Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Standard for Responsibility

One of the things that really worries me about the preparation I'm providing my students is its lack of emphasis on being responsible. In fact, I'm not sure that I've ever really worked at a school that made a real collective effort to produce highly responsible students. I suspect that this can be a fairly difficult thing to do, especially in urban schools (which is the only environment I've ever worked in, although in three different states). Urban schools, especially those that are underperforming, are often so bogged down with attempting to raise test scores and graduation rates that holding students accountable for doing their work on time and well often falls to the bottom of their list of priorities, or even off the radar altogether. On top of that, when you work with a population of students, the majority of which come from home environments in which responsibility is largely lacking (and sometimes even frowned upon), attempting to cultivate that in a classroom is A LOT of work. Sometimes it doesn't even seem possible.

In my last district, I spent my first year (of two total) being fairly lax with due dates on assignments. I was still new to teaching and was still learning that in order to hold students accountable for doing their work well and on time, the teacher needs to be incredibly organized. I needed to tell students every day what work would be due the next, provide them with the details in writing, and then remind them again on the way out the door. All of this meant that I had to know exactly what I wanted them to turn in at least a week ahead of time, which, if you've ever taught a course for the first time with no support (i.e. no textbooks, no other teachers to give you advice, no course outline, and not even any specific standards), you know is a challenge in and of itself.

In my second year in this district, I was lucky enough to be scheduled for two of the same courses I taught the previous year. I had one other course added to my load, leaving me with a total of three preps, which most high school teachers will tell you is not ideal. However, I was able to significantly improve the degree to which I held students accountable. I was prepared with which I assignments I wanted them to complete and when I wanted them turned them. I began a policy of not accepting late papers. It was torture at first. My students would turn their papers in late and then scream and yell when I told them I wouldn't take them. I don't how many angry conversations I had to deal with over how I was being unfair and how a good teacher would at least give them some credit. But I'd decided to draw the line. Within a few weeks I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of assignments I was receiving on time. There were still some students who just didn't do the work, but I felt like the result of this decision was an increase in student achievement, and I hope maybe I taught them to be a tad more responsible.

Despite my success in my second year, I don't feel that the school as a whole did a very good job at holding students accountable. I worked with an incredible staff for the most part, but I know that many teachers (and I was guilty of this myself at times) would accept assignments whenever the student decided to turn them in, and many teachers chose not to give assignments/homework because they knew the students wouldn't do them. Although we managed to raise test scores, we certainly did the students no service by allowing them to get away with turning in late work consistently.

I feel the same sense of low expectations for responsibility at the school I took a job at in DC. While we hold high expectations for the students academically, we are generally expected to allow a student to make up their work whenever they want. We say that failure is not an option at our school, which, unfortunately means that there is a tremendous amount of pressure to pass students even when they consistently display appalling disrespect to their teachers on a daily basis, they've missed thirty-five days of class, come twenty minutes late to class every day, or don't turn in a major project until three months after it was due. We're afraid that failing a student will mean that they will give up on school and end up on the streets, so we're instructed to help a student pass at all costs.

I believe the very real danger here is that we're creating a legion of students who will have learned that deadlines, appropriate standards for behavior, and rules/laws don't apply to them; they will believe that the real world will give them every opportunity to succeed over and over again, sometimes even if someone else has to do their work for them. They're in for a harsh reality check.

I hear the other side's argument, however. I hear it on a daily basis, actually. That argument would stop short of explicitly acknowledging the reality and dangers I've mentioned in the last two paragraphs. The argument is often phrased in PR fashion to sound something like this:

"All students deserve every opportunity to succeed. Denying a student multiple opportunities to succeed is to deny them the chances in life they deserve. [I would agree that providing multiple opportunities to succeed is truly valuable, but students must show that they are willing to truly attempt the challenge in a timely manner before we allow them to try again.] We should hope that by constantly encouraging our students, we may instill in them a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy."

What I believe is really behind this argument, however, is the fact that districts like DCPS cannot afford to hold many of its students accountable for being responsible because that would likely mean an immediate drop in graduation rates (even if it meant a possible future increase). The public would be outraged and more calls for ousting the current administration would ensue. We're caught in a system that rarely allows educators (i.e. superintendents, administrators, and teachers) to always do what's best for children, which leads me to a conclusion that I've been wrestling with quite a bit lately.

Is it possible that being a truly good teacher means having the courage and strength to consistently deny the system its desire to please the powers that be? If I really want to do what's right for my kids, do I need to tell my administrators that I will not be doing a lot of what they ask of me because it's not in the best interest of my kids? And if I want to keep my job, does this mean that I need to become adept at making my administrators believe that I'm doing what they want, even though I'm working for my students?

I don't mean to make it sound like no administrator understands this contradiction. I believe many of them do, and, as a result, make it easier for teachers to do their jobs by not marking teachers down for (or ignoring) those things they do that are in the best interest of kids but not what the system asks for.

Clearly, there are more than a few things missing in the education we're providing our students. Maybe we'd be more attentive to them if we could create some standards for them (I know that would certainly get the attention of my administration). So before I end this post, I present you with:

Important Learning Standard In Responsibility That Will Help Our Kids But Maybe Not Our Short-Term Graduation Rates 1.1:

Students will understand the importance of responsibility (e.g. meeting deadlines, timely and honest communication, respect for others, etc.) and explain its importance to the life of a highly effective and accomplished individual.

You'll have to create the daily objectives and assessments for this one on your own.


  1. Not a bad idea, if you can get most of the other teachers in on it, which might work at your current school, because it sounds like a lot of teachers will be leaving (voluntarily or otherwise)in June. It would be hard for an adminstration to crack down on a bunch of teachers who were trying to do the right thing for the kids, and who didn't care about their jobs.

  2. In DCPS schools, students are not allowed to fail. If they do the teacher is held responsible and ultimately the school (principal)so of course they will do anything to not let it happen. By the time students are seniors, they are very aware of how the system works. Also why try, you can always get paid for going to summer school? A lot of DCPS policies, although done to help the kids initially, only serve to make our students stupid. Why is there no standard curriculum, pacing guides, etc. You'd think that after all this time the Chancellor would have created a standard curriculum (not teachers pick what you think are the priority standards), then we could hold all schools and children accountable. However, if all schools do something different then there is no real accountability for staff, schools, or children. For example, how on earth is a new teacher (TFA and others) expected to walk into a new classroom, with no prior experience, and know what or how to teach the standards; why would you not provide them with a pacing guide and curriculum. Our administrators, just like the students, are smart at working the system, don't get me started on the appalling way we allow our children to behave and the joke of In-School Suspension (ISS).

  3. Before you leave, take yourself for a visit to Shaw Middle School on 10th and U Streets. The kids are learning responsibility for themselves there in everything they do and they are excited about it. Their excitment is infectious and it is an awesome experience for a regular citizen like me with the same observation/concern about a lack of understanding of what responsible is among so many DC residents/parents. It's not just a one teacher thing though, it is,among other things, a school wide approach toward "turning the school around." BTW, I would not as a teacher succumb to calling something that is literally not filthy filthy. I don't think putting yourself on the level of the kids that way is good for you or helping them or others. If you want to prepare them for the real world then call the real world by its real names.

  4. Sarah - you don't mention that a major part of the Shaw program is the experimental capital gains program in which kids get paid for things like good attendance, good grades, etc. Also, you don't mention that Shaw's DC-CAS scores declined last year, which was the first year of the capital gains program. Also, there's been no reporting on the results of the program. Why is that? Rhee publicised Shaw incessantly until it didn't make a good showing on the DC-CAS exams. What kind of lesson is that for the kids?

    And please spare us your criticism of "Filthy." In my opinion, It's you who have "succumbed" -- to an imperious attitude towards education that's unlikely to actually help kids.

  5. Why do you assume that teachers don't use the word "filthy"? I don't use that expression but use many others that are not considered standard English due to my regional dialect/accent. Would I use those expressions when writing a college paper or at a job interview, NO. But, this is a blog; it's not for students it's for teachers to express theirviews/opinions on education. I don't get the problem here.
    Re. Capital Gains, what I don't understand is if it motivates children to learn, won't it also demotivate those who don't get paid. If I have 2 children in my family or neighborhood, and if one gets paid to learn and the other doesn't - isn't this negatively going to affect the one who doesn't? It either affects motivation or it doesn't, but shouldn't it work both ways?

  6. Capital gains was set up as an experiment, not a proven way to get kids to learn.

    There is no indication that capital gains works. In fact, there is a strong suggestion that it doesn't work based on the fact that Shaw's scores went down and Rhee has not yet released the data on the project, which was completed last June.

    Also, similar types of programs in industry have not worked and there is data for that.

  7. This is a great post. My child attends a DCPS that explicitly teaches children values. Along with teaching those values come logical consequences for both good and bad behavior. It works beautifully and it's a nice thing to see in action.

    Of course the principal isn't of the New Leaders for New Schools type, so this all goes unnoticed at 825. As a parent though, it's awfully nice to send your child to a school like this.

  8. Capital Gains is also used at Lincoln Middle School, (the redhead stepchild of Bell Multicultural High School)... It is a giant waste and makes students feel entitled to a paycheck simply for existing... They get paid even if they exhibit poor behavior, show up half the time, or get moderately good grades... It does not teach them any level of responsibility, rather it reinforces the notion that you get something, even if it something little, for doing next to nothing... If anyone, and I mean anyone, wants to challenge the idea that Capital Gains teaches students the valuable lesson of responsibility, I will gladly invite them to the school as my special guest for a whole day, and I will give you $100 if you make it through the whole day and still are convinced that it does.I will expect data and evidence, since that is what the district and the larger part of the nation who knows nothing about education values the most from our students...

  9. Anon parent at 7:38 Interesting, but please don't ever reveal the name of your child's school, or I fear this program will come to a crashing halt and the principal will be fired.

    Anon of 7:44. thanks for the offer. I would do it, except I am already convinced, by your words as well as the research I've read, that capital gains is a bad idea.

  10. Capital Gains is used at Eliot-Hine and it should be eliminated. The kids know what days to show up to get their checks even the most unruly and disruptive kid never having done anything in class. The payment rubric is tilted in such a way that no matter how bad you behave you still get something.

  11. I teach in a suburban environment in the Southeast, and I still see some of the same issues that face the DCPS schools. We have a "no zero" policy, part of the Making Middle Grades Work program, which essentially tells kids that they can turn in work whenever they want and we have to give them credit for it. This no zero policy was put in place about five years ago, and our high school is having fits trying to get the kids(who started in this program 5 years ago) to turn in assignments on time.

    How can anyone think that we are doing children a service by NOT holding them accountable K-12? Our principal's explanation for it is that we all have opportunities to "redo' various things in life, and she gives us examples. What she doesn't get is how we are setting these children up for failure by not holding them accountable and responsible at an earlier age for things such as due dates, homework, etcetera.