Let schools be creative with motivation
Two demographically similar and academically impressive local high schools — Northwood in Montgomery County and West Potomac in Fairfax County — have been debating grades. Both schools have been accused of letting too many students pass their courses without learning the material.
This is in line with what millions of Americans say about schools in general. But they disagree over whom to blame. Unmotivated students? Lazy teachers? Cowardly administrators? Short-sighted parents?
I wonder if there isn’t a way for all of these people to resolve the dispute by offering school choices that would approach grading and teaching in different ways. I know it sounds chaotic, but bear with me.
Last week in this column, Northwood math teacher Dan Stephens said he can’t motivate his students if his school district lets them pass his course even when they flunk the final exam, written by the county to set a standard for all schools. Contradictory county rules say the final may count as only 25 percent of the final grade. Other, also contradictory, rules make it easier to get passing grades on other assignments because all good faith efforts must be given at least 50 percent, no matter how many answers are wrong.
West Potomac became an issue when my Post colleague Donna St. George revealed it was giving students an I for incomplete, rather than the traditional F, if they were flunking a course. For a while, the school gave the kids extra time to turn in missing assignments and master the material. But late last week, the school said it was going back to the old rules because of widespread criticism.
On a national scale, these are both successful schools, with relatively high test scores and college-going rates. About one-third of their students are low-income, but their percentages of graduating seniors who passed Advanced Placement courses last year were more than twice the national average.
Nonetheless, like most schools, they have plenty of failing students. Lots of readers chimed in about that last week in e-mails and comment posts. Some demanded that the elementary and middle schools feeding into them get tough so all students were ready for high school. Some said parents and teachers should stop coddling kids. Many recommended that students be required to retake courses they did not master, even if that delayed their graduation.
(Montgomery County officials didn’t know what percentage of students flunk countywide final exams yet still pass the courses. But they said the number is likely to be small because passing rates on those finals are 67 percent or higher.)
Creative educators also have ideas. Stephens wants to deny students a passing grade if they don’t get at least 50 percent on the final exam (still 10 percentage points below the passing mark). West Potomac principal Cliff Hardison wants to give struggling students many chances to save themselves, even if caught cheating.
Montgomery County school experts told me the solution is great teachers who present content in an engaging and relevant way. They’re right. A parent said on my blog that her son hated math until he got a teacher “who encourages the kids to call her at home with questions, prepares great reviews of the material and communicates with parents.”
I predict neither school will stray far from the standard American approach: Let slackers slide through. Many will eventually grow up, educators know, and realize they must apply themselves in college or job training if they want a decent life. But there is another way to deal with them.
Some schools — usually with many more low-performing kids than Northwood or West Potomac have — are letting their administrators and teachers band together to experiment with required after-school tutoring, regular teacher visits to homes, more imaginative teaching, longer school days, and whatever else works for their communities.
Would the Washington suburbs ever tolerate a system in which families could choose schools with radical approaches, such as insisting students pass the final exam or retake the course? Would any parents expose their children to such experiments?
I think yes. Parents are demanding more choices as they worry about our economic future. Their children might also do better if we gave them fewer, not more choices, in how to handle their studies than we do now.
| November 21, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories: Metro Monday | Tags: Northwood High School, West Potomac High School, educators have creative solutions, grading systems, motivating students, readers say schools and teachers should get tough, schools accused of passing students who don't master the material, why not give families the choice of some school with radical solutions
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