Sunday, August 23, 2009

Changes at MCS

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Cash's changes for the Memphis City Schools system. Some of them, like moving teachers from 6 to 7 classes of students, I've been opposed to. Most, however, really make sense. I may be ostracized in the teaching community for saying so, but from an educational policy standpoint, they are tough but needed changes.

Take block scheduling as an example. This shift to block scheduling is actually a good policy decision. The kids get more instruction and less routine in their days - before, class changes, attendance, and so on would take up valuable instruction time with 6 class shifts. My class would actually only get about 45 minutes of instruction once the class got in, started on their bellwork, I took attendance, wrote excuse slips for those absent, dealt with those who were tardy, and so on. Less transitions = more time to teach. I also like it because the students get an opportunity to take more classes, which really benefits both those who fail a class and need that extra time as well as those who want to get more APs and honors electives under their belt. I know that as a high schooler I had to miss out on certain APs and electives because I was on the newspaper staff and that took up one of my 6 classes my senior year. In addition, schools are taking advantage of the extra classes blocked and adding in more electives so that students can get a broader area of knowledge outside the simple math/science/english deal. At our school, we're offering practical law, creative writing, and a publishing class that will create an online newsletter as electives. There have been some downfalls to block but mostly those have been in the hasty way it was adopted.

The local newspaper wrote an article this morning about one of the newest changes. I've heard about this coming for some time. The basic premise of the new change is that no student in grades PreK to 3rd grade can be failed and no student grade 4-8 can be failed more than once. While on the outset this sounds like a bad policy, if implemented effectively, it could actually be revolutionary for MCS. Many people will cry that we're simply allowing mediocrity and telling the students that they can do nothing and get away with it. And if the policy is not followed through with, that will be the case.

So how can a no fail policy actually turn into a success story for Memphis City Schools? It is complicated. First, in addition to this announcement, the board unveiled their new report card plan. It mimics the one in place at Campus School. Instead of the traditional A,B,C,D, and F in your core classes, instead it is a "standards based" report card. Meaning that the standards the student is to have met are listed and then the teacher indicates whether the student is meeting these standards, exceeding these standards, or needs intervention for these standards. It will be more complicated for teachers and parents alike to read and understand at first but I feel will actually give a better idea of what the student is and is not capable of in the classroom.

Traditional grades have flaws. For example, a student can be very bright and understand the information faster than any other student. They make 100s on the test on that material. Yet, because they don't do their classwork and homework, they get a D in that subject. Some may say that he deserves it because he didn't do the work but from an educational perspective, that student has been treated at a disadvantage - if they are meeting the standard (understanding addition, for example) they should then be accelerated to the next standard, not punished with a poor grade becuase they understood too quickly and got bored with the same material.

In addition, a traditional grade is flawed because it does not truly represently the student's performance wholely. By this I mean that the grade a student earns is just as much about the teacher as it is about the student. In a traditional grading system, each classroom teacher decides how much each section counts. Tests may be 30 percent in one class, but 50 in another. Also, unless all classroom work is aligned, one class may be easier than another. Teaching styles differ, grading styles differ. An A in my classroom is not equal to an A in the class down the hall. And to even further prove that teachers are a factor in variance of traditional grades, if a teacher does not like that student, odds are, they will not be as generous with the grade in a traditional setting. With standards based grades, it is very concrete. As a parent or teacher, you can see exactly what the student does and does not understand, where they need help, and where they are excelling.

The other part of this policy, the no fail part, is the more controversial. As I've said, this policy CAN be a system changing policy. I see so many kids in the high school who have been failed so many times that they are overage, ready to get out, and very much behind. Failing a student does the student no favor. In the elementary school setting, if a student fails, they are simply put back in the same grade again. Yet they may have failed because of one key area. They may have failed not because of academics, but because of immature or irresponsible behavior. That student who is a repeater does not get taught the information any differently than before, even though it is quite clear that the student needed an intervention, needed to be taught differently. Why would we try something again that didn't work the first time?

What this policy is promoting is not simply to pass students along even if they aren't ready. This policy instead will target the students who are listed as "needing intervention" on their report cards and then really give them the interventions they need - summer school, extended school hours, tutoring sessions. I could see a second grader who failed math in 1st grade (who then would have gone all the way back through first grade before) now being pulled out and sent to remedial math for extra math time, having a math tutor after school, and even doing some hours in the math computer lab over the summer. Instead of putting him back in 1st grade, causing him to develop low self esteem at a very young age, give up on the educational system, and lose ground in his academics, this child is caught up to his peers and in the 3rd grade is right where he needs to be.

So many times, failing a student is simply the easy way out. The teacher gives up on the student, puts them in someone elses class the next year, and then they are "their problem." This policy can fix that. I've repeatedly said that if we are going to fix the problems with MCS's students, we need to start with the youngest and change the culture a little bit at a time. I hope that this does that. It will be difficult, it will take people really following through with their promises, and it will take community support. There is a fine line between the "no fail policy" and a "easy pass to the next grade" policy.

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