Monday, January 30, 2006

X = Promoting Failure

It takes a visual to really understand it. But I was working on the Yearbook when I first figured it out. Some 1200 pictures of 9th graders. Dozens of kids with the same first name. Barely 500 pictures of Seniors. Of those 80%-90% would graduate and get the colorful, gaudy Senior Pictures that announced to the world that you both graduated and borrowed someone's tuxedo. Where had the other half gone? All those black and white faces. The kids would play a game. They would go through their box of 9th grade pictures, which were still around in the back closet of my classroom along with someone's whole career of accumulated teacher treasure, and see who they could remember.

I told that fact to every teacher I knew and met. Most seemed shocked unless they had taught for more than a year. Then they shook their head at me like I was asking for change.

In almost every high school in Los Angeles of the 1,000 plus acne-plagued, gawky yet occasionally smiling teenagers who enter ninth grade, less than 50% will become shiny, slightly plump graduates four years later. With Senior Year’s fun tanned on their face, they will walk across some football field, auditorium or even the Hollywood Bowl as half of the students they once crowded hallways with are already in the workforce, clocked in to the life of under-earning and overworking.

As a high school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for six years, I could never predict which students would not graduate. If I get could get them to love to read, they had a chance. So each year as I deciphered the pages of Lord of the Flies with every new class of tenth graders, I knew that some 20% of their peers had already dropped out. Seeking suggestions for what a talking pig’s head on the stick might represent from a mostly passive-aggressively exhausted class of thirty or more, I could see heads disappearing. They were gone. No time for heady, esoteric shit. They had a kid to take care of, or a mom, or a sister, or a job. Or they found a kickback they could go to everyday. Maybe their parents didn’t give them as much shit anymore because mysteriously they stopped getting complaints from the teachers at school. When the report cards stop coming, who really cares? Who wants to see six Fails?

The sad fact of life illustrated in the second of the Los Angeles Times’ four-part series ‘Vanishing Class’ about the horrific graduation rate at local high schools (even at Birmingham High in the Valley!) is most kids can’t even pass Alegebra with a high enough grade to qualify for a four-year university. “In the fall of 2004, 48,000 ninth-graders took beginning algebra; 44% flunked, nearly twice the failure rate as in English. Seventeen percent finished with Ds.” That’s 61% who will have to retake the basics of higher math if they have any hope of attending any University of California campus as a Freshman. They can graduate and perhaps be admitted to a CSU campus with a D, with the help of the Educational Opportunities Program, but what does a D in Algebra say? It says you fail to or very poorly understand the fundamental building blocks of logic. For many kids who will never be in an Honors or Advanced Placement class, Algebra is the highest form of critical thinking that they will be challenged with in high school.

Also, Algebra may be the first time in a young student’s life that a Fail actually matters. I don’t mean this in a metaphoric sense. I mean literally. There may be students who have failed dozens of classes in middle school and arrive in the ninth grade in Algebra, since remedial classes have all been removed from school. “Finally,” their teacher may say to them, “your grades actually matter. If you do not pass my class, you don’t pass high school.”

“Fuck that dick,” that kid might say to impress their friends and not acknowledge the sinking feeling of that teacher’s truth.

How could such a willful, vibrant child be so misled to believe that they can get away with not passing classes? It’s called Social Promotion. According to the Wikipedia, “Social promotion is the practice of promoting schoolchildren to the next grade, to keep them with their peers, regardless of whether they are capable of doing grade-level work. Some advocates of social promotion argue that keeping children together by age (together with their age cohort) is an intrinsically important factor, and that being ‘kept back’ would be inexcusably painful for a child emotionally.” In Los Angeles, it ironically lasts until the ninth grade when kids are supposed to suddenly get that they’re responsible for their output. That once we cared about their feelings, but now they’re ready to mess up their own life when it really matters. It’s the old Giant Swollen Pink Elephant defecating in the room. And for some reason the LA Times doesn’t mention it. The closest they get is, “High school teachers blame middle schools for churning out ill-prepared students. The middle schools blame the elementary schools, where teachers are expected to have a command of all subjects but sometimes are shaky in math themselves.”

The system is always to blame, because the system always represents the latent and manifest desires of those in power. Social Promotion works where kids’ have to answer to a social existence where their parents will kick their ass if they don’t graduate. Those conditions generally exist around wealthy parents, two-parent households and the rare single-parent household with a superhuman parent whose model of hard work is so pervasive that a kid will do anything to escape their social cast. Social Promotion is rich people’s way of explaining to poor people that they don’t need to feel bad for their kid not having their shit together. It’s also expresses the lack of expectations we have for poor kids.

Worst of all it enforces the principle that failure doesn’t matter. When for those poor ninth graders, it’s all that does.

If it’s economically infeasible to end Social Promotion, let’s end this stilted tolerance of failure that misleads and deprives the people it is supposed to help. If a kid fails, put him a class with younger kids. Make him do outside work on his own, on Saturdays, on weekends. Never let a student think they are capable of anything other then competent work at the very minimum.

Unless we let kids know what we mean by failure, how can we hold them responsible for failing. It’s just not logical, and it’s not right.


Blogger robotmadder said...

Maybe there's something wrong with math. I was a vey smart girl but had math problmes, though I tried. I was actually a year ahead in math, and Algebra II was like a brick wall. My teachers were really cranky old men about to retire and couldn't give a fuck whether I truly grasped the concept of a function.

I was and am the type of math student who needed to "get" everything, as opposed to just going through math-motions. Nobody answered my questions.

I agree with you about social promotion, but I think public school education would need to be revamped entirely for social promotion to be eliminated. It would require a whole new way of seeing school.

And if you're going to dismatle it, I would hope for some other important revisions too, like more tech schools, more art schools, more funding, smaller classes....

4:55 PM  

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