Monday, February 17, 2014

Illiterate Graduates? Blame Politicians, not Teachers

I have written many blog posts about the functional and cultural illiteracy of young people. We all have stories of entire classes of college freshmen unable to write essays, calculate a percent change, identify nations on a map, or distinguish between U.S. Constitutional clauses and mere political slogans.  I have often stated that something is terribly wrong with our educational system…but this article will be different.

This is not about criticizing students, or, for that matter, their teachers.

It is an indictment of politicians who hold teachers and schools “accountable” for these problems, while themselves being a significant contributing cause to the problem.

As the President of a teacher’s union at a local community college, I have watched in amazement as the politicians and bureaucrats have fought us tooth and nail each time we have sought to improve teaching and learning. If you are one who has assumed that the blame for students’ poor performance can be laid at the feet of their teachers…please reconsider. What follows are just two of the head-shaking realities.

Currently, adjunct college teachers around Massachusetts are voting on a new contract. This new contract includes an incredible “win” for labor that we fought long and hard for – a requirement that Management actually evaluate new Adjunct Faculty before they receive reappointment rights.

Yes, you read that correctly: we, the teachers in the union, have been asking for new teachers to receive timely, helpful, substantive evaluations from school administrators soon after being hired to help them become better teachers.

Management has fought us on this. For Years.  

Finally, they agreed to this in our new proposed contract…as long as there were no repercussions if they failed to get around to it.

Yes, folks, this is the reality of teaching in 2014.

In a separate process, the state’s Board of Higher Education is implementing a brand new approach to math course delivery throughout our colleges.  

The Boston politicians, taking their cues from Washington, are concerned that it is taking students too long to graduate from college (ignoring the fact that many students are also working due to a financial crisis none of them created.)  Another reason for this is the need for many students to take what are called “developmental" math courses (in days past these were called “remedial” math courses.)  Many students arrive at the college doors with a high school diploma…and critically poor math skills.

In our school there are three levels of sequential math courses that our instructors use simply to get many of these students *ready* to take their first college-level math. That’s three semesters of developmental math – which, of course, means that students will not be able to simply walk in and walk out of college like a revolving door.

One would think that our politicians would be concerned with this, and would allocate teaching and support dollars to our K-12 system to beef up math instruction.

But no.  Instead, they are attempting to find a way to get these students in and out of college without being tripped up by such annoying subjects as math.

We have been asked to consider removing math requirements from courses and programs.  We are being asked to consider allowing students to take developmental math at the same time they are taking the very courses they need those math skills for. As a business and economics teacher, I can not imagine having to instruct students in basic financial statements, stock fluctuations, and economic analysis while they are still attempting to master the concepts of decimals and the order of operations - but apparently, that makes sense to Boston politicians.

We have been asked to reconsider whether math is really even necessary in many of our programs.  At one community college in the state, the administration has been moving forward to allow students to receive college credit for remedial courses whose subject matter is essentially at a high school level – another effort to simply process students through the institution in a timely fashion without actually expecting them to have accomplished college-level work.

This de-construction of math curricula is a precursor, I fear, to the next step in this process: a re-examination of the English curriculum, which is another subject where there are significant developmental needs among our students.

When all is said and done, the politicians will no doubt claim victory: they will point to increased graduation rates, and more timely completion of degrees. 

The losers will be our students, who will continue to lack basic skills; our teachers, who will be blamed for turning out illiterate graduates; and our society, which will continue to be frustrated over poor employee performance even after our politicians have declared ‘victory.’