Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Parents don't complain when their kids do well in school -- but sometimes they should

We've all done it. When Muffy or Buffy gets an 'A' we're happy; when the kid brings home a 'C' or (heaven forfend) a grade lower than that, we go ballistic. The kid gets ice cream and TV and Internet privileges with a good report card; we start taking things away when the report card disappoints. When the kid does well we don't bother the teachers or the principal. And when the kid doesn't perform to expectations, we start calling and emailing -- and complaining.

Teachers know this.

Some take advantage.

There are teachers out there, Moms and Dads, who will give your kids an 'A' or a 'B' just to keep you off their backs. It doesn't matter that your kid hasn't learned anything. In some cases, it doesn't matter that the teacher hasn't taught your kid anything, or even tried to. You're happy with the good report card; the kid is happy, blissfully unaware that his future is at risk; the teacher is free to surf the Internet during class time.

I've invented a composite teacher to illustrate. Priscilla Pigdahl is not a real person, but let us say I've seen persons like her.

Ms. Pigdahl is a large woman, as wide as she is tall. Despite her immense bulk, she can speak in dulcet tones to her principal or to concerned parents, at least as long as she doesn't feel threatened. Behind closed doors, however, with her classes or with her colleagues, Ms. Pigdahl is a boor and a bully, crude and rude. When she throws her weight around, she literally throws her weight around. Most of the kids are scared of her. One little girl once tearfully confessed to someone very much like my Long Suffering Spouse that she was afraid that Ms. Pigdahl would eat her. Some kids, similar in many ways to my own, were amused by her. They'd come home and tell their parents stories of how Ms. Pigdahl spent most of the class period talking about shopping at KMart, or what to eat at Wendy's, or teasing easily embarrassed junior high kids about their crushes, right in front of everyone. (Not that any of this really happened, of course; try to stay with me on this: I'm making Priscilla Pigdahl up.)

The Priscilla Pigdahls of the world are usually long established at their schools. Eighteen years ago, my imaginary Priscilla Pigdahl was eased out of teaching math in the junior high because test scores had dropped so low and parents -- already paying tuition -- were hiring tutors to help their kids meet the entrance requirements for the good high schools. An algebra teacher was hired, and test scores in math perked right up, mainly because Priscilla Pigdahl was shunted into teaching Social Studies.

But other teachers come and go; Priscilla Pigdahl remains. She wound up teaching math to sixth and seventh graders again. The eighth grade math teacher, who was supposed to be teaching algebra, found herself trying to teach all the concepts that the kids had missed in Ms. Pigdahl's classes.

The other teachers got used to the frequent PA announcements telling Ms. Pigdahl's students to bring crayons to math class. Only the ones who had kids in the school really cringed; the rest were too busy with their own classes -- and no one would take on Ms. Pigdahl. She might eat them. In her Social Studies classes, the kids watched a lot of movies. They did a "unit" on the Titanic -- which absorbed a good month with movies. For their study of the Civil War, they watched Glory. But the kids got 'A's and 'B's and most parents were happy. I can imagine one otherwise sensible parent writing a note -- that Ms. Pigdahl proudly showed to everyone in the building -- praising her as the "best teacher" this parent's son ever had... mainly because he got 'A's in her classes -- and nowhere else. Ever. I can imagine someone very much like my Long Suffering Spouse telling me this story with equal parts frustration and anger and tears in her eyes; I can imagine her never quite speaking to that parent the same way after this.

But, wouldn't you know, test scores began to slip again as when Ms. Pigdahl returned to 'teaching' math. Since problems became painfully evident on high school entrance exams, the 8th grade teacher was unfairly blamed by some concerned parents. Parents like good report cards, but they expect test scores to be consistent with the report cards.

I can imagine my Long Suffering Spouse telling me how, a few years back, Priscilla Pigdahl went to the 8th grade teacher to ask for some help on some of the concepts she was supposed to be teaching. The 8th grade teacher had to teach Ms. Pigdahl. Ms. Pigdahl wasn't afraid that word would get back to the principal; she was secure in the knowledge that the principal would back her up -- after all, parents loved Ms. Pigdahl. And it takes a big woman to ask for help.

Besides, she eventually found a different way out.

All schools these days have standardized tests. Properly administered, these can provide some valuable insight into how well the kids are doing, how well the school is executing its mission, and how well the individual teachers are communicating the curriculum.

But some students don't test well -- and, to make up for this, at some schools "practice tests" are administered before the real things. Get the kids used to the process and they'll perform at their best when the time comes to sit for the real thing.

A lot of the test providers create practice tests for this very purpose. They send them to subscribing schools along with the real tests. I can imagine Priscilla Pigdahl's school giving both the practice and real tests to the teachers at the same time. That's when Priscilla Pigdahl started "teaching the test." The kids learned the problems and the answers to the problems -- the real questions, from the real test, during regular classtime -- maybe a few of them picked up how to do problems like these in the process, but that wasn't Ms. Pigdahl's goal. Her goal was to stabilize the declining test scores... and in this she seems to have succeeded.

No, no one complains about Ms. Pigdahl -- but, within a few years, so many parents complain about how the high schools "don't teach" and are "so hard" and how their kids get shunted into average or even dummy classes. They blame the high school teachers for not passing the kids through like Priscilla Pigdahl.

The funny thing is, in this modern day and age, parents have more access to what their kids are doing in school than ever before. So many schools require their teachers to have their gradebooks online -- so parents can look in at anytime and see how Junior is faring.

The Priscilla Pigdahls of the world are easy enough to spot if parents would only use these resources: Ms. Pigdahl has 10 grades in a grading period; the real teachers have 40 or 50. Real teachers give homework, and grade it. If Priscilla Pigdahl gives homework, she merely 'checks it off' if it is turned in. Anything can be written on the paper -- gibberish or doodles will suffice if no one ever looks the paper over. Some schools require their teachers to post lesson plans online, too. You can ask your kid at dinner whether teacher covered x, y, and z in class like he or she said on line -- and if the kid says, no, they colored butterflies instead to decorate the room for the Spring Open House, you are on notice that you may have a Priscilla Pigdahl in your school.

Does your kid get make-up tests on a regular basis? Now, there are times when students will not grasp new material and the teacher winds up sorely disappointed by a uniformly poor performance on a test of this material. A review follows and, sometimes, kids are given the opportunity for redemption with a make-up test. But does this happen all the time? Are the questions on the make-up test the same questions as on the original test? How many make-up tests can a kid take? One and done? Or as many as it takes to get that unearned 'A'?

There's an old saying that one should never question good news; there'll be bad news soon enough. But sometimes the good news is bad news -- and it only gets worse if you ignore it.

'A's don't guarantee success in life, especially if they're given just to keep you off the teacher's back. But you can pay attention; please do.

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