed in these unfamiliar roles, but most do not, so we are left to fend for ourselves.

Join us next week for Dealing with student disabilities

Is this multi-role profile good for the students? For the professors?–Miki

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