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PAUSD High School Rigor Worth It?
Original post made
by Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 29, 2013
I have to wonder how much tutoring and parental help is affecting the teacher's perceptions of our students. Depending on the teachers, homework can average 30-60 minutes per night per class. Students take 6-7 classes. They are supposed to have 10 hours of sleep in their teen years, yet are most likely only sleeping 5-7 hours. Just because our children are smarter than the average American, doesn't mean they should have so much work that they have no down time. My child happens to have teachers this year who seem to think their class is the only class. Most classes use college texts, even in regular lane. How is it that our students sometimes work their tails off for a "B" grade? For as hard as our students work, I don't see that they are going to a lot of top colleges. Sure, the top 10 percent do well, but everyone else only go to OK schools. There's something wrong here when the parents have to help so much.
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Posted by Kelli Hagen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2013 at 6:32 am
From the original posting, it seems we have a number of different issues to address: (1) excessive homework, (2) excessive use of tutors and (3) students who "work their tails off for a B". As a Paly teacher and member of the homework committee I'd like to try and address each listed.
1. As Ethan Cohen above alludes to, a homework policy based on a time limit has it flaws. There's no way around this and as a collective, we need to deal with this the best we can. For example, the homework that my eighth grader's math teacher sends home, seems reasonable and able to be completed within the agreed upon time limits of the homework policy. I know, however, that it will take my son much longer than the average student because he will be constantly looking out the window and saying something like, "squirrel!" We deal. Some of our students, due to a more rigorous schedule or due to their "uniqueness", will stretch the range of the homework policy nightly averages.
After honestly taking the factors that affect this range into account, if your child is truly subject to an excessive amount of homework it seems you have a few options:
(a) Consider if they are correctly placed. There is no reason to push your child in a high lane if it is not a correct placement. As an honors lane teacher I can honestly say that most of the students (I take an anonymous survey at the end of each year), think that the amount of homework assigned is fair and MOST do not have tutors. Really, what's the point?
(b) Yes, truly it is the teacher's fault sometimes. If indeed a teacher is not abiding by the agreed upon terms of the homework policy, you should be very vocal and address it. Talk with the teacher first, if nothing gets resolved talk with the administration. No one, including other teachers, wants a student spending an inordinate amount of time in one class over another. It's not fair to anyone, especially the student.
2. Tutors. Oh tutors. Let me share an anecdote. Mary (not her real name) was having difficulty in my class last year. Mary is representative of a sprinkling of students I have every year. I had taken Mary's phone away in class a number of times and contacted her parents to help curb her social engagements during my class. Upon Mary's request, her parents decided to get Mary a tutor. This freed Mary to focus on important social issues during class. On one occasion, after a long discussion on colligative properties, I asked Mary to stay for a few minutes and try a problem with me, one that we had just discussed in class. After questioning why she could not even start the problem Mary answered, "I was planning on having my tutor explain it this evening." Sharing my perspective with the parents often doesn't seem to help because Mary, whom they've known much longer and love, tells a different story. I'm sure this story will rally the haters who are eager to share what a poor teacher I am, but I have enough experience and confidence in the majority of students who really enjoy my class, do not employ tutors and who learn oodles from my class that I speak the truth.
Now, this is not always the case and it is true that some students do need extra help in the form of a tutor. But, before you get a tutor for your child, do your homework. Ask these important questions:
(a) Are you doing the reading that supports the lesson?
(b) IS YOUR FACEBOOK/PHONE OFF WHEN YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK?
(c) Have you gone to the teacher for help? Do you ask questions in class? Can you identify WHAT you don't understand, specifically?
If the answer to any of the above is "no" I would highly recommend that you do not get a tutor. (Also, I have teenagers…. guess what, they lie on occasion if they think it will put them in a bad light).
If the honest answer to all of these questions is "yes" then, barring number 1a above, a tutor might be a good idea. Both Paly and Gunn have lists of tutors available.
3. I have been teaching since 1991. I have taught at 3 high schools and 1 university. Contrary to the "buzz", the curriculum in my class at Paly is no harder than the curriculum anywhere else I have taught, and a "B" is a very good, above average grade. Just because there is another scale to which some students and parents aspire (top 10 school requirements) this does not make a "B" in a course a poor grade. Get a grip people. Praise your kid when they come home with a well-deserved grade of a "B". Let them know that you are proud of them and take them out for Yogurtland as a reward. Because of our clientele, my grades are skewed much more than the other schools I have taught. MOST of my students earn A's and some earn B's because they are a truly exceptional and above average sample. These grades are not inflated nor are they subject to the average based on this small sample of exceptional kids in my classes- these grades reflect a community of bright kids. Parents, you must accept that perhaps your kid has earned a legit "B" in my class and not harass me for months regarding my grading scale. Celebrate these successes with your kids. A "B" is a good grade.
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Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2013 at 10:39 am
I think that there is a misunderstanding of two key or core concepts:
A. What is "rigor"? Rigor is not workload, and may be inversely related to it. Rigor refers to the level of intellectual challenge, and the extent to which students are expected to think creatively and independently, to synthesize materials, and to produce research, work, ideas, and arguments based on that synthesis. Rigor does not mean hours of repetition. It does not mean endless memorization of disembodied facts. It is generally not obtained through a "banking" method which a teacher deposits information into the students by standing at the front of the room droning on while students scribe down furiously. Yet parents and students in Palo Alto cling to the idea that the outmoded pedagogical methods utilized in PAUSD, particularly in math, equate to rigor. Excessive workload is not rigor.
It may be that in order to meet the intellectual challenge of a course with high expectations that students will have to study, and perhaps even long hours. But rigor is measured by what is accomplished and what is expected NOT by the hours spent memorizing facts or completing many many repetitions of the same problem.
Just because your child is up until 1:00am studying does NOT mean that the class they are in is rigorous. I'm sorry to break it to you but it likely means the opposite. It probably means that the teacher is lazy. It is lazy to assign excessive homework (do all the odd problems...) rather than come up with a few problems that will capture the essence of the intellectual challenge and then to work through a smaller problem set with the class taking the lead so that everyone participates. Teaching to a differentially able group is harder, and more rigorous for both teacher and student, than endless reps.
All of this is well summed up in Dickens' Hard Times, in its unsparing view of the Victorian educational system (which PAUSD quite resembles in many chilling respects: "So, Mr. M'Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty's most Honourable Privy Council's Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass."
But of course, we would not say that Dickens was describing "rigor" only that he was describing mindless memorization and effort which had the intent and result of producing one of the most rigidly stratified class systems that the world has ever known.
B. Endless homework today leads to rewards later (elite college admission). The Calvinist underpinnings of the PAUSD educational message are harming our children. The idea that sufficient work proves worth, and that there is a just reward for those who are only willing to set their shoulders to the wheel is a deeply flawed approach to education of children. It ignores reams of research on what works. It also carries with it an under-theorized moral cast. Those who work hard deserve their reward, and those who can't keep up - well Dickens wrote about them as well when Gradgrind chides Jupe that she has failed to measure up: "The course you pursued, you pursued according to the system the system and there is no more to be said about it. II can only suppose that the circumstances of your early life were too unfavourable to the development of your reasoning powers, and that we began too late. Still, as I have said already, I am disappointed.'"
We are "disappointed" in those children, like Jupe, who seem not to be able to handle the "rigor" of the "system". They are problematic remnants who did not excel at the "system", and the system itself is not the problem -- it is not disappointing. The children who do not work hard enough (the Protestant Ethic being another of Dickens' primary themes) are the disappointment. They can be sent off to Alta Vista or SIL or Middle College or anywhere else out of sight -- one of the internal special ed dumping grounds now set up within some of our schools will do the trick. They are not able to handle "rigor," and rigor as Gradgrind or M'Chokumchild can tell you, is good for the soul, good for society -- it is, of course "the system."
In the now-infamous terms of the Paly Math department, such failures and disappointments can go to "jobs or community college." They are "slackers." The Dickensian overtones of the Paly Math letter have not been examined but would make a nice paper by a Stanford student, perhaps in sociology or education where they have actual rigor rather than its pale PAUSD imitation variety.
Although PAUSD exists in the heart of one of the most creative spaces on earth and at one of the most creative times in history it is chained to the industrial revolution and to its least salutary aspects.
This is in part due to the fact that although our parents and children are very bright mostly teachers are average or below average in their creativity and ability, and administrators even less so. This has led to a mismatch between the ability of the fathers and kids at the top or even middle and the abilities of those teaching the kids. When teachers fear that they can't keep up with their parent and student population, rigidity, authority, and hierarchy are increasingly called up.
It is also affected negatively by one other social trends and movements that appears to be unrelated but that has had an enormous impact and has done it no good: the exodus of highly educated women from the workforce to the home. Fathers are largely absent in the educational issues of the community and when they do appear they are often treated as unwelcome interlopers. The schools are the domain of the moms. These are usually highly educated, high powered women who left the workforce to raise their children, and have devoted themselves to their childrens' happiness and success.
[Portion removed.] They invest hundreds or thousands of hours in what they think will improve the schools, and in developing the kinds of sycophantic relationships with principals, teachers, and counselors that will aid their children. Their motives are a mix of public and self-interest.
This description of the misinterpretation of rigor and the use of the Protestant ethic, and its interaction the the stunted careers of upper class women is not unique to PAUSD. It characterizes other communities that are similar. What is unique is that it is occurring at the epicenter of the biggest social and economic revolution society has known since the invention of the Guttenberg press. What is odd is that the architects of this revolution are off working to build a vast social transformation but are oblivious to the fact that their children are being educated for a 19th century competition, and that their wives are presiding over that and defending it.
We need a new concept of "rigor" that is consistent with the values of Silicon Valley not Victorian England. And we need a new pedagogy to fit it. And we need the power women who really run our schools to enable that rather than defend the old system.