Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Death Of Homework?

As you may recall from my last entry, a vocal group of parents is very angry about the Hillsboro School District's recent grading reforms.  The most controversial part of these is the move to a complete reliance on tests, rather than homework, for grading.   The new policy is summarized here :

In June of 2011, IK-AR (Administrative Rule) was revised and is the tool to implement the new grading policy.  
2010-2011: Implement balanced grading
2011-2012: Academic Practice (ie: formative=homework) grades may count for a maximum of 10% of the grade. Academic Practice is a fancier way of saying homework, but is referenced by the district also as a "formative" assessment.
Academic Achievement (ie: summative =tests, projects, term papers, etc.) must count for a minimum of 90% of the grade. Academic Achievement is also known as "summative" assessments.
"Nonacademic behaviors" (ie: late work) that could affect grade are not to exceed 10% of the grade
2012-2013: Academic Achievement (ie: summative=tests, projects, etc.) must count for 100% of the grade

The key point, other than the silly "balanced grading" aspect, which I discussed last week, is that regular homework is considered a "nonacademic behavior", and this cannot be considered in grading.     This idea has some merit to it, in certain cases.  For example, I was always annoyed in high school math class by the fact that after I "got it", I had to do hours of tedious busy-work assigned by my teachers in order to get a decent grade.  And there are some merits to have a grade based directly on student knowledge without confusion from other factors.  (Though this role is already played by standardized tests.)

The biggest problem is that this grading reform ignores a very important fact:  there is a lot of learning that gradually sinks in after repeated practice.    A huge number of students, including the ones most at risk of failure, do not have the emotional and intellectual maturity to decide when they do and don't need to do homework.   Some supporters of this policy might argue that treating homework as a behavioral item will not eliminate it, just change the form of the incentives for doing it.   I think the best way to counter this argument is with an anecdote from when I was tutoring inner-city African-American kids in Pittsburgh, and a junior high student asked me for help.

Student:   "I'm failing math, can you help me?"
Me:  "Sure, show me your most recent homework assignment & we'll take a look."
[Student hands me the assignment.  I am totally baffled, as the answers seem like random numbers with absolutely no relation to the questions.]
Me, in confusion:  "How did you arrive at the answer for number 1?"
Student:  "Oh, I just put anything there, because the teacher just checks off whether we did it."
Me:  "Ummm... have you ever thought about actually trying to do your homework for real?"
Student, annoyed:  "That would be dumb, it doesn't count towards our grade!"
Me:  "I think I may know why you are failing math."

This strikes me as the scariest aspect of the new policy:  it puts a level of responsibility on the students that many are simply not ready for, and many will take the easy way out, putting in a symbolic job on homework to avoid disciplinary action, while not spending the time and effort to actually understand it.   In short, this policy sounds like it was designed from an ivory tower without understanding how it would affect actual children.   Real children will be happy to blow off their homework and spend more time on their X-Box, and will deny the connection between this behavior and their eventual low test scores. 

There are plans for a large group of parents to appear at the upcoming school board meeting to protest the policy, and I hope they succeed in producing a repeal.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dialing Hillsboro's Education Up To 11

After noticing that a new parent group has sprung up to protest recent changes to Hillsboro's grading policies, I began taking a look at what these policies are. The first policy pointed out to me was "balanced grading". Here's how it is described on the district website

This is not an indictment of how grades have typically been formulated and issued for years, but traditional grading practices have included both academic achievement and behavioral information. A 'traditional' grading scale is comprised of scores using a 100-point scale:
90-100 = A
80-89 = B
70-79 = C
60-69 = D
59 and below = F

In this scale, there are 59 ways to get an F and only 10 ways to get an A. ...

The first phase of implementation for the revised policy is to ensure all teachers are using balanced grading scales. This change will ensure that academic achievement is accurate and consistent throughout the district. A balanced grading scale is one where there are an equal number of points in each grading category: A, B, C, D, F.

While reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of a scene from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, where the intellectually-challenged rock star describes his new guitar. "...and the volume goes up to 11!"  The narrator replies,  "Couldn't they have just made 10 louder?"   The perplexed star answers, "But this one goes to 11!"   The key insight that the musician seemed to miss was that changing how you label something doesn't change the underlying property you are labelling.

As I see it, the fairness of grades in any classroom is almost completely determined by the fairness and judgement of the teacher. Did Hillsboro previously have an epidemic of students unfairly failed due to 0s averaged into their grades? If a teacher notices the numbers trending oddly low or high for their class, haven't they always had the freedom to adjust the curve according to their judgement? And haven't they assigned weights properly to homework and tests so that grades reach reasonable levels at the end of each quarter? I sure hope so.

Requiring that teachers adjust their scales such that the A/B/C/D/F are "balanced" seems like a superficial reform that does not really solve any core problem.  If some teachers are giving too many low/high grades, or there is some class where grades are distinctly uncorrelated with other measures of achievement, that is something worth addressing. I would be quite surprised to find a teacher to be blindly following the numbers of the traditional system and excessively failing students as a result.

Claiming that it is "unfair" for F to cover half the grading scale also seems to miss another key point of the classical grading scale:  in order to pass a class, there is a general expectation that the student has absorbed at least half the material.    It is completely fair to have some minimal standard, and consider students to be failing if they cannot meet that standard.

But this "balanced grading" reform strikes me as a silly and annoying micromanagement of teachers by distant bureaucrats. If a teacher ultimately grades fairly and the students are determined to be learning successfully, does it really matter what numbers they used in their day-to-day scoring? I'm pretty sure this "balanced" system will be ultimately neutral in terms of student learning, but if I were teaching in the district, this kind of top-down interference in a trivial matter would certainly not help my morale.

(By the way-- there are other aspects of the grading reforms that are inspiring more serious opposition; I'll talk about those in a future blog post.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Poor Strategy

The February 6th HSD Curriculum Committee meeting focused on the district's Strategic Plan, available at this link.
Sadly, it looks like the issue of the radical, hateful, and racist teaching of Critical Race Theory (discussed in my last blog post) is more pervasive than I thought. Page 18 of this strategic plan contains the action item "Continue education and awareness training through Pacific Educational Group..." And to make sure no teachers remain un-brainwashed, the same page requires the schools to create a "tracking system of the participation rates for equity focused professional development".

What is the Pacific Educational Group? Basically, they are a consulting group that has been providing "diversity education" to school districts around the country-- centered on the most radical, divisive teachings of Critical Race Theory. An informative article online summarizes their beliefs better than I can:

Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group has become a rich man by preaching racism, hate, and scapegoating. School systems hire him for hundreds of thousands of dollars to insult and scapegoat teachers and students based on their race under the guise of “diversity training.” That embarrasses the school systems that hire him in high-profile legal cases. Yet foolish school superintendents continue to hire him at exorbitant rates, as the Discriminations blog notes, citing a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Singleton promotes the basest racial stereotypes, such as claiming that “’white talk’ is ‘verbal, impersonal, intellectual’ and ‘task-oriented,’ while ‘color commentary’ is ‘nonverbal, personal, emotional’ and ‘process-oriented.’” He also blathers about “the ubiquity of white privilege and racism,” and depicts Asian students as being “majority students” just like whites because they have the temerity to succeed academically in a predominantly white society. But although he views minority culture as not being “intellectual” and “task-oriented,” it is white teachers whom he blames for the underperformance of many minority students, since he claims it would be a “racist statement” to place any responsibility for minority underperformance on minorities themselves.

Not only is this use of race irratonal and insulting, it is also illegal:

In June 2007, the Supreme Court struck down Seattle’s use of race, and 4 of the 9 justices cited Seattle’s wacky, Singleton-influenced, definitions of racism in the course of their opinions. Justice Thomas, for example, cited those definitions as an object lesson in why not to defer to school districts when they use race. I filed the brief that brought those wacky definitions to the Supreme Court’s attention; it was one of the few amicus briefs filed in the case that opposed Seattle’s use of race. As a result of losing the case, Seattle is expected to pay more than a million dollars in attorneys fees to the lawyers who challenged its use of race.

Other interesting articles, on more recent experiences with this group, can be found here and here.  So, in summary, the Pacific Educational Group provides a radical, extremist form of "equity training" that is racist at its core, and its policy suggestions have even been held illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the Hillsboro School District has not only hired this group, but embedded dependence on them in its strategic plan.

I have brought this issue to the attention of some school board members, and am waiting to see what action is taken.