Sunday, July 11, 2004

School Choices

ReformK12 mentions a successful Catholic School which draws from the same population as the nearby, underperforming public schools. He notes that schools such as this one do not take the top students away from the public schools; rather they enroll some of the lowest achieving students.

A quote from one of the nuns brings up two points important to school reform discussions: "[The students] have to work themselves up into some kind of academic performance or they can't stay."

The first one is that "school choice" could work either way. If all schools could choose their students, we'd see many of the improvements that we're looking for. Of course the students who "can't stay" at the Catholic school are shipped back to the public school system. There always needs to be a school of last resort.

The second is that there must be consequences for not learning. When I was growing up, those consequences came from my parents; I wasn't sure what the consequences were, but I knew that I wouldn't like them. At the Catholic school mentioned above, one consequence seems to be expulsion. Most students make it through K-12 education without facing any consequences for not learning. Sure, they might get some low grades, but they get over that pretty quickly. And most high school exit exams are structured so that the vast majority of students pass in one sitting.

It then comes as a shock for many students when they go to college and there are consequences. I can not tell you how many students have showed up in my office near the end of the semester trying to explain why I need to give them a certain grade in my class so that they can keep their scholarships, avoid academic probation, or placate their parents. "I worked so hard!" they say. Many of them have spotty attendance records and even spottier homework scores. Others explain that an 88.6% (B+) is less than one point from an 89.5%, and that I would round up an 89.5% to a 90% (A-), so since they are less than one point away from an A-, I should give it to them.

All of them are indignant. "I deserve this grade," they say. And they are certain that it is my fault that they are not getting the grade that they want. If only I had explained things more slowly (instead of covering everything on the syllabus). If only I had asked easier test questions ("I understand everything, but I can't do the problems!"). If only I had allowed them to re-do their failed tests as homeworks to earn back half the points they missed (No.). The vast majority of these students have never been to my office hours before; they have never asked for help on any of the homeworks or come by to discuss their poor test scores. I can't help but thinking, "If passing this class is so important to you, why didn't you do anything about it?"