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Recently an EdWeek blog I hadn’t seen before (K-12 Parents and the Public) caught my eye with this: Florida Mom Balks at Son's Honor Roll Recognition.

Based on this story, it reports on a parent, Beth Tillack, who is very upset that her middle schooler ended up on the honor roll after she had taken away his iPod and computer time for having received a C and D.  Turns out those grades were averaged with the 4 A’s he had also received, qualifying him.

“I am furious and appalled," Tillack wrote to Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, according to the (original) article. "Talk about minimum standards! So now instead of losing privileges and trying harder, he ... thinks he has done enough. I am so shocked."

The school responded and is working on a new Honor Roll calculation to include only those with all A’s or A’s and B’s.  Both the story and the blog went on to talk about grades and student motivation and changes in how those are being approached.

In the paradigm of grades and honor rolls, Beth Tillack has a point that including Cs and Ds may not be the best way to calculate Honor Roll inclusion.

But my question is, why have grades and honor rolls at all?

Read on.

First, confession.  My buttons were getting pushed a bit here.  Through my experiences as a parent I shifted into a paradigm that views learning and young people very differently.  I am frustrated with these stories of a system that I see segregating young people by grade levels, standardizing curriculum and teaching to the tests, forcing young people to attend schools and classes with no input from them, controlling their every move in school, ranking them and putting them into competition with each other.

At the same time, I know that most parents simply want what they think is best for their young person, that they want them to grow up with an education, to be able to be successful at what they choose to do, to get a good job and have the means to support themselves well.  I want them to be able to be self-directed learners, to be able to choose and be successful at what they want to do and to be happy.   I think we share a lot of the same goals as parents.

What is frustrating is that I now recognize and disagree with most of the underlying assumptions about achieving those goals, both through the school system and in how we view the nature of learning and young people.

After all, Ms. Tillack went on to say "The overall thing is, if a child knows they can do the minimum and get by, what kind of message does that send about the other areas in their life?"

What kinds of assumptions are going on here?  What message are we sending ourselves about young people and learning? How about some of these:

Learning is separate from life.
It is hard and something we naturally don't want to do.
It must be taught by an expert to people who resist it.
People are naturally lazy.
Young people will always choose the easiest way out if not compelled against their will to do otherwise.

Holding those assumptions leads to a system for learning that is based on rewards and punishment, on control and competition, on external evaluation.  How do we know these assumptions are true?  

I think it likely that what you see is what you get…that in holding these unexamined assumptions and treating young people accordingly a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy gets going.  You often create (without thinking that you do) the very behavior you think is natural and undesirable.  For a lot of young people, forcing them to learn in a way that is not natural to them turns off their curiosity, motivation and passion.  Then you really have to force them (taking away “privileges”, etc.) and it looks like they are lazy.

I have seen a quite different world. One where the assumptions are that we are born natural learners, that we are driven and inherently compelled to learn or we wouldn't survive as a species, that young people naturally are curious about what it means to become an adult and how to do that, that when in an environment where they have the freedom to explore and to pursue their interests without external punishment and manipulation they flourish and work hard to master what they have set before themselves. In doing that they naturally want to know how they are doing and seek out ways to measure that.

There are websites, blogs and books written and being written about how we can nurture the potential within each young human being through unleashing and supporting their inner desire for learning and mastery.  Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray, John Holt, Wendy Priesnitz are just a few writers contributing to this area. The web is now full of resources for self-directed learning and research on homeschooling, unschooling, democratic free schools, etc.  

A C or a D in a class, far from indicating laziness, is a message from a student that should be taken seriously. If Beth Tillack's son found Civics uninteresting (the class in which he got a D and that he said was uninteresting to him), perhaps it really is uninteresting to him! And perhaps it needs to be interesting to him to deserve his time! The idea that students need to be forced to do things uninteresting to them because they will have to do that later in their lives is to me a sad view of the world and not how learning really works. Yes, you can get compliance through threats and force a student to get an A through doing work they don't want to do and as soon as it's over they will forget it. And what kind of world are you saying you're accepting for your children? One where they will have uninteresting work, overbearing bullying bosses that they will have to grin and bear for the rest of their lives?

What I didn’t understand, and I know most people don’t, is that when people work hard to master something because they really want to, that is when they learn the skills to stay with something through the difficult times and truly learn/create.  I think that’s worth rereading.  I know because even after I explain this, I still have people say, what about when they grow up and have to do something they don’t want to, like for a boss, or as a parent.  When forced to do things, we learn to comply (with varying degrees of related emotions).  When mastering something difficult because we want to, we learn skills, we internalize the experience of the successful outcome through the hard work we freely chose to do and we then know to apply that later, when we choose to, because we have learned ourselves, through our own experience that we can get through the hard stuff.

Both my now young adult kids left school, one in eighth grade and one after ninth grade, to learn at their own direction.  It takes about a year to deprogram, to begin to trust that you are truly responsible for your own learning (not forced to be “responsible” under threat of “consequence”), to get deeply bored and realize it is up to you to take the next steps out of that, not because you have to or else, but because it is in our nature to want to be engaged and involved when we are supported in doing that and feel confident that we can.

It wasn’t easy at first for any of us.  We all had to learn to trust.  But it worked.  We were there for them as they began to want to engage, there to talk, to help if asked, to love unconditionally.  It was scary there for a while.  But now they are both responsible, living on their own, with relationships and friends and employment and paying their bills and working on their dreams.  Not that it’s all roses with this economy and their creative desires, but they are hopeful, and skilled.

I get frustrated too by what I hear as the purpose of education: to make our citizens competitive in the global economy.  Of course we want our young people to be able to take care of themselves; there is very real fear as we have gone through the Great Recession and are in the midst of such a growing inequality gap.  But again, the assumptions that we have to literally force students to study what they are told and to be in institutions where the what, where, why and how are dictated without their input seems to me to be counterproductive to the stated goal.  (By the way, another goal is to produce creative, innovative thinkers and doers.  How the heck we think we can achieve that when students have no freedom to truly create, let alone innovate, is beyond me!)

To me, the bottom line goal for young people should be fulfilling their unique potential.  It is through learning who they really are, what their talents, aptitudes and gifts are, having true ownership of that process with the resources and support to develop and express them that young people will most be able to contribute to their world (a world, by the way, that will be very different than ours) which will naturally enhance it and themselves.  

So rather than grades and honor rolls, punishment and rewards, compulsory schooling, it’s time we tried trust, respect and unconditional love coupled with equitable resources and opportunities.  It’s all there in front of us.  Ms. Tillack’s son let us know.  We just have to pay attention.

Originally posted to reconnected on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I agree with you (6+ / 0-)

    and homeschool two children. We don't unschool precisely, but they do have a lot of input in what we cover, and we encourage independent learning and exploration as well as our 'official' school work.

    Another thing to consider for those with kids in public school, is that a kid who's getting mostly A's and B's and lower grades in one subject may be a sign of a problem. It could be a learning disability in a particular area (dyscalculia, a math disability for example often presents this way), it could be an issue with a teacher or how a class is taught (a teacher who does nothing but read from the book for example, and doesn't support student questions and problems). Almost never is it a case of laziness or lack of trying, especially when it's only one class or with one teacher. If a kid isn't going to try, they're not going to try universally, not just in math.. unless there's an ongoing long term problem and they've given up.

    I do think, when it comes to honor roll, some courses shouldn't necessarily count against it. Being kept off of honor roll because of PE when you are, say, asthmatic and can't participate as much is EXTREMELY frustrating for the student who's getting straight A's in every other subject.

    "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

    by FloridaSNMOM on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 05:17:03 AM PST

  •  writing as a teacher / professional educator (6+ / 0-)

    I currently have classes of 26-27-29-23-11-7 for a total of 123 students.

    I could at this point describe in detail the strengths and weaknesses of each student

    that's because I assess in a variety of ways, including tests

    but if I did not give scores on tests, and used them only to inform the student and myself what they understood, some might refuse to apply themselves on the test because "it does not count" -  I cannot make changes in isolation from the culture in which they are.

    Oh, and I teach in Maryland, a state that signed on for Race to the Top money, which means a significant portion of my evaluation is based on the performance of my students on assessment, which in our school system for my 3 AP Gov classes which are the bulk of my students must include tests

    so - in an ideal world I would have only two grades  

    is meeting requirements

    still needs to meet requirements

    and I would have time to reteach as is necessary for those students who need more time on the topic

    my last three classes up above have no tests - they are all project based learning - I am using the projects on which they are working, which to some degree are self-selected, as the vehicle through which they learn content and skills

    I would much more prefer that all of my teaching was in a similar fashion

    I am delighted that half of my classes are

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 05:33:58 AM PST

    •  Yes, that's the paradigm (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      leftyparent, FloridaSNMOM, Elizaveta

      and I would think it very difficult indeed to work within it.  

      The reality of having your evaluation tied to student performance when there are so many other factors in play is so unrealistic that I still find it shocking.

      And how does your heart not break for the students who need more time and are chewed up and spit out by a culture so blind?

      The question is, how do the changes get made culturally?

  •  Your ideas are fine for an individual student... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jodster

    ...but they simply do not scale across the student population.

    To me, the bottom line goal for young people should be fulfilling their unique potential.  It is through learning who they really are, what their talents, aptitudes and gifts are, having true ownership of that process with the resources and support to develop and express them that young people will most be able to contribute to their world (a world, by the way, that will be very different than ours) which will naturally enhance it and themselves.
    That's a wonderful sentiment, but I don't know that you're considering the difficulties inherent to that process.

    For starters, there are economic challenges to be considered. You mentioned that you homeschooled your kids; how many parents in this economy have the time or resources to do that? How many families in rural (or even suburban) America even see that as a possibility?

    You mention that kids should learn "what their talents, aptitudes and gifts are," but are parents really equipped to cover the wide range of possibilities? Now, I'm a free-range geek married to a very sharp lady; between the two of us, we could help our kids (and others) through almost every math, science or language course taught at our high school. What happens to those kids whose abilities outstrip their parents' ability to guide them? (Note that this 'outstripping' is a desired goal; many parents hope that their children will "go farther" than did they.)

    Often, we never know of a talent or aptitude until we have the chance to "take a swing at it." What happens to those kids who never discover an aptitude or talent because their parents aren't capable of helping them discover it? I'll readily admit that I could never help my children find or develop artistic talent/interest where the "art class" topics of painting, drawing and/or sculpture are concerned; I have little knowledge and absolutely no aptitude in those areas. By the same token, I'm sure that many parents couldn't really guide their children in developing talent/aptitude for mathematics. How many parents can guide their kids from "science is cool" to "I want to be a chemist"?

    Finally, you say that the process should be, for all intents and purposes, self-guided. The obvious question is this: how many young people possess a level of maturity sufficient to guide themselves through this process? I happen to know a young man who, much like the example in your diary, thought that "civics wasn't interesting"...until his parents pushed him to enroll in AP US History and Government. He's now pursuing university studies in public policy and government - but had he been "self-guided", he never would have taken the class that ignited his interest.

    For the vast bulk of our students, the real answer is a partnership between parents and schools. We must get away from the consumerist "drop off a kindergartener, pick up a fully functional graduate 13 years later" attitude that is held by far too many parents. At the same time, we need to foster opportunities for students and families to find their own way through the process; our public high school has launched an optional "academy" program, in which students select an "area of concentration" (fine arts, science/math, language) and are given priority scheduling in accordance with their choice within a common set of general requirements (e.g. 4 years of some sort of math, 2 years of some sort of science, etc.). We must also get away from the notion that cookie-cutter processes/approaches will work in any universal sense; there's a huge difference between my rural Kentucky county and inner-city Chicago.

    We can't support a highly individualistic style of public education to the degree you seem to suggest, but we CAN offer more individualized paths than the current "testing and college prep" lockstep that is all too common.

    The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

    by wesmorgan1 on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 10:49:42 AM PST

    •  Kids outstripping their parents (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      reconnected, leftyparent, angelajean

      That's when you use resources. Community colleges, tutors, online courses, books.. all of these can help.

       My son does wonderful art, and I'm always encouraging and supporting his drawing. He's receiving for example, two new books for Christmas, one on fantasy backgrounds and architecture and one on realistic people and animals.These aren't kids beginner's books either, but books written for those moving towards professional graphics, which he wants to do.  Me I draw on what I call a "Blue's Clue's level".

      He's taking a Khan Academy course on computer animation and drawing, and once he's done with that he'll take the Khan Academy course  on programming in Python. You don't stand in a room and lecture to them. You use what you have. Libraries and the internet are GREAT resources. Friends, organizations, clubs, summer camps if you can afford them, schools and tutors. You don't have to teach everything yourself.

      In some things I'm learning with him, well a week ahead of him. I prepare his lesson plan for the week over the weekend. That means I watch all the videos, do all the courses.. and sometimes he DOES learn it better than I do. He doesn't have my math disability for example. But I'm learning it better as well. And if he gets stuck, we have friends and family who excel in pretty much any subject that he can ask.

      As to the money issue.... We live below the poverty level and we still manage. It would be harder if we were both working to juggle our 10 year old's education, but at this point it wouldn't change anything for my 18 year old Senior.

      "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

      by FloridaSNMOM on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 12:04:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's great that you have... (0+ / 0-)

        ...the time required to this.  I'm lucky that I, too, have the time required to be a major influence on my kids' education. One of my biggest concerns with the notions expressed in the diary is that many--if not most--parents don't have that luxury.

        You mention community colleges; well, our state's community colleges charge $144 per credit hour, which means $432 for each 3-hour class - plus books, materials, transport...and not everyone can do that.

        I'm not saying that this won't work for anyone--and I'm glad that it's working well for you--but I am saying that it won't work for everyone. It simply does not scale.

        The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

        by wesmorgan1 on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 03:29:52 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I appreciate your thoughts... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      leftyparent, FloridaSNMOM, angelajean

      I was right there with you at one time.

      My point in this diary is that there is indeed a completely different way of learning that what is traditionally structured.  Most people are unaware of it, I was.  I want to put this out there to inform and educate about this approach, an approach that challenges commonly held assumptions.

      The assumption that for efficiency and cost we must put students into classrooms by age level.  I now believe that we sacrifice too much of people's growth and development by doing this.  We need to find a way to open this up.  One way is by acknowledging that indeed, we are all different, not standard, with different needs.  We could still use a school campus but with self-directed learning there is no need for pre-structured classes.

      I am very aware of the difficulties, what I want to do is open up thinking and dialogue and creativity around change.  I no longer think it ethical to know that what we are doing is not the best for the students there, but decide we will keep doing it anyway because it is easier or seems to cost less.

      Finally, you say that the process should be, for all intents and purposes, self-guided. The obvious question is this: how many young people possess a level of maturity sufficient to guide themselves through this process? I happen to know a young man who, much like the example in your diary, thought that "civics wasn't interesting"...until his parents pushed him to enroll in AP US History and Government. He's now pursuing university studies in public policy and government - but had he been "self-guided", he never would have taken the class that ignited his interest.
      Again, my point is that I think most people do possess the level of maturity needed to be self-guided when they have grown up in an environment that fully supports them being self-guided!  We have to start somewhere.  Most young people are treated throughout their youth as if they are not capable, no wonder they seem not mature.  We reap what we sow.  I know it's hard to grasp when we haven't seen it on a wide scale; that was another point of this diary, to say it is indeed possible and talk about examples.

      I also am no longer swayed by examples of pushing someone into something they later decided to pursue.  There are a thousand other things that could have been chosen, who knows which other one might have been pursued? How do we know what is right for another person?  We can make suggestions but we don't know.  I think the time better spent in helping them to get in touch more with themselves, with their own interests.

      Please take a few minutes to browse unschooling on the web.  Read a few articles.  It doesn't work in a linear, lock-step way.  As has been mentioned, the world is our resource.  I don't know much about art, but other family members do and were there for our daughter when she got interested in it.  She was interested in continuing to learn a language so signed up for a community college course but didn't like the structure of that either so ended up going with a friend to Canada to volunteer on an organic farm to learn more French.

      We need to think outside the box, but mostly we need to really listen to our young people, we need to look at them as the real, authentic, independent beings they are.  We need to see our role as supporter and facilitator, not as taskmaster and controller.

      Yes, I know that is minority thinking right now.  I hope to see that change.

      •  I don't dismiss all aspects of unschooling... (0+ / 0-)

        ...nor do I dismiss homeschooling out of hand. (Yes, I understand the differences between the two.) In fact, I'm basically the product of self-directed learning; I had public school teachers who provided me both opportunities and materials matching my abilities, rather than my age. I didn't complete a collegiate degree, but I'm coming up on 20 years as a software engineer with a Fortune 100 firm. I think my own life experience has given me a fairly good grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of self-directed learning (50 years of hindsight, eh?)  and you'll note that I'm not debating the validity of the general premise.

        When it comes to expanding the notion to the greater student population, however, the points you don't seem to acknowledge are these:

        * Everything you've held up as a significant factor in unschooling requires a significant investment of time and/or resources by the parents.  We have millions of parents who, even if they had the inclination, have neither the time nor the resources to implement even the basics of unschooling.

        * Most educators I've known (and they number in the hundreds) name the lack of parental involvement as the biggest single roadblock to student success in primary and secondary education. (Ironically, my acquaintances among college/university faculty tell me that "helicopter parents" are becoming a significant problem in their efforts.)  You seem to assume that all those disinterested, consumerist parents will suddenly ripen and flower in an unschooling environment. As someone who comes from a long line of educators and has seen this problem from all sides (student, parent, educator) throughout my life, I'm fairly certain that such will not be the case.

        Believe me, I'm all for many elements of self-directed learning. A huge factor in my children's success to date (3 of my kids are attending college/university on full-tuition scholarships) was the fact that I and my wife fed their interests and talents outside of school and encouraged them to "take a swing" at opportunities that came their way, even as we reinforced the importance of material they may not have found particularly "interesting."

        The interesting question isn't really whether self-directed learning could be a better approach than its traditional counterpart; I think it clear that it IS better for some students, and I'm glad that you're finding success with your family. The real questions are how we can either integrate aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom, how we can motivate parents to take their place as active shepherds of their children's education, and how we can best reach those kids whose home environments aren't conducive to either approach.

        The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

        by wesmorgan1 on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 04:20:46 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Unschooling schools (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          FloridaSNMOM, angelajean

          Are you familiar with the Sudbury Valley School and others like it?  Many unschooling families obviously prefer no school at all, but other families are happy with this model that is an onsite community with an unschooling approach, coupled with a democratic process for running the school (all students and staff have one vote each) and a grievance process for school rules.

          I would love to see this model in the public arena, but with the assumptions and rules of the public model it is not possible. I would have sent my kids to one.  I would like my tax dollars to pay for one.  I would like to see funding to research it.

          I think it would cost a lot less than the public system and be more successful but with the assumptions I discuss in the diary it is unlikely to move forward any time soon.  I want that discussed.

          I agree with most of your last paragraph. Did you see the story Children Thrive in Rural Columbia's Flexible Schools?  Poor children, often of migrant workers, can work at their own pace so that when they are absent for months they don't fall behind or drop out altogether and they are not as likely to develop bad feelings about how they are doing.  I love reading this kind of out-of-the box thinking.  This program is not the standard, it addresses a need and is allowed to do so.

          •  The sad thing is that 'flexible school' isn't new. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            FloridaSNMOM
            Poor children, often of migrant workers, can work at their own pace so that when they are absent for months they don't fall behind or drop out altogether and they are not as likely to develop bad feelings about how they are doing.  I love reading this kind of out-of-the box thinking.  This program is not the standard, it addresses a need and is allowed to do so.
            You just described the one-room schools in which my great-grandfather taught. He was a "rover", covering multiple communities in south central Kentucky on horseback throughout the year. (An aside: Back then, Kentucky teaching certificates included the holder's subject-matter test scores; if multiple itinerant teachers showed up, they had something of a "score-off" to decide who would teach, or if duties might be split..) As one might expect in a poor, rural community, he had few regular students; kids would come in when they could--when their farm work allowed--and "pick up where they left off." This went on for years in some cases.

            Been there, done that, could do that again...

            I think that the "Academy" program at our public high school (mentioned in an earlier comment) is an interesting step toward giving students/parents more opportunities to self-direct, albeit within the context of the existing class offerings/structure. It's already showing progress in the "match abilities, not ages" area, in that qualified freshmen students are now taking courses formerly reserved to juniors and seniors.

            (I don't think I mentioned this earlier - I'm the brother, son, nephew, first cousin, second cousin, grandson and great-grandson of career educators whose areas of work have basically paralleled the development of the US educational system, from 1800s one-room schools to current elementary, high school and university classrooms. While I chose a different career path, I spend a great deal of my time designing and delivering what goes by the buzzwordy label of "technical enablement." Teaching is, as they say, in our blood.)

            The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

            by wesmorgan1 on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 06:37:06 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  "lack of parental involvment" (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          leftyparent, reconnected

          I was a very involved parent when my son was in public school. But not with his classroom because that was disruptive to him. I was involved with IEP meetings and trying to keep up with how he was doing when I got few and not very detailed reports from teachers. I was VERY involved at home, but they rarely sent home more than spelling and math worksheets. I never knew what they were doing in Science and Social Studies (my son has language/speech issues so it was harder to find out from him) so we did our own Science and Social Studies that likely had nothing to do with the school.

          If the schools want more parental involvement, then they need to be more forthcoming with what our kids are DOING. I can't include videos and field trips to support what they are learning in school if I don't know what they are learning in school. It's also a lot harder for me to catch things they are having trouble with if I don't know what they're doing in the first place. One of the things I like about home schooling is I can be looking through the TV guide and go.. "Oh look, the History channel is running a show on x tonight! We'll put that on for Bit, she's studying about that next week!" I could never do that when they were in public school. I could put it on but I didn't know if it would help them beyond just their natural curiosity and wanting to know.

          I don't consider volunteering with the PTA or bringing in cookies parental involvement. I want to be involved with his education, not go to social engagements to deal with the parental clicks of the much more wealthy than me.   Now I was a reading tutor for a couple of years with the school's program. It wasn't a program my son ever needed, but I was still happy to do it.

          And, by the way, that's while I was working full time (though I stopped when I started going to school myself).

          "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

          by FloridaSNMOM on Mon Dec 09, 2013 at 05:19:32 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Very well written, reconnected. (3+ / 0-)

    And I wish we could get more people to see how we are placing barriers to learning with the very system we have created. Once people can see the actual barriers, we can begin to tear them down.

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